The Insufficient Team the Geniuses Built – Why Ned Colletti Gets an Unfair Bad Rap

Ever since Ned Colletti first took over as General Manager of the Dodgers, he’s been subjected to varying degrees of ridicule. Dodger fans have acquired a reputation as a Starbucks-sipping bunch that show up in the third inning, leave in the seventh, and are more consumed with taking selfies with the field in the background than what’s actually happening on said field. While there’s an element of truth to that, more than three million fans a year keep the turnstiles at Dodger Stadium turning, and after not seeing a World Series appearance, let alone a win since 1988, they’ve become a demanding bunch. Especially in the social media era where every misstep can be instantly reported to the masses, each successive season without hardware has added fuel to the fire. As the supposed architect of the roster, Colletti has been the target of much vitriol and blame. Others have shared it, (see: Mattingly, Don) but there’s no arguing who has gotten lion’s share.

Why He Deserves (Some of) It: Let’s be honest. He wasn’t a very good GM. Yes, this article is intended to convey some sympathy for the man, but it’s also intended to be accurate. Jason Schmidt. Andruw Jones. Brandon League. Those are just a few of the players signed to laughably bad multi-year deals under Colletti’s stewardship. Moreover, conventional baseball wisdom is that it takes far more than just the 25 man roster to make it through a successful season – “It takes 40,” is a semi-popular refrain. Yet ever short-sighted, Colletti disproportionately focused on the front half of only the first 25. In a fantasy world where nobody ever gets hurt or worn down during the 162 game grind, that could potentially work. Reality, however, is a different story. People do get hurt, and when the next guy is a sub-replacement level player who is expected to step in for a serviceable major leaguer, the result is never going to be good. Then, there’s the man himself. He just comes off as a meat head. He may be smart, he may be dumb, but appearances are what matter where public opinion is concerned, and he does himself zero favors in this department.

The Book: It’s called The Best Team Money Can Buy, by Molly Knight. It’s a well-crafted book, and Knight is a fabulous story teller who knows her baseball, all the way from game play to the business side of it. But the picture it paints of Colletti is remarkably one-sided. And as people are prone to do when they read something from a source who has acquired some accolades along the way, they treat it as gospel. So thanks to the passage where Colletti allegedly cursed out a staff member for the perception that he was undercut in an attempt to acquire reliever Joaquin Benoit from the Padres, everyone who has read the book is quick to tell you what an a-hole Colletti is. They’ll also throw in that shortly after, Benoit reported shoulder pain and threw only a few innings the remainder of the way, conveniently leaving out that he recovered well and had an elite-by-any-standard 2015 season. I’m not going to accuse anyone of making anything up to sell a book. Colletti may very well have cursed at a staff member. But he also may not have. There are passages in the book that sound odd. For example, Andre Ethier was quoted as saying “That won’t help me in arbitration,” after unselfishly moving a runner from second to third with a grounder to the right side of the infield. Did he say that? Maybe. But hadn’t he already signed his six year, $85 million dollar contract at that point, rendering arbitration irrelevant? My point is, skepticism is healthy. While Knight could have had no way of knowing that Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi were going to take over when she started writing the book, the did join the Dodgers before the release date, so the opportunities to make last minute edits were still there. Again, it’s a good book and worth reading, but to just assume there isn’t a whiff of agenda anywhere in it is to be too trusting.

The Bloggers: Oh, the bloggers. Yes, there’s an element of the pot calling the kettle black here. That said, we bloggers are bloggers because we have opinions, Internet access, Twitter accounts, and a lucky few of us even have some loyal readers and followers. What many of us don’t have is an earthly clue of what we’re talking about. You can’t read one Fangraphs article and become an expert on sabermetrics any more than you can read one book on economics and rival Ben Bernanke. But that doesn’t stop us. Dodger bloggers in particular, and I’m not going to call anyone out by name here, but you know who you are, are particularly bad about this. Current analytics has one of catcher Yasmani Grandal’s strong suits being pitch framing. Suddenly, every pitch called a strike when Grandal is behind the plate is a result of genius framing. “Grandal is helping his pitcher out left and right!” one hopelessly overenthusiastic tweet from early in the season read. The pitcher? That was Clayton Kershaw, he of the three Cy Young awards in four years, the last two with AJ Ellis as his primary catcher, he of the hopelessly bad framing ability. Nobody is disputing that the ability to be a good pitch receiver has value, but it’s apparently much easier to hop on the bandwagon of a trendy metric and throw a bunch of gasoline on the fire than it is to ask questions about it, like for example, “do umpires compensate when a reputationally good framer is catching?” or “is a framed strike one weighted differently than a framed strike three?” or “how can Yadier Molina suddenly be an awful framer after being excellent just one season ago?” Again, not saying it isn’t valuable. Just saying it might be worth being a little more analytical when talking about analytics. 

