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A Dubious Dodger Tradition
The defensive brilliance and unexpected success of the 1989 Orioles started a trend. A number of teams began emphasizing defense more than ever. Last winter, for example, the Braves signed shortstop Rafael Belliard, first baseman Sid Bream and third baseman Terry Pendleton, three free agents who were brought in more for defense than for offense. Atlanta has gone from being a rotten fielding team to a pretty good one, and it shows in the standings. At week's end, the Braves trailed the Dodgers by half a game in the National League West.
The Dodgers, however, are winning with quite a different formula. Says one National League West manager, "They have the worst defense I've seen; no one else is close." (He obviously hasn't seen the Mets lately.) Los Angeles was in first place despite having committed the most errors (38) and having allowed the second-most unearned runs (20, three fewer than the Mets) in the majors.
"Right now, we're poor defensively," says L.A. centerfielder Brett Butler. "Defense has cost us three or four games. We have to go from poor to adequate—consistently adequate."
Since the days of Branch Rickey, the Dodgers have viewed defense differently than have most other teams. Rickey's philosophy, simply stated, was: Give your best athletes a position; they will learn to play it. Perhaps the greatest example of Rickey's credo was the Dodger infield of the '70s. Second baseman Davey Lopes and shortstop Bill Russell came up as outfielders. First baseman Steve Garvey was originally a third baseman. The only member who played his natural position was third baseman Ron Cey.
The Dodgers won four pennants and a world championship in 10 seasons with that infield. In 1983 L.A. had the worst fielding percentage in the league but won the division. The '88 Dodgers had a below-average defense but won the World Series. "Tommy [Lasorda] has always been an offensive-oriented manager, even in the minors," says Lopes. "I've seen him win without great defense."
Lasorda says that he has always emphasized run production over defense because he was a pitcher. He explains that a good offensive team will put runners on base, distracting the pitcher and giving the hitter an advantage. With runners on, he adds, a pitcher must throw more fast-balls, another advantage to the hitter.
Another reason that Los Angeles has not stressed defense is its ballpark. The outfield in Dodger Stadium is smaller than any other in the league, which means outfielders have less space to cover. In a larger stadium, it's safe to say that the Dodgers' defense would have hurt them a lot more than it has.
None of this is to say that defense is insignificant. Keep in mind that the Dodgers won without good defense because they usually had terrific pitching, often centered on fastballers who struck out a lot of hitters. However, L.A. does not have standout pitching this year. With Kevin Gross, Mike Morgan and Bobby Ojeda in the rotation and no dominating reliever, this is not a power staff. Consequently, lots of balls are put in play, affording the fielders lots of chances to foul up. So far, the defense has only hurt the Dodgers. It may yet bury them.
Stuck in the Middle