Benching the Manager – A Don Mattingly Story

What does a manager do when one of his players is mired in a slump, having fallen prone to poor habits? Well, bench him for a game or three, of course. Give him time to figure it out. What does a manager do when one of his players violates a team curfew, or shows up on game day hung over, or otherwise participates in conduct detrimental to the team? Well, suspend him, of course. You can apply this to just about any sport. A player screws up or suddenly can’t get it right, well, get him out of there for a bit. You don’t just cut the guy outright. Give him a chance to sort it out.

Why does it have to be all or nothing with a manager? Why can’t a GM step in when his manager goes on a streak of poor decision making that starts costing his team games? Why can’t the GM simply sit the manager out for a few games, turning the reigns over to a bench coach for a few games, rather than firing him, or continuing to watch him botch big decision after big decision?

Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly is a prime example of a manager who needs to be benched. Fired? Not yet. He has some great managerial qualities. He knows how to talk to his players, keep them focused, bring the best out of most of them. He has the gravitas to his words that really only a former player (and all-star at that) can have with his current players. Sure, he also has his flaws. He refuses to call out umpires despite an alarming slew of close calls (and some that were not so close, right Mr. Welke?) going incorrectly against the Dodgers. I firmly believe that a manager needs to be willing to run out there and bump an umpire, go on an expletive-laced tirade in a post-game press conference, rip a base out of the ground and wing it into the outfield. Draw some attention to the fact that, either intentionally or otherwise, the umpires are screwing your team repeatedly. Now, that being said, this is not what this article is about.

Mattingly has shown alarmingly bad decision making this season. This fact has been somewhat obscured by the fact that the team is 8 games over .500 at the time of this article and in first place, but make no mistake. It’s in spite of Mattingly. If not for the Cy Young caliber of pitching being delivered by Ted Lilly and Chris Capuano (guys who were merely expected to eat innings and keep the team in games) and the superhuman offensive exploits of Matt Kemp, this team could easily be 8 games below .500. There is no finer example of Mattingly’s ineptitude than last night’s game against the Giants.

Twice, trailing by one run, Mattingly asked his hitter to bunt in a situation where the Dodgers had first and second, and nobody out. What’s wrong with this, you ask? Well, unless your hitter is your pitcher, or you have the opportunity to move the winning run to third with less than two outs in bottom of any game-winning inning (ninth or later), bunting is simply idiotic and counter-productive. Even when successful. Empirical data proves it, if you even need empirical data to prove that essentially gift-wrapping and giving your opponent a free out when you only get three per inning is moronic. Very few things are worse. And Mattingly managed to pull off two of them within a couple innings of one another.

First, he asked Juan Uribe to sacrifice runners over in the 6th. Granted, Uribe was a collosal disaster last year, but actually has shown signs of swinging the bat better this season. They brought him in to produce. Drive in runs in the clutch. Hit for power. And then, in the exact situation that you paid him $21 million over three years to perform in, you ask him to make an automatic out. It’s inexplicable. Even in the best case scenario, (Uribe gets the bunt down successfully and both runners advance) you have your 8th place hitter up (the very capable AJ Ellis), who would then just be intentionally walked to bring up the pitcher Clayton Kershaw. Sure, you could pinch hit for him… but then your best pitcher is now out of the game and there’s no guarantee you even push the tying run across. Especially with the abomination of players that comprise the Dodger bench (the excellent but injured Jerry Hairston notwithstanding). Invariably, it’s a disaster. Uribe bunts into a double play (though the first base ump cheated missed the call horribly on the back end).

As if that wasn’t enough, the Dodgers had the exact situation in the 8th inning, only this time it was Mark Ellis up. On deck, the inhuman Matt Kemp. The WORST thing you can possibly do is have Ellis bunt, right? Even if he does it perfectly, you are guaranteeing that the best hitter in the universe whose name doesn’t contain either Josh or Hamilton in it doesn’t get to swing the bat. Moreover, you KNOW that the Giants have Javier Lopez in the pen, who hasn’t given up anything to a left handed hitter since Truman was president, to face Ethier. How did not a single member of the Dodger coaching staff intervene. Nothing, I repeat, nothing could possibly have been worse than asking Ellis to bunt. So you had to know that the bunt would be EXACTLY what Mattingly ordered Ellis to do. I doubt you need to be told, but I will tell you anyway. Ellis bunted well, moved the runners up. The Giants walked Kemp intentionally, brought in Lopez to face Ethier, who promptly hit into an inning-ending double play. I have witnesses who both saw and heard me predict exactly this.

If I repeatedly made mistakes of this magnitude at my day job, I would be summarily fired. Quickly. Mistakes are one thing. But seriously, if a manager was throwing a game because he bet against his own team, he WOULDN’T bunt in those situations because he would probably think it would make his self-sabotage too OBVIOUS!!!  I might have a stroke…

Again, I don’t want Mattingly fired. I think he has the potential to do good things as a manager. But if Mike Scioscia can sit down Albert Pujols after the slugger has a homerless April and a batting average near the Mendoza line, if Mattingly himself can sit down James Loney for hitting less than two bucks, Ned Colletti has to be able to step in and remove Mattingly as manager for a few games. He must have this ability, this freedom, this emergency brake to pull. These are the kinds of things than can start lengthy losing streaks if not kept in check. The Dodgers really have an opportunity to build on their good start. Their division is weak. Their pitching is strong. They just have to figure out a way to avoid getting caught in the crossfire of the circular firing squad that is their manager right now.  

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