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It appears we’re supposed to take the Dodgers seriously as contenders, since
they lead the division in early August, have played excellent baseball since
the All-Star break, and are doing all this with $427 billion worth of
pitchers on the disabled list.

Watching their game last night, though, one thing nagged at me, a sign that
as good a job as Jim Tracy has done, he’s not prepared to take on the
difficult task of reducing the role of a popular, but unproductive, veteran.

Let me set up the situation for you. The Dodgers entered the bottom of the
seventh inning down 7-4 to the Reds. Gary Sheffield walked and
Shawn Green singled off of Scott Sullivan to bring the tying
run to the plate. Joe Hard…er, Paul LoDuca popped up on a
pitch above his head, bringing to the plate Eric Karros.

Karros is popular. He has the longest current tenure with the Dodgers, was
Rookie of the Year in 1992, is a good-looking guy, and is by all accounts a
quality human being. He’d make a good neighbor, or a fine date for your
daughter.

What he isn’t, at this point in his career, is an everyday first baseman.
Karros has never been a superstar, although his durability has enabled him
to pile up impressive numbers in his best seasons. His five 30-homer,
100-RBI years have contributed to the notion that he’s been an asset to the
Dodgers throughout his career. In fact, he’s been an above-average first
baseman three times, in 1995, 1998, and 1999, and at 33, appears to be on a
nasty downward slide. These are his translated lines from Baseball
Prospectus 2001
, along with his performance so far this year:


       AVG   OBP   SLG    EqA
1998: .303  .362  .489   .282
1999: .303  .354  .544   .288
2000: .252  .319  .456   .244
2001: .240  .309  .389   .249


This year is shaping up as his worst since 1993, when he hit .247/.287/.409.
He’s even worse against right-handers, a .238/.311/.366 performance.

So when this slow, below-average, right-handed hitter came to the plate last
night as the tying run against a tough, side-arming right-handed reliever, a
pinch-hitter appeared to be in order. The Dodgers have one of the best in
Dave Hansen, who set the record for pinch-hit homers in a season last
year, and has about a 900 OPS against righties since returning from Japan in
1999.

Let’s look at this in terms of matchups:


Karros vs. RHP:   .238/.311/.366
Sullivan vs. RHB: .240/.314/.413

Hansen vs. RHP: .253/.395/.363 Sullivan vs. LHB: .277/.327/.465


In case you’re wondering, the Reds had no left-handed pitchers available,
and in fact, had no one other than their closer, right-hander Danny
Graves
, even close to coming in. Sullivan was going to pitch the eighth
inning, so a counter to a pinch-hitter wasn’t a concern. This was the tying
run at the plate, the guy the Dodgers had to have get on base, probably the
most important batter of the game.

Tracy stayed with his popular veteran, and Karros promptly grounded into a
5-3 double play, ending the threat. The Dodgers didn’t get a ball out of the
infield in the ninth, and lost by that 7-4 score.

This was an opportunity for Tracy to put winning above the protection of a
veteran’s ego, and he didn’t do it. This wasn’t a typical situation, and
there was a lot to be gained by making the move. Hell, he could have even
presented the decision as being less about Karros and more about Sullivan,
who has been chewing up right-handed hitters for years.

The Dodgers have a real problem at first base, and it doesn’t appear that
they plan to address it. If they don’t, it’s going to be difficult for them
to hold off the Diamondbacks and Giants and reach the postseason for the
first time since 1996.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
clicking here.

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