Los Angeles Dodgers: 10 Reasons Don Mattingly Is Best Manager in First Half

Richard LeivenbergContributor IIIJuly 11, 2012

Los Angeles Dodgers: 10 Reasons Don Mattingly Is Best Manager in First Half

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    Your top player goes on the DL, then your second best player is sidelined. You have a newbie, fundamentally unsound shortstop, an old resurrected rotation, a wobbly bullpen, a lackluster lineup with no power and a new management.

    If you're the manager of this team—the Los Angeles Dodgers—what are you gonna do about it?

    Well, if you are Don Mattingly, all you are going to do is win.

    While others are touting Bobby Valentine of the Red Sox, Buck Showalter of the Orioles and Mike Scioscia of the Angels as top manager of the first half of the MLB season, there is really little question that Donnie Baseball is number one.

    Predicted to have another mediocre season where they would finish in the middle of the NL West pack, the Dodgers surprised the baseball world when they surged to a record of 32-18 on May 20, recording the best record in the entire MLB.

    If you are any kind of baseball fan, you were flabbergasted by this occurrence.  It would have been one thing if they were on top of their weak-kneed division, but they were beating out the likes of the Angels, Yankees, Tigers and Rangers, all powerhouse teams with much, much, much better talent.

    So, let's give the credit where credit is due—to the manager. And, even though they ended the first half in a slide—losing 15 of the last 20 games—the Dodgers are in first place and you cannot deny that they have a top skipper guiding them to their success.

New Management

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    When the evil monarch of the Dodgers, Frank McCourt, finally unloaded the team to a new management group for the sum of $2 billion, the city breathed a sigh of relief.

    This was a nasty divorce that had to happen but it took its toll.

    Last year, the team played down to its mediocrity amidst the continual rumors of a sale and it looked like 2012 was going to start out the same way.

    Thankfully, a group that included L.A. favorite son, Magic Johnson, took hold of the team and thus took away one variable in its drive to return to winning ways.

    It is one thing to try to figure out the team rotation or who would be playing shortstop, second base or catcher and quite another to keep the team's head on straight as ownership issues are solved.

    Mattingly did a great job of keeping his team focused prior to the opening of the season. He managed their psyche while emphasizing to the players and the public that no matter who was in the front office, the team on the field would maintain its poise.

    There is no question the new move aided the team's quick start.  It was as if Sisiphus had dropped his rock and run off to the beach. The team was unburdened by off-field nuisances and could focus on the task at hand.

    And, it was their manager who steered the players away from any controversy.  This is not an easy thing in the media-driven world we live in and you have to doff your hat to Mattingly for his stellar command of the situation.

Timely Hitting

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    Who would you rather have teaching your team to hit, Don Mattingly or Buck Showalter?  Mattingly or Valentine?  A Hall of Fame first baseman and one of the modern day's most prolific clutch hitters or Mike Scoscia?

    This is not a trick question.

    Mattingly batted .302 and drove in 1099 RBI during his stellar career with the New York Yankees.

    He flat out knows how to hit, and every time you see one of his players work the count, drive the ball to the opposite field or make a clutch hit late in the game with the winning run in scoring position, you have to think he had something to do with it.

    The team is only batting .250 with 51 home runs, the lowest amount in the majors, but somehow they have been able to pull out games.

    It is all about hitting in the clutch and it seems like every game the Dodgers win this way involves a new hero.

    Guys like Elian Herrera, Juan Rivera, Scott Van Slyke and Jerry Hairston, Jr. are not what one would call your consummate clutch hitter, yet each has contributed on more than one night that key hit to win a game.

    Great players do not always make great managers. But, Mattingly is breaking that mold.

    Mattingly brings unparalleled poise to the team.  He is a player's manager with a knack for instruction and guidance. His calm and confident approach to managing has translated to his players' approach at the plate.

Bumpy Bullpen

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    Mattingly must have been pretty confident about his bullpen when the season opened.

    Javy Guerra, the designated closer, was coming off of a good year and if there is one thing closers need, it is a good year to come off of.  In 2011, he posted 21 saves and a 2.31 ERA.

