Friday, February 14, 2003
Traumatized in ’67
For me, 1967-73 is the George Lazenby period of the Los Angeles Dodgers. They weren’t as bad as they were innocuous.
The Dodgers missed the playoffs for seven consecutive years beginning in ’67, their longest such streak in Los Angeles. I’ve never read much discussing why. The Dodgers are struggling in the current era, and the reasons are well chronicled. It’s hard for me to believe that today’s Dodgers, despite their lack of success, will ever become as forgotten as those 1967-73 Dodgers.
That team’s streak of futility came on the heels of being shut out in the final 33 innings of a 1966 World Series sweep by Baltimore. It began in earnest, of course, with the retirement of Sandy Koufax on November 18, 1966.
The defending National League Champions didn’t just miss the World Series in 1967. They fell all the way to eighth place. With Koufax and his 27 wins in 1966 gone, the Dodgers won 22 fewer games.
I came into this discussion knowing less about the 1967-73 period of Los Angeles Dodger history than any other, and wanting to fill that gap. And so I’m going to start in 1967, the year I was born, and the year the Los Angeles Dodgers as people had known them died.
There were other factors, as we’ll see, but Koufax’s departure really did seem to affect the team like a death in the family, engendering depression, listlessness and rage.
Let’s start with the rage.
Sources for this report: True Blue by Steve Delsohn, The Dodgers by Bruce Chadwick and David M. Spindel, BaseballPrimer.com, Baseballreference.com and Retrosheet.org.
Less than two weeks after Koufax’s announcement, two other popular Dodgers were traded. The first trade was on November 29, when outfielder Tommy Davis and a minor leaguer went to the Mets for Ron Hunt and Jim Hickman.
Meanwhile, a cadre of Dodgers were on a playing tour in Japan. Shortstop Maury Wills, hoping to use the offseason to recover from long-term nagging injuries, reluctantly agreed to go on the trip on the condition that he would only make public appearances, but wouldn’t have to play.
However, Wills was put in the lineup right away – and encouraged to steal bases as well. He re-injured himself, decided enough was enough, and notified the Dodgers that he was going home. Owner Walter O’Malley refused to give permission, but Wills refused to let that stop him.
O’Malley contacted General Manager Buzzie Bavasi, who was on a six-week cruise with his family. As Bavasi recalled to Steve Delsohn: "While we're on board, I get a wire from O'Malley: GET RID OF WILLS, AND GET RID OF HIM TODAY.” Wills was gone December 1, traded to Pittsburgh for infielders Gene Michael and Bob Bailey.
Wills’ trade has been explained as a disciplinary move, setting an example for others (particularly African-Americans, it has also been speculated) that O’Malley would always be obeyed, or else. I haven’t tracked down the rationale for the Tommy Davis trade, but the Dodgers do seem to have had a surplus of outfielders that would justify that move on purely on-field reasons.
If only as an aside, I can’t help wondering if either of these trades were influenced by Koufax’s retirement – especially the Wills trade. Koufax had made his break from the Dodgers on his terms – and perhaps O’Malley wanted to nip, or rather smash, that trend in the bud. Wills would not be allowed to leave the Dodgers – even an exhibition trip – without being punished.
People look at the Mike Piazza trade as a watershed moment of misfortune for the Dodgers. But in those two weeks in November 1966, the Dodgers fell harder, and would not recover for a long time.
In any case, because linking Wills and Davis with Koufax remains speculative, let’s treat the events separately. Moving forward into 1967, how much of the Dodgers’ demise can be attributed to Koufax, and how much to other factors?
The 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers
95-67, first place by 1 ½ games over San Francisco
Went .500 or better each month, including a 20-9 record in September while the Giants went 12-13.
