Has the Torre Touch Sparked L.A.?
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Though most of us have never been invited to Joe Torre’s house (houses?), we can safely assume that if the manager, bedecked in his “Kiss the Chef, Sports Fans” apron, were to give us the grand tour before his big holiday barbecue, we would have no problem spotting the open space on the wall of his trophy room reserved for his Hall of Fame plaque.
“No, no,” he’d say if you asked about it, fearful of appearing presumptuous. “It’s been a lifetime dream of mine to acquire Manet’s “Le déjeuner sur l’Herbe,” and I’ve heard it might be going up for auction.” This would be false modesty. Torre’s Yankees rings are going to get him a seat in the Cooperstown Valhalla sometime in the future. As things stand now, his Dodgers work will be used to bolster his case as evidence of a magic Torre touch (as the failings of the Yankees will be used to imply its existence because of what didn’t happen). In truth, the secret of the Torre Touch 2008 may be an ability to be standing in the right place at the right time, evidence of good taste in teams rather than in tactics.
Since April ended, the National League West has been the division no team wanted to win. The Diamondbacks finished that month with a 20-8 record. Had they sustained that torrid pace, we’d be talking about them as the new 1998 Yankees, if not the 1927 Yankees. It wasn’t to be; even before a variety of injuries overtook the team, it became clear that though they were largely solid on the pitching side of the ball, the lineup just couldn’t hit. The trading deadline acquisition of slugger Adam Dunn has done little to abate their offensive problems. Since April, the Snakes have gone 51-63 while allowing 4.6 runs a game, an average figure given park effects. The batters have scored but 4.2 runs a game, well below average.
Until their current eight-game winning streak, which has included five wins against the Diamondbacks, Torre’s Dodgers have been loath to take advantage of their rival’s inexorable fall. Indeed, their winning streak was immediately preceded by an eight-game losing streak that dropped the team to five games under .500. Ironically, the whiplash change of fortune was not triggered by any change in personnel that would be considered positive. The outfield seesawing that Torre used to keep Juan Pierre in the lineup at the expense of Andre Ethier largely ceased with the trading deadline acquisition of Manny Ramirez. The infield saw what would on the surface appear to be two examples of trading down: second baseman Jeff Kent dropped out of the lineup to have arthroscopic knee surgery and was replaced by Blake DeWitt, while shortstop Nomar Garciaparra sat down due to fatigue, which seems like a face-saving way of saying that he can no longer hit or field. He was replaced by Angel Berroa.
Both of these changes — one that Torre was forced to make, the other that apparently was at his discretion — coincided with the beginning of the winning streak. It is worth noting that both DeWitt and Berroa have played quite well over that span, the former hitting .286/.364/.536 with two home runs, the latter — and this is hard to believe, even in an eight-game sample — .346 AVG/.452 OBA/.577 SLG.
The unreality of those numbers suggests why it’s better to be lucky than good. In both cases the Dodgers could have expected to receive a defensive boost, as the replacements are more sprightly than the hobbled veterans they replace — Kent wasn’t noted for his range even when young, and Garciaparra lost a fatal step about 38 injuries ago. The offensive production, though, has been a gift, perhaps of the schedule, which had a visit from the weak Padres sandwiched between tilts with the Diamondbacks. More likely, it was just a little bonus from blind luck. It’s almost certainly an ephemeral one, as DeWitt is unlikely to have morphed into Joe Gordon and Berroa is a confirmed out machine. If Torre stays with them too long, they will likely give the production back and more, beyond anything their defense could make up for. Fortunately for both the manager and the team, however, Kent is rehabilitating quickly and long-lost shortstop Rafael Furcal is apparently ready to dip his toes into playing. The Dodgers will have some new infield props at the exact moment they are needed.
Thus, if the Dodgers hold on to their newfound division lead, Torre will again look like a managerial genius, though, like the changes to the batting order he made concurrent with the winning streak, his input will likely have been beside the point. It certainly helps that Ramirez has hit four homers in these eight games while batting .455. It helps that Chad Billingsley had two terrific starts against the Snakes during this period. It helps that Brandon Webb is failing. It helps that sometimes stuff just happens.
That’s not an example of a manager’s agency, but heck — we’ve got to credit somebody.
Mr. Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible for yesnetwork.com and is the author of “Forging Genius,” a biography of Casey Stengel.