Managers’ decision-making in the postseason is generally ripe for discussion. They tend to be negative, but thankfully managers are improving their in-game tactics. Terry Francona, for one, is a great example of what I’m talking about. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has made a few good decisions this postseason, but he has mostly struggled to make the right decisions to put his team in the best position to win.
Roberts is finishing up his first year managing a major league team, so it is understandable for him not to be a master tactician or expert in game theory. Still, similar to what I mentioned in my post on Buck Showalter, it is GM Farhan Zaidi’s responsibility to make sure his direct report receives the proper training to excel at his job. Zaidi needs to use Roberts’ mistakes as teachable moments, regardless of how far the Dodgers get in the postseason.
I am not going to go over every little thing that Roberts has done since Game 1 of the NLDS, just some of the more significant decisions. As always, evaluation of the decision-making will be based on the process, not the result.
In terms of lineup construction, leading off with Chase Utley or Howie Kendrick are odd choices. They both had mediocre OBPs this season. There are not much better options available, though. Some of the better OBP guys hit for too much power for leadoff to be ideal. It might be interesting to try Adrián González there. He doesn’t hit for as much power as he used to, but he had a .350 OBP the past two seasons. Yes, there would be a big sacrifice in speed, but that is a worthwhile tradeoff for the decreased number of outs made.
Let’s start with Game 4 of the NLDS. Kershaw pitched a great game with 11 strikeouts until the seventh inning. What happened to him is what always happens to him, and it is not the silly narrative that Kershaw is not clutch or is a choker in the playoffs. If you look at all of Kershaw’s poor postseason performances, they have a common theme: He was left in the game too long. Even the great Clayton Kershaw is subject to the times through the order penalty. Barring a big lead, unless a pitcher is a good number two or better, he should be restricted to two times through the order in the postseason. You need to win and the extra days off allow for heavy bullpen usage.
In Game 4, Kershaw was left in for the fourth time through the order. A pitcher generally becomes half a run worse each time he turns the lineup over. Kershaw has a 2.10 RA9 since 2013. So by the time Trea Turner came up for the fourth time, Kershaw was approximately a true talent 4.10 RA9 pitcher. There are better pitchers than that in the bullpen, such as Pedro Báez. Instead, Roberts waited until Kershaw was in trouble to pull him, rather than pull him before trouble happened.
Pedro Báez would have been a fine choice to start the inning, but not with bases loaded and Jayson Werth at the plate. With a 3.29 Leverage Index, it was a very high leverage situation. This was a job for Kenley Jansen. I suspect that Roberts shied away from him in that moment because he got lit up in Game 3. I hope that speculation is wrong, because making decisions based on what a player did in one game is terrible process. Even the best players have bad games. It does not mean that their true talent suddenly changed.
After Báez hit Werth, the LI jumped up to 4.77. Calling for Luis Avilán for the platoon advantage against Daniel Murphy is not indefensible, but Jansen was still the better choice. Avilán gave up a two-RBI single to Murphy to tie up the game. Roberts still did not go to Jansen after that. Luckily for him, Joe Blanton struck out Anthony Rendon to end the inning. He was also very lucky to have a lead for Jansen to save in the ninth inning.
Roberts performed better in Game 5. You can debate whether Julio Urías or Rich Hill should have started the game. I would have gone with Urías, but it was close. Roberts kept Hill on a short leash, and he smartly pulled him in the third inning when he got into trouble. Intentionally walking Murphy did not make any sense, though, and he made him pay for it with a stolen base.
Many fans were probably surprised that Blanton was put into the game instead of Urías, but it was actually a sensible move. The heart of the order already passed, so why waste bullets from Urías on the bottom of the order? Once Urías came in, he pitched two shutout innings which included the Nationals’ best hitters.
Perhaps being inspired by Francona’s usage of Andrew Miller, Roberts called on Jansen in the seventh inning to protect a one-run lead after Grant Dayton gave up two runs. This was absolutely the right move, too. Letting him throw 51 pitches is questionable, and fatigue might be why he walked the last two batters he faced. I am more critical of allowing Jansen to face the lineup for the second time. This is not something he has experience doing, and if he were adept at turning a lineup over he would be a starter, not a reliever.
Thankfully, Roberts pulled Jansen and had Kershaw get the last two outs. It was a bit risky bringing him in on such short rest, but he threw only seven pitches. I don’t believe that I have to make the case that Kershaw was a far better option out of the ‘pen than anybody the Dodgers had left.
Roberts committed what were arguably his most egregious errors in Game 1 of the NLCS. He started off well by limiting Kenta Maeda to two times through the order. I’m also a fan of having Báez pitch two innings. Roberts’ pitcher usage was fine, actually. One could argue that he should have brought in Jansen instead of Blanton in the eighth inning, but it was probably for the best given how many pitches he threw only two days prior.
The intentional walks were the problems. Intentional walks are rarely the right thing to do. The difference between the the batter being walked and the batter coming up to the plate is never enough to justify the increase in run expectancy that is being allowed. To give you an idea of how big that gap has to be, a manager would have to bat his pitcher behind his best hitter. Or face Barry Bonds in his prime.
It is one thing if, say, Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo were being intentionally walked. But it was Jason Heyward. I don’t believe for a second that his 72 wRC+ is representative of his true talent, but I am sure that his true talent is nowhere near high enough to justify walking him to get to Javier Báez just to get the platoon advantage. Doing so raised the LI over a whole point to 3.63.
Roberts got away with it just to repeat the same error with Chris Coghlan, who was terrible this year and has hit .247/.332/.416 since 2014. This was likely done because the pitcher slot was coming up after him, and Roberts wanted to force Joe Maddon to pinch-hit for Aroldis Chapman and get him out of the game.
There are multiple problems with this decision. First of all, the difference between Chapman and Héctor Rondón is not enough to justify facing a much, much better hitter than Chapman in Miguel Montero, especially with the bases loaded in a tie game in the eighth inning. Intentionally walking Coghlan raised the LI by almost two points. Furthermore, though Montero is not a big offensive threat, he is significantly better than Coghlan and is roughly a league-average hitter versus right-handed pitchers over the past three seasons.
Roberts put his team in an incredibly dangerous situation just to get an inferior pitcher to Chapman in the ninth inning. Sure enough, Montero made him pay in the worst way. His grand slam raised the win expectancy from 63.2 percent to 98.7 percent. It would be one thing if Roberts learned a very expensive lesson from this, but it is troubling that he regrets nothing.
Roberts did better in Game 2, though Clayton Kershaw did a lot to make his job easier. He did well to limit Kershaw to three times through the order and then have Jansen finish off the last two innings to preserve the one-run victory.
I have seen much worse than Roberts from more experienced managers. He had a good first year managing and is making some good decisions from the dugout. However, there is still significant room for improvement. Hopefully for Dodgers fans, he will learn from those mistakes and become an even better manager.
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Luis Torres is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.