Coming into the 2013 season, Don Mattingly had an inconsistent track record as manager of the Dodgers. He’d made famous blunders such as incorrectly writing down the lineup in a 2010 spring training game and inadvertently making two trips to the mound in the same inning in a matchup with the Giants.
He also has drawn the ire of fans for calling for too many sacrifice bunts, which in the grand scheme of things is kind of a minor infraction—considering he was nearly fired earlier this year.
In May of this season, Mattingly made comments disparaging the job that GM Ned Colletti had done putting together the roster. Whether or not he was correct wasn’t the question; you just tend not to get away with criticizing your boss.
But Mattingly held on, and he has turned the ship around. His adjustments have been a key part of the Dodgers’ 38-8 run over the last month and a half.
At this point in the year, it seems difficult to imagine there was some controversy about where Hanley Ramirez would play. Despite his professed intentions to stay at shortstop, though, the Dodgers were concerned that he would spend too much time at third base in the World Baseball Classic. However, they ended up leaving him at shortstop—which allowed Juan Uribe to flourish at third.
Whether or not Mattingly can take credit for Uribe’s surprising season depends on your point of view on managers, but there’s no denying that the Dodger skipper played a key role in getting him playing time.
The extent of Cruz’s awfulness has been forgotten in the Puig era, but it’s worth remembering that there was a time when he was the starting third baseman for the Dodgers. And while Mattingly deserves some of the blame for even allowing him to reach the 128 plate appearances he managed, he also deserves the credit for benching him relatively early in the season.
Cruz played in 20 games in April and was terrible (.208 OPS in 60 PAs), but he subsequently had his playing time cut nearly in half (12 games, 32 PAs) in May. He got roughly the same amount of playing time in June before he was released from the team.
Reorganizing the bullpen is the single-most important thing Mattingly has done. Early in the season, Rodriguez appeared in the fifth or sixth inning and never in the ninth. However, since the beginning of July, only one of his 16 appearances began before the seventh inning. In addition, nearly all of his high-leverage opportunities have come in the last two months.
Most importantly, Rodriguez has delivered.
This season, the 22-year-old lefty has posted a 2.14 ERA in 56 games, and he’s been nearly equally effective against both lefties (.430 OPS) and righties (.380 OPS).
Big league managers have a tendency to bat their best hitter third—see Miguel Cabrera on the Tigers, Ryan Braun on the Brewers, Joey Votto on the Reds—and Don Mattingly is likely no different. Adrian Gonzalez has been batting third basically all year, but lately he has been surrounded by two hitters who are outperforming him: Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig.
Puig is the one to focus on, though, because Ramirez has an established track record of dominance.
When Puig was first called up, he hit leadoff while Carl Crawford was on the DL. This was a shocking move given Puig’s power, as leadoff hitters tend to be quick and have great on-base skills; Puig is fast but is more known for his strength and tendency to swing at nearly every pitch.
After Crawford returned, Mattingly slid Puig down just one slot, rather than moving him all the way down to fifth or sixth and moving a “bat control” type like Mark Ellis or whichever of the Nick Punto/Skip Schumaker group happened to be in the lineup that day up to second.
This type of enlightened lineup usage has been a huge boom to the Dodgers, as it potentially allows one of their best hitters to get an extra plate appearance at the end of games.
Mattingly deserves praise for how he’s handled the Dodgers’ outfield rotation. With four starting-caliber outfielders (Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig) and only three spots to play them in.
Now, the various injuries to Matt Kemp has made the raw playing time easier to manipulate, but it also left the team without a true center fielder. Enter Mattingly, who plugged Ethier into center without a second thought, despite the presence of the much younger Puig.
Whether or not choosing Ethier over Puig was the right call isn’t the question; It’s worked out fine for the team, and Ethier seems to enjoy it.
All of that is a huge credit to Mattingly.
It was no secret that Brandon League had a miserable first half (6.25 ERA), but the Dodgers wanted to give him every opportunity to be the closer after they signed him to a guaranteed three-year, $19.5 million contract with a vesting option for the fourth year.
When Mattingly finally made the switch to Jansen, though, the bullpen improved—the Dodgers haven’t blown a save since June 29. Moving League from the ninth inning to lower leverage opportunities enabled more qualified relievers such as Paco Rodriguez and Ronald Belisario to step into bigger roles while League worked himself back into form.
And indeed, League has been much better since the All-Star break.