Here’s what else the (we?) bloggers are responsible for. I was talking about the Dodgers and their roster with an acquaintance from the billiards league I play in shortly after they were eliminated by the Mets. Neither of us had consumed a drop of alcohol at this point, so it wasn’t your usual pool hall conversation. That said, the topic shifted to Colletti versus the “geniuses,” and suddenly the floodgates opened. According to this fellow (whom I like personally, and consider to be generally intelligent and insightful – we’ll call him Brandon because…well, that’s his name.), all of the Dodgers failures this year were a direct result of Colletti’s utter idiocy when compiling the Dodgers’ roster for the last 8 years. He correctly identified about a dozen moves made by Colletti that ranged from calamitously bad to mildly unfortunate, which was fine by me. But any time I brought up a recent move that worked out well for the Dodgers (Hyun Jin Ryu, the Adrian Gonzalez blockbuster, Zack Greinke, etc.), he said, “Those are all Stan Kasten!!! Colletti had nothing to do with those.” Whether that’s accurate or not (I don’t believe it is), you can’t assign blame when things go wrong but divert credit when they go right. If Kasten truly gets the credit for every personnel move that went right since he became team president, then he deserves the blame for not stopping Colletti from making the moves that went wrong. Plain and simple. So when I asked him why he felt this way, he told me to read a particular article by a particular blogger who I regard to be…well, an @$$hole. He’s not a complete moron, and does offer the occasional astute analysis, but he’s prone to the uninformed rant, and if questioned, makes it personal. Yet, in the Twitter era, this is where people get their information. 

The Successors: Ah yes, the “geniuses.” The twosome who were going to transform the Dodgers into a perennial powerhouse by forsaking traditional scouting methods in favor of spreadsheets and algorithms. That, believe it or not, is not me indicting them. If it works out, it looks great. If it doesn’t, however, it begs questions. Here’s the thing with Friedman and Zaidi, they’re a bit tough to read. They can come off as personable and even a little self-deprecating at times, embracing their geek labels with a good natured and affable charm. And then, in the next breath, they can come off as utterly smug and condescending, like you’re not worth an explanation because you wouldn’t understand their genius anyway. Well, let’s take a look at how the geniuses did. Here are the guys they got.

Howie Kendrick – Well, let’s start off with a win for them. Nobody can argue against the qualities of the dependable keystone, who turned in a nice campaign for the Dodgers, both on offense and defense. It is worth noting, however, it cost them Dee Gordon, who is many years younger, many dollars cheaper, and had a spectacularly good season for a bad Miami Marlins team. 

Brandon McCarthy – Wow. As brainless of an signing as there has been since the invention of free agency, this one went predictably south and fast. McCarthy has never lacked for talent, but for the first time in a decade-long professional career, he managed to stay healthy for a full season and parlayed it into a four year deal with the Dodgers. After just four starts, he was done for 12-18 months with Tommy John surgery. It can be argued that elbow injuries can’t be predicted, it can also be argued that the elbow injury merely preempted him from inevitably hurting something else as the season went on. This was a firable mistake. (no, they shouldn’t really be fired. Yet. They deserve more than one year to prove their acumen.)

Brett Anderson – Basically a left-handed version of McCarthy, this one was a win. Why? They only gave him one year, and he managed to stay mostly healthy. They needed him to pitch at a mid-rotation level and he did that, and arguably more before crapping the sheets in his lone post season start.

Jimmy Rollins – Veteran leadership, veteran schmeedership. No position player on the Dodgers was worse, and it can be reasonably argued that no position player across the National League was more hurtful to his team. He was woeful on offense despite double digit home runs, and abysmal on defense. He didn’t make a ton of errors, but anything hit farther than a foot to either side of him was practically a guaranteed hit. What makes this signing worse is that Rollins was already terrible last season for Philadelphia and 36 year olds in decline don’t often rebound.

