Peter Gammons: Dodgers and Giants primed for another race in 2017

GLENDALE, AR—They seem to have been bolted to one another since the end of World War II. Jackie Robinson, then Monte Irvin, and when the Dodgers tried to trade Jackie to the Giants, he refused. The Shot Heard ‘Round the World. Willie and The Duke. The Giants won in ’54, the Dodgers in ’55, and together they moved to California three years later.

There was the ’62 playoff. Koufax and Drysdale vs. Marichal and Perry. Bumgarner and Kershaw.

And now it seems like ’55 all over again. The Dodgers have won the National League West four straight seasons, with the Giants second behind them the last three years, and yet the Giants have won three world series in this decade, the Dodgers haven’t won one since Ronald Reagan was president.

The perception is that the Dodgers are the Red Carpet team decked out with a $275M payroll, the Giants have stars, sure, but as Bruce Bochy puts it “when your stars are as humble as Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, the tone is set.”

When you come go to Scottsdale every spring and then talk to scouts advancing the Giants in September for the playoffs, they always talk about the fundamentals; this team, with such remarkable organization, continually carries what they practice into October.

They practice fundamentals. Remember in 2014, when Brandon Crawford threw out three runners at home plate in one week in June? When he was shown the video of the three plays, he said, “I love baseball, I love being on the field, I love practicing relays.”

Then Crawford proceeded to recall the play in Game Two of the 2012 World Series in San Francisco when Prince Fielder hit a ball into the left field corner that eluded Gregor Blanco. Crawford was supposed to be the cutoff man, but Blanco overthrew him, only Marco Scutaro anticipated the play, sprinted from second base to the left field line, grabbed the overthrow and nailed Fielder trying for an inside-the-park homer and saved the 2-0 win. As coach Ron Wotus often says, “that was the biggest play of the series.” A Giant sweep.

Rangers manager Jeff Bannister Wednesday talked about his team’s spring work on outfield fundamentals, pointing out that Texas led the majors in outfield errors in 2016. “When an outfielder makes an error, it usually results in big trouble,” says Bannister. The Giants in 2016 had the fewest, 8.

Wonder why their pitchers led the National League in RBIs and were in the top three in OPS? Their pitchers work at their hitting. Remember how they beat a superior Cardinals team in seven games in the NLCS? Their pitchers had five hits in that series, and Barry Zito—who was, well, not exactly Bumgarner, had a key RBI hit and laid down a critical sacrifice bunt.

And, for a team whose park limits their runs to the bottom half of the league, there is the Giants’ two strike approach. When they got to two strikes last season, their on base percentage trailed only the two best approaches in the game, the Red Sox and Cubs, as opposed to an undisciplined offensive team like the Dodgers, who were 28th, slightly worse than the Rays. San Francisco’s OPS with two strikes was in the top third in the majors, better than the Blue Jays.

“We have to play that way,” says Bochy. “We’re not a big offensive, home run-hitting team. We play in a ballpark that isn’t conducive to offense. We have to do the little things from defense to situational hitting to getting the bunts down against the shift if we’re going to win.” And despite a season in which the bullpen collapsed and Bumgarner left seven games with leads that the pen wasted, they still made the wild card play-in game, beat the Mets and gave the Cubs a legitimate scare in the NLDS. With Mark Melancon and younger arms, they believe those bullpen woes are solved, and if Matt Cain doesn’t make it all the way back, they expect former number one pick Tyler Beede to come up to the rotation during the season, and the same is true of lefthander Ty Blach, who beat Clayton Kershaw 1-0 in September.

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TEAM OBP W/ 2 STRIKES (2016)

Red Sox                   .277

Cubs                         .273

Giants                      .263

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Dave Roberts, Andrew Friedman and all the Dodgers people are well aware of that two strike approach number for the Giants, and that the Dodgers were dropping their back shoulders, trying to yank to the pull side and were 29th. “It’s what we’ve emphasized all spring,” says Roberts, and you hear hitting coaches Turner Ward and Tim Hyers talk about it constantly at the cage. “It is getting better,” says Roberts. “Things are very different.”

