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  • There wasn't a good argument for the Dodgers to get rid of Dave Roberts, but plenty of fans and critics made them anyway.
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
November 07, 2018

He managed teams to the NLCS and Game 7 of the World Series in the first two years of his tenure, but Dave Roberts spent the entirety of his third year without a contract extension. When the defending NL champions dipped to 16–26 on May 16 after losing six consecutive games to the lowly Reds and Marlins, Roberts didn’t back down from his preseason prediction that his squad would win the division. By the end of September, despite a miserable start to the season, the Dodgers were NL West champions for a sixth consecutive time. Three weeks later, they won their second straight pennant.

After just five games, the Dodgers watched another team celebrate a World Series in Chavez Ravine for a second consecutive season. The question was whether Los Angeles should retain Roberts, a progressive tactician and revered people person whose hands-on managing drew the ire across Southern California airwaves and among traditionalists.

On Tuesday, the Dodgers reportedly picked up Roberts's option for the 2019 season and have put multi-year extension talks "to the side," team president Andrew Friedman told Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times.

For one of MLB's marquee franchises, the Dodgers endured dark days after winning the 1988 World Series. They would not win another playoff game until 2004 or a playoff series until '08. In that time, they suffered through two wayward, irresponsible ownerships, one of which traded a franchise icon without consulting the general manager (Fox shipping Mike Piazza to the Marlins), while the other bankrupted the team through a bitter, high-stakes divorce (Frank McCourt). After playing in five World Series from '74 to '88, the Dodgers didn’t get back to the Fall Classic until 2017.

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Those dark days weren’t long ago. Under Roberts and the front office guidance of team president Andrew Friedman and former general manager Farhan Zaidi (who was named Giants team president on Tuesday), the Dodgers cultivated one of baseball’s deepest and most consistent franchises over three seasons. When Don Mattingly left to manage Miami after the 2015 season, Friedman and Zaidi hired Roberts, a dark-horse candidate whose reputation as a people person preceded him from his playing days, but whose strategic acumen was generally unknown.

Unlike other players-turned-managers who lacked professional coaching experience—Chicago’s Robin Ventura, Colorado’s Walt Weiss and St. Louis’ Mike Matheny, for example—Roberts spent five years in San Diego as both a first-base coach and bench coach. Before he arrived, the franchise won 17 playoff games, three playoff series and no pennants in 28 years. Since Roberts took over, the Dodgers have won 23 playoff games, five playoff series and two pennants. If he lacked experience or strategic prowess, it wasn’t reflected in the regular season.

The criticism of Roberts can be distilled into a handful of decisions that altered the courses of the 2017 and ‘18 World Series and, if you’re the fatalistic type, hindered the Dodgers’ chances of winning. In Game 2 of the 2017 World Series, Roberts lifted an effective Rich Hill after just four innings of work, not wanting the lefty to face a dangerous Astros lineup a third time. His plan for the bullpen to limit the Astros worked until Marwin Gonzalez tied the game with a ninth-inning homer off of closer Kenley Jansen, one of the game’s most dominant pitchers that season. Houston proceeded to feast on the two weakest pitchers left in Los Angeles' bullpen in extra innings and stole Game 2 in Los Angeles to tie the series at one. If Roberts trusted Hill a little longer than four innings, maybe he doesn’t burn his bullpen and the Dodgers head to Houston with a 2–0 lead. It was an unconventional strategy that backfired. Chalk it up to another of baseball’s great unknowns.

Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The great irony of the Hill decision was that Roberts, whom the press and fans ridiculed for his quick hook during the series, would be lambasted for leaving Game 7 starter Yu Darvish in too long. The high-profile midseason acquisition was ineffective from the start, but Roberts let him face future World Series MVP George Springer, whose two-run homer gave Houston an insurmountable five-run lead.

Keep him in! Take him out! Welcome to the world of managing, when you never get it right as long as airwaves go live the next morning.

Roberts was less scripted with his pitching this past October but more keen on perfecting matchups in the 2018 playoffs. With remarkable depth on their bench—the Dodgers’ top three home-run hitters typically didn’t start against lefthanders—Roberts would sometimes pinch-hit for players as early as the third inning if it meant securing a matchup he thought was more favorable. The loudest cries from the fan base were for Roberts to eschew the righty-lefty matchup and play first baseman David Freese, who mashed lefthanders but found less success against righties, and who would usually be replaced as soon as a righthander would appear.

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Fans and critics wanted Roberts to “play the hot hand” and abide by more traditional baseball concepts instead of overmanaging. When Roberts finally did that in Game 1 of the World Series—he let Freese hit against righty Matt Barnes with two on and nobody out, trailing 3–2—Freese struck out. Roberts would also come under fire for his dependence on relief pitcher Ryan Madson—who let every runner he inherited score in the World Series—and another controversial replacement of Hill in Game 5 that both sides cited as a miscommunication. By the series’ end, Twitter feeds, radio waves and letters to the editor were alight with calls for his ouster.

Reactionary fans are a permanent side effect of success, but the boos Roberts endured in the Game 5 introductions reflected the immediate spoiling of a fan base and the price of success. It wasn’t clear why some were booing—maybe it was his decision to lift Hill after 6 1/3 innings, or because the Dodgers lost a game that they were leading 4–0 in the seventh—but there stood one of the game’s best managers, one who has done nothing but win since coming to the franchise, unwelcome in his own home. It was as if Roberts were at fault for the team’s .111 batting average on high pitches and dreadful situational hitting, which further pressured the bullpen.

Roberts is an ideal target of traditionalists, those who cite “analytics”—now an ill-defined umbrella term for unconventional strategy—as cheapening the game with which they are familiar. He is a scapegoat for those who decry the decline of the complete game, who bristle at the term “exit velocity” and wince at long swings on 0–2 counts.

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The worst part of Roberts being tagged as one of the new generation run amok is that he was the traditionalist’s ideal: a player who relished headfirst slides, who sacrificed his body for any ball in the gap and who stole the most important base in the history of baseball. He didn’t make his MLB debut until 27, didn’t have a regular starting job until 30, and was usually one of the least naturally talented players in the clubhouse. But he did have speed, determination and personality. Like his former teammate Alex Cora, Boston’s already-beloved manager, Roberts was the kind of player you’d add to the payroll just to have around the team.

All of those traits have translated into the best stretch in recent Dodgers history. Roberts is the rare type whose personality can keep a clubhouse comfortable during difficult stretches while understanding the frustrations of players not selected for the day’s lineup. One of Roberts’ proteges—third-base coach Chris Woodward—was recently hired to be the Rangers' manager, and hitting coach Turner Ward was poached by the Reds. Teams want to be more like the Dodgers, not less.

Why fans would want to surrender a gem like Roberts, I have no idea. Teams all over the league are looking for somebody just like him in hopes that they too can win back-to-back pennants.

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