Four months ago, many baseball commentators were ready to leave the Los Angeles Dodgers for dead. Paul DePodesta had just wrapped up a calendar year in which he traded away the team’s setup ace and their heart-and-soul catcher for an injured pitcher and a Korean first baseman who has yet to show he can hit Big League pitching. He failed to resign emerging star Adrian Beltre and shipped Shawn Green to Arizona for four minor leaguers.
To drive the nail into the Dodger coffin, DePodesta signed 35-year-old Jose Valentin who was fresh off a season where, in 450 at-bats, he hit .216 and had an OBP of .287, to replace Beltre. He signed Jeff Kent for two years at $17 million, more money than a 37-year-old is worth.
Then, having made the Dodgers’ defense worse, DePodesta gave groundball-pitcher Derek Lowe a four-year deal at $9 million a season. Lowe was coming off a year where he allowed 41 more hits than innings pitched and had an ERA of 5.42 for a team that won the World Series. The media railed against DePodesta’s falling for Lowe’s post-season starts against New York and St. Louis. There was no way that Derek Lowe was worth $9 million a year.
But then, something went wrong. DePodesta was supposed to be the poster boy for the end of the Moneyball Era. He came to fame as Billy Beane’s right-hand man, and his reconstructing of the Dodgers was going to prove to the world that baseball games are played on the field and not on paper. However, no one sent this memo to the Dodgers, and team is now 11-2. They hold the best record of baseball and have built up an early 4.5-game lead in the NL West. This was not supposed to happen.
For all the anti-DePodesta talk, it seems so far that his OBP-based strategy is working. The Dodgers currently have a Major League-leading team on-base percentage of .363. They lead the Majors with 88 runs scored or approximately 6.7 runs per game. Even more impressive is the team’s Isolated Power. ISO is a calculated by subtracted batting average from slugging percentage. With a league-leading ISO of .207, the Dodgers are creating more than two extra base hits every 10 at bats. (For more on Isolated Power, check out this primer.)
On the pitching front, DePodesta’s moves are paying off. Derek Lowe has been absolutely stellar for the Dodgers. In three starts, he has thrown 20.1 innings, allowing just 15 hits and six earned runs. He has struck out 14 and walked four. Opponents are hitting just .197 off of Lowe. In Chavez Ravine, Lowe has allowed just three hits in 31 at bats.
Meanwhile, Jeff Weaver, who was booed out of New York and traded for one of the Yankees’ many albatrosses, Kevin Brown, has reemerged as a very competent pitcher. In 20 innings, he’s allowed 21 hits and two walks. More importantly though is the fact that Weaver has allowed just one home run. Pitching in New York, Weaver couldn’t stop giving up the long ball.
After today’s comeback win against the Brewers, many writers seem to be on their hands and knees asking for forgiveness. Those that aren’t are already proclaiming the Dodgers the 2005 World Champions are patting themselves on the back for recognizing DePodesta’s genius. Hold your horses, I say. Let’s look a little bit closer at the guys propelling the Dodgers’ offense.
First up is Jose Valentin. DePodesta was ridiculed for signing Valentin. At 35, Valentin has done his best to prove that he can’t on base. He has a career OBP of .322 to go along with his career average of .244 and a slugging mark of .454. That’s hardly going to blow anyone away. In the first 13 games of the year, Valentin is hitting .306/.447/.556 and is currently on pace to obliterate his single-season mark of 66 walks set way back in 1996.
Next is 37-year-old Jeff Kent. Kent is hitting .353/.459/.706 with four home runs in the young season. Compared to his career mark of .290/.353/.507, his numbers aren’t as exaggerated as Valentin’s are. I would, however, be very surprised to see Kent put up career numbers all year long.
Last but not least is 27-year-old Milton Bradley. Bradley (no relation to the Parker Bros.) has been a highly-touted prospect for approximately forever. With a career mark of .268/.352/.424, he’s gained more notoriety for his temper and attitude than for his hitting. But like Valentin and Kent, Bradley is having an explosive start. He’s hitting .373/.411/.745 with five home runs, eight extra base hits and 14 RBI. Of the three Dodgers off to stellar starts, Bradley, who is now entering his peak years, is the one most likely to maintain his performance.
Meanwhile, one of their biggest off-season acquisitions, J.D. Drew with his five-year, $55-million deal, is a bust at .159/.321/.250. Just as I am wary of Valentin and Kent, I don’t expect Drew to stay this cold for much longer.
All of this goes to show that 13 games is simply too little time to start worshiping at the altar of DePodesta. For 13 games, the Dodgers look like a baseball juggernaut. That’s less than one-tenth of the season. They are relying on two hitters on the wrong side of 35 who are exceeding their career numbers by a wide margin and one who has yet to fulfill his promise.
In time, the true Dodgers will emerge. J.D. Drew will hit some; Valentin won’t. Jayson Werth will come off the DL and could be a force in the lineup. On the mound, Weaver and Lowe are bound to hit some rough spots. But Eric Gagne’s return is on the horizon. So how can we really know how good the Dodgers are? We can’t. At least, we can’t until we see more at bats so players have a chance to ride out their hot streaks and settle down into their season norms.
For now, let’s admire DePodesta for a job seemingly well done, but save those accolades for the end of the year. After all, no one knows more about small sample sizes than Paul DePodesta himself.