Understand, two and three years ago, in the earlier stages of this ownership and with so many name players, the Dodger culture was often called “toxic;” there’s a reason Don Mattingly left.

But the culture now is totally different. “This is a fun place to be,” says first base coach George Lombard, a thought echoed by hard-nosed Justin Turner. Roberts, like Joe Maddon, brings something to his clubhouse meeting every morning. Wednesday, he arranged to have a piano brought in so that rookie pitcher Trevor Oaks could play a mini-recital. Oaks, incidentally, is one of their young pitchers whose hard sinker may play big in the second half.

Almost everyone in the clubhouse points to the impact Chase Utley has on the team, especially the young players. When Utley was unsigned during the off-season, Friedman said the manager, coaches and players—especially Corey Seager—were constantly calling begging him to re-sign Utley. Friedman and GM Farhan Zaidi kept Utley informed, and when Friedman explained that he had to first get a righthanded-hitting second baseman, Utley called him back and suggested Logan Forsythe. Which they did, and now, on either side of the superstar Seager they have classic intelligent, skilled baseball lifers in Turner and Forsythe.

If Adrian Gonzalez, who is recovering from elbow problems, needs a rest during the season, the next potential star in line, Cody Bellinger, could come up, and Roberts believes Bellinger can play all three outfield positions. Or Utley can play there, second or third.

Chase is really intense, and he can say things to players no one else can,” says one of the star pitchers. He’s at the park studying video, reports, Pitch/FX, then hitting from two on for a night game. During games, he takes preparation swings and studies video of relievers he might face if inserted into the game. But that’s who he is. When Utley played for Brewster in the Cape Cod League, he once got to the field at one for a seven p.m. game, hit, ran, took grounders. But when the game started, he’d forgotten to eat, so he paid a batboy to get him a breadbowl of clam chowder from the concession stand.

Problem is, the three hitters in front of him all swung at the first pitch, one a hit, so when it came time for him to get out of the on-deck circle, Utley had to chug the remainder of the chowder, hand the breadbowl to the batboy, go up to the plate…and rip the first pitch off the right field fence. I know a Marlins executive that was on that team, Yankee scout Matt Hyde who was the pitching coach, and they swear to it. “That’s the kind of guru every team needs,” says Hyers. “And when it’s a potential Hall of Famer who is one of the most respected persons in the game, it carries a lot of weight.”

Perhaps the most surprising Dodger storyline of the spring has been the remake of catcher Yasmani Grandal. During the winter, Grandal adopted a plant-based diet, and while he has good framing numbers and hit 27 homers, he looks completely different in every phase of the game. “I love this game,” says Grandal, “and I needed to get my body better. I want to be really good, and that requires a price.”

“Yaz is the player that most sticks out this spring,” says Roberts. “He genuinely loves the game. Andrew (Friedman) and I will often be in my office talking about the game, everything, past midnight, and most nights Yaz is in the video room going through the calling of the game, as well as at-bats, and video of the opposing team. He is a great team guy who may be in for his breakthrough season.”

What Friedman has tried to do is construct a roster with depth and alternatives. George and Judy Lombard and their kids took Yasiel Puig to dinner. Judy is Cuban, trusted by Yasiel, and they have built a relationship to try to eliminate the gaps that Yasiel sometimes lapses into when he doesn’t get things. He will play, if the gaps lessen. Pederson will play center, but has to cut down on his strikeouts and stay in on lefthanders to utilize his power. Andre Ethier has had a good spring; he has told the Dodgers he won’t waive his no-trade if they want to send him somewhere he doesn’t want to go, and would love to get released and go to Boston and rejoin his college buddy Dustin Pedroia; in addition, his grandfather is from Worcester, and grew up playing against J.P. Ricciardi’s father.

They have Andrew Toles and Scott Van Slyke and Trayce Thompson, as well as Bellinger and Alex Verdugo.

Then they have close to ten potential starting pitchers. “After what we went through (using 15), we have to start with at least eight,” says Friedman.

