“How to Beat a Broken Game:
The Rise of the Dodgers in a League on the Brink”
The publishing info:
Public Affairs publishing
Released March 29, 2022
The review in 90 feet or less
Pardon the interruption, but when Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon appeared on their daily ESPN chat show last Wednesday, it seemed as if just minutes had passed since the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw was pulled from his start at Minnesota amidst seven perfect innings of work. That is, 21 Twins up, 21 down. An efficient 80 pitches for those keeping track (27 swings, 17 misses). Thirteen Ks and no walks.
The debate was fresh and hot, not half-baked.
“This is what’s wrong with baseball,” Wilbon declared. “There are people running baseball who just care about … innings pitched, number of pitches … that’s all they give a damn about. Baseball is 140-plus years old. And you meant to tell me … If I were Clayton Kershaw I would have stood there and said to (manager) Dave Roberts when he asked for the ball: ‘Naw, I’m not giving it to you. … What are you gonna do? You gonna slap me?’ …”
(Flashback to Max Scherzer/Dave Roberts, 2021 one-game NL wildcard playoffs.)
“Baseball is driven by these lunatic people who control the numbers from the front office,” Wilbon continued. “I find them loathsome. And they’re killing the game.”
Kornheiser counterpunched: Kershaw was likely OK with the decision, he had an elbow injury last year, missed the playoffs, came back to the Dodgers instead of going free agent to another team because of the opportunity for a World Series run, had a short spring training season, and it’s only the second week of the season.
Wilbon wasn’t having it.
“You know what numbers geek would do? He’d tell Jackie Robinson on April 15, 1947, ‘You know, you’ve had a couple at bats, why don’t you come on out so we can save you.’ … Baseball is ‘less than.’ They’ve turned it over to people who don’t give a damn about the game and its soul. These people are crushing the game. … They’re awful people, Tony. I hate what they’ve done to baseball.”
Kershaw’s post-game response to the media had some edge, but not what it could have been: “Blame it on the lockout. Blame it on my not picking up a ball for three months (during the off season). I knew going in that my pitch count wasn’t going to be 100. It’s a hard thing to do, to come out of a game when you’re doing that. We’re here to win. This was the right choice.”
L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote that everything the Dodgers did in this scenario was “perfect.” Yet he also pointed out: “Critics of Roberts will angrily note the incredible stat that he has managed the only two pitchers in history to be pulled from a perfect game after seven innings — Rich Hill in 2016, and Kershaw on Wednesday. But while the decision on Hill was questionable — it was late in the season and Hill didn’t want to leave the mound — anybody who closely follows the Dodgers surely understands that the Kershaw decision was a no-brainer.”
And, for the record, let’s also not overlook the times Roberts was compelled to yank Ross Stripling from a no hitter after 7 1/3 innings and 100 pitches in his MLB debut (April of 2016 in San Francisco). He then removed Walker Buehler, in his third MLB starts, from a no-hitter after six innings in that odd rain-delayed game in Mexico against San Diego after 93 pitches (May of 2018).
This Kershaw scenario could be seen from a mile away while watching it unfold live on SportsNet LA. Like taking a mouthwatering cake out of the oven when it could still use another 10 minutes, then watching it collapse in on itself because some who wrote the recipe algorithm decided they knew better.
Just three pages into Pedro Moura’s new book — there’s a image of Kershaw on the cover, by the way — this preamble is etched:
“Forty years ago, the people pioneering the study of sabermetrics, the use of statistical analysis to pursue truths about baseball, never expected their work would be one day be adopted by every one of Major League Baseball’s teams. … Whatever the measures are called (today), few, if any, teams use them more than the Dodgers. Through 2020, two dozen employees with multidisciplinary degrees worked out of a converted clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, ideating ways to quantify and predict success … The franchise has come to define this fractured era. … Every decision (baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman) made was governed by the guiding principle of optionality, a term co-opted from Wall Street, where he had his professional start. The idea is to render no decision absolutely necessary, to preserve as many possible choices as long as possible. It manifests in many ways, most notably in the Dodgers’ relative lack of desperation. Desperate teams make decisions they will regret. Because of Friedman’s patience and ownership’s resources, the Dodgers stand perpetually ready to seize on opportunities created by another team’s desperation.”
Nutshell, you’ve been cracked. And in the process, you’re fracking things up.
In this trending TikTok age, we’re not even sure anymore what makes the game really tick. In the process, we’ve been headed down a path of our own tic and twitch disorder that has us sounding like a severe case of Tourette’s whenever a situation like Kershaw’s comes up.
Perception and reality come together in the most enlightening and fabulously frustrating book any Dodgers fan may challenge himself to read — same with any general MLB follower over the last decade who has watched the game devolve into a mind-numbing exercise of things we never thought could be considered the norm.
Moura, in his first book project, manages to condense more in these pages than what we’d ever thought possible, bringing up how sideways this has all gone. And how, in some ways, the Dodgers have made it work in their favor, regrettably.
Not ironic that a publishing division called PublicAffairs Books, part of Hachette, has taken this one on. Its titles range from explaining surveillance capitalism, culture wars, climate concerns, First Amendment issues, and other courageous and tenacious reporting that is constant search of truth. There are more than a dozen books that come up on a search of “Dodgers” from its library offering, including Eric Nusbaum’s 2020 must-read “Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers and Lives Caught in Between,” which we had the pleasure of reviewing.
With Moura’s “Broken Game,” the Dodgers and L.A. are back in the interrogation spotlight, the poster team for leaving the lives of its fans and followers caught between the motivations of its front office and, once they buy into it, its players.
