Don Mattingly Is Not The Problem

Don Mattingly's job is on the line, but while he isn't a great tactical manager, he's not what's ailing the Dodgers. (USA TODAY Sports)

Don Mattingly's job is on the line, but while he isn't a great tactical manager, he's not what's ailing the Dodgers. (USA TODAY Sports)

There are several seemingly contradictory yet true statements you can make about major league managers. They matter, and yet they are rarely responsible for much of a team’s record. Failure is never primarily the manager’s fault, but sometimes firing him is the right move anyway. And, when team officials start telling reporters there are “no plans” to fire a manager (and the GM murmurs vague not-quite-denials), the manager in question is probably going to be fired, barring an immediate winning streak. Because eventually, this much attention on a manager’s status becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: You just can’t have that be the main story around your team for too long.

We knew before the season even started that Don Mattingly was going to be managing for his job this year — that much was clear when his contract wasn’t extended (while GM Ned Colletti was given an extension and also the keys to the new owners’ Brinks truck full of cash). But given how stacked the Dodgers’ roster looked this year, that seemed unlikely to be an issue. Well, here we are. The Dodgers are not just underachieving; they’re within shouting distance of the worst month in franchise history. That’s not Don Mattingly’s fault, not mostly, but something has to change, and of course you can’t fire a bunch of players making tens of millions. Part of any manager’s job is to be a scapegoat, for the fans and media as well as the front office.

The worst teams in the majors — the Astros, the Marlins — would be dreadful whether they were being managed by the genetically engineered mutant offspring of Casey Stengel and Earl Weaver, or by a chinchilla. (The inverse is not really true: I think even the best teams, would find being managed by a chinchilla to be a distraction. And anyway, chinchillas are notoriously lousy at deploying a bullpen.) It’s the teams on the brink where the manager really matters — last year’s Orioles, for example, who needed to fight their way into a Wild Card slot and were able to do so via Buck Showalter’s knack for snatching victory in one-run games. The Dodgers may yet get to that sort of position this season, but they’re nowhere close at the moment. Mattingly is not even one of their top ten problems right now.

Don Mattingly could not have done anything to keep Zack Greinke, Hanley Ramirez or Chad Billingsley healthy. He probably could not have done anything to get Matt Kemp out of his rut (though for what it’s worth Kemp did homer Monday night, only his second of the year after offseason shoulder surgery). And Mattingly can’t make Brandon League pitch well… though arguably he could and should stop using him in key situations.

On that note, it has to be said that Mattingly is not a distinguished on-field manager. He is not terrible, not bad in an unusual or dramatic way — his moves generally fall within the bounds of baseball’s conventional wisdom, for better or worse, and are not likely to cost his team more than a few games a year (though, unfortunately for Mattingly, several of those games arguably came this past weekend as the Dodgers were being swept by the Braves via crushing late-inning losses). Like his mentor Joe Torre, Mattingly is a more or less competent tactician who really shines as a clubhouse leader. He treats his players well and, by all accounts, he has their respect. That can’t be measured, and clearly it is not helping the Dodgers win any games just at the moment, but it shouldn’t be written off entirely either. Like the vast majority of employees in all fields, baseball players will tell you that a good manager and a good workplace environment do matter.

It’s not necessarily too late for Don Mattingly, not if the Dodgers really haven’t already made up their minds to let him go. A quick winning streak, the return of Zack Greinke, Matt Kemp getting right, and suddenly everyone is moving on — though missing the playoffs in this season of high expectations would probably still be enough to keep Mattingly from getting a new contract. That might not be fair, but it’s fair enough by the standards of baseball, which is a tough business.

In the end results are all that matter, and Mattingly, who managed to keep his sanity while playing for George Steinbrenner in his Steinbrenneriest years, knows that as well as anybody. The rub is that those results, good or bad, will probably not have all that much to do with any of Mattingly’s actions.

12 thoughts on “Don Mattingly Is Not The Problem

  1. Just as Mattingly isn’t one of their top problems, his status is also beside the point. This situation on the whole is an example of yet another arrogant ownership group that thought it could buy ill-fitting parts and watch them roll to a title. There’s a reason that everyone outside of Dodger-dom knew this team was a train wreck waiting to happen, including the signing of ZG.

    Mattingly won’t last the season, because this team won’t turn things around in a division with scrappers like the Giants, D’Backs and Rockies.

  2. Matt Kemp needs to get back to his MVP form, then LA will be okay. They’ve already got the best pitcher in baseball in Kershaw, now they need the best player to come back to form.

  3. If thats the case, why do we need managers?, in your analysis regardless of Mattingly they will loss or win since he doesnt picth, run, catch or bat. I wonder why we need him or any manager then?

  4. The Dodgers have not performed well, but Mattingly continues to demonstrate that he is not a big league manager. In the recently-completed Atlanta series, he managed by the book and lost all three games late. The Dodgers likely will fare no better under their next manager this season, but it’s time for Donnie Baseball to go.

    • I have to agree with you on all points, but it’s going to be a sad day and difficult for the team to deal with. This year is pretty much a wash, but maybe next year we can get Dusty Baker. I’d really like to see that. I’d also like to consider replacing Ned Colletti. Some of his recent acquisitions have been perplexing to say the least.

      • If you like any of the Dodger’s pitchers you won’t want Dusty Baker destroying their arms. The only way the Dodgers are going to be better in the future is to get Colletti out of the GM spot. He kept 8 starters in favor of some quality bullpen arms, went into the season without a back up plan for when Cruz turned back into a pumpkin, for five years we have had the worst bench in the league, no platoon player for when Ethier again struggled against lefthanded pitching. This list could be a mile long if you’re not satisfied with these latest gaffes.

  5. Colletti is the architect of this roster, if Mattingly has to get the chop then so does Ned. His poor decisions are haunting the team, and they started long before Mattingly came on board. In a just and fair world he would share the blame, but sadly that won’t happen. And that is why nothing will change for the Dodgers until Colletti and his bad decision making are replaced.

  6. Uuuuuuuggggghhhh.
    For people who don’t live in L.A. and thus don’t know this fact, the Dodgers’ new slogan this year is “it’s a whole new blue.”
    Well, actually, it is… an even worse blue…. which is “new” in its own right– not the sort of new that the marketing guys expected when they created that slogan, though.
    And… god, HOW could it be worse this season? I know that they’ve had a god awful run of bad luck with the injuries. But Garfield has been more productive than Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. I think that a journalist reported a couple of days ago that they had only one extra base hit combined with runners in scoring position.
    To me, they’re the problem. Mattingly is a good man. He is an average strategist (way too many bunts in situations that didn’t call for them, much better than Torre at managing a bullpen, but still lacking at it). But I can’t imagine that he will survive this season. He deserved a better fate.

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  8. I’m a Dodgers season ticket-holder. I totally agree that Donnie isn’t the problem. Matt Kemp is coming back, and his defensive play has been outstanding.
    Except for Kershaw and Ryu, our pitching has sucked big time. And our usually reliable bullpen seems to have lost the ability to get guys out. (I’ve gotten so I don’t go to games if Josh Beckett is pitching, and I shudder when the bullpen gate swings open and Belisario comes trotting out. BTW, someone should tell Beckett he needs to change his number. The last pitcher who wore #61 is noted for giving up two grand slams in the same inning. To the same player.)

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