Dave Roberts Trusted The Process Last Night. Until He Didn’t.


As Bill noted in the wee hours this morning, Dave Roberts pushed buttons and pulled levers like crazy last night. His unconventionality was not purely a product of gut instinct and panic, however. As Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times — baseball’s best beat writer going right now, without question — noted in his gamer, there was a plan in place:

The Dodgers finalized their strategy on Wednesday. The team sifted through the matchups, stitching together different pitchers for different scenarios. They called it “The Road Map to 27 Outs.”

In that plan, almost everything was on the table. Kenley Jansen, the closer, pitching well before the ninth. Joe Blanton, the setup man, pitching whenever the heck he’d be needed, which turned out to be the third. Julio Urias in long relief whenever long relief might be necessary. It was extreme unconventionality, but it was planned unconventionality, with the Dodgers brain trust — Dave Roberts, pitching coach Rich Honeycutt and front office personnel including general manager Farhan Zaidi all weighing in on that “Road Map.” It was, in some ways the epitome of 21st century baseball management these days: a collaborative effort between uniformed staff and the suits, likely with some analytics folks weighing in or at least informing the decisions of the people drawing that Road Map more than 24 hours before the game actually began.

But as McCullough notes, Clayton Kershaw was never part of that plan, even in private discussions. Dave Roberts said as much yesterday publicly. It was said in such certain terms that wise guys were riffing on it on social media:

This was not gamesmanship. Kershaw’s unavailability was the truth as far as the Dodgers, from Zaidi to Roberts to Kershaw and everyone else on down were concerned. It was the plan. It was a plan derived from a process, like so many plans are in baseball these days.

At least until the ninth inning last night. That’s when the plan and process went out the window, unable to survive contact with the enemy. Unable to survive Grant Dayton not recording any outs and unable to survive Nats batters tenaciously working Jansen into long counts, so many of which resulted in strikeouts or walks. Unable to survive the prospect of Daniel Murphy, who has absolutely crushed everything he has seen in the postseason these past two years, looming in the on deck circle if the ninth inning didn’t end quickly. The Dodgers brain trust is smart and resourceful. I presume they had an idea of who might pitch if Jansen couldn’t close the deal and, as noted, it wasn’t going to be Kershaw. But that idea was back-burnered as Kershaw warmed up and completely discarded once Roberts signaled for his ace to come into the game.

So much discussion about baseball strategy these days involves a perceived hierarchy in which the whiz kids in the front office order around the folks down in the dugout who, quite often, are characterized as either being the mindless drones of the guys in suits and ties or, alternatively, in grudging acceptance of what they think, implementing their philosophy with grains of salt but looking for ways to nonetheless place their stamp on the game as their allies in the press talk about how “baseball men” know best. When the manager makes an off-plan move like calling Kershaw into the game, the guys in the press often characterize it as the baseball man going rogue or something.

But last night Dave Roberts and the Dodgers showed that these are false constructs. The entire brain trust, in conjunction with the manager, can put a process in place, informed by meetings and analytics and breakdowns. They can formalize it with a name like “The Road Map to 27 Outs” and, heck, if they want to, they can even put it down on pages that a manager can stick in a binder or write it on a laminated sheet and keep it next to the bullpen phone. And it can work wonderfully for several innings. But it can also accommodate the realities on the ground and be subordinated to those realities if need be. The manager can feel free to go with his gut when the circumstance dictates it, as Roberts did last night.

I suspect that, in the wake of the talk in McCullough’s gamer about the “Road Map” that someone or another will weigh in with a view that Roberts ripped up the plan and characterize his going with Clayton Kershaw as him repudiating the guys with the spreadsheets. I suspect it’s more accurate, however, to view what happened in Nationals Park last night to be a evidence of a healthy organization working together in a productive fashion. One in which all relevant parties brought all of the information and insight they had together and formed it into a strategy. A strategy, however, in which the manager was nonetheless empowered to allow his on-the-fly decision making to deviate from it if and when the circumstances dictated.

Dave Roberts and the Dodgers came up with a plan on Wednesday. They had a process. Roberts followed that process for much of the game and then tossed the process out the window at a critical moment. The Dodgers win was a product of both of those things. The process and Roberts’ gut. Working together seamlessly, in ways that so many pretend cannot happen in modern baseball.

And now the Dodgers are heading to the NLCS because of it.