Regular lineup (with OPS for batters):
C Johnny Roseboro (.741)
1B Wes Parker (.736)
2B Jim Lefebvre (.793)
3B John Kennedy (.522)
SS Maury Wills (.622)
OF Willie Davis (.707)
OF Lou Johnson (.730)
OF Ron Fairly (.844)
League OPS: .695
P Sandy Koufax (27-9, 1.73)
P Don Drysdale (13-16, 3.42)
P Claude Osteen (17-14, 2.85)
P Don Sutton (12-12, 2.99)
League ERA: 3.28
The 1967 Los Angeles Dodgers
73-89, eighth place, 28.5 games out
Played below .500 every month (except 1-0 in October)
Regular lineup (with OPS for batters):
C Johnny Roseboro (.722)
1B Wes Parker (.704)
2B Ron Hunt (.689)
3B Jim Lefebvre (.688)
SS Gene Michael (.470)
OF Willie Davis (.662)
OF Al Ferrara (.812)
OF Ron Fairly (.616)
League OPS: .671
P Claude Osteen (17-17, 3.22)
P Don Drysdale (13-16, 2.74)
P Don Sutton (11-15, 3.95)
P Bill Singer (12-8, 2.64)
League ERA: 3.11
KOed in Round 1
There were other departures during the 1966-67 offseason worth mentioning. Jim Gilliam retired (for the second time, but this time it stuck). Third baseman John Kennedy was dumped a week before Opening Day.
The Dodgers started 0-4, got back to 6-7 – but were already 4.5 games behind the Reds. They then lost six out of seven to fall into ninth place, 7.5 games back. They didn’t have their first three-game winning streak until mid-May.
An eight-game losing streak in June dropped them to 21-35, 15.5 games back. Their last gasp of hope was a stretch later that month in which they won 11 out of 15. But they lost 8 out of 9 to start July, falling again to 15.5 out.
Where did things go wrong?
Well, the absence of Koufax was noticeable immediately. The Dodgers pitching staff allowed 27 runs in its first three games.
Quickly, it was clear there would be no replacing #32. The man who ostensibly did, Bill Singer, was above-average, and came within a run of Koufax’s 1.73 ERA. But Singer pitched more than 100 fewer innings. That put more responsibility on the rest of the staff – starters and bullpen.
If a single pitcher is to blame for the Dodgers’ decline, it’s future Hall-of-Famer Don Sutton. Shouldering more innings than the previous year, Claude Osteen tailed off slightly. But Sutton, pitching virtually the same amount as his rookie year, lost a 13-4 decision in the first start of his sophomore season and never really got it together. In fact, if you look at the ratio of his ERA to the league’s, this was the worst season of his 23-year career – even as he was winding it down in 1988. Perhaps he, rather than Singer, acutely felt the pressure of replacing Koufax. Sutton is quoted as saying tears were in his eyes when he attended his mentor’s retirement.
In addition to Sutton’s and Osteen’s innings, another 134 pitched by the Dodgers swingmen and relievers came in above the league average ERA in 1967. By comparison, in 1966, only one pitcher for the Dodgers, Jim Brewer, had an ERA above the league average, and he only pitched 22 innings. His 3.68 ERA made him the worst pitcher on the team.
Don Drysdale, oddly, showed how different consecutive 13-16 seasons can be. His ERA improved as the team got worse – even considering how offense declined in the ’67 season. However, although Drysdale stepped up, and although some people have thought of Drysdale and Koufax as this great duo, this was not the case by 1966, let alone 1967. The Dodgers certainly would have withstood Drysdale’s departure better than Koufax’s. If they were going to overcome Koufax’s retirement, they needed a huge infusion of offense.
It didn’t happen.
Bring on the Collective Funk
The good news was, the Dodgers’ shutout streak from the 1966 World Series ended on Opening Day, 1967. They scored one run.
Five 1966 lineup regulars returned in 1967 – and every single one of them saw a drop in OPS, including a 105-point decline by Jim Lefebvre and a 228-point collapse by Ron Fairly. Manager Walter Alston struggled against injuries and ineffectiveness as he assembled his daily lineup. In 1966, six of his starters played more than 140 games. The following year, only two did.
And then there were the new guys.
Wills was not that great in 1966. He hit .273, which I’m sure was considered admirable at the time, and stole 38 bases. But his OPS was a pedestrian .612, and he was caught stealing 24 times, rendering him a detriment on the basepaths, not an asset.
