DecisionCast: Analyzing Dave Roberts’ NLCS Decisions

Much has been made of MLB.com’s Statcast technology to track speed, efficiency, exit velocity, and much more for in game action by the players. How about for managers, specifically, how are we tracking manager decisions? No one likes an armchair quarterback, so let us analyze the decision-making that goes into into game decisions for managers with facts and circumstances. We are going to call this “DecisionCast.”

“The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.”

-Vince Lombardi

As managers do, thousands of times in a season, make decisions. Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts and Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon both made important decisions Saturday night during Game 1 of the 2016 National League Championship Series (NLCS) at Wrigley Field. The difference being that playoff decision-making is under a larger microscope with a smaller focus.

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On the one hand, Roberts was praised for his work in Game 5 of the National League Division Series (NLDS) against the Washington Nationals on Thursday night at Nationals Park. He was praised for making the decision to utilize his relievers early and often just as the players were congratulated for their efforts and performance.

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure . . . than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

-Theodore Roosevelt

On the other hand, he will be and has been criticized for his NLCS Game 1 decision-making. As the saying goes, “managers are hired to be fired,” but if anything, we need context to understand and best analyze manager decisions.  Let us jump to the action, specifically the 8th inning of Game 1 of the 2016 NLCS.

Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman has entered the game, top of the 8th inning, with the bases loaded and no outs. He gets the first two outs, Justin Turner and Corey Seager via the strikeout. Clean-up hitter and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez enters the game, gets two strikes, and then hits a clean hard hit single up the middle for two runs. Game tied 3-3. The Dodgers threat ends with the next batter.

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Bottom half of the 8th inning, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts brings in the Dodgers most consistent and reliable reliever all year long outside of Kenley Jansen, Joe Blanton. No surprise here, Blanton usually pitches in the 8th inning and was a key reason to the Dodgers winning Game 5 of the NLDS. However, Blanton gives up a leadoff double to left fielder Ben Zobrist into right center field, which could have been a triple, but center fielder Joc Pederson races to cutoff the ball from reaching the ivy of the Wrigley Field outfield wall. Blanton gets the next out, Cubs shortstop Addison Russell down via the strikeout and then it gets interesting.

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The next hitter is right fielder Jason Heyward. Roberts elects to put Heyward on base via a four-pitch intentional walk to go after the more aggressive, younger, and prone to strikeout or pop out second baseman Javier Baez. Baez does just that, routine infield pop-up, two outs. Runners at first and second.

The inning gets more interesting when Cubs manager Joe Maddon elects to pinch hit for their number eight hitter, right-handed hitting catcher David Ross. Cubs left-handed hitter Chris Coghlan comes to the plate. Roberts keeps with the right-handed Joe Blanton and has him intentionally walk Coghlan so it forces the hand of Maddon to pinch hit for Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman who is due to hit next, batting ninth. Bases loaded, two outs.

Maddon cannot, with the bases loaded and a tie game in the 8th inning of Game 1, have his closer hit and waste an opportunity to score runs to win the game especially knowing the Dodgers have not yet used their closer Kenley Jansen. Roberts likes his chances with Chapman out of the game. Turns out, Roberts was right, but more on that later.

Maddon does the expected and pinch hits for Chapman. Enter left-handed hitting catcher Miquel Montero. Blanton has done extremely well against left-handed hitters and gets two quick strikes, but throws a hanging slider for pitch three that lands in the right field bleachers for a grand slam. Cubs up 7-3.

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men . . .”

-Robert Burns

Roberts stays with Blanton, leadoff hitter and center fielder Dexter Fowler deposits the next pitch, another hanging slider, into the bleachers for an 8-3 lead. Blanton stays in, third baseman Kris Bryant smashes a double to the outfield. Roberts leaves the dugout and pulls Blanton for lefty reliever Grant Dayton. Dayton gets first baseman and left-handed hitter Anthony Rizzo out quite easily.

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Top of the 9th inning, last chance for the Dodgers to tie or take the lead. Former closer and reliever Hector Rondon enters the game for the Cubs. Enrique “Kiki” Hernandez grounds out. Joc Pederson gets a hit. Andrew Toles who had entered the game earlier for the pitchers spot and was now playing left field collects his second hit, a double into right center field (Howie Kendrick would leave the game in the following at bat for pinch hitter and second baseman Chase Utley who took over for Kiki Hernandez at second base, who moved to right field replacing Yasiel Puig).  Pederson scores, 8-4, one out, runner at second base. Chase Utley up to bat, smacks a hard hit ball to first baseman Anthony Rizzo who leaps, makes the catch and fires to second base for the double-up double play. Game over, Cubs win 8-4.

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.”

-Abraham Lincoln

First, we must give credit where credit is due. Roberts pinch hit for starting pitcher Kenta Maeda earlier in the game after seeing some hard hit balls. Pinch hitter Andre Ethier deposited a 94 MPH fastball off Cubs starter and lefty Jon Lester into the left field stands for the Dodgers first run in the game and the NLCS.

Second, it was Roberts planning and the players execution that got the Dodgers into the playoffs and past the Washington Nationals into the NLCS. Similarly, it was also Roberts decisions to use Joe Blanton in the third inning, closer Kenley Jansen for 51 pitchers and nearly three innings, and perennial Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw to close in Game 5 of the NLDS that won that decisive game five.

Third, you win some and lose some, and sometimes the best-laid plans are just that, plans. Blanton is not to blame and is not perfect, neither is Roberts. We can play armchair quarterback and assume if Blanton had gotten a clean inning the Dodgers would have entered the bottom of the 9th with closer Kenley Jansen on the mound and a 4-3 lead. However, it was Roberts decision to force Maddon’s hand that got Chapman out of the game. There is no guarantee the Dodgers score in the top of 9th inning off Chapman as the Dodgers eventually scored off Rondon.

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Therefore, what is the DecisionCast for Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts? In his first season as a manager with any team, he has his Dodgers team confident and playing in the National League Championship Series against a 103-win Cubs team. The Dodgers have played through injuries and expectations all season long and have never, in their minds, been out of any game or series. Lest we forget, the Dodgers were behind 2-1 to the Nationals in the NLDS, came back, and won the series 3-2 in the Nationals home ballpark.

After being eight back of the San Francisco Giants about midway through the regular season, the Dodgers were not even supposed to be in the playoffs. The Dodgers fought back and won their fourth straight Division Championship for the first time in their storied history. Suffering through many injuries, trials, and tribulations, the Dodgers are playing to win. Lest you also forget, the Giants (an 87-win team), but for a four-run 9th inning blown save, nearly took their Division Series with the Cubs to a decisive game five winner take all.

No doubt, the Nationals are not the Cubs, and the Dodgers have a different skill set than the Giants, but Roberts best quality, in our minds, has been his ability to stay positive, build unity, and cheer for his team from the dugout. He understands his role and respects the players role. The Cubs are a terrific team and should be congratulated for their success. Their manager is equally impressive and more accomplished. At this point, sit back and enjoy the show. Two of the smartest managers in the game are in a constant battle to checkmate the other.

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Jeremy Evans

Jeremy M. Evans is the Founder & Managing Attorney at California Sports Lawyer®, representing entertainment, media, and sports clientele. Evans is an award-winning attorney and industry leader based in Los Angeles.

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