NLDS Managerial Report Card: Dave Roberts

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As I’ve done for the past few years, I’m going to be grading each eliminated postseason manager on their decision-making. We spend the year mostly ignoring managers’ on-field contributions, because to be honest, they’re pretty small. Using the wrong reliever in the eighth inning just doesn’t feel that bad on June 22; there are so many more games still coming, and the regular season is more about managing the grind than getting every possible edge every day. The playoffs aren’t like that; with so few games to separate wheat from chaff, every last ounce of win probability matters, and managers make personnel decisions accordingly. What better time to grade them?

My goal is to evaluate each manager in terms of process, not results. If you bring in your best pitcher to face their best hitter in a huge spot, that’s a good decision regardless of outcome. Try a triple steal with the bases loaded only to have the other team make four throwing errors to score three runs? I’m probably going to call that a blunder even though it worked out. Managers do plenty of other things – getting team buy-in for new strategies and unconventional bullpen usage behind closed doors is a skill I find particularly valuable – but as I have no insight into how that’s accomplished or how each manager differs, I can’t exactly assign grades for it.

I’m also purposefully avoiding vague qualitative concerns like “trusting your veterans because they’ve been there before.” Playoff coverage lovingly focuses on clutch plays by proven performers, but Evan Carter and Corbin Carroll have been great too. Forget trusting your veterans – the playoffs are about trusting your best players. Bryce Harper is important because he’s a great player, not because of the number of playoff series he’s appeared in. There’s nothing inherently good about having been around a long time; when I’m evaluating decisions, “but he’s a veteran” just doesn’t enter my thought process. I’ve already covered the losing managers of the Wild Card round and the ALDS. Dave Roberts is up next.

Dave Roberts, Los Angeles Dodgers
Batting: C+
I’m not sure this is on Roberts, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t start this section with a discussion of the playoff roster. The Dodgers brought 13 pitchers, which meant a four-player bench. They opted for two platoon types (Enrique Hernández and Chris Taylor), backup catcher Austin Barnes, and Kolten Wong. They have three lefty bats in their normal starting lineup against righties; that meant that they’d only be able to pinch-hit for two of them in their normal roster shuffle. I would have preferred Amed Rosario in Wong’s spot, but I understand the difficulty posed by carrying a huge pitching staff. It’s worth noting that Ryan Pepiot never appeared in this series, though; maybe they could have used an extra position player.

In Game 1 of the NLDS, it hardly mattered. The Diamondbacks went to a lefty specialist for the David Peralta/James Outman segment of the LA lineup, and Roberts responded with his righties. He even got Wong in against a righty, batting for Miguel Rojas. None of it mattered, because the Dodgers were down 11-0 at the time. Oh well.

In Game 2, the same situation repeated itself. The Dodgers put runners on first and second against Zac Gallen in the bottom of the sixth with a pocket of three lefties coming up. This time, Torey Lovullo went to lefty Andrew Saalfrank right away, and Roberts reacted by putting in his platoon bats. With only two good righty bats on the bench, that meant Outman stayed in and faced a lefty. That seems like the way to go, it just didn’t work out for LA this time. Though both righties reached to score a run and keep the bases juiced, Outman struck out. Wong came in against the subsequent righty reliever and grounded out, and the Dodgers only cashed in a single run. There weren’t any levers to pull after that; Arizona held on 4-2.

Roberts decided to switch it up for Game 3. With Brandon Pfaadt going, the Arizona lefties were likely to make an earlier appearance, which meant the normal plan of taking out the lefty bats at the first sign of a lefty reliever would leave the Dodgers out of luck when the parade of righty relievers followed. The solution? Start Hernández and keep Outman on the bench for later use, say against a tough right-handed reliever.

It worked like a charm. Pfaadt departed in the top of the fifth with Jason Heyward due up and a man on second. When Joe Mantiply came in, Taylor pinch-hit, and then Hernández batted next – Roberts achieved the desired platoon matchup and managed to hold Outman in reserve anyway. Naturally, Hernández flew out to end the threat. Hey, all you can do is make your matchups a little better, not guarantee a hit.

But wait! Now the Dodgers didn’t have any righty bats on their bench, so Mantiply got to face Peralta and then Rojas (can’t bring in a righty here, or the Dodgers would get to counter with Outman). And saving Outman didn’t help in the end. Roberts pinch-hit for Peralta the next time he was due up – with Barnes, who hit .180/.256/.242 this year. I’d rather just keep Peralta in at that point. Outman ended up swapping into that spot in the lineup because no one else was available to play the outfield, and he never got to hit. Not ideal!

For the most part, though, Roberts was a victim of his roster. I thought everything up to the Barnes pinch-hitting appearance made sense. Sometimes you have a team with Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman and it just doesn’t score runs. Just don’t expect much sympathy from me if you somehow talk yourself into pinch-hitting with a guy slugging .240.