They have Kershaw, the best there is. Then Rich Hill. And Kenta Maeda. Most people then say 20-year old Julio Urias, but he only threw 122 innings last year between Oklahoma City and Los Angeles. He is so good, they want him being a significant contributor in September and October and finish the season at or around 170 innings, so they will mix, option and match other starters: Brandon McCarthy has been impressive and on a marine mission; Alex Wood is healthy, can work out of the pen or start. Scott Kazmir seems healthy. Hyun-Jin Ryu, whom Roberts has seen pitch once for 14 outs, has been a surprise, “has got his athleticism back” according to one club official, and Roberts says could be ready for the regular season. They like Brock Stewart and Ross Stripling. And down on the minor league fields, Orel Hershiser compares the arm-speed of Walker Buehler.

Buehler was the 24th pick of the 2015 draft, but the Dodgers knew that after Vanderbilt won the College World Series he needed Tommy John Surgery. He signed, pitched five innings last season, went to the Ariziona Fall League and now is throwing so well he might be a late season factor. Amazingly, Buehler, Carson Fulmer (White Sox) and Beede off that Vanderbilt staff could be in the major leagues this season, all with top prospect projections.

What is also very different about these Dodgers is the staff, which is nurtured and supported by Friedman, who to anyone knows him, is at heart a baseball lifer with extraordinary people skills and appreciation of the players. Roberts could run for congress. Lombard could, as well.

And this staff was clearly assembled with the all due respect for the Giants in mind. What Brian Sabean has assembled is an organization with uncanny continuity; hey, Sabean, scout Joe LeFebvre and mental skills coach Bob Tewksbury all went to Concord High School (NH).

Bochy, future HOF manager, has been with the Giants since 2007. Pitching coach Dave Righetti has held his job since 2000, and his assistant pitching coach Mark Gardner joined him in 2003. Ron Wotus has been there since 1998, although he could well have left to manage. Hitting coach Hensley Meulens, another future manager, has been there since 2005. Sabean was made GM in 1996 by then-owner Peter Magowan and his assistant Larry Baer, who came when Magowan bought the team in ’93, and present GM Bobby Evans has been with the organization since 1994.

So the Dodgers and Giants have been attached in history, and while they have dominated the National League West in this decade and they each should be very good in 2017, there is no easy road to October for the two teams.

It is easy to consider this division the best in the game. Many consider the Colorado Rockies to have the best position players in the major leagues right now. When the Diamondbacks came up at a Dodger meeting, several of their executives cautioned. “They have really good pitching, and anyone who knows Mike Hazen knows that if he’s left to run it, he will change that franchise and the division.”

So, if you’re the Giants or Dodgers, you play 57 games against your traditional rival and the Rockies and Diamondbacks. It makes having two, much less three, teams going out of the division to the post-season extremely difficult.

But there was no expressway to the World Series when the Giants and Dodgers shared New York in the decade before Walter O’Malley and Horace Stoneham went to California. The rivalry, the song remains the same. But this year, it’s even more complicated, because the Rockies and the Diamondbacks are far from the Rocks and the ‘Backs of the past.

Comments

  1. Sammy Biggs says:

    This has to be the make or break year for Yasiel Puig, i mean it really is put up or shut up time for this guy. All the talent in the world, and now it time to put it to use and help them get over the edge.

  2. Mr. Baseball (Tom Sellek) says:

    Peter, once again you have proven yourself to be of the most optimistic writers in baseball. To say the whole division is going to be gauntlet is like the way people talk about the AFC east every year…

  3. Out there says:

    Its the Dodgers to lose. If they play to 80% of their potential, I would imagine it would be enough to take the Division regardless of how well the Giants play this year. I could be wrong however, it has happened before.

  4. Travis D. says:

    Dodgers are regular season studs and post season choke-artists… Just sick of seeing their half-ass fans waste the spotlight. Lets pray for a Giants winner.

  5. Richard Johnson says:

    Giants made a rare pitching blunder by not
    holding on to fan favorite and reliable eighth
    inning setup soldier Sergio Romo. The fact they
    allowed the Dodgers to sign him may come back
    to haunt them.