Yasmani Grandal – The true conundrum, Grandal is a sabermetric darling. He has some pop, draws walks, and is an excellent pitch framer. But to watch him play paints a different picture. He’s lousy at containing the running game, can’t block pitches in the dirt, allows way too many passed balls, and that’s just defensively. Useful only as a platoon player (something Andre Ethier gets constantly lambasted for by detractors), Grandal is only useful offensively when hitting left-handed. And even then, he finished the season hitting a woeful .067 down the stretch. Yes, he’s young, and can improve, but he better. Because to get him, the Dodgers paid the Padres (!!!) to take Matt Kemp and his contract. Kemp may be a nuclear reactor leak defensively, but in an era where right handed power is precious, he still hit more than 20 home runs while playing in the spacious expanses of PetCo Park. 

Mike Bolsinger – I don’t care what anyone says, if signing McCarthy was a firable offense, this is the signing that gets them a reprieve. Without Bolsinger’s mid-season performances, this team doesn’t make the playoffs. He faded badly down the stretch, but he was nothing less than a season-savor for the Dodgers. And he cost them next to nothing. 

Mat Latos – The less said about this one, the better I think. I will admit that once all the top starters (Hamels, Cueto, Price, and company) had been moved, I thought Latos was a nice consolation prize. Wow, was I wrong. Even though his first appearance was statistically solid, it was clear he has little left in the tank. It speaks to the value of actually watching someone pitch before you trade for them. It’s worth noting that he didn’t cost them any prospects of note to acquire, but you can’t tout the virtues of “organizational depth” when getting a guy like Joe Weiland (in the Grandal trade) and then trade three minor league pitchers for one washed up big leaguer. 

Alex Wood – Marginally more successful than Latos, Wood offers intrigue. He’s young, left-handed, and a fierce competitor. He’s also already had one TJ surgery, has a funky delivery, and an alarming downward trend in fastball velocity the last two years. He had a couple of nice starts and also a couple of worrisome implosions, including in relief in game 3 of the NLDS. The jury is still out on this one, but it’s worth mentioning he cost Cuban third base prospect Hector Olivera.

Luis Avilan – Acquired in the same trade as Wood, he’s a solid left-handed middle relief / LOOGY. He doesn’t inspire confidence when subjected to the eye test, but it would be unfair not to note he was among the league leaders in scoreless appearances, and retired Curtis Granderson with runners on and the season on the line in the NLDS. 

Kike Hernandez – Hernandez justified his acquisition by inventing the rally banana alone. Even if he never got a hit. Which he did quite a bit of. He appeared overmatched in the playoffs, but Jacob DeGrom and company can do that to hitters. He has a bright future. 

Joel Peralta – An interesting acquisition, for sure. His bad appearances outweighed his good ones, and he cost the Dodgers Jose Dominguez, a young righty with a 100 mph fastball to get. Dominguez has been DFA’d by Tampa Bay, so it can be argued Peralta didn’t cost anything, but guys who throw 100 don’t grow on trees (unless the orchard belongs to the Mets) so it’s a curious move if nothing else. 

Chris Hatcher – From bullpen dumpster fire to late inning relief ace down the stretch, nobody improved as the season went on more than Hatcher. I’ll admit, I openly sobbed most times he entered a game for the first three months of the season, and then openly bitched whenever Mattingly went to Pedro Baez instead of Hatcher in a clutch situation down the stretch. I know I’m a hypocrite. I don’t even care, bro. Do you even lift?

The verdict? Well, the geniuses did enough to make their mark on the big league roster, didn’t they? But what kind of a mark was it? A gold seal, or a giant sh*t stain? Or somewhere in between. 

Well, you’d be hard pressed to find someone in that group who had the impact of a Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, or Kenley Jansen this year. Even erstwhile contributors like Andre Ethier, JP Howell and Scott Van Slyke had more of an impact than some of those guys. What do they all have in common? They joined the squad on Colletti’s watch. 

It’s human nature to want to point fingers when something goes wrong. Just remember, one finger is often not enough to do the pointing. 

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