Oh, but his replacements. Gene Michael got the most action, and this is what he produced: a .202 average with 11 walks, one stolen base and four! extra-base hits in 98 games. The other shortstops that year, Dick Schofield and Nate Oliver, boasted OPS marks of .600 and .563.
There were two relatively bright spots. One was Al Ferrara in the outfield – he helped cover for Lou Johnson, who broke an ankle.
The other, to a lesser extent, was Ron Hunt. At third base in 1966, Gilliam split time with Kennedy. Neither of them cracked the .600 barrier in OPS. The following year, Lefebvre moved over to third base, and Hunt, acquired in the Tommy Davis trade, served as the replacement for Kennedy/Gilliam, at second base. Hunt, who later would set single-season and career hit-by-pitch records, used 10 plunks in 110 games to catapault him into an OPS of .689.
So in terms of new blood, the Dodgers were weaker in one infield slot but stronger another – it almost cancels out. In the outfield, the additional play of Ferrara (who was a reserve in 1966) only helped. And yet, overall, the offense that averaged 3.74 runs per game in 1966 sunk to producing 3.20 runs in 1967.
The group slump of players who had been there both years, who had been there with Koufax (and Wills and Tommy Davis) and now were left behind, caused the bulk of that overall decline.
So it wasn’t all Koufax’s fault, right?
I would love to hear other explanations, from those who lived through that era and/or have additional research at hand. But – and here, abruptly and with my apologies, ends the empirical portion of this report – I really have come to believe that the retirement of Koufax sapped the Dodgers’ will to win.
Perhaps the first sign of that was O’Malley’s trade of Wills, one that might have indicated that obedience was more important than performance. In any case, of the five returning regulars, all but Roseboro were 27 years old or younger. Offense was slightly down in 1967, but not enough, as far as I can tell, to explain the individual decline of all these players. Something else was going on, I think. Like I said, I'm open to other explanations, but until I hear them, I have to think that Koufax had an even bigger impact than I realized.
Dodger fans went into their own mourning. Attendance dropped from 2.6 million in 1966 to 1.7 million in 1967.
The personnel was there in Los Angeles, if not to win the pennant, at least to compete for it. But the Dodgers never competed. NL champs the year before, they were blown out the opening week. And it would be seven years before they would see another postseason game, a streak that will remain unmatched unless (until) the 2003 Dodgers miss the playoffs.
Thursday, February 13, 2003
Taking a Bite out of Crime Dog
Wow. Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune, writing for ESPN.com, really laid into Fred McGriff today. I think it actually surpasses some of the worst things I’ve written about Eric Karros.
Though I hardly think McGriff will send the Dodgers into October, Rogers’ piece smashes past rational analysis into irrational diatribe.
Having watched McGriff play for the local Cubs since they acquired him during the 2001 pennant drive, Rogers writes:
It seemed an ideal situation to add a proven run-producer like McGriff, who came to Chicago on July 29, with the Cubs 3½ games ahead of Houston and 7½ ahead of St. Louis. But it turned out to be a zero-sum move.
McGriff put up numbers, but the Cubs sunk to third in the Central, going 28-31 after the deal. That formula was followed again in '02.
McGriff, who will be 39 when he reports to Dodgertown, hit 42 home runs and drove in 144 runs in his 195 games with the Cubs. Yet the team that had a .583 winning percentage when he arrived played .430 baseball with him on the roster.
This follows four seasons when he was The Man for the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays, willing them to a 235-354 record. That's a personal .407 winning percentage for the last five years. This is a one-man tribute to the Cleveland Spiders.
It’s odd enough to attribute the Cubs’ 2001-2002 downfall so single-mindedly to McGriff, especially when the only numbers you cite are positive ones. (It’s not that negative ones can’t be found, so why not bring them in?)
But to pin McGriff with the cringeworthy seasons of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, an organization teeming in rotten players and management, is downright obtuse. And again, Rogers provides no numbers to back up this assessment.
This was more than a critical article. This was a mean article. Whether or not Rogers has a personal axe to grind against McGriff, his article reeks of it. Whatever his motives, I would think Rogers would at least want to avoid that appearance. But either he doesn't care, or he doesn't get it.
