This is Dave Roberts’ managerial record with the Dodgers through 162 x 5 games:
2016: 91-71 (.562), NL West champion
2017: 104-58 (.642), NL champion
2018: 92-71 (.564), NL champion
2019: 106-56 (.654), NL West champion
2020-21: 104-57 (.646), World Series champion in 2020
Total: 497-313 (.614), five division titles, three pennants, one World Series
Since 2019, Roberts has essentially produced back-to-back seasons of more than 100 wins, including a World Series title. He has won at least 100 games three times in the equivalent of five seasons. At present, he ranks seventh in major-league history in winning percentage. This week, he will likely win his 500th game, all before turning 50.
The Irony Committee-approved irony about publishing a story about Roberts’ record today is that he would have already hit the impressive 500-win milestone, if not for last week’s unfortunate Dodger meltdowns.
In this year’s new edition of 100 Things Dodgers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, you won’t find very many hot takes. Depending on how you feel about things, you might not find any.
But maybe the closest that I come to offering one is in the book’s new chapter on Roberts, when I make the case that the Dodger manager is on an early path to reach the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Yeah, that’s right.
Let me qualify things in a hurry. First of all, “early” is “early.” Roberts still has a lot to do before he would even be considered for Cooperstown. For all I know, his managerial career could end in three months, and this discussion becomes a speck of dust on the basepath of life.
Second, whether Roberts would be elected is a separate question from whether he is deserving. He could be elected without being deserving, and he could be deserving without being elected.
Nevertheless, it actually seems pretty obvious to me that on his current trajectory, Roberts would be enshrined in the Hall, and the only controversy inherent in this news is that it will come as a shock to a number of fans — perhaps Dodger fans more than any others.
And maybe, just maybe, that means there’s more to Roberts than the managerial decisions that infuriate so many.
To back up my belief, here’s what I wrote about Roberts in 100 Things Dodgers before the season began. I’ll add more thoughts after this excerpt.
* * *
In his fifth season as manager of the Dodgers, Tommy Lasorda won his third NL pennant and his first World Series.
In his fifth season as manager of the Dodgers, Dave Roberts won his third NL pennant and his first World Series.
It is a fine line between glory and gory for a major-league manager, and there’s little doubt that Roberts’ managerial career with the Dodgers risked crashing upon the shores of unfulfilled Octobers. Had the Dodgers not won the 2020 World Series, maybe the pandemic-induced challenges of the year would have bought him another year at the helm. Maybe not.
Instead, Roberts guided his Dodgers to the Promised Land, and he now finds himself on a track similar to Lasorda or Walter Alston—an extended tenure in Los Angeles and, it’s not at all crazy to think about, a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Consider that Roberts entered the 2021 season needing only 64 wins to reach 500 for his career, all before his 50th birthday, along with the highest winning percentage (.614) in NL history. If he manages 15 more years while averaging 80 wins a year with one more World Series title, he matches Lasorda. Another 500 wins, and he draws even with former Dodger manager and Hall of Famer Leo Durocher. Add in a third World Series title in that stretch, and he catches up to his own former manager, Bruce Bochy, considered a shoo-in following his exploits with the San Francisco Giants. Every eligible manager in MLB history with at least 2,000 wins and a World Series title has a spot in Cooperstown.
If it sounds like we’re getting ahead of ourselves, well, maybe. It’s not clear how many years Roberts wants to devote to managing. But it’s worth spotlighting the accelerated track that Roberts is on, if only because some might be shocked.
For one thing, with all the talent at his disposal on the Dodgers, the skeptical might ask, “How could Roberts not win?”
But the reality is that baseball is littered with clearly masterful teams that couldn’t finish the job (Brooklyn’s Boys of Summer, after all, won the World Series only once.). And it’s not as if the managers of, say, the classic Yankee squads of the 20th century are penalized for their advantages.
And then, it’s easy for any fan, especially in the throes of defeat, to point to specific moments where a manager’s instincts failed him. Even in the 2020 World Series, in the postgame conversation after his Game 4 decision to send Pedro Báez back to the mound in the seventh inning—minutes after Báez allowed a three-run home run in the sixth—Roberts second-guessed himself. Fans and media questioned similar decisions to let Clayton Kershaw return in the eighth inning and Joe Kelly in the 10th inning of 2019 NLDS Game 5 right as they were happening, and the home runs those pitchers allowed proved explosive in more ways than one. Conversely, Roberts has also been challenged for taking out starting pitchers too soon, including a miscommunication that led to Rich Hill’s removal with one out in the seventh inning of a pivotal Game 4 of the 2018 World Series and a 4-0 lead.
The reality is, not even the top managers in the history of baseball can avoid the pitfalls of the job. In Dodger history alone, Alston has such lowlights as the ninth inning of the final game of the 1962 season, Lasorda has Jack Clark in 1985. The two greatest Dodger managers combined to not win World Series 36 times in 42 seasons. Outsiders called for their firings long before they retired among the beloved. Had they toiled in the age of Twitter, they would have been savaged.
