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The Marquis of Splits

True story: Giants pitcher Russ Ortiz comes to bat in the 6th inning of Wednesday night’s Dodgers-Giants game, having given up the tying run and then pitched out of a jam moments earlier. He’d thrown 116 pitches at that point. My pal Nick turns and asks me what I think of Baker letting him bat rather than pinch-hitting for him.

Invoking the names of Shawon Dunston and Tsuyoshi Shinjo, I reply that Ortiz is as good a hitter as anybody on the Giants bench, recalling that he’d hit a sac fly in his previous at bat, and that I’d witnessed him smacking a 2-run double against the Mets earlier this season. Seconds later, Ortiz drilled Robert Ellis’ third pitch over the leftfield wall, giving the Giants a 4-3 lead which they never relinquished. Ortiz didn’t throw another pitch, but he didn’t have to–his work was done.

Being right on that particular call didn’t feel so good. But despite the result, this Dodgers-Giants series has been a treat thus far. I’ve stayed up until around 1 or 2 AM the past four nights, either watching the game or following it via the Internet (tonight I’m listening to Vin Scully via MLB.com’s GameDay Audio, which I finally shelled out for–more on that another time).

The Giants pulled ahead early in the first three games against shaky Dodger starters, only to let the Dodgers claw their way back into the game. Both teams have illustrated why they’re still in the postseason hunt, hustling all-out, gambling for the extra base and chasing down balls with abandon (see Paul Lo Duca’s catch on Monday). Stars have starred–Jeff Kent has a pair of homers, Barry Bonds has been on base 12 out of 15 times (3 walks per night), Shawn Green’s 5-for-11 with 4 runs, Adrian Beltre’s 5-for-12 with 4 RBI. And unlikely heroes have emerged. Ortiz struck the big blow last night. Benito Santiago has 5 hits and 2 walks in the past two nights, Marquis Grissom robbed Rich Aurilia of a game-tying 9th inning homer on Monday and homered himself on Tuesday to bring the Dodgers back into the game. Giovanni Carerra stopped the bleeding by giving the Dodgers 3 1/3 innings of strong relief after Omar Daal departed early on Tuesday. All of it has made for some of the season’s most memorable baseball.

Tracy’s handling of Grissom is one of the things which exemplifies why the Dodgers are still in the race. Almost exactly a year ago, I practically beat my head against the wall regarding Grissom’s play: “Marquis Grissom plays ball like his doppelganger, comedian Martin Lawrence, and he gets on base slightly less often. The Marquis de Sade drew an amazing total of 3 walks in 278 ABs through July; if that’s not grounds for a restraining order preventing Tracy from leading him off, it ought to be.”

Going into spring training, the Dodgers had three candidates for the centerfield job and leadoff spot:

1) 35-year old Marquis Grissom, coming off of a 654 OPS, making $5 million.

2) 33-year old Tom Goodwin, coming off a 622 OPS, making $3.25 million.

3) 30-year old Dave Roberts, who had a career 601 OPS in less than 200 big league plate appearances, making $217,500, just above the big league minimum.

Not a particularly appetizing menu. But Tracy saw something in Roberts during the spring and made him his leadoff hitter and CF against righties. Roberts has put up a .350 OBP and 45 steals. Grissom has played against lefties and also picked up some games in LF when Brian Jordan got hurt, posting an 831 OPS overall, including a .510 SLG. Goodwin was released and caught on with the Giants, where he’s up to his usual tricks with a 617 OPS. Combined the Dodger CFs have put up .337 OBP/.413 SLG/750 OPS, which isn’t great, but it sure beats the .282/.377/659 they posted last season. Faced with the daunting limitation of two unproductive players with moderately expensive contracts, Tracy wasn’t afraid to try Door #3, and in doing so solved two problems at once.

Despite choosing Roberts as his starter, the mileage he’s gotten out of Grissom is impressive. Here are Grissom’s platoon splits over the last two seasons:

        AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   PA

2001 L .254 .270 .500 770 137
2001 R .207 .242 .363 605 329
2002 L .290 .352 .603 955 144
2002 R .268 .298 .441 739 188

Last year 71% of Grissom’s plate appearances were against righties, this year only 57%. (I don’t have platoon breakdowns for sac flies and bunts, so they’re not included in the OBP and PA calcs). He’s destroyed lefties, and he’s even held his own against righties.

Tracy’s decision to play Roberts this year resembles his choice of Paul Lo Duca as his regular catcher last year. Lo Duca entered the season as a 29-year old with around major-league 200 PAs in his career. Given the starting job, he responded with a 917 OPS and even spent a stretch of the season as the Dodgers’ leadoff hitter (which I studied in great detail). He was moved out of the spot primarily because he was leading the league in batting with Runners In Scoring Position. Lo Duca hasn’t had as good a season this time around, but take away his anemic August (440 OPS) and he’s at a very respectable .306 AVG/.340 OBP/.441 SLG. As Monday night’s game showed, the guy plays all out as well.

Decisions like these have helped Tracy overcome injuries to the pitching staff and subpar production from Jordan, Eric Karros, Adrian Beltre, and his middle infielders (except for Alex Cora, another player whom Tracy has spotted well). He’s the NL Manager of the Year for my money.

But Tracy’s biggest test may be to come, as he patches together the Dodgers’ tattered rotation from here on out. Coming into Thursday night’s game, LA had only 1 quality start in its past 7 games and 2 out of 12. In that span they’ve lost two key pitchers to season-ending injuries–Kazuhisa Ishii to a fractured skull off of a line drive, and Kevin Brown to back problems. They’re thin in pitching, which is never a good thing at this time of year. But if anybody’s going to find a way to pull it off, I believe it’s the Dodger manager.

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