Rob Neyer’s Hot Stove Heater on the Dodgers, on the other hand, was on the money. I particularly love his point that everyone feared that when Fox bought the Dodgers, the Dodgers would spend their way to pennant after pennant - but no one imagined they could spend their money so foolishly.
My biggest disagreement with the Neyer article – and it’s really minor – is he suggests that when the inevitable injury strikes one of the Dodgers position players, like McGriff or Brian Jordan, no one on the bench will be good enough to fill in.
I agree that the bench is lousy, but I don’t know that McGriff and Jordan are so much better that they can’t be covered for a decent stretch. I think that along as Shawn Green stays healthy, the Dodger offense will be what it is no matter what – pretty damn mediocre. Only if Green were to be hurt would a true collapse occur.
Wednesday, February 12, 2003
SI.com gave the Dodgers a C- for their offseason moves, writing that "the Dodgers did little to address their needs over the winter and failed to re-sign several players, including 1B Eric Karros and OF Marquis Grissom."
Considering Si.com wrote only one paragraph about each team, this sentence is too sloppy to pass without comment. They didn't fail to re-sign Karros - they traded him with a year left on his contract. And they didn't fail to re-sign Grissom, they chose not to. An important distinction. Neither player, if still on the team, would improve the team's offseason performance one bit.
The Dodgers could have used an impact hitter and an impact pitcher, and did not get either, so in one sense, the overall grade is accurate. What bothers me more, though, is some moves that were made that probably won't help the team now and will hurt the team down the road.
A Flood of Memories
Last month, the main pipe for my building’s sprinkler system burst, flooding the garage with several feet of water in a matter of minutes. The water seeped into our storage unit and reached two of the boxes that hold my newspaper and magazine collection.
You’d think I would have learned. A hot water heater that tore away from its moorings in our basement during the 1994 Northridge quake took out a bunch of World Series programs I had collected. But no, I am not a good learner.
Anyway, in rescuing papers from the box, I did find a dry copy of the Top 10 NL West Prospects issue of Baseball America from March 1993. The text within is nothing if not … poignant.
1) Mike Piazza, C, 24
…In fact, for all the big offensive numbers he posted last year, management was more impressed with Piazza’s improving defense, considering he was a first baseman in high school.
He has a strong arm, he’s learning to block balls in the dirt and major league pitchers say he handles them well. The Dodgers think so highly of Piazza, they didn’t mind letting catching fixture Mike Scioscia walk.
…To win the starting job this spring from Carlos Hernandez, Piazza must impress the entire coaching staff. Lasorda says he will avoid charges of nepotism by letting his coaches decide who should start.
2) Raul Mondesi, OF, 21
There are those in the organization who believe Mondesi could be the next Willie Mays. Of course, that’s what they were saying about Jose Gonzalez for a decade, and he fell a bit short of expectations.
Now’s the time for Mondesi to grow up and step up. He has a history of attitude problems, yet plays so hard he frequently breaks down, and the Dodgers got a taste of that latter dilemma last year with Eric Davis. …
3) Roger Cedeno, OF, 18
…If he continues to excel, he quickly could become the best prospect in the organization.
4) Greg Hansell, RHP, 21
Management can’t find anything bad to say about Hansell … the Dodgers wish they had about a dozen like him. He’ll return to Albuquerque to start this season, and soon may make the Mets and Red Sox sorry they traded him.
5) Pedro Martinez, RHP, 21
Management still likes Martinez, but he slops from last year’s No. 1 spot because there are concerns his slight frame might not be conducive to a power pitching game. The history of small righthanders is not good.
Last year, Martinez was pestered by minor problems with his throwing arm, and a major problem with his non-throwing shoulder that required reconstructive surgery. He wound up with decent numbers in Triple-A, including a strikeout per inning.
Because of the widespread publicity generated by brother Ramon and the heralded anticipation of younger brother Pedro’s arrival, it’s easy to forget he’s only 21. He might be best suited for a job in the bullpen.
6) Todd Williams, RHP, 21
Williams is a sidearmer, actually closer to a submariner, which means nobody took him seriously as an amateur. … The Dodgers figure if Kent Tekulve could do it all those years, why not Williams?