He finds clues and connects dots from his days on the beat, weaving quotes and actions together that create this tapestry of torturous trepidation for those who grew up watching a completely different version of how managers made decisions, how rosters were constructed, and when big-time talent seemed to override a swarm of picnic ants who did all the heavy lifting. And how the COVID season amplified inequities that the Dodgers could seize upon.
For example: On page 248, Moura deftly examines a quote from Mookie Betts after the Dodgers ran out of steam in the 2021 playoffs: “There’s a reason why it’s been so long since there’s been a back-to-back,” said Betts, a reference to the team’s truncated 2020 official championship clarification after 60 regular season games and a bubble trip to Arlington, Tex.
Moura adds: “Like Roberts, (Betts) did not present a reason. Perhaps the reason is that championship teams are so desperate for a dynasty that their interperance systematically undoes them. The Dodgers had been self-admitted gluttons. Their bingeing brought them only a pricey contract with a problematic pitcher they paid not to pitch, and a departure from the depth they made their hallmark throughout the first six seasons of Friedman’s tenure. .. The Dodgers had not retreated to being the hunted instead of the hunters (in 2021), they had just hunted too hard, exposing themselves to the ravages of injury, misfortune and exhaustion. …”
Oh, yes, there’s plenty of Trevor Bauer ballast to weigh these pages down.
Such as Moura’s observation: “Boiled down to the bitter concentrated truth, baseball’s plight is simple: Too many teams are more about profits than winning. The league’s revenue-sharing system enables even consistent losers to turn a profit, or at least break even while their valuations steadily increase.”
That, really, can be appreciated in a business setting for the strength of the whole monopolistic utopia. Had teams kept failing, and new owners kept moving them to a new place with hopes and dreams crushed even more, the infrastructure could collapse in a much uglier way.
Moura continues: “A select few teams, the Dodgers included, care so much about winning they are willing to accept almost anything if it gives them a better chance at a championship. From their warped perspective, a player’s misconduct can even be an advantage, lowering the acquisition cost, transforming him into a distressed asset. This strategy, too, makes adhering teams plenty of money. That case, the thrill of the chase, and the persistent absence of any accountability requirement blinds them to the consequences of their actions.”
More so, Moura also examines the successes and failures in chapters devoted to Betts, Kershaw (be care of the gas he passes on team flights), Max Muncy, Justin Turner and Walker Buehler, plus Roberts, Friedman, the team’s research and development department and its scouting department, showing how the 2019, 2020 and 2021 seasons got us to this place.
As for Roberts, Moura can explain on page 128 the way he comes off as upbeat, realistic, public relations figurehead in the system: “Either Roberts is an authentically positive person or one of the greatest tricksters of his time. But what he presents to players is an act – a well-considered, better-rehearsed one (that what he does with the media).”
The results feed into how he’s become Tommy Lasorda 2.0, with a winning percentage that shows he’s team is capable of capturing better than six out of every 10 games over the last seven years (including a .722 clip in 2020’s 60 regular season plus 18 post-season games).
So what would Lasorda have done with Kershaw last week if he were the manager?
If he had even skimmed the classic book, “The Dodgers’ Way to Play Baseball” by then-team scouting director Al Campanis (1954, E.P. Dutton, 256 pages), which had the unique endorsement of 18-year-old Sandy Koufax on the cover flap before he even threw his first wild pitch for the franchise, then you already know the answer. Lasorda knew the basics, believed in magic and motivation, when to roll the dice and tempt the Gods, no matter whatever statistical data was shoved at him. Because the results could be spectacular, and you never know if you don’t try.
A different time, perhaps, but …
In today’s world, where Kershaw seems to be A-OK being yanked from a perfect game, we’re supposed to just shut up and appreciate it. Because that’s what we’ve been told.
How it goes in the scorebook
A typical “three outcome” AB now a days ends up with either a walk, strike out or home run. Moura’s book adds that rare consequence when someone hits a pitch off the opposing team’s “opener” into the exaggerated shift and finds wild success simply by putting the ball truthfully into play and benefiting from the consequences.
If what you think you know about today’s Dodgers operations is based on mistakenly believing in gullible paragraphs from Molly Knight’s misguided 2015 mess, “The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Strange Sage of the Los Angeles Dodgers” — (which then saw its subtitle curiously changed to “The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse” in its paperback version a year later that didn’t clarify anything new — here’s some truthful redemption.
You may not find a more important explanation about how the game got here and where it could be going next, based on how the Dodgers want to set an example. It can be something one will reference back to years from now when trying to explain why most have lost any sense of loyalty.
We are in an emergency – one that almost feels as urgent as some of the things science tells us about how our planet may end up decades from now – and this is more than a warning whistle.
You can look it up: More to ponder
== Moura is on the “Effectively Wild” Fangraphs postcast with Ben Linberg
== Moura joins KPCC-FM’s Larry Mantle for “Air Talk” on his book.
== We now yield the floor to a reader who posted a four-out-of-five star review on Amazon.com: “I hesitated before picking up this book — from the description I was afraid it was going to be a hatchet job on the Dodgers … and I have loved the Dodgers all my life. … Moura does take the Dodgers to task in areas they may fall short in as far as integrity goes. We can start with the whole Trevor Bauer fiasco … the manipulation of service time, “gaming arbitration,” and having players fake injuries to maximize roster flexibility. Baseball has a lot to fix if it does not want to escalate its downward spiral. The recent lockout / strike threatened to piggyback on these issues and cause irreparable harm. There are certain to be many changes now that the players and owners hammered out the new collective bargaining agreement. The title being “How to Beat a Broken Game” — the Dodgers certainly did not break the game … but this book seems to show that Andrew Friedman and the brain trust of the Los Angeles Dodgers are more than capable of adapting to whatever curveballs may be served up. (The book) brings us up to date on the real guts of today’s game … and how it is won. It is the most realistic portrayal of how the game is won and lost.”