Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What Is Making The 2016 Dodgers Tick?

Dodgers have...wait for it...
team chemistry!
They've only been at it for about two weeks, but I really like the way the Dodgers are playing ball this season. Led by rookie manager Dave Roberts, the Dodgers look and feel and act like a TEAM. Pardon me if I am excited by something that should be a given in this sport, but the Dodgers haven't played as a 25-man unit since the last time they won the World Series in 1988. What's changed and why? Here are the main reasons so far.

The New Puig
Puig is getting after it again.
As I mentioned in a Spring Training post, Yasiel Puig came to camp with a whole new outlook, thanks in part to Roberts wiping the slate clean, and also because he needs to prove himself this season. I also believe his command of English is much better and therefore he feels more a part of the crew. He shed 15 pounds and has that Bo Jackson-like speed back, running the bases like a bull and getting to every outfield ball. The difference is that he is playing with that fire again, but under control. He is hitting the cut-off guy, taking extra bases with a bit more care, and waiting for good pitches to hit. The result is just the kind of start the Dodgers needed him to have (.356 avg., .442 OBP, 9 runs scored, 5 RBIs) to spark the team like only he can.

Kiké raking against Bumgarner.
Ki-ké, Ki-ké, Ki-ké
His teammates loved him last year (remember the crazy rally banana costume?), and now the fans have a reason to cheer for this guy. Not only can Roberts slot him anywhere on the field (except for catcher), but he is absolutely killing left-handed pitching. I was at the game against the Giants last Friday when he ripped Madison Bumgarner for two homers and a double. Each time he came to the plate, you could actually feel that he was going to crush it. Bumgarner left the game with his tail between his legs--and just before Kiké could get another AB against him. Bum isn't know for backing down against anybody, but it was obvious that he wanted no part of a guy that clearly owns him. Kiké is 8 for 12 against lefties this season with 2 homers, 2 doubles, and 4 RBIs. And his energetic, team-first style is inspiring to everybody--players and fans alike. Nothing builds team chemistry like taking down your rival's ace, so you can't underestimate the effect of Hernandez's mastery of Bumgarner.

Joc Pederson & Corey Seager...Right On Target
Seager looking like a big-leaguer.
Neither one of these guys has come steaming out of the gate, but they are contributing and gradually finding their way, just like Roberts preached in Spring Training. He didn't want to place undo pressure on the young guys, and that philosophy is beginning to pay off. Pederson has been working with new hitting coach, Turner Ward, to reassemble his swing. It is still a work-in-progress, but he has managed to get some very big hits--including a game-winning home run off of the Giants' Jeff Samardzija on Sunday--while he is in the middle the process. Meanwhile, Seager has managed to play super solid defense at shortstop while hitting .265 with 4 doubles, 1 home run, and 6 RBIs, primarily from the 2-hole, but also batting 6th. His at-bats are hardly ever wasted. The guy just knows how to play baseball, so much so that many veterans on the team have voiced Hall-of-Fame potential. Wow.

Zack who? Maeda is making his case.
Kenta Maeda...Way Better Than Advertised
Maeda is making Dodger management look brilliant. Everybody, and I mean everybody, ripped Andrew Friedman for not signing Zack Greinke to a new contract after the kick-ass season he had last year. Instead, he signs Maeda to a largely incentive-based deal, and this guy is pitching lights-out. Three starts, two wins, only 1 run allowed, 15 strikeouts. Greinke? Not so much. Three starts, 0 wins, 2 losses, 6.75 ERA. Combine Maeda with the always-dominating Clayton Kershaw (2-0, 1.64 ERA, 20 K's), the totally out-of-nowhere great showing of rookie 5th starter, Ross Stripling (a near no-hitter in his debut against the Giants), the continually improving Alex Wood, and you've got a solid rotation. I can't add Scott Kazmir into mix just yet as the jury is still out on what he will bring to the table. Let's just say that I am not impressed with what I see so far, but I am trying to keep an open mind; plus, there are plenty of reinforcements in the Dodger farm system to fill in the gaps as the season progresses. Overall, the rotation is getting the job done and giving the team a chance to win most every night.

Roberts fighting hard for his team
from every angle.
Dave Roberts Trusts His Bullpen
Aside from closer Kenley Jansen, last season the Dodger bullpen was a hot mess. And we got right back on the rollercoaster when the Dodgers entered their second series of this season. The 'pen dominated the Padres in the opening three games, then faltered mightily against the Giants with Chris Hatcher destroying Stripling's no-no by allowing a huge home run to a back-up rookie catcher; Pedro Baez gave up a grand slam to Hunter Pence later in the series, and so on, and so forth. But you have to give Roberts credit. He didn't lose confidence in his relievers, and stuck with them through some more scary moments. His patience shouldn't be overlooked, as Hatcher, Baez, Yimi Garcia, etc. all bounced back in the follow-up Giants series in L.A. People were calling for their collective heads, but Roberts held strong when a rookie manager could have caved. He's showing patience with the pitching staff and the team as a whole, allowing the guys to gel and build the chemistry that has eluded them for so many years and that could finally push them over the top.

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