7) Billy Ashley, OF, 22
Ashley is the Dodgers’ version of Dave Kingman or Rob Deer, only he’s more athletic than either.
He can put a baseball into orbit when he makes contact, which isn’t very often. In the Arizona Fall League, his average was .189 and his strikeout average was .402.
Ashley led the organization with 28 home runs in 1992, including two big league shots during a September trial. But he needs a full season in Triple-A to learn the strike zone after fanning 186 times last year, and also to polish his outfield skills. If he can accomplish the former, he’ll at least draw some walks to go with those strikeouts.
8) Omar Daal, LHP, 20
Daal is a lefthanded reliever, which automatically makes him a prospect in this organization.
…Daal struggled last year after two standout seasons in the Dominican Summer League, and officials now second-guess their decision to try him as a starter.
9) Todd Hollandsworth, OF, 19
…He has more than held his own against older players throughout his professional career, a testament to his competitiveness. … he stands a good chance of being a major leaguer by the end of 1994.
10) Rick Gorecki, RHP, 19
The lanky Gorecki is the rare high-priced gamble the Dodgers have seen pay off in the last several drafts.
He was a 19th-round pick out of high school because everyone assumed he would attend Northwestern University, located near his suburban Chicago home. But a six-figure bonus and direct recruiting from Lasorda turned him into a Dodger.
The top prospects for the other teams in the – remember when? – six-team NL West:
San Diego: Ray McDavid
Houston: Todd Jones
Atlanta: Chipper Jones
Colorado: David Nied
San Francisco: Calvin Murray
Murray is now a Dodger non-roster invitee, the only person in this entry with the team.
All's well that ends well. What about all that doesn't end well? Is it not well, or could it also have been well?
(No, of course I don't know what that means. But somehow it gives me closure.)
Tuesday, February 11, 2003
If You Take Anything From This Article, Take This:
A Scoreboard in the Shape of a Box Score
All-Star Fever - catch it? Or douse it with antibiotics?
I'll take the fever, thanks.
On ESPN.com's MLB Insider page Monday, Jim Baker commented on the issue of how long some teams have gone since hosting an All-Star Game. The Dodgers ranked seventh, not counting recent expansion teams, having not hosted the event since 1980.
Here are the ten-most All-Star Game-deprived clubs:
Tampa Bay: Never
New York Mets: 39 years
St. Louis: 37
Kansas City: 30
New York Yankees: 26
Los Angeles: 22
In an e-mail exchange we had, Jim wondered aloud how badly some cities would even want to host the All-Star Game in coming years. Last year’s 7-7 tie wouldn't have helped, pushing the event closer to the more-trouble-than-it's-worth category. I think people really overreacted to the “horror” of that game, though, and I'd hate to think that no one wants to host anymore. They'd be depriving baseball fans of a chance at a singular event that they will remember for a long time.
The thing is, sometimes you just need a catalyst to preserve some good memories, even if that catalyst itself turns out to be imperfect. I bet even many of those who went to last year's tie game will look back on it fondly, even if it's to fondly reminisce how they got cheated of a victor. I know I remember my first All-Star game pretty damn well, considering it was 22 years ago. Even though that 1980 game wasn't a classic, it's fun recalling it.
My memories of that game:
1) Ken Griffey (aka Ken Griffey Sr., as he came to be known) was the MVP. He hit a home run, and that was it, but that was all it took.
2) Jerry Reuss pitched and got the win. In fact, a lot of Dodgers were on the team, and some with shaky stats. I'm not gonna look it up, but my recollection is that Davey Lopes was voted into the starting lineup with an average near .208. These days, the Dodgers don't have the popularity to pull that off - I can't imagine they've had a starter voted in since Mike Piazza.
Here's my other Jerry Reuss story. I was at summer camp around 1979, on a sleepaway hike. We came upon an old, at least temporarily abandoned cabin. There were some old newspapers left to be used in the fireplace - including a sports section from the NL playoffs in what had to be 1974 or 1976. Jerry Reuss was in the box score, pitching for the Pirates. I was young enough to be equally fascinated that there was this old sports section here in this cabin, and that Jerry Reuss had had success even before coming to the Dodgers.