Under the microscope of 21st-century media, under the weight of expectations of a star-laden team, under the desperation of a fanbase entering its fourth decade deprived of a title, Roberts delivered every bit as much in his first five years as manager as Alston or Lasorda and more.
It doesn’t really come as a surprise, because Roberts has been nothing if not an overachiever throughout his life.
A speedy but lithe 5-foot-10, Roberts was nevertheless recruited out of high school to play quarterback at Air Force. He turned that down in favor of baseball, but only landed at UCLA as a walk-on. Three years later, Cleveland selected him in the MLB draft, but not until the 47th round. He worked on his game for one more season at UCLA and then moved all the way up in the draft to the 28th round, signing with Detroit in 1994 as the 781st player selected overall. He was the only player from the 28th round that year to reach the majors.
Roberts spent five years in the minors, including a trade that sent him to the Cleveland organization after all, and didn’t make his major-league debut until after his 27th birthday in 1999. He received limited playing time for three seasons before the Dodgers acquired him in a agate-type trade in December 2001. When he entered spring training with the Dodgers, he was two months shy of his 30th birthday and fourth on the depth chart in center field, behind Marquis Grissom, Tom Goodwin and McKay Christensen. Somehow, Roberts won the job, with manager Jim Tracy saying that “from the beginning of camp, his instincts, his intelligence, his willingness to do things for the club to be successful stood out.”
Playing 302 games for the Dodgers from 2002-04, Roberts produced a .342 on-base percentage and 118 steals in 143 attempts, including a single-season record 97.1 percent success rate in 2004 (33 out of 34). He also made one of the most memorable catches of the era, running up the 30-degree incline of old Tal’s Hill at Houston to rob Lance Berkman of a home run in 2003. But at that year’s trading deadline, as the Dodgers added Steve Finley to their lineup, general manager Paul DePodesta didn’t want Roberts to languish on his bench and sent him to Boston in exchange for minor league outfielder Henri Stanley.
The move, while initially a disappointment, changed Roberts’ life. If you knew one thing about Dave Roberts before he became Dodger manager, it was that he pinch-ran in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series with the Red Sox three outs away from falling in a Yankee sweep, stole second with everyone in the ballpark knowing he would try, and came around to score the tying run, igniting an unprecedented comeback that lifted Boston to its first World Series title in 86 years.
Roberts finished his playing career with the Padres and Giants, retiring after the 2008 season, landing as a coach in San Diego in 2010. The next stage of his working career was set—except that during his first Spring Training on the new job, Roberts had to overcome his biggest challenge of all, a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 37 that required four months of chemotherapy and three weeks of radiation therapy to treat.
He stayed at San Diego through 2015, getting passed over for their managerial vacancy after Bud Black left but earning an interview with the Dodgers after Don Mattingly’s departure. As always, no one considered Roberts a favorite to land the job. That changed quickly.
“After the first-round interview, it was almost like he had our answer key to the answers we would have wanted to hear,” Dodger president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said.
Roberts got the job, and as the descendant of African-American father and a Japanese mother (Roberts was born in Japan), became the first minority manager in the history of the franchise that brought Jackie Robinson to the majors. Five Octobers later, he became the first Asian American and second Black man after Toronto’s Cito Gaston to win a World Series.
“I just feel like, I don’t have the luxury to fail,” Roberts told Michael Lee of the Washington Post. “I need to succeed to potentially give other minorities an opportunity to manage and to show the industry that there’s many capable people. I’d love to think that now with my African American-Asian background, there’s others that can do the same and deserve those opportunities.”
When Roberts came to the Dodgers, first as a player and again as a manager, he took the uniform number 30 as an homage to his mentor, Maury Wills. While Wills has never made it to the Hall of Fame, a requirement with only one exception for the Dodgers to retire the number, it is entirely possible that Roberts will do Wills the honor of succeeding so impressively that No. 30 will ultimately land in glory after all.
* * *
OK, so let’s come back to the present.
Dave Roberts did not have a good week last week. In fact, it’s possible that on July 22, Roberts delivered the worst moment of his regular-season managerial career.
Kenley Jansen had thrown 27 pitches the night before in a labored, tortured blown save (something I witnessed in person during my second trip to Dodger Stadium this year). The Jansen saga is worthy of its own separate post, but suffice it to say that no matter how you feel about the longtime Dodger closer, he had no business with his current age and condition and track record, as Eric Stephen noted at True Blue LA, returning to pitch 24 hours later, much less in another sink-or-swim outing.
The most head-smacking thing is that Roberts knows this. Thursday marked the first time Roberts used Jansen for back-to-back outings of more than 25 pitches on consecutive days ever. And it’s hard to believe that Roberts wasn’t looking to prove a point — perhaps to Jansen, perhaps to his teammates but perhaps most of all to the fans who booed so viciously on July 21. It’s not that Roberts didn’t passionately believe in Jansen, it’s that he let that passion blind him to common sense.
