The Dodgers’ trip east to Philadelphia and New York was nothing short of a mission accomplished given the circumstances. They entered the trip trailing the Giants by 4 games in the NL West, tasked with the difficult assignment of keeping pace while San Francisco hosted the Diamondbacks and Rockies all week at Oracle Park. In a Dodgers’ season that has felt like a letdown more often than not despite one of the best records in baseball, it was a sight for sore eyes to watch them eke out two extra inning wins en route to a weekend sweep in New York.
Friday, of course, never needed to be so difficult – with 2 outs in the bottom of the 7th inning, the Dodgers were cruising with a 4-0 lead and had Brusdar Graterol mowing down hitters on the mound. He’d allow a double into right field after two dominant strikeouts, and had only thrown 9 pitches (7 for strikes). For whatever reason, perhaps because Dave Roberts was bored and wanted to stretch his legs with a walk to the mound, he would abruptly pull Graterol from the game in favor of rookie Justin Bruihl, a lefty with 3.2 innings of Major League experience.
Bruihl looked the part, allowing a single to Dominic Smith (whose splits Dave Roberts evidently didn’t care to look at – he’s hit .340 against left-handed pitching this season!!!!!!!!), a walk, a wild pitch, an intentional walk, and finally 2-run single to Jeff McNeil before being removed, the score now 4-3. Roberts all but tattled on himself postgame for not doing his homework, citing Smith’s left handedness as the reason for the gratuitous pitching change. A puzzling passed ball by Will Smith would follow, allowing the boisterous Pete Alonso to score from third and tie the game before Blake Treinen escaped the jam.
The pitching change to Bruihl was stunning only to those who haven’t watched the Dodgers under Roberts throughout his tenure. Even earlier that game, Matt Beaty would pinch hit in a moment he wasn’t supposed to, as Roberts’ aim had been instead to let Urias bat for himself once more.
It’s a level of miscommunication completely unacceptable at the big league level, and yet seemingly a constant in Dave Roberts’ clubhouse (see: Rich Hill, World Series Game 4, 2018). This season, the lack of attention to detail seems to permeate downward from the manager’s office onto the playing field, rearing its head in the form of pitcher/catcher cross-ups, shoddy infield defense, and a general lack of communication all over the diamond. Despite it all, the Dodgers’ collective talent has carried them to a 72-46 record and a 57% chance to surpass the Giants in the division, per FanGraphs.
Over the years, the examples of Roberts’ inability to make intelligent decisions in the heat of the moment have been countless, and are still burned into Dodger fans’ collective memories. These examples haven’t been limited to the postseason, despite those being the gaffees we remember most.
Costly Regular Season Moments
One particularly fun night came on June 10, 2019, when Roberts would turn to Joe Kelly with a 3-3 tie to start the 8th inning in Anaheim, despite Kelly’s 7.59 ERA to that point in the season. He would leave Kelly in the game to throw 31 pitches, allowing 2 runs while walking 3 batters en route to a 5-3 loss. It wasn’t as if the Dodgers were short on bullpen arms, either – Walker Buehler had pitched 7 innings the day before. After the game, Roberts said he went to Kelly because the team “was going to need him” – perhaps it’s just me, but I’d argue bringing a struggling reliever into high leverage and leaving them out there long enough to blow the game does a less than stellar job of building their confidence.
In 2018, the Dodgers famously had to play a 163rd game against Colorado in order to secure a 6th-straight division title in another season they were heavily favored. Would they have had to waste Buehler in that game if Dave Roberts brought a warm and ready Rich Hill (who continued to pitch in the bullpen postgame, needing to get work in) into pitch the 16th inning on July 14 in Philadelphia, instead of purposely tossing the game into the loss column by pitching Kiké Hernandez?
— VENUE KINGS (@VKingsLA) July 25, 2018
The regular season moments fade from our memories with time, but from time to time they matter, too.
Doc in the Postseason
Dave Roberts’ postseason gaffes are much more famous, and likely closer to the top of your mind. In Game 7 of the 2017’s Fall Classic, Roberts left Yu Darvish in the game to allow 5 runs over 2 innings despite almost immediate indications that he didn’t have good command of his pitches and with Clayton Kershaw available out of the bullpen to provide length as necessary (he would later throw 4 scoreless innings to keep the Astros at 5 runs).
