Monday, October 7, 2013

Comparing the 1988 Dodgers to the 2013 Dodgers

-- by @Josh_Suchon

Anytime the Dodgers reach the playoffs, it's natural to compare that team to the last Dodgers team to win the World Series. 

Since this is the 25th anniversary of the 1988 team, and I wrote a book about that season, I've been getting a lot of questions about those natural comparisons. 

The short response is those teams are totally different. The 2013 team was built on star power at every position and the highest payroll in baseball. The 1988 team rode the arm of ace Orel Hershiser, the fire and clutch hits of Kirk Gibson, and a cast of role players to hoist the championship trophy into the air.

However, a closer examination reveals there are some parallels. 

Building the rosters

In 1988, general manager Fred Claire utilized free agency for the first time in a decade. Claire wasn't able to lure reliever Dave Righetti or third baseman Gary Gaetti to Los Angeles. However, Claire did sign outfielder Mike Davis, pitcher Don Sutton, veteran catcher Rick Dempsey, and most importantly, swooped in to sign Kirk Gibson after an arbitrator ruled him a free agent based on collusion by owners. 

Davis and Sutton were busts. Dempsey helped as a backup to Mike Scioscia. It was Gibson, of course, who lit the fire from the first game of spring training (the famous Eye Black story) and hit the most dramatic home run in World Series history in Game 1.

It was trades that Claire made that were the real difference. Claire obtained shortstop Alfredo Griffin to stabilize the infield, closer Jay Howell and lefty reliever Jesse Orosco as part of a three-team trade with the Mets and Athletics. Separate trades a year earlier netted center fielder John Shelby from the Orioles (for Tom Niedenfuer) and starting pitcher Tim Belcher from the A's (for Rick Honeycutt). A still-controversial mid-August trade that sent Pedro Guerrero to the Cardinals for John Tudor landed another arm, albeit an arm that was hanging by a thread and would have minimal impact in October.

For the 2013 team, signing starting pitchers Zack Greinke  made a huge impact on the starting rotation. The international signings of free agents Hyun-jin Ryu and outfielder Yasiel Puig were very significant.

However, it was trades that current general manager Ned Colletti made that were the heart of the roster -- obtaining shortstop Hanley Ramirez from the Marlins, plus the blockbuster deal with the Red Sox that landed first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, left fielder Carl Crawford and pitcher Josh Beckett. Then this year, the early-July trade that netted starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco stabilized this year's starting rotation. 

Invigorating the fan base

Not much was expected from the 1988 team. They were predicted to finish third or fourth by most magazines.

The Dodgers went 73-89 in the two previous teams. Attendance was down. The Lakers had become the biggest team in town. The minors were no longer producing everyday players. Tommy Lasorda was in the final year of his contract as manager.

General manager Fred Claire was given no long-term assurances by owner Peter O'Malley after his sudden promotion following the firing of Al Campanis for his insensitive racists remarks on Nightline a year before.

The success of the 1988 team, not to mention the dramatic way they won so many games in the regular season and playoffs, inspired the City of Angels to fall back in love with the Dodgers. It cemented the Hall of Fame legacy of Lasorda and he remained the manager until health problems forced him to retire in 1996. 

The 2013 team was rebuilt after the divorce of former owners Frank and Jamie McCourt, then the subsequent bankruptcy, caused shame on the franchise and the fan base staged an unofficial boycott. The new ownership group, Guggenheim Partners, were re-building the brand by spending large sums of money on players and improving the stadium.

In both cases, the team was near rock-bottom and desperately needed new ideas, new players, and spending money to energize the franchise. 

Overcoming injuries

The reason the Mickey Hatcher-led "Stuntmen" had such an impact on the 1988 team was the injuries that forced them into the lineup. 

Fernando Valenzuela, the ace and icon of the team throughout the decade, missed the last two months of the season and the playoffs. Guerrero missed large chunks of the season with a neck injury before his trade. Griffin's broken hand forced Dave Anderson into the lineup at shortstop. Gibson's multiple injuries in September and October put Hatcher in the lineup. When Sutton was released in late July, it prompted the promotion of star pitching prospect Ramon Martinez. 

Likewise, the 2013 team was so ravaged by injuries, it nearly led to manager Don Mattingly getting fired in June. But those injuries also created opportunities. Most notably, Matt Kemp's injuries prompted the Dodgers to promote Puig from double-A to ignite the team and fans.

The role-players from 2013 -- such as Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker and Scott Van Slyke -- don't get much publicity. They don't have a cool nickname like Stuntmen. Their underrated efforts are similar to what Anderson, Franklin Stubbs and Jeff Hamilton did in 1988.

Riding the horse

The Dodgers decision to start Clayton Kershaw on three-days rest, even with a 2-1 lead in the best-of-5 series, surprised a number of people. The history of pitchers starting on three-days rest over the past decade isn't very successful.

Back in 1988, it was a given that Hershiser would start on three-days rest. Hershiser did it four times in the regular season. All of his postseason starts, except the first, were on three-days rest. Hershiser even pitched in relief on zero-days rest to get the save in Game 4 of the NLCS.

If the Dodgers ride the arm of Kershaw to win the World Series, pitching him whenever possible and often on short rest, that will be the biggest similarity between the two teams.

However, don't forget the long-term impact that 1988 had on Hershiser. He threw a ton of innings that year, a ton more in 1989, then underwent massive reconstructive surgery early in 1990.

1 comment: