It's fair to wonder if the Dodgers can live up to the overwhelming hype surrounding them this year -- or if any team could. They have the biggest budget in the major leagues by about $40 million, unashamedly clocking in at more than $230 million; the biggest collection of stars and personalities in one of the biggest media markets; the best pitcher in the known universe and the most exciting lightning rod of a hitter. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system projects them to win a whopping 99 games -- 11 games more than any other team National League team.
Those are expectations so lofty that no amount of talent could guarantee meeting them. What you can safely say, however, as their season begins Saturday in Australia, is that even if they aren't quite as astounding as hoped and dreamed, they definitely won't be boring.
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After a few weeks, it's hard for players to even pretend to care about the outcome of spring training games. In the Dodgers' clubhouse at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, the extraneous competitive fire was channeled into ping pong. The table was in the heart of the room both literally and metaphorically, and if there were more than three players present, a game was on, accompanied by yells and a steady flow of trash talk. At one point, a reliever made a leaping dive and a neat rolling landing onto the floor in pursuit of a ball, leading those present to imagine the headlines should one of the Dodgers injure himself this way.
The ringleader of the eternal ping pong tourney is Clayton Kershaw, also the aforementioned best pitcher in the known universe (who also hosts a ping pong charity event). At just 25, he has won two of the last three National League Cy Young awards -- barely missing a three-peat. He also has emerged as a team leader and media spokesman, unusual for a starting pitcher as well as for someone his age. No one's lining up to see Kershaw responsibly discuss wins and losses with reporters, however; they'll be there because his ERA last year was 1.83 (!) in 236 innings, with 232 strikeouts, good for an ERA+ of 194.
Next to Kershaw's locker sat Zack Greinke, who'd be the No. 1 starter on almost any other team, discussing advanced statistics and his concerns about FIP and xFIP and BABIP. "I follow FIP a little bit," he was saying, "but you can't pitch to it cuz -- I just don't think it's a very good stat to evaluate because some guys can have the ability to get weak contact. Maybe they should develop a stat that takes into account speed of ground balls and speed of line drives -- like velocity of the bat."
After some discussion of MLBAM's new technology, which one day could lead to something along those lines, he continues, "Sometimes I'll look at ground ball percentage and fly ball percentage … line drive percentage, I'll look at that, too -- like if a guy has a bad BABIP one year I'll be like, well, is he getting line drives? And sometimes he's not getting anything more than normal, he has the same line drives, same ground balls. So I wonder if his velocity off the bat's different, but there's nothing for it yet."
Greinke, who has successfully dealt with social anxiety disorder for many years, is known for his bluntness -- e.g., on the Australia trip, "I would say there is absolutely zero excitement for it. There just isn't any excitement to it. I can't think of one reason to be excited for it." -- which can rub some the wrong way, but is at least a refreshing change from the "I just want to get out there and play hard" lines we're usually fed.
Not far to the left of Greinke's locker, outfielder Andre Ethier, who evidently does not share his teammate's apathy for the land down under, has been inspired by a pamphlet left on every player's chair titled "G'Day!" and meant to serve as a guide to the trip. "G'day, gov'nor," he yells to no one in particular, sounding more like an inebriated Brit man than an Australian. "Where's the meat pies?!"
On the other side of the room, over and past the noisiness of the the ping pong table, Yasiel Puig sits by his locker, impassive, in boxer briefs and designer sunglasses, and surveys his domain.
His debut last season was one of the most exciting in recent memory, more than just his (very good) numbers indicate. He is a lightning rod for the "respect the game" crowd and also for the "maybe don't worry so much about respecting the game and have some damn fun" crowd. He wears number 66 because of his reputation as "a little devil," and got in trouble this offseason for reckless driving, though charges were later dropped. His home runs, when he connects, are huge, and so are his bat flips; his arm and speed are amazing and so is his ability to miss the cutoff man, though that's something he'd been working on with considerable success this spring. Even his meaningless exhibition games are worth watching:
His fellow Cuban defector -- and former teammate and childhood friend -- shortstop Erisbel Arruebarrena arrived at Dodgers camp last week and was greeted warmly by Puig. Arruebarrena was previously known to international audiences as "Arruebarruena," because the mistaken spelling that appeared on the World Baseball Classic roster, which he never got corrected. When he arrived in Dodgers camp, greeted by a knot of cameras and reporters, he cleared up the issue, and was greeted in Spanish by Tommy Lasorda, who asked him to pronounce his name (declaring it "muy dificil") and by Manny Mota, whose number 11 Arruebarrena will wear. Arruebarrena will start the year in the minors getting back into game shape after months away from the sport, but everyone knows how to spell his name now.
Back in the locker room, across from Puig, was reliever Brian Wilson, who increasingly looks like a man feigning nuttiness for a not guilty by reason of insanity plea and overdoing it a little, but doesn't talk like one and pitched extremely well last season coming back from injury. (It's also been almost three years since that damn "Black Ops" commercial tortured the nation during every playoff commercial break, so it may be time to search our hearts for forgiveness.)
To his right was Korean starter Hyun-Jin Ryu, who had a very good rookie season in 2013 despite having to adjust to a new country and answer an avalanche of questions like "Today, you were able to avoid big hits and home runs. Was that done on purpose?" and "Have you heard from Psy?" He is also best friends with a man on another side of the locker room, Juan Uribe, despite the fact that they only have a few words of common language between them. Uribe, now 34 and about to enter his 14th season of major league baseball, bounced back from a few terrible seasons last year and enjoyed every minute of it, laughing with Ryu and anyone in range.
And near Uribe sat Hanley Ramirez, a man who played only 86 games last season, but was so extraordinarily good in those games that he almost earned MVP consideration, hitting .345/.402/.638. Given his injury concerns, he's also a reminder of how quickly things could go wrong for these Dodgers, at the whims of luck and ligaments. But that's true of any team, and as stacked as they are, the Dodgers have more leeway than most.
That's not even mentioning outfielder Matt Kemp, a superstar if he's finally healthy; thoughtful catcher A.J. Ellis; flamethrowing converted catcher Kenley Jansen or hitting coach Mark McGwire, emerging from clouds of PED scandal to quietly work with hitters, now with a striking white goatee, still as big and solid-looking as a barn.
Presiding over it all is Don Mattingly, an icon himself, who clearly has no interest in repeating the get-a-haircut didacticism of the Yankees of his era. No sideburns will be monitored on this team; Brian Wilson's beard could plausibly house an entire family of gnomes and their facial hair would not be monitored either. Mattingly's in-game management is open to criticism -- there is a grindcore band named Puig Destroyer with a song called "Stop F***ing Bunting." But his players love him, and he lets them roam free.
Finally, narrating everything is Vin Scully, now 86 and still, somehow, as good an announcer as Kershaw is a pitcher. He could turn your local Little League team or beer leaguers into a source of compelling lore, so seeing what he makes out of this mythology-ready crew should be as fun as watching Puig taunt the Diamondbacks. If he had narrated the Dodgers' epic ping pong games this spring, Ken Burns would have been compelled to make a documentary.
So, yes, they may be overhyped -- because every team is subject to injuries and slumps and disappointment, even when they don't have a target on their backs thanks to payroll and cockiness and jumping into other people's pools. Disappointment, if it comes, will be anything but quiet. But spring is for hype, and the Dodgers are providing a perfect platform for it, from one end of the globe to the other.
Shut down the Internet: pic.twitter.com/z2vlYQ9ko5— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) March 19, 2014