When Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts announced he was going with a reliever instead of 20-game winner Julio Urias to open Game 5 of a National League Division Series earlier this month in San Francisco, he said the decision wasn’t his, but rather came down from the “tippy-top” of the organization.
You mean Mark Walter, the owner and chairman, Roberts was asked somewhat in jest?
“The very tippy-top,” Roberts responded.
Roberts said he has a seat at the table when those kinds of decisions are made, but that’s all.
“I do not get more than one vote,” he said. “No, I don’t. I don’t.”
That’s the way the manager’s job has devolved in Major League Baseball these days. Decisions are made largely based on analytics by the baseball operations department. A game plan is devised, and the manager is expected to implement it without any deviation.
He must sell it to the players and explain it to the media. If the plan goes wrong, he must defend it or face the wrath of his bosses. A manager without clout works more to maintain credibility in the clubhouse and with the public.
Conversely, the next general manager who comes down postgame to explain a move that failed will be the first.
Roberts has managed the Dodgers for six years and is going into a lame duck season on his four-year contract. He has a .622 winning percentage, has won three NL pennants and a World Series. Nonetheless, the skipper role has morphed into more of a middle manager in this era’s iteration of baseball.
“Everybody has to deal with it,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “The key to any job is to co-exist in a workplace. There’s a give and a take. It’s just a matter of how much you’re willing to give or how much you’re willing to take.
“Every man has an inner and outer dignity, what you will take to keep the job and sometimes what you won’t take. At some point in time, you’ve got to say, ‘Hey, you can keep it.’”
The World Series is offering a neat comparison. The Astros are led by the 72-year-old Baker, whose 24 years as a manager for five clubs has spanned the old and new way of doing things. Brian Snitker of the Atlanta Braves is finishing his fifth season after decades of managing in the minors.
The clubs are tied at a game apiece with the next three games scheduled to begin Friday night at Truist Park in Atlanta.
Snitker, 66, said everybody in the Braves baseball ops has input regarding major on-field decisions, “but I’m not forced to do anything I don’t want to do.”
And that’s refreshing to hear.
“Yeah, there’s just more information out there,” he said. “Analytics is good information. It’s not as simple as it used to be, just playing the game and going off your gut and instincts so much. It’s just more involved now than it used to be.”
Both Baker and Snitker are baseball lifers.
Baker, a former outfielder of much repute, played 19 years in the big leagues, batting .278 with 242 homers and 1,981 hits. He played on the 1981 Dodgers that defeated the New York Yankees in six games to win his only World Series. That’s a lot of street cred.
As a manager, he’s won 1,987 regular season games and has a .534 winning percentage. Every one of the teams he’s managed has been to the playoffs, but none has won the World Series. The last time he went was 2002 with the Giants, and they lost in seven games to the Angels.
They were up 3-2 and on the brink of winning Game 6 when the Angels came from behind to take that game and ultimately the series.
His pitching moves—taking out starter Russ Ortiz—late in Game 6 still haunt him. But here’s the thing, they were his moves.
“The use of pitchers, the short hook and the more importance of the bullpen is a lot different now than it was 20 years ago,” Baker said. “I was blasted for taking Russ Ortiz out 20 years ago, but nowadays I’d have been blasted for not taking him out.”
Baker said it’s not a matter of whether it’s old school or new school. He was hired by the Astros in 2020 in the days between the sign-stealing scandal and the pandemic to establish some order to a messy situation.
Nothing works all the time, he said. “There are no absolutes in sports, not as long as you’re playing against somebody on the other side who can mess up your game plan.”
Dodgers fans tend to blame Roberts for moves that are dictated by the front office. It’s the same with Aaron Boone and the Yankees, Gabe Kapler and the Giants, and whoever’s in the managing seat of the San Diego Padres, just to name a few.
When St. Louis Cardinals president of baseball ops John Mozeliak recently fired manager Mike Schildt for “philosophical differences,” that was code for saying Schildt didn’t want to implement what Mozeliak wanted him to do.
But the Dodgers baseball ops, led by president Andrew Friedman, dealt Roberts a bad hand this October. Analytics-driven tactical decisions turned too cute by half this postseason.
They used Max Scherzer in relief to close Game 5 against the Giants, rendering him unavailable to start Game 6 of the NL Championship Series, which the Dodgers lost to the Braves. Same thing with Urias, who was used in relief against the Braves, and didn’t quite have it when he started later in the series.
Gavin Lux, a second baseman, was moved to center field for the first time ever as injuries mounted. It was trial by fire, and he missed a key fly ball in Game 3 of the NLCS that was emblematic of the hole the Dodgers never emerged from.
Roberts was left to take it on the chin for all those moves, but he knew that’s what would happen when he signed up to replace Don Mattingly, who no longer wanted any part of the Dodgers situation under Friedman.
Roberts also was an outfielder and played 10 years in the Majors, two of them with the Dodgers.
He played for old school managers like Jim Tracy in L.A. and Terry Francona in Boston, where he’ll always be remembered for stealing second base in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Yankees. He was knocked in as the tying run, the first domino in a historic Red Sox comeback. Boston went on to erase a 0-3 deficit before sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series for the first time since 1918.
Francona was one of the first managers of this era to deal in Boston with some front office interference. Roberts is well aware of the difference.
“When I came up certainly the manager had complete autonomy,” Roberts said. “That’s not good nor bad. It’s just different than the way the world works today. The most important thing to me is your ability to relate to the players. Dusty is at the top of that list, clearly. I think Brian also does a fantastic job. Baseball’s still baseball, and getting players to play to their optimum ability, that’s the goal.”
(The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Andrew Friedman’s name in the 27th paragraph.)