The Dodgers won their first pennant in 29 years because they hit, pitched, and defended the best of any NL team in the playoffs. That kind of comprehensive dominance can yield simple analysis, and L.A. accumulated a 7-1 record and 48-19 run differential in advancing past the Diamondbacks and Cubs in the NLDS and NLCS because the Dodgers’ players were much better than their opponents. It might seem like any manager could have taken such a talented roster playing so well to the World Series, but the ease with which the Dodgers made their run shouldn’t obscure the job skipper Dave Roberts has done: He put those talented players in the best possible positions.
Roberts has had the Midas touch this October. In Game 3 of the NLCS, he started Andre Ethier in the outfield, after the veteran had started just eight games in an injury-plagued season; Ethier homered in his first at-bat and singled in his third. Earlier in the series, Roberts started shortstop Charlie Culberson as a Corey Seager injury replacement, despite more conventional choices being available and the fact that Culberson collected as many MLB hits in the regular season as closer Kenley Jansen; Culberson recorded the game-tying RBI in Game 1 and the game-tying run in Game 2, both eventual Dodgers victories.
Even when he’s made tactically curious decisions, like letting pitcher Yu Darvish bat with the bases loaded in Game 3 against the Cubs, he’s reaped dividends. Darvish walked, hilariously, and the Dodgers added an insurance run en route to a then-3-0 series lead.
— Around The Bases POD (@AroundBasesPOD) October 18, 2017
But serendipity isn’t the only factor fueling Roberts’s managerial magic. He’s also making the smart call almost every time, which helps him stand out in a postseason that’s been largely characterized by managerial mistakes. Unlike their counterparts in other sports, baseball managers can’t do much to impact a game in progress, as baseball’s versions of play calls—sacrifice bunts, intentional walks, and pitch outs—are mostly disadvantageous and reduce a team’s odds of scoring or preventing runs, and managers can’t ensure that their stars have the opportunity to perform in the highest-leverage situations. But Roberts gets the little things right, and even though each decision might add just a fraction of a percent to his team’s ultimate win probability, the little things matter.
In the Washington Nationals’ 9-8 loss in Game 5 of the NLDS, for instance, manager Dusty Baker used both Victor Robles and Wilmer Difo as pinch hitters to lead off innings, but left Howie Kendrick and Brian Goodwin—both of whom exceeded an .800 OPS this year—on the bench. Robles and Difo both made outs as Washington fell one run short. In Game 2 of the NLCS, meanwhile, Cubs skipper Joe Maddon allowed Albert Almora to face both Brandon Morrow and Jansen—two hard-throwing right-handers—in the late innings rather than pinch hit with lefty sluggers Kyle Schwarber or Ian Happ. Almora grounded out twice as Chicago failed to break the tie.
Roberts has avoided those errors with consistently calculated calls. To illustrate that enviable managerial practice, here are three examples of the Dodger manager’s moves that best demonstrate his broader postseason style, even if they won’t make any highlight reels.
NLDS Game 2, trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the fourth inning with the bases loaded, one out, and Rich Hill’s lineup spot up
At this point in Game 2 against Arizona, Hill had thrown just 78 pitches and retired the last five batters he had faced, but Roberts still pinch hit for his starter. With the bases loaded and just one out, the run-expectancy difference between Hill and an actual hitter at that point was massive. Plus, looking ahead to the next inning, the Diamondbacks had their top of the order due up, so it’s likely that Hill would have needed a replacement on the mound soon anyway, lest he face the likes of Paul Goldschmidt—who had homered and walked his first two times up—for a third time with runners on base.
The move didn’t even pay off exactly as Roberts would have wanted, as pinch hitter Kyle Farmer struck out, but it reflected a sound process of combining offensive aggression with a longer-range pitching outlook. The Dodgers benefited anyway: They tied the score on a wild pitch during Farmer’s at-bat, took the lead on a Chris Taylor single, and added another run in the next frame when Roberts made an early, platoon-based substitution by inserting Curtis Granderson for Kike Hernández when Arizona brought in a righty reliever. Granderson singled and later scored in that inning.
NLDS Game 3, leading 3-1 in the top of the sixth inning with nobody out and nobody on base
The previous batter, Austin Barnes, had just doubled the Dodgers’ lead with a solo homer, so with lefty hitters Granderson and Chase Utley at the plate and on deck, respectively, the Diamondbacks replaced starter Zack Greinke with southpaw reliever Jorge De La Rosa. Roberts responded with a platoon-based move of his own, pinch-hitting the right-handed Hernández for Granderson. Hernández hit a ground-rule double and then played left field for the rest of the game as the Dodgers maintained their lead.
