Dodgers seem stuck on 'pretty good'

May, 7, 2014
5/07/14
3:55
PM PT
WASHINGTON -- It was quiet in the visiting dugout at Nationals Park on Wednesday morning and Don Mattingly was in a reflective mood. Someone asked him to sum up the rainy, bleary-eyed road trip his team was about to finish off a few miles from the Capitol dome.

Mattingly said he felt this trip has embodied a stop-and-start season thus far.

[+] EnlargeDan Haren
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesDan Haren, who gave up three runs in six innings Wednesday, said the Dodgers aren't playing to their potential right now.
"We're OK with it, but I don't think any of us feels that, if we don't start playing consistently better baseball that we're going to win a thing," Mattingly said.

A few hours later, after a one-hour, 40-minute rain delay and a sketchy start by Dan Haren, the Dodgers lost to the Washington Nationals 3-2 to finish off a trip to Minnesota, Miami and Washington where rain fell at every stop and the Dodgers won five games and lost four.

As Mattingly said, it was kind of reflective of this team's 2014: Nobody thinks they're playing near their potential, but they're sort of sticking around, bobbing just above .500.

"We're definitely not playing to our potential. We've got a lot left," Haren said. "I think we're just kind of treading water right now. We're a few games over .500 in a good division and haven't quite hit our stride yet."

The weather is the least of the Dodgers' concerns, primarily because they play their next seven games at Dodger Stadium. Pitching has been the team's only major strong point, but the state of the Dodgers' pitching could be in flux.

As big as Clayton Kershaw's return Tuesday was, Hyun-Jin Ryu remains on the disabled list and Haren didn't exactly look healthy Wednesday, particularly when the Nationals were hitting rockets off him in the first inning. He was elevating the ball early, always a sign of lower-back stiffness, and he barely got down the line on a ground ball to shortstop. He admitted after the game he was feeling a bit more soreness in his lower back than he normally does, and, at 33, he always feels something. He didn't look comfortable walking through the clubhouse after the game.

"I feel discomfort 24 hours a day, seven days a week pretty much, at this point of my career," Haren said. "Some days are worse than others."

Aside from some iffy health in the rotation, what's holding the Dodgers back from reaching their potential? The hitting has been slow to come and the bullpen is only intermittently reliable, but the nagging worry for Mattingly, general manager Ned Colletti and the entire coaching staff is whether this team fields at a high enough level to reach its goal.

The Dodgers didn't make a single error or boneheaded play in the field Wednesday, but that made it an anomaly.

The Dodgers entered Wednesday with the worst fielding percentage (.976) in the National League, just ahead of the Nationals.

Mattingly said he and bench coach Tim Wallach worry that the team's shoddy play in the field has forced Rick Honeycutt's pitching staff to throw an extra 10 to 15 pitches a game, a whole other wrinkle to why this team's issues in the field could become a team problem, not an isolated one.

It could, of course, become the problem. Since 2003, only two teams, the 2012 San Francisco Giants and 2004 Boston Red Sox, have won a World Series with a fielding percentage in the bottom 10 in the majors. Of course, fielding percentage is a crude measure of a team's ability to catch and throw. An unturned double play, which doesn't show up as an error, could be the costliest play in a game. A ball that falls harmlessly in the outfield for a hit because an outfielder got a terrible jump can be the final straw in a pitcher's outing.

Defensive runs saved (DRS) is based on observations of players' overall defensive value and rates them relative to the league average. It generally has become accepted as one of the better measures of a team's ability to turn batted balls into outs. The Dodgers don't rate horribly in DRS. They're 17th, or just a bit below average.

Since 2003, when the Fielding Bible came up with DRS, four teams have won a championship with a DRS in the bottom 10: The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, 2009 New York Yankees, 2004 Red Sox and 2003 Florida Marlins. Four championship teams finished in the top 10 and the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies were the best-fielding team in the league.

There is a correlation between fielding and winning it all, but it's not as strong as you might think.

The only thing holding this team back at the moment, it would seem, is a mild case of the blahs.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Clayton Kershaw
WINS ERA SO IP
21 1.77 239 198
OTHER LEADERS
BAY. Puig .296
HRA. Gonzalez 27
RBIA. Gonzalez 116
RY. Puig 92
OPSY. Puig .863
ERAC. Kershaw 1.77
SOC. Kershaw 239