It’s moments like those that lead so many Dodger fans — in the heat of the moment, in the cool light of the next day as well — to believe that Roberts should be fired on the spot.
I’m going to let you in a little secret.
Every manager has those moments.
Every manager has those moments.
Every manager has those moments.
If you think Tommy Lasorda or Walter Alston didn’t have those moments, if you think Sparky Anderson or Casey Stengel didn’t have those moments, if you think every Hall of Fame manager didn’t have those moments, you are … um … letting your passion blind you to common sense.
These moments, in and of themselves, are not disqualifying for managers.
Now, that doesn’t mean franchises should buy those moments in bulk at Costco, that there would never be a reason to fire Roberts. But it’s important to retain that kind of perspective when evaluating him, especially in a world where many take his achievements for granted.
When we look at a manager from the stands or on our screens, all we see are the in-game decisions. We don’t see the massive effort that goes on behind the scenes, before, during and after games, to put players in position to win. Most of us have an inkling that players will respond to certain managers better than others, the way people respond to certain bosses or teachers or (gulp) parents better than others. But it’s rare for fans — exceedingly so in the late innings of a close game — to give a manager’s relationship and leadership skills as much weight as a manager’s decisions, even though for baseball in particular, in a season that requires you to play strong for upward of 200 games, relationships and leadership might well be paramount.
Taking this back to the top — the average Dave Roberts season is 99-63, with a division title every year, a pennant every other year and a World Series every fifth year. As I wrote in the 100 Things chapter, some would credit this entirely to the firepower at his disposal — which is undeniably massive — but is that being fair?
Put this another way: How much, really, has Roberts underachieved?
There’s nothing to discuss with regard to the regular season, at least through 2020. He’s won every division title he could, and all that’s left is to complain about is that he didn’t win 100 games in 2016 and 2018 or 110 games in 2017 and 2019. Is that a serious conversation? Beyond being essentially irrelevant, it implies that another manager would have won the games Roberts lost without losing any of the games that Roberts won.
As for the postseason, if not for the ugly saga involving the Houston Astros in 2017 forestalling what would have been his first World Series title, I seriously doubt we’d have any dialogue about him underachieving. He maxed out the Dodgers in 2016 in what was pretty clearly the Cubs’ year, eking out an NLDS victory before the team ran out of gas. And despite the mess that was Game 4 of the 2018 World Series, I have talked to very few people who don’t think that the Red Sox were the better team.
The 2019 season, with its shockingly early playoff exit, is one that got away from Roberts (yet far, far better than Lasorda’s sub-.500 1979), and he has yet to pull off the kind of magic act that Lasorda did in October 1988. Just keep in mind that that was one season — Lasorda’s 12th out of 21 — to produce his second and final World Series title. Give Roberts that kind of rope and see what he does.
(By the way, I know from experience that for some Dodger fans, no matter what facts you lay out about Lasorda, will be offended if you put him in the same breath as almost any other manager. Apologies.)
There might be a manager better qualified to lead the Dodgers than Roberts, but when I rack my brain trying to think of who that might be, the only name I can confidently come up with is Alex Cora, who … let’s just say I don’t think that particular former Dodger is ever going to manage in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Roberts in 2020 navigated the Dodgers through the longest postseason in MLB history, amid fraught human conditions. This is already ancient history for some, a fluke for others. But it’s a real accomplishment, a glorious accomplishment, that requires sheer churlishness to dismiss. Winning the 2020 World Series required resilience, flexibility and ingenuity from everyone, not the least of those people being the manager. That shouldn’t be hard to concede.
We’ll see what happens with Roberts. As I’ve said more than once, at the start of this post and in the excerpted 100 Things Dodgers chapter, these things can come to an end quickly. Sometimes, I think of Gene Bartow fleeing UCLA and John Wooden’s shadow — after a 52-9 record and a Final Four loss to undefeated Indiana proved insufficient — as an example of how anything less than a national title can be seen as failure, and I understand that Roberts could be held to that standard as soon as this fall. It’s also easy to envision Roberts deciding that he’s had enough managerial stress, and that he’d be happy to spend the rest of his life as a broadcaster, a wine merchant or a happy-go-lucky vagabond.
Either way, I would still maintain that Roberts’ Hall of Fame destiny is in his hands, even if it travels through another city. Roberts’ career with the Dodgers could end in a 2021 Wild Card loss, and he would still get job offers from other teams that would be all too grateful to have his track record and clubhouse leadership. (Look at Don Mattingly, comfortably ensconced in Miami after a glass half-full/half-empty tenure in Los Angeles.) Merely by managing to a .500 record from next year until he was 65, Roberts would have 1,700 victories and at least the one World Series title. If Roberts manages to top that in any way, he’s going to Cooperstown.
If it matters, in my view, he’ll deserve to.
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