Hernández’s use in this situation reflects a clear plan from L.A.’s brain trust, as has Roberts’s similar plan of replacing Granderson and Ethier for defensive purposes immediately after their at-bats in the middle-to-late innings. All 15 position players named to the Dodgers’ two playoff series rosters have appeared in multiple games and received at least four plate appearances this month, and they’ve filled specific roles: starter against righties, mid-inning platoon pinch hitter, defensive replacement, and so on. Roberts understands who his core players are, and who is interchangeable. Taylor, Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, and Yasiel Puig (and a healthy Seager) will always stay in the lineup, but everyone else can move around based on matchups.
No one should think that Roberts is a deft manager just because he made the correct pinch-hitting call in a sixth inning with no runners on base. Rather, that decision illustrates his larger adhesion to pre-outlined strategy instead of the kind of extemporaneous gut decision-making that spurs second guesses from the baseball populace.
NLCS Game 1, tied 2-2 to start the top of the sixth inning with Anthony Rizzo due up
Clayton Kershaw started the first game against the Cubs, but after he threw 87 pitches to get through five innings, Roberts pinch hit for him in the bottom of the fifth with the potential go-ahead run on second. It was the same strategy the Dodger manager enacted in the above Rich Hill example. Needing a new arm in the top of the sixth, Roberts called on Tony Cingrani for a same-handed matchup against one of the Cubs’ most fearsome hitters. Cingrani threw four pitches to induce a Rizzo groundout, before Kenta Maeda took over with right-handed hitters due up.
Roberts knows how and when to use his bullpen lefties, who both came to the team in July 31 trades. The two Tonys, Watson and Cingrani, both have run decent-sized platoon splits in their careers—an 87-point OPS advantage for Watson and a 69-point gap for Cingrani for same-handed hitters—and they’re on the Dodgers roster for the sole purpose of retiring opposing lineups’ Rizzos and Schwarbers. They’re not in the bullpen to do anything else, and Roberts doesn’t push them past their modest limits.
Cingrani has pitched in four games in the playoffs and faced just seven total batters, and Watson has made six appearances and faced two or fewer hitters in all but one of them. Compare their usage to Brian Duensing’s, after Maddon allowed the middling southpaw to face seven batters (many of them right-handed) in high-leverage situations in Game 2 of the NLCS.
Maeda, Morrow, and Jansen are his most reliable arms, but Roberts finds the right opportunities to use his lesser relievers and reduce that trio’s workload. In the same game that Maddon erred in using Duensing too long, Roberts inserted righty reliever Josh Fields to start the eighth inning. Fields retired the slumping Javier Báez before giving way to Watson, who came on for the switch-hitting Ben Zobrist and lefty Jon Jay. Even in a tie game, Roberts trusted his non-core relievers to make it through the weakest part of Chicago’s lineup—and was therefore able to use a fresh Jansen against the Cubs’ 2-3-4 hitters in the next inning.
All seven relievers on L.A.’s NLCS roster have pitched in multiple playoff games, but only Maeda, Morrow, and Jansen have averaged even a single inning per outing. The other arms have appeared in shorter, specifically chosen spurts. The relievers have collectively allowed no earned runs in all but one playoff game, in part because of this usage pattern. Watson and Cingrani aren’t typical shutdown relievers, but there’s a reason Rizzo hit .059/.158/.059 in the series.
Of course, it’s easier for Roberts to trust his relievers when they’re pitching effectively, but it’s also easier for them to pitch effectively when they’re placed in the right situations. Roberts has a plan and sticks to it. That discipline opposes, say, the impromptu decision-making from Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who in Game 4 of the ALCS pulled starter Sonny Gray mid-at-bat against José Altuve, seemingly because he didn’t like the look of a single Gray pitch.
Roberts’s bullpen usage reflects his lineup pattern: Postseason rules give him 25 players, so he will use 25 players. And while the Dodgers’ league-leading payroll affords them the ability to build out their depth, it’s not as if L.A.’s backend pieces are any better than the other playoff teams’; Hernández might as well be Houston’s Cameron Maybin, and the bullpen Tonys might as well be Duensing. But Roberts has a 1-through-25 strategy, allowing him to optimize the entire roster. It’s the rare sort of managerial meddling that not only avoids harming the team’s chances, but actually improves them.
By Zach Kram