GLENDALE, ARIZ — Brandon Beachy was the Dodgers’ starting pitcher on Saturday night. Which made it so odd to see him just sitting in front of his locker two hours before game time with no newspaper, book or electronic device in his hand and making no effort to avoid the media. Which isn’t to say that he’s normally standoffish or anything. It’s just uncommon for the guy pitching that day’s game to be so available. That day’s starter is often off in an area off-limits to the media, prepping, working out, talking to coaches or whatever. He usually faces the media after he comes out of the game and keeps to himself before.
There’s pressure on the veteran righty. After comebacks from two Tommy John surgeries, he appears to be the top choice of Dave Roberts to take the injured Brett Anderson‘s spot in the Dodgers rotation. So far he’s doing an admirable job of it — he would throw three scoreless innings against the Cubs on this night and has five scoreless innings on the spring — but it would be understandable if he was a bit tight and less willing to just chat casually with a reporter he doesn’t know. Beachy, though, is loose. Everyone in the Dodgers’ clubhouse is.
Which is likewise somewhat unusual. To some degree all spring training clubhouses are loose because it’s still spring training and no one’s season has been ruined yet, but there are varying degrees of looseness. In the past few years the Dodgers’ spring clubhouse has seemed a bit more tense than some others. It’s understandable. Don Mattingly entered the past couple of seasons on a hotter seat than some and off-the-field and clubhouse distractions from guys like Yasiel Puig only made things more complicated. Puig is still there, of course, but he’s allegedly getting better. Mattingly is now gone.
In his place is new manager Dave Roberts, who has a lot to do with the looseness, according to Beachy. I ask him if it’s fair to say that he’s a positive, high-energy guy.
“I’d say that’s very accurate. He’s always got a smile on his face. He’s very outgoing. He’s a guy who likes to have fun and he brings that to our team meetings every day,” Beachy said. “He does different things to try to get us laughing and get us together as a group. You look around this room and you see guys playing video games and ping pong. We had guys taking hockey shots at each other the other day. It’s a group of guys having fun.”
Indeed, Roberts even participated in the Dodgers’ annual spring training ping pong tournament himself this year, which is something Mattingly never did. Which isn’t a slight on Mattingly — I’m guessing neither Bruce Bochy nor Clint Hurdle are playing ping pong with their players — but it says a lot about the tone Roberts is setting. Part of that tone: taking the weight of external expectations off the shoulders of Dodgers players.
The Dodgers will once again have an outsized payroll in 2016 — in the neighborhood of $229 million at the moment — and with it comes outsized expectations. While the expectations on the Cubs are born of something undeniably positive — they won a lot last year and got better in the offseason — the Dodgers’ expectations are somewhat more complicated. They’ve won, sure, and people expect them to continue to win. But there’s also a sense that because of that payroll they have somehow failed if they don’t win the World Series. There’s likewise a sense that, thanks to some high-profile controversies about and between players, the off-the-field business is impacting the on-the-field work of the Dodgers. Now, under Roberts, such things simply don’t seem to register with players in any real way.
“Yeah, everyone in baseball says ‘we expect to win a championship, we expect to win the World Series.’ And we do — that’s obviously the goal — but that’s kind of big-picture,” Beachy said. “Dave has focused a lot more on the process. The day-to-day. The smaller things that you can control. You take care of those small things and then you look up at the end and then you’re pretty close to reaching that ultimate goal. If you did your job right.”
Beachy hasn’t had a lot of time with the Dodgers yet so he can’t necessarily compare how Roberts is handling things with how Mattingly did like some longer-tenured Dodgers players could. But he did say that when he was with the Braves he found that day-to-day approach to be more conducive to players doing their jobs than thinking about a team’s overall expectations or whatever narratives are ruling the day among fans and the media. It’s a message I’m hearing over and over here in Arizona. How the “storylines” are for the press and the fans, not the players.
“We have expectations internally, in this room, and none of those expectations have to do with those outside factors. The business stuff, the money stuff, the controversy, that’s all for you guys,” Beachy said. “Our expectations come from the talent that’s in this room. You look around this room and see the best pitcher in baseball. Some veteran guys who have done it and done it really well for a long time. That’ll determine how we do. Those guys doing their job and those of us who have to step up and help them doing our jobs. What anyone out of this room says is not something which affects us or gives us higher or lower expectations.”
Two days into my spring training trip, one thing is coming through loud and clear: what we talk about as fans and commentators is almost completely divorced from what players think about. If one of these teams with high expectations starts slowly, we’re going to say that they’re buckling under pressure or possibly choking. We’re going to say that they’re feeling the weight of expectations. After talking to players, however, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that that’s an exercise in projection. That those of us on the outside are grafting a layer of drama on to a bunch of players who are simply doing — or failing to do — their jobs.
Leaving Camelback Ranch on Saturday night I was thinking about what Beachy said. And, because I’m kind of cynical, I couldn’t help but think that what he had to say, while interesting, was a little on-the-nose. Something that hews almost exactly with what team leadership and the P.R. staff likes to hear from players. A more expansive “we play them one game at time and tune out the distractions” stuff. So, with all due respect to Beachy, I wanted the view on this stuff from a player who may be a bit more free to speak his mind on the matter. Someone who plays a more prominent leadership role on his team and who is not as likely to delve into cliche as a fourth or fifth starter might.
So on Sunday I talked to Hunter Pence. I liked what he had to say about it all. Stay tuned for that post.