From Wall Street Journal:
The Dodgers’ Dave Roberts: Baseball’s Ultimate Micromanager
Los Angeles’s rookie manager makes more moves than anyone in the game in an effort to gain an edge in every at-bat.
By BRIAN COSTA
Oct. 21, 2016 3:42 p.m. ET
The lineup card in the Los Angeles Dodgers dugout starts out like every other: neat and tidy, 25 names sorted by starters, bench and bullpen. But by the end of most games, it is an unsightly mess of marker ink, with names crossed out here and scribbled in there.
When it comes to in-game lineup revisions, baseball has never seen anyone quite as aggressive as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, whose calculated tinkering has his team two wins from the World Series. In his first season on the job, he made 606 pitching changes, an all-time high. He called for a pinch hitter 324 times, the most by any team in nearly a quarter century.
“He’s using his roster differently than almost anyone ever has,” said Josh Byrnes, a top Dodgers executive. “And he’s doing it in his first year.”Roberts twice pulled pitchers in the midst of no-hitters so as not to overexert them. He called for more intentional walks than any other manager to reach this postseason. He recently brought in his best starter in relief of his best reliever. The only thing he doesn’t do once the game starts is sit tight.
Roberts, a 44-year-old former major-league outfielder, is a symbol of his time. As fatigue and injuries have made the everyday player something of a relic, the typical roster has become less a mix of people with defined roles and more of a collection of interchangeable parts. And nobody has had more moving pieces to juggle than Roberts.
The Dodgers were built on the strength of their depth. A bevy of injuries required them to rely on it. The team made 305 transactions during the regular season, the highest single-year total on record, according to Stats LLC. But the constant roster shuffling between games didn’t automatically create a revolving door once the games began.
The steady stream of substitutions is a byproduct of Roberts’s zeal to gain an advantage in every hitter-versus-pitcher matchup—and his willingness to use anyone in uniform to that end, if only for one at-bat.
“There’s a lot of trust that I have in everybody on the lineup card,” Roberts said. “So I think that for me to act aggressively early in games, to go to guys off the bench, or go to guys in the pen, I just feel comfortable with it.”
Few managers understand the value of a well-timed substitution as well as Roberts. His stolen base as a pinch runner for the Boston Red Sox during the 2004 ALCS helped spark a comeback that catapulted Boston to its first World Series title since 1918.
But these days, Roberts’ confidence in his maneuvering stems from an embrace of advanced statistics that fits a front office known for making effective use of them. To say Roberts relies on numbers in the dugout is like saying an air-traffic controller relies on communications in the tower. It’s true, but it’s the details that make the difference.
In considering whether to deploy a particular pitcher, the traditional manager might consider which hand he throws with and what his past results have been versus a particular hitter. The conversations between Roberts and bench coach Bob Geren delve into the rates of spin of a pitcher’s fastball, the swing type of the opposing hitter, the rate at which that pitcher induces ground balls and so on, all in search of a predictive edge.
“He blends everything,” Geren said.
Roberts has also almost entirely ditched one of baseball’s oldest strategies: sacrifice bunting. Though bunts have long been decried by modern baseball thinkers, Roberts took his disdain further than almost anyone. Dodgers position players had only five sacrifice bunts during the regular season, the lowest total by any team in recorded history dating to 1894.
Yet inside the Dodgers’ clubhouse, Roberts relies less on his analytical savvy than on his affability and status as an ex-player. The wonky side that Geren sees is less familiar to the players affected by it.
The duality is important. Roberts needs his grasp of how to play the odds to make so many moves during games. But he needs his credibility with players to convince them to embrace roles that are more varied and less structured than what they may be accustomed to.“We don’t have any conversations like that,” Dodgers outfielder Howie Kendrick said. “And honestly, I wouldn’t want to have any conversations like that.”
“If you don’t have that, then a lot of the tactical stuff, you just don’t have the political capital to carry it out,” said Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi. “He’s absolutely built that and built trust with the players.”
The relationship-building side of what Roberts does was easier for Dodgers executives to foresee when they were interviewing candidates for the job last fall. His energetic demeanor sold them from the outset. The bigger question was what kind of tactician he would be.
To find out, the Dodgers’ brass had him sit with them and watch a video of Game 5 of the 2015 division series, in which the Dodgers lost to the New York Mets. He was asked, essentially, to talk them through how he would manage each situation that arose in that game and why.
“It’s more about an attention to detail than, ‘I would bunt here.’ ‘Oh, that’s great, we would bunt, too,’” Zaidi said. “It’s more getting inside a potential manager’s head.”
As it turned out, the way Roberts thought through that game was not unlike the way he had to manage many regular-season games, with an aggressiveness typically reserved for October. With the Dodgers trailing the Cubs 3-2 in the NLCS entering Game 6 on Saturday, Roberts will need every possible matchup advantage he can gain.
The feeling will be familiar.