June 6, 2007
Rebirth for a Boston Heavy
Nearly four years have passed, but the cloud still hangs over the man. Grady Little will forever go down in infamy not only with Red Sox fans but sabermetricians everywhere as the manager who blew the 2003 American League Championship Series to the archrival New York Yankees.
It was Little who went by instinct rather than data when he stayed with Pedro Martinez too long in Game Seven of the ALCS, not paying heed to the data that suggested the lithe right-hander lost his effectiveness when he reached the 100-pitch limit. Everyone knows the story went from there-Martinez gave up three runs in the bottom of the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium, turning a 5-2 Red Sox lead into a 5-5 tie, and the Yankees eventually won the pennant on Aaron Boone's home run to lead off the 11th.
However, Nomar Garciaparra says it is time to cut Little a break. "Take a look at his record as a major league manager," said Garciaparra, the shortstop on that Sox team. "Grady has won a lot of games in the major leagues. Bad managers don't win as many games as he has."
Indeed, Little won plenty of games in two seasons in Boston, and after a one-year exile as a Chicago Cubs' scout, he has continued to pile up victories in his two seasons as the Los Angeles Dodgers' manager. Little went 188-136 in Boston, and has gone 122-98 since replacing Jim Tracy in Los Angeles prior to the last season. The Dodgers tied San Diego for the National League West title last season and are 34-24 this season, in third place but just a half-game behind the Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks. Add it together and Little's record is 310-233 for a nifty .570 winning percentage.
Yet, Little isn't one to talk much about himself. He won't gloat about gaining redemption with the Dodgers, nor will he criticize the Red Sox for firing him days after the ALCS loss. "That doesn't enter into my thinking at all," Little said. "I know I did the best I could up there in that position. They decided to go in a different direction and that didn't involve Grady Little."
The year after Little was fired, Terry Francona reversed the curse by guiding the Red Sox to their first World Series title since 1918. The Dodgers' title drought hasn't been nearly as dramatic, but it is now been nearly two decades since they made their improbable run through the 1988 postseason by upsetting a pair of heavy favorites, the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series and the Oakland Athletics in the World Series.
For 32 seasons, the Dodgers had only two managers, first Walter Alston, and then Tommy Lasorda. However, since Lasorda resigned during the 1996 season, the Dodgers had gone through four managers-Bill Russell, Glenn Hoffman, Davey Johnson, and Jim Tracy-in the nine seasons before Little arrived.
Little has been a steadying hand for a franchise that seemed in disarray less than two years ago when the Dodgers finished a dismal 71-91 in 2005. General Manager Paul DePodesta and Tracy had clashed throughout that season. DePodesta was one of the central figures of "Moneyball" as he had served as the top assistant to Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane before leaving for Los Angeles. Tracy, on the other hand, is more of an old-school manager, who understands the basics of sabermetrics but runs his team based more on feel. Tracy exercised an out clause in his contract to become the Pittsburgh Pirates' manager a few days after the 2005 season ended. DePodesta was fired a month later by Dodgers owner Frank McCourt after trying to promote player development director Terry Collins to manager. San Francisco assistant GM Ned Colletti replaced DePodesta then hired Little, though the two had never met until the first interview.
To the surprise of his detractors in Boston, Little has proven to be the right choice, even if he doesn't want to take credit for the Dodgers' success. "The thing is that we have a good team," Little said. "We're really solid in every area and have a bunch of guys who fit well together. Ned Colletti has done a good job of building a winning team, and we have a good farm system backing it up."
However, Little's players say he is being modest by discounting his role. While Little may not talk VORP or SNLVAR, his strength is an innate feel for handling players. "He's a great manager," said Garciaparra, who joined his hometown Dodgers prior to the start of last season and made the transition from shortstop to first baseman. "What makes him great is how he handles people. He has a lot of respect for all the players. He understands how difficult this game is to play, and he also understands the strengths and weaknesses of his players. He sets a very good tone in the clubhouse. He keeps things nice and relaxed, and that's the attitude you need to be successful. Teams that are uptight usually don't perform well."
That is not to say that Little is a softy. Right-hander Jason Schmidt signed a three-year, $47-million contract with the Dodgers this past winter after six seasons with the San Francisco Giants in part because Little was the manager-Schmidt had played for Little while coming up through the Atlanta Braves' farm system. "He tells it like it is, and I think every player, deep down, appreciates that," Schmidt said. "He'll tell you when you've done good things, but he'll also lay it on the line when things are bad. Maybe you don't want to hear the bad, and you'll go in the corner and cry about it for a day, but you also realize and appreciate that you're being dealt with honestly. And the record shows he's a winner."
Little figures to have the Dodgers in the thick of the NL West race all season as the division race is shaping up as a three-team scramble among Los Angeles, Arizona, and San Diego. "I think all three of us have very good teams, and the thing about all three organizations is that we're always trying to get better," Little said. "I'm sure all three of us will do everything in our power to win and that should make things interesting."
The Dodgers would bolster their chances by adding another big bat to their lineup as they rank ninth in the 16-team NL with a .255 Equivalent Average. Catcher Russell Martin is the only Dodger hitter among the top 40 in the NL in VORP, ranking tenth at 23.4. He's hitting .314/.388/.505 in 224 plate appearances, and he appears headed to his first All-Star Game in just his second major-league season. "We haven't hit the way we thought we would when we left spring training but there is a lot of talent in our lineup," Martin said. "We will hit, though, I'm confident of that. Fortunately, the pitching staff has really done a great job and compensated for us not scoring a lot of runs."
As a unit, the Dodgers' rotatioin ranks sixth in the NL with a 6.5 SNLVAR. Right-hander Brad Penny has been the ace, as he ranks second in the NL with a 3.0 SNLVAR to go with a 7-1 record and a 2.37 ERA in 76 innings. Penny has been complemented by Derek Lowe and left-hander Randy Wolf. Lowe has a 1.6 SNLVAR, and is 6-5 with a 3.44 ERA in 86 1/3 innings, while Wolf's SNLVAR is 1.5 and his record is 7-3 with a 3.68 ERA in 71 innings. Schmidt allowed one hit in six scoreless innings at San Diego on Tuesday night after spending 51 days on the Disabled List with shoulder bursitis.
However, the backbone of the Dodgers so far this season is an outstanding bullpen, which is second in the NL behind San Diego in WRXL with a 6.489 mark and has five members ranking among the top 50 in the NL in that category:
Name Rank WRXL ERA IP Takashi Saito 1 2.888 1.50 24.0 Jonathan Broxton 9 1.706 3.00 30.0 Joe Beimel 22 1.095 3.51 25.2 Chin-Hui Tsao 37 0.617 3.00 18.0 Chad Billingsley 47 0.471 3.56 30.1
"They just keep bringing guys out of their bullpen who throw 96-97 mph," Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "It seems like every guy they bring in could be a closer. The Dodgers have a good team, but that bullpen really sets them apart. You better get a lead on them early or you're going to be in trouble."