    Then, Guerra got hurt and Mattingly had to go to Plan B.  And, who would that "B" be?

    It turned out he had Kenley Jansen on the bench with a lively arm and a penchant for strikeouts.

    All in all, Jansen has worked out pretty well, shoring up the ninth inning and retiring 22 of the last 23 batters he faced.

    The rest of the bullpen has kept order as well.

    Ronald Belisario has retired the last 13 batters he has faced, including five by strikeout, and his ERA is 0.95.

    Scott Elbert has allowed no runs in 20 of his last 23 appearances, and Josh Lindblom has pitched five straight scoreless outings.

    The bullpen as a whole has a 2.10 ERA in 81 1/3 innings over their last 32 games with 74 strikeouts and 34 walks during that span.

    A good bullpen always makes a manager look smart and right now Mattingly's IQ is soaring.

Top Notch Rotation

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    Any rotation that includes Clayton Kershaw has to be great.  The 24-year-old Cy Young Award winner can carry a team.

    That is, at least 20 percent of the time.  The remaining games are left up to the other guys in the rotation.  In this case that means Ted Lily (on the DL), Chris Capuano, Chad Billingsley, Aaron Harang and Nathan Eovaldi.

    For the most part, you can call these guys wily vets (except for two-year man Eovaldi) or you can call them lucky devils.

    Either way, Mattingly and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt have had their work cut out for them.

    Probably the best thing they have done is know their staff.  Sure, Billingsley may have been given too much rope in too many games, often times going solid innings then collapsing.

    But, no one can deny that the Dodgers have gotten a tremendous effort out of their staff which now sports a 3.33 ERA, second in the majors.

    Still, no one predicted retreads like Capuano, Harang and Lily would have such good years.

    Dodger Stadium is traditionally a pitcher's park; not a lot of home runs are hit there. So, Dodger pitchers always benefit from that.

    But, these guys are showing up and playing hard.  They seem to believe in themselves even if others don't and for that sort of confidence, we can give Mattingly a nod.

    At least for the first half of the season.

No Matt Kemp

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    Quite simply, the Dodgers should not be winning without Matt Kemp.

    Considered one of the best, if not the best, player in the game, Kemp puts up awesome numbers.

    When he went on the DL, he was batting .355 with 12 homers and 30 RBI, on pace for another run at league MVP.

    Then he hurt his hamstring and has missed a flurry of games.

    Without Kemp, the team was missing a majority of its offensive power and run production.

    How could they cope?  What would Mattingly do?

    This is where a team must pull itself together and how the manager earns his salary.

    If the Dodgers had turned, ran and hid, no one would have blamed them.

    There is no record of what he said to his team and it is possible the quiet man said very little. In fact, he may have just looked his players in the eye and dared them to step up to the plate.

    It has been a rocky time in which the losses outweighed the wins, yet the team has retained its position in first place at the halfway mark.

    Mattingly has played a variety of guys in the outfield and fiddled with the line-up, most recently batting Tony Gwynn, Jr. in the leadoff spot and playing Kemp's center field position.

    The team's run production may be off but Mattingly has rallied the troops to fill whatever gaps needed to be filled in order to win.

Andre Ethier Goes Down Too

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    Just when you thought everything was going right, the Dodgers lost Andre Ethier to an oblique strain that ultimately placed him on the DL.

    At one point in the season, Ethier and Kemp were one-two in RBI in the league.

    Now they are gone.  Now the team needs both a right fielder and a center fielder.

    Once again, the team and the manager were being tested.

    Could a newcomer like Scott Van Slyke pick up the RBI slack?  Would Bobby Abreu regain his once vaunted hitting prowess?  Will James Loney and Juan Uribe ever get any hits in the clutch?

    These are not questions a manager would like to be asking himself as he tries to keep his team in first place.

    Just so you know, the players in the outfield are now named Hairston, Gwynn, Van Slyke, Herrera and Abreu.

    The fact that Mattingly has retained that position and figured out ways to win is a testament to his personal competitive nature as well as his coaching acumen.

No Power

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    The Dodgers have hit 51 home runs so far this season.

    That is last in the majors.  Six teams have hit more than double that number.

    So, how do you win games without home runs?

