Dodgers Better Walk Before They Run
What would be so bad if the new general manager of the Dodgers took a page from “Moneyball”?
What would be wrong if Paul DePodesta, the former assistant GM of the Oakland Athletics, implemented a philosophy from rookie level up that borrowed from the A’s offensive emphasis on patience, selectivity and mental approach, the key components of on-base percentage?
After all, did Dodger hitters light up the scoreboard last year?
Isn’t there ample evidence now that the Dodgers have misplaced their own bestseller, Al Campanis’ primer on “The Dodger Way to Play Baseball,” and need a new blueprint?
“A philosophy is important so that everyone is on the same page and there’s a consistency of message,” DePodesta says. “It’s important not only in terms of hitting and pitching, but in terms of building a team.
“At the same time, it doesn’t work if I come in and try to impose a philosophy. It’s a creative process that I’ve been working on in discussions with the staff [he inherited], and I think it’s going to take shape over months. I don’t expect to leave spring training with a book defining the Dodger philosophy, but I’m finding we have a lot more similarities than differences.”
In “Moneyball,” the behind-the-scenes look at the success of the small-market A’s, DePodesta, 31, is largely portrayed as a Harvard-educated computer specialist with an on-base obsession.
Familiarization has convinced the Dodgers that there is more to baseball’s second-youngest GM than the book’s profile, but that’s not to suggest that DePodesta doesn’t consider statistics important, especially on-base percentage.
He is an admitted admirer of stat guru Bill James and a devotee of STATS Inc., among other inside-the-numbers services.
“I certainly think statistics are an important part of the overall equation,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d answer if you asked me to rank statistics, scouting reports and contract status in order of importance [in evaluating a player].
“I think they’re all critical to making good decisions, but I still think baseball is more art than science. As I said [at his introductory news conference], the game isn’t played with computers and statistics. There’s a human element that statistics don’t always describe totally.”
The humans forming the Dodger lineup last year failed miserably on offense.
The Dodgers were last in the major leagues in runs and next to last in on-base percentage at .303. The Boston Red Sox led the majors in runs and on-base percentage at .360, and had scored more runs by the All-Star break than the Dodgers did all season.
“It isn’t perfectly linear,” DePodesta said, “but if I had to choose one statistic out of the traditional grouping of statistics, then the one that has the greatest correlation to runs is on-base percentage.
“It’s a basic tenet of good offensive clubs, but I’m not being all that revolutionary. Branch Rickey wrote about the importance of on-base percentage 50 or 60 years ago, and in recent times it’s something the Yankees have done better than anyone.”
The A’s haven’t done badly with it either, making the playoffs four straight years. Among the ways they stress the concept is by giving player-of-the-month awards throughout their minor league system, but only if the player has reached a prescribed ratio of walks to at-bats.
“As we shape our philosophy,” DePodesta said, “I like the idea of incentives, and I would think we’ll probably incorporate something along that line.
“The objective is not walks. It’s all about patience and discipline, waiting for a good pitch and doing damage with it. In a nutshell, it’s what Barry Bonds does better than anyone in the game.”
The philosophy, of course, will be aimed at molding future Dodgers.
Manager Jim Tracy preached that concept last year, but nobody was home to hear it.
Adrian Beltre, Alex Cora and Cesar Izturis all had disgraceful on-base percentages of .290 or below, and it’s unlikely DePodesta would have traded for Juan Encarnacion, who had an on-base percentage of .313.
Tracy, of course, has no alternative but to believe his lineup can improve. The ability is there, he said, but the mental approach hasn’t been.
“I’m not saying I want them to walk every time up there, but if the guy is not going to throw the ball across the plate, don’t make his job easier by getting yourself out,” Tracy said. “We made too many first-pitch outs on bad pitches. We need to demonstrate a better grasp of what it takes to be a good hitter.”
Tim Wallach, the club’s new hitting coach, doesn’t need DePodesta to define the concept.
“It all comes down to preparedness, knowing what’s expected at the plate, and that’s my focus already,” Wallach said.
“I’d love to lead the league in runners left on base because it would mean we had scored a lot of runs in the process.”
One thing is certain: The factors contributing to a high on-base percentage will form the foundation of the evolving philosophy.
In the meantime, said Tracy, the club’s new GM shouldn’t be pigeonholed by the “Moneyball” image of an administrator who tended to look only at on-base percentage and generally put more weight on technology’s tools in the evaluation of players than reports of scouts who supplied first-hand accounts.
“To me, he has a real understanding of the entire concept as it applies to player evaluation,” Tracy said. “He is very astute at understanding the fits and flexibility from a roster standpoint.”
For DePodesta, however, this new chapter is still basically an introduction.