|LOS ANGELES DODGERS|
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
Hired Dave Roberts as manager. [11/23]
Dave Roberts—notable, until yesterday, primarily for postseason heroics with the Red Sox—will now find his future, like his past before it, judged mostly by what happens under glittering October lights. When the Dodgers let Don Mattingly go as manager late last month, there was a school of thought that saw the move as a year too late: ever since Andrew Friedman came to Los Angeles from Tampa Bay in late 2014, outsiders saw the obvious mismatch between Mattingly’s old-school ethos and Friedman’s cutting-edge savvy as reason enough to make a change.
But Mattingly survived the first winter under new management, and his Dodgers survived a rocky start to 2015 to put up their third straight 90-win, division-championship season under his leadership. That’s not usually the prelude to a managerial change, but the Dodgers of recent vintage have been reading from a different score than the rest of the league. The other shoe dropped on October 22, and Mattingly was very publicly out (he’ll manage the Marlins in 2016).
Immediate speculation about Mattingly’s replacement centered on former outfielder Gabe Kapler. Like Roberts, Kapler is a former big-league outfielder, and currently serves as the Dodgers’ Director of Player Development. There’s a lot that makes sense about the fit: Kapler has a sterling reputation in the analytics community, has credibility on the field that many in that community lack, and has experience with the LA front office (his last two big-league years were for Friedman’s Rays, in 2009 and 2010). So why is it Roberts, and not Kapler, who’ll be officially announced as the Dodgers’ 32nd manager next week?
The most obvious (and probably correct) answer is this: after giving Mattingly a chance to become their guy in 2015, and finding that he wasn’t able or willing to do so, the Dodgers front office found in Roberts everything they thought they had in Kapler, and more. Like Kapler, Roberts is respected throughout the game, has experience with the relevant brass (most of his time with the Padres was concurrent with current Dodger exec Josh Byrnes), and isn’t on the record as having any truly terrible tactical opinions. (This last qualification is, happily, one that’s more widespread than ever these days.) Unlike Kapler, however, Roberts has five years of actual big-league coaching experience. It seems plausible that the Dodgers saw the two as having similar skillsets, with the edge going to Roberts’ longer experience.
Worth noting: there might have been something else going on in the background. A number of people in a position to know have reported (here’s an example) that Dodgers ownership got heavily involved in the managerial search, widening the field well beyond Kapler before narrowing their sights on Roberts, who they believe has the leadership and coaching experience necessary to lead the team to postseason success (the Dodgers haven’t won a title since 1988, despite massive recent payrolls). If that’s the case—and the Dodgers chose Roberts over Mattingly in part because they believe the former is more likely to produce postseason success than the latter—then I believe they might have inadvertently hit the mark whilst missing the point.
Here’s what I mean by that. Roberts is clearly qualified to be a big-league manager; we just went over some of the reasons why. So hiring Roberts over Mattingly, given his deeper comfort level with the LA front office, is probably not a bad move for the Dodgers. The profile fits. But here’s the thing: it fits absent any case that Roberts would be a stronger manager than Mattingly in the postseason. There’s no real evidence that managers have a great deal to do with how well their teams do in October, so there isn’t a lot of point in hiring specifically for that skillset. Sure, there are recent counterexamples of consistently successful postseason teams with acclaimed managers—Joe Torre and the Yankees; Bruce Bochy and the Giants—but the fact is that, as far as we can tell, the best predictor of how well a team does in the postseason is how many games a team wins in the postseason. In other words, we have no idea what might happen once we can’t play around with 162-game sample sizes.
Maybe we’re all wrong. Maybe Bochy, Torre, and—hey—Roberts all have some murky set of unquantifiable skills that blend with the smell of crisp fall leaves and pumpkin spice lattes to create dominant October ball clubs. We’ve all met great leaders, and I’m certainly not going to be the one to argue against those leaders’ ability to shape their own destiny when the stakes are highest. But I’ve seen no compelling evidence that it actually happens in baseball, and so I’m left liking the Dodgers’ move—Roberts seems poised to have a long career as a manager, and likely won’t be any worse than Mattingly was—while scratching my head about the rationale that seems to be emerging from Los Angeles.
It would be perfectly fair for the Dodgers’ leadership to say that they felt Mattingly wasn’t a fit with their new organizational culture—which they pretty much have, already—and that Roberts is the man to lead the club into the future. In fact, they’ll probably say exactly that at the press conference next week. That’s good enough for now. But the reports out of Los Angeles about ownership involvement are troubling, and suggest that a cultural and behavioral fit might not have been the dominant rationale for Roberts’s successful candidacy. At the very least, Andrew Friedman has got to be spending his Thanksgiving feeling uncomfortable about ownership’s role in his decision-making process. This move will probably work out. But Dodgers fans should hope it was for the right reasons.
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