Pitching: B-
How long would you let Clayton Kershaw go? He opened Game 1 double-single-single-double-homer, which might have been enough for me. On the other hand, the Dodgers weren’t expecting much length from the rest of their starters – I wouldn’t want to ask my bullpen for 27 outs when the plan for the next two games was a Bobby Miller start and then a Lance Lynn/bullpen game combo. Unfortunately, Kershaw didn’t have it – he gave up another run on some hard contact while only recording a single out. I might have been tempted to let him go as long as he could with whatever he had left in the tank, but it was pretty clear that the only thing in question for this game was how to minimize pitcher fatigue.

Given that, 5.2 innings out of Emmet Sheehan and Shelby Miller sounds like a great idea to me. A few higher-leverage arms (Michael Grove, Alex Vesia, Caleb Ferguson) closed things out, but Roberts kept the big names under wraps, exactly as he should have.

In Game 2, déjà vu struck. The Diamondbacks loaded the bases before recording an out. Miller gave up three runs before escaping the first inning. They followed that up by putting two runners on with one out in the second. Roberts stuck with Miller against Ketel Marte, and Miller rewarded him with an easy out. Then Brusdar Graterol entered to face Tommy Pham. He recorded an out to end the inning, and I think the decision here comes down to Pham’s swing plane. He’s much better against high fastballs than sinkers thanks to a flat swing. Marte is more of a fly ball hitter, vulnerable at the top of the zone. I liked this decision quite a lot; Roberts correctly identified that he couldn’t allow those runners to score and went to a good matchup, having protected his bullpen in the previous game.

Graterol faced the lineup all the way to the bottom, departing in favor of Ryan Brasier when Corbin Carroll came in. Brasier used his new cutter to befuddle Carroll and Marte, then switched back to his slider-heavy approach against the heaping pile of righties who followed. One of those righties (Lourdes Gurriel Jr.) clobbered a homer. Now the Dodgers were up against it – down 4-2 and with nine outs to record. Roberts gave Joe Kelly a little more leash than I’d like; strange as it sounds, I would’ve gone to Kelly a batter earlier, against Alek Thomas in the sixth. Roberts’ usage meant that Kelly was ineligible to leave the game against Carroll, the third batter he faced. You should really aim your lefties at the Perdomo/Carroll/Marte part of the batting order, or at least the Carroll/Marte part.

Speaking of, Carroll and Marte both singled. Now that the lefties were done, Kelly was again the right pitcher for the moment, and he managed to get Pham to end the threat, but the Dodgers carried two lefties and Arizona had only one stretch of lefties and switch hitters worth attacking. It’s weird to end up with Kelly facing him in that situation. Evan Phillips followed Kelly – yup, checks out – and overall, the Dodgers’ bullpen plan was a success despite an awkward sequencing moment with Kelly. One run and 7.1 innings is an impressive performance by the relief corps; maybe the offense should have scored a few more runs.

By Game 3, Roberts was surely feeling pretty defeated. Lynn drew the start and got through two scoreless innings, but then the meatballs started. A four-seamer down the pipe to Geraldo Perdomo – homer. A cutter dead read to Carroll – groundout. A cutter in Marte’s nitro zone – another homer. Middle-middle cutter to Christian Walker – adios, pelota. Lynn’s command was nonexistent; he buzzed Gabriel Moreno high and tight with two pitches, then threw him two four-seamers middle-middle (take, foul), then hung a slider in the meatiest possible part of the plate for another homer. Think it was just bad luck? That foul ball was pummeled out of the park, only maybe two feet foul down the right field line.

The only thing Roberts could have done differently here was remove Lynn after, I don’t know, maybe the second homer. He was clearly making a lot of mistakes over the center of the plate. But even though that sounds like a minor difference – he let a struggling starter face two to three extra batters – those minor differences add up. Walker is a fly ball hitter who gets most of his value through homers. You want Lance Lynn, whose greatest weakness is surrendering homers, facing that guy? It seemed pretty clear that Lynn didn’t have it by the time he faced Moreno, and this was a do-or-die game; that homer was particularly egregious because Roberts really couldn’t afford any more runs.

Everything after this went more or less by the book; Roberts used lefties against vulnerable pockets of the Diamondbacks lineup and sprinkled in a heaping helping of his best relievers to finish out the game. The bullpen went 6.1 innings and didn’t allow a run. The Dodgers lost 4-2. I don’t want to let Roberts off the hook for leaving Lynn in too long, but when your starters give you 4.2 innings across two games and your biggest flaw as a manager is leaving them in too long, you probably weren’t winning that series.

Because of those extra batters Lynn faced and because of the tiny misstep with Kelly, I can’t get any higher than a B- for my grade here. But let’s be honest: Roberts was dealt a horrendous hand in these playoffs. He had a few nice moves, too; Graterol against Pham was one I particularly liked. He’s had his share of bullpen foibles in the past, but his pitchers didn’t pitch and his hitters didn’t hit. The best manager in history, whoever that might be, wasn’t winning this series.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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David McCannmember
4 months ago

I love this series and I have learned quite a bit