In the aforementioned Game 4 of the 2018 World Series against the Red Sox, Roberts threw away a 4-0 lead and took the air out of a shaking Dodger Stadium by pulling Rich Hill with plenty in the tank via miscommunication, eventually turning to Ryan Madson. Madson, who had no business being in such a tight spot after he had allowed all 4 runners he’d inherited to score during World Series Games 1 and 2, would predictably fall apart.
In 2019, Roberts didn’t wait for the World Series to showcase his ineptitude. In a winner-take-all game 5 of the NLDS against the eventual World Series Champion Nationals, Roberts turned to Clayton Kershaw in relief of Walker Buehler with a 3-1 lead. Inexplicably, a tired Kershaw on three days’ rest remained in the game after allowing a home run by Anthony Rendon to face the moment’s Hottest Hitter on the Planet in Juan Soto. Soto would homer as well, tying the game. Later that same night, Roberts would also ignore warning signs of Joe Kelly’s demise in the 10th inning – despite having Kenley Jansen ready in the bullpen, Roberts would allow Kelly to face a seventh batter after allowing two walks and a ground rule double to load the bases. Even after the grand slam that followed from Kendrick, Roberts waited until Kelly allowed a single to Yan Gomes before eventually bringing Jansen in to mop up a 7-3 deficit that would end the Dodgers’ season with a whimper.
Even 2020, a season that would see the Dodgers triumphantly end decades of waiting with a World Series Championship, was a postseason run marred by questionable decisions along the way. When Tony Gonsolin began to look gassed in the 5th inning of NLCS Game 2 against the Braves, Roberts turned to Pedro Baez with 1 out and 2 runners on. While Baez’s time with the Dodgers certainly had its bright spots along with its blemishes, Pedro Baez hadn’t entered a high leverage situation for the Dodgers in a long time and had only entered with runners on base twice all season. By that time, it was a well known fact that Baez struggled when he didn’t have a clean slate to work with.
What was most astounding that night was what seemed like apathy from Roberts as the Dodgers’ deficit widened. He would leave Baez in the game even after allowing a walk, an RBI single, and another walk that brought home a run to make it 5-0. If that wasn’t enough to pull Baez from the game, the signal from Roberts essentially became “Eh, Atlanta’s got this one. Let’s save some bullets for Game 3.” When the Dodgers came roaring back but eventually lost 8-7, it was obvious that Roberts’ quickness to waive the white flag cost the team an opportunity to tie the series 1-1.
The Dodgers did of course come back to win the series, a testament to the absurd collection of talent put together by Andrew Friedman’s front office heading into the shortened season.
I could sit here, comb through the last several years, and recount events like these for hours on end. Truthfully, none of this is to say that Dave Roberts doesn’t provide any value as a manager. By all accounts, Doc is a wonderful human being who handles the various personalities in the clubhouse at an elite level — something not to be taken for granted. He’s a great representative of the organization and the culture it wants to promote, and that’s important.
Luckily for Roberts, history by and large ignores the process in favor of the results that follow – and given the Dodgers’ level of talent, positive results are virtually inevitable in the long run. But upon closer examination, there’s plenty of evidence that meat has been left on the bone during Roberts’ tenure, as every team he’s coached has been laced with world-class talent. That talent and the commitment to winning from the front office were there long before Roberts’ arrival, and once again has the Dodgers equipped with everything they need for a deep run in 2021.
The “long run” success is what leads to 8 straight NL West titles under both Don Mattingly and Dave Roberts. When the sample size tightens in October, though, the game changes. The Dodgers have until then to learn how to consistently produce results in the short run, with or without Dave Roberts doing his homework on opposing players’ splits. Otherwise, it’ll be another roll of the dice – can talent win out twice in a row, or will we all be left pulling our hair out as Edwin Uceta enters a high-leverage situation in a Wild Card game that should have been avoided altogether? Only time will tell.