3) The Dodgers' Diamond Vision scoreboard made its official debut. Back then, it was cutting edge. Now, even though it's slightly larger, I think it's about to approach quaint. I have long had an idea about what the Dodgers - or any team - should do with their score-by-innings/lineup scoreboard, though. It should be vertical, and display a live box score, updated with each batter. It seems eminently doable, and would be a real hit, don't you think?
4) My Dad got us tickets. We got season tickets to the Dodgers in 1982, but before then, it was still a surprise to get any tickets to a game. For a game as popular as this - the first All-Star game ever in Dodger Stadium and the first in Los Angeles since 1959 - honestly, I don't know how he came through. But he did. I wonder if I'll have the same magic for my kids. Jim figured that if things go according to fairness, Dodger Stadium will get the game again in 2016. My little girl will be 13 years old then - won't that be something.
Anyway, I know it's an exhibition. I know managers and players and commissioners are very confused about what their roles should be once they arrive. But don't dismiss the All-Star Game. It's a good part of being a baseball fan.
Box-score scoreboard ... Box-score scoreboard ... Box-score scoreboard …
Monday, February 10, 2003
Batting Second in this Report, Paul Lo Duca
In his National League preview, Peter Gammons put the Dodgers seventh. They topped a second tier of teams in the National League, but trailed St. Louis, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Arizona, Houston and Atlanta.
This seems reasonable.
However there were some oddities in Gammons’ writeup on the Dodgers. For example, there was this sentence:
Doctors say [Dreifort’s] knee could be a problem as he gets up and down in the bullpen, so he may start, which along with Brown will require a sixth starter.
Can you translate this sentence for me? Is he implying a six-man rotation? Do starting pitchers not “get up and down?” What does “which” modify?
Gammons also wrote that “one big factor is that with McGriff in the middle of the lineup, catcher Paul Lo Duca can go back to the two hole and stop trying to carry the team.”
I get the sense that some scout or Dodger organization man fed Gammons this. In any case, I’m not sure the numbers bear out what Gammons is saying.
Lo Duca’s OPS by batting position:
#1 2.000 in 2002 (1 AB), .971 in 2001 (189 AB)
#2 .759 in 2002 (285 AB), .555 in 2001 (9 AB)
#3 .867 in 2002 (108 AB), .666 in 2001 (3 AB)
#4 .641 in 2002 (122 AB), 1.792 in 2001 (6 AB)
#5 .538 in 2002 (59 AB), .832 in 2001 (183 AB)
What really stands out is that .971 in the leadoff slot in ’01. He had an on-base percentage of .378 and a slugging percentage of .593, hitting a home run every 13.5 at-bats batting first. By comparison, Dave Roberts OPS in 2002 was merely .697.
In any case, I don’t really see enough consistency in Lo Duca’s numbers to draw any firm conclusions, but with that .867 OPS in the No. 3 hole, it’s hard to make the argument that “carrying the team” dragged down LoDuca’s production. I’m guessing there were other issues involved.
Here’s an interesting if no more conclusive chart – Lo Duca’s OPS by month in 2002:
.779 April (Dodgers go 16-10)
.791 May (Dodgers go 15-13)
.876 June (Dodgers go 19-8)
.743 July (Dodgers go 10-16)
.440 August (Dodgers go 18-10)
.771 September (Dodgers go 14-13)
You’d think July and August should be flip-flopped. Essentially, the Dodgers seemed to cover up for Lo Duca during his worst month of the year.
I don’t know what LoDuca will produce in his third season as a regular. But the Dodgers of 2002 didn’t really depend on him offensively – his numbers offensively were barely better than Karros’ numbers were. (The difference is, LoDuca is a catcher, a position offense is at a premium. At first base, it’s another story.)
Gammons is correct about one thing – if Lo Duca is forced to carry the Dodgers, then they are in trouble. But it’s a fallacy to imply that Lo Duca was carrying the Dodgers last year – Shawn Green, Odalis Perez and Hideo Nomo were. If this misconception needs to be clarified for the competitive Lo Duca so that he doesn’t press, it needs to be done verbally, not passive-aggressively through his batting order position.