After his series of gutsy and unconventional maneuverings in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts achieved the unique distinction of simultaneously being the darling of the sabermetric crowd and the old-schoolers.
The sabermetric wing has long advocated using the “best” reliever, i.e. the closer, when the situation warrants it rather than in the ninth inning with no runners on base and no thought as to whom is coming up to the plate. The old-schoolers, exemplified by the somewhat justified (at least in this case) ranting and raving of Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage, lament the specialization and babying that is an ingrained part of today’s landscape, particularly in the use of relievers.
Roberts is straddling eras and philosophies. Perhaps the tactics he’s utilized in the 2016 postseason will be a seminal moment for a prosperous and enlightened future. As of now, giving managers that level of freedom to the field boss carries with it a certain amount of risk and inevitable fear of the unknown for everyone from players to coaches to managers to the front office. Over a long season, it might be too much ambiguity to function. With that, the overwhelming likelihood is that, during the regular season, teams will stick to the formula, have designated roles, use closers for more than one inning only occasionally, and move forward as before.
Still, Roberts’ usage of Kenley Jansen is unprecedented for 2016 and it wasn’t just for NLDS Game 5. Jansen has pitched in two games in the National League Championship Series and both appearances were for more than one inning. This is part of the club’s plan of attack for the playoffs and is being done with input, if not outright encouragement, from president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and his staff.
It will continue, they hope, for the World Series. However, with the aforementioned freedom comes a certain amount of risk. Those who were lauding Roberts for his deployment of Jansen were engaged in a dispute in Game 1 because of Roberts ordering Joe Blanton to issue two intentional walks to force Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon to pinch-hit for his closer Aroldis Chapman. That pinch-hitter, Miguel Montero, hit a grand slam.
Like NLDS Game 5, the NLCS Game 1 moves were debatable. In the NLDS, they worked; in the NLCS, they didn’t. But for that, the Dodgers could possibly be up three games to none right now. But for Roberts’ NLDS Game 5 moves, the Dodgers might not even be in the NLCS in the first place. Or the same results might have been achieved.
Woulda, shoulda, coulda…who knows?
There’s no legitimate answer.
So the same Roberts is now under siege by the same people who lauded him because he let Jansen pitch the ninth inning of Game 3 with a six-run lead. If they’re going to go from love to hate to indifference within the span of one postseason, the emotional toll will be exorbitant.
Sure, he could have pulled Jansen when the game was out of grand slam reach, but there’s an argument to be made that Jansen was already in the game and warmed up, so it was better for the Dodgers to just be safe and let him close it out. Jansen threw 21 pitches – not a crazy amount – and if the team needs him for Game 4, he’ll be available. They’re clearly not worried about the status of his arm beyond 2016, since they have indicated no intention of signing him to a long-term contract as he prepares for free agency, so what’s the difference to them?
This is a non-issue in any circumstance other than the height of the pedestal upon which Roberts has been placed due to a series of questionable decisions in a decisive game of a playoff series that happened to work. It’s not the moves then or now that will place him in danger; it’s the expectations that accompany those moves.
If the new-school thinkers believe Roberts is the embodiment of what they’ve been looking for based on their sabermetric principles, and if the old-schoolers believe that he’s destroying that which they’ve railed against when it comes to babying players, both sides will be disappointed. Roberts might be the case study of the next wave of managers who are not going to adhere to the designated roles, but when experimentation and deviating from the norm begins, it leaves those conducting the experiments wide open for criticism. Roberts is being criticized not for a game in which his strategies cost his team the game, but in a game they won.
Giving managers this amount of independence is a dual-edged sword. No longer can a front office hire a manager who will do little more than mimic Tony La Russa with the designated roles for his relievers and adhere to it without fail, expecting to have a level of success that is contingent on the talent level. Nor can they follow the template advanced in Moneyball with a Manchurian manager mindlessly following orders from the front office. In-game strategy will take a decidedly flexible turn with the manager actually having to think rather than push buttons. If a team hires a manager who can’t adapt to that type of work environment, the organization will suffer for it.
This is not Roberts’ fault, but it speaks to the ease at which most managers stick to rote strategies rather than what they think is the right call because it’s safer. With that, whether it works or not, they don’t have to deal with what Roberts has coming at him from all sides. If he loses because of one of these outside-the-box decisions, he’s liable to be shoved off that pedestal entirely, with the accompanying damage from a height he should not be at so early in his managerial career to begin with.