The Los Angeles Dodgers are conducting another one of their chemistry experiments. Here we go again. If this one's anything like the last one, when they traded clubhouse leader Paul Lo Duca last year, it's going to convince you that team chemistry matters -- provided you already believed that.
The Dodgers are a lousy team that's hanging around the race for the National League West because the division is so bad top to bottom that lousy might be good enough to win it. Last week outfielder Milton Bradley and second baseman Jeff Kent had words in the clubhouse and then sniped at each other in the press.
This is all proof that Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta, a stats guy who used to assist Billy Beane in Oakland, doesn't understand anything about team chemistry, and erred when he ignored it as he constructed the roster. You can't build a team by looking at numbers on a computer, this argument goes. Chemistry matters.
Owner Frank McCourt said as much last week, giving DePodesta a public dressing down in the Los Angeles Times. Similar thoughts were expressed by team president Tommy Lasorda, who's all about chemistry.
This all led to the question "If chemistry's so important, why are you airing your criticisms of your own G.M. in the media?" -- but only if you don't believe team chemistry means much.
The current dust-up began Aug. 20 in Miami, when Kent hit a game-tying double against the Florida Marlins that he thought should have been a go-ahead double, but Bradley, who'd been on first base, stopped at third. Kent yelled at Bradley after the game, which the Dodgers won, accusing him of not hustling.
Bradley, who's nursing a sore knee, which might explain his not running full speed, immediately requested and got a closed-door meeting with manager Jim Tracy, and then three days later, back home in Los Angeles, told reporters that Kent is a good player but a lousy clubhouse guy. He said, "The problem is, I think he doesn't know how to deal with African-Americans," among other things. Kent shot back that Bradley's accusations were "pathetic."
For this discussion, we'll ignore the substance of these charges and denials. It doesn't really matter to us if Kent really can't deal with African-Americans. It just matters that these two clubhouse problems, Bradley the hothead and Kent the sullen loner, are bickering.
The Sporting News' excellent baseball writer Ken Rosenthal represented the chemistry argument over the weekend, calling this season "the Dodgers' failed chemistry experiment" and writing that "the Dodgers are a perfect example of a club that places too little emphasis on the emotional makeup of their roster."
As evidence, Rosenthal cited DePodesta's deal for the "volatile" Bradley last year and his trade of "clubhouse fixture" Lo Duca at the July 31 trading deadline. All the Dodgers did following these disastrous moves was finish 93-69 and win the Western Division.
DePodesta made more mistakes this offseason, the chemistry argument claims, signing Derek Lowe, J.D. Drew and Kent. Lowe and Drew are both seen as something less than gritty warriors who always give their best, and Drew is injury-prone to boot. Kent is, as noted, sullen and brusque.
It's been kind of fascinating to watch Kent's reputation fall over the last few years. He once was thought of as a tough, no-nonsense, throwback ballplayer who went about things the right way, didn't cause trouble, shunned the spotlight and after the season went back to his ranch in Texas and rode tractors around.
It helped that he played with Barry Bonds. Anyone can look charming standing next to Bonds, even an antisocial kid from the Los Angeles exurbs who gets rich, buys a ranch and affects a Texas twang when it suits him.
But since a preseason 2002 incident in which Kent denied reports that he'd broken his wrist riding a motorcycle, saying he'd actually gotten hurt washing his truck, he's increasingly been seen as a problem, to the point where in the coverage of this latest mess it's offered up as a given that Kent is a clubhouse issue.
By the way, just so I don't come across as a DePodesta apologist, I want to say I thought the Lowe and Drew signings were bad ones, not because of chemistry but because I thought Lowe was a mediocre pitcher and Drew too injury prone, which is to say, too soft to gut it out and play hurt.
I don't know if avoiding injury is a skill. I just had the feeling it was a bad bet that Drew would play a whole season, something he's only done once. Call it superstition. Turns out I was right, but by accident. Drew broke his wrist when he was hit by a pitch. Hard to accuse him of not gritting it out after that.
I thought signing Kent was a decent idea -- this chemistry problem had somehow managed to play for five playoff teams including a pennant winner in the previous nine years, and he was still hitting -- and also that trying to outbid Seattle for Adrian Beltre would have been dumb.
So on the day Bradley stopped at third, the Dodgers were 11 games under .500, in third place, five games behind the sub-.500 San Diego Padres. Poor team chemistry might have explained this, but a better theory involves a brutal run of injuries that hit the team early and never stopped.
Bradley, Odalis Perez, Wilson Alvarez, Jason Werth and Cesar Izturis have all made multiple trips to the disabled list. Brad Penny missed most of April. Jose Valentin missed the first half with a bad knee, never really recovered and is talking retirement. Drew was lost for the year July 3. And Eric Gagne, one of the best relievers in baseball, is out for the season after appearing in 14 games.
Want to see how far this chemistry argument can stretch? Here's Rosenthal again: "To be fair, the Dodgers miss injured closer Eric Gagne," he wrote. Well, OK. That's more like it. Oh, wait, here's the rest of it: "who had emerged as a leader. On days when Gagne sensed that Bradley was on the verge of a blowup, Gagne would talk to him and try to calm him down."
So that's what Gagne's good for! It wouldn't have anything to do with those 114 strikeouts in 82 and a third innings, the 5.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the 2.70 earned-run average, the 45 saves in 47 chances or the opponents' OPS of .508. The Dodgers won last year because Gagne's so good at talking Milton Bradley off the ledge.
Please ignore the fact that Bradley was a far bigger behavioral problem last year than he's been this year. Thank you.
So here's the data from the latest experiment:
After Bradley and Kent argued in the clubhouse Aug. 20, the Dodgers lost the next two games to the Florida Marlins, because chemistry matters. And not because Jason Vargas pitched a beautiful ballgame on the 21st and the Marlins' bullpen threw four innings of one-hit shutout relief to pick up Dontrelle Willis on the 22nd.
A day later, Bradley ripped Kent to the media before the game against the Colorado Rockies. The Dodgers won that game 8-3 because chemistry doesn't matter.
Then, as the Bradley-Kent feud blew up in the media Wednesday and Thursday, the Dodgers lost the next two to the Rockies because chemistry matters. On Friday, Bill Plaschke published the column in the L.A. Times in which McCourt and Lasorda blasted DePodesta for ignoring chemistry. The Dodgers responded by losing to the Houston Astros because -- well, you know -- and not because Andy Pettitte outdueled the problematic Lowe 2-1.
Since then, with storm clouds all over their clubhouse, the Dodgers have reeled off three straight wins, two over the Astros and one at the Chicago Cubs. The clear implications is that chemistry ... uh ...
What was I saying?
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