    For a guy who came from a Yankee organization where home runs are simply a part of its history, Mattingly has to be scratching his head.

    How do you manufacture runs when you have no power hitters?

    Remove home runs from the offensive picture, and you are missing a key ingredient of scoring.

    The home run makes a manager look pretty darn good. Just think back to old timers like Baltimore Oriole manager Earl Weaver whose philosophy was "pitching, defense and the three-run homer."

    Now let's look at poor Don Mattingly who is saddled with pitching, defense and...prayer.

    Perhaps in no other way has Mattingly shown his ability to understand the game of baseball.  He is not the hit-and-run manipulator that Mike Scioscia of the Angels is, but somehow has concocted an offense that produces just enough runs to win.

    That has been the true challenge he has had to face.

    Perhaps epitomizing the current way to make runs happen is the effort of 31-year-old catcher A.J. Ellis.

    He sports a .297 average, six home runs and 26 RBI this season.  But Ellis’ best tool is his plate discipline. The 18th round draft pick in 2003 leads the National League with 4.53 pitches per plate appearance and owns 38 walks compared to 47 strikeouts.

    Ellis provides Mattingly and the Dodgers a solid example of how to play the game when there is no power numbers to rely on.

    Many people point to what they call "smoke and mirrors" when talking about the Dodgers first half success, but it may have more to do with Mattingly's unfailing confidence in players like Ellis.

No Shortstop, No Problem

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    Dee Gordon was the shortstop of the future but right now looks like a thing of the past.

    His ability was somewhat suspect anyways with a batting average of only .229. Yet, he still led the majors in steals with 30.

    So, now that he is gone, what do you do, Mr. Mattingly?

    The Dodgers brought up the 6'2", 220 lb. Luis Cruz, the physical opposite of the super-lean Gordon.

    Cruz fit perfectly into the Dodgers patchwork quilt and has hit above .300 with four doubles in the last seven games.

    It is hard to tell if Mattingly has any new grey hairs, but losing your shortstop after the loss of your two best hitters and second baseman (Mark Ellis had been on he DL until last week) has got to age you.

    He may not be able to take credit or blame for Cruz's ability as time goes by, but suffice to say, it is yet another thing for Mattingly to have to deal with in the up and down first half.

Oldies but Not so Goodies

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    Bobby Abreu, Adam Kennedy, Juan Uribe, Jerry Hairston, Jr., Juan Rivera.

    This is not a list of retired baseball veterans, but the names of prominent members of the Dodgers squad.

    A lot of teams rely on vets to bolster their locker room, lead the team and even play some ball, but few have been as reliant on their oldies as the Dodgers this year.

    And, it has been up to Mattingly to manage the vets along side the rest of the team keeping everyone's heads and bodies in the game as much as possible.

    To date, the vets have been a mixed bag at best. Abreu, after being dumped by the Angels, came in hot and provided a needed offensive punch but has since been relegated to the bench.

    Juan Rivera and Hairston have played both infield and outfield and Kennedy has been fairly solid defensively at second base.  Uribe, now sidelined with an injury, has been an abject failure.

    Mattingly, meanwhile, has had to juggle this elderly group making sure to get the most out of them.

    So far, he has done a pretty good job with what he has.

He's Donnie Baseball

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    A lot can be said for the job other NL managers such as Terry Collins of the Mets and Clint Hurdle of the Pittsburgh Pirates have done.

    But, really would you rather learn a jump shot from Luke Walton or Kobe Bryant? 

    Mattingly was one of the best first basemen to ever play the game. He knows how to play the game better than most and now we see he knows how to instruct others in how to do so.

    That, in and of itself, is quite a feat.

    He also learned managing at the feet of Joe Torre and has brought a firm and confident professional approach to the game that is reminiscent of his Yankee old skipper.

    For some reason he is not getting his due. You are not supposed to be great at both playing and managing.

    He has had some extremely difficult moments in the first half of the season and seemingly overcame each one.  How many players can be injured without it affecting the overall play and performance of the team?

    Somehow Mattingly has managed and done so a lot better than anyone else out there.

    As of now, he deserves to be ranked as the top manager in the game.