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Will the Dodgers’ Defeat Spell Doom for Dave Roberts?

A team with as much talent as the 2019 Dodgers likely would have won the West with or without their manager—but without him, it might have had a better chance of moving on in the postseason

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the wake of Wednesday’s devastating loss to the Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS, Dodgers fans embittered by their team’s seventh consecutive failure to turn a division title into a World Series title had their pick of people to blame. They could curse Stephen Strasburg and four almost-flawless relievers for holding the NL’s best offense to three runs. They could curse Corey Seager and A.J. Pollock for their latest oh-fers in a series that saw them combine to go 3-for-33 with 19 strikeouts. They could curse Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, and Howie Kendrick for hitting the trio of late-inning homers that turned L.A.’s 3-1 lead into a 7-3 deficit. They could curse Clayton Kershaw and Joe Kelly for throwing the pitches that Rendon, Soto, and Kendrick clobbered. Or they could curse Dave Roberts for putting Kershaw and Kelly in position to serve up those season-stopping bombs.

Not that they needed to pick just one. When a 106-win team exits as early as the Dodgers just did, there’s ample time to torture oneself in the aftermath of the last loss by reviewing every way it went wrong. Dodgers diehards who foresaw a third consecutive pennant and hoped for an end to a three-decade championship drought will spend days, weeks, and months bemoaning Kershaw’s continued postseason struggles and fuming about the mercurial Kelly, whose ninth and 10th innings encapsulated both the best and the worst of his often-confounding career. But for fans, whose investment in their teams’ on-field fortunes conflicts with their inability to affect the outcome, nothing is more maddening than the managerial mistake. And in Game 5, Roberts appeared to deliver some doozies.

Roberts arguably stuck too long with Walker Buehler, who held the Nationals scoreless for five innings but ran into trouble in the sixth, when a leadoff double by Rendon and a single by Soto—a prelude to their game-tying back-to-back blasts—gave the Nats their first run. Roberts let Buehler, who was well into his third time through the order, start the seventh with his pitch count at 97, and he left him in after a leadoff hit-by-pitch, pulling him only after a two-out walk that inflated his pitch count to 117 (a number that no starter reached in last year’s postseason but that four have already reached or exceeded this month). Many managers would have done the same: Buehler is the Dodgers’ best pitcher and already a proven postseason performer, and he’d cruised through the first five frames. Fewer, however, would have called on Kershaw to relieve him with the tying run on first.

The decision to summon Kershaw wasn’t a surprise: On Tuesday, Roberts had declared his intention to piggyback Buehler and Kershaw, who hadn’t pitched since Game 2. But some analysts had already registered misgivings—not because of Kershaw’s checkered record in October, but because the Dodgers didn’t seem to require Kershaw’s services as the Nats required Corbin’s and Max Scherzer’s.

In Kenta Maeda, Adam Kolarek, Kenley Jansen, and Dustin May—and, if necessary, Kelly and Julio Urías—Roberts had enough dedicated and moderately dependable relievers in reserve to piece together a few frames without pressing a starter into service. His desire to call on Kershaw instead of someone more accustomed to that role smacked of sentimentality. It seemed less like a commitment to deploy the best pitcher possible than a tribute to Kershaw’s career, a vote of confidence in his postseason pitching, and a callback to his series-clinching save in a previous Game 5 against the Nats, in 2016. Exhilarating as it was, though, that outing occurred three years, 3 miles per hour of fastball velocity, and four IL stints ago. At 31, Kershaw has found ways to succeed despite diminished stuff, but he’s no longer the guy you go out of your way to get into the game, and he’s had trouble in his first inning of work.

With left-handed hitter Adam Eaton due up, Roberts could have brought in Urías or gone to Kolarek and left him in to pitch around Rendon and go after Soto in the eighth. Of course, Kershaw was quite likely to get Eaton out, and he did, carving up the southpaw with a fouled-off fastball slightly up and in, a well-placed slider on the outside corner, and another slider low that Eaton offered at and missed. A pumped-up Kershaw punched his glove and yelled in triumph, not suspecting that he’d soon be slumped in the dugout, defeated.

Even in dismantling Eaton, Kershaw showed worrisome signs. One cause of his decline has been a shrinking gap between his fastball and slider speeds:

Kershaw is at his best when his slider is significantly slower than his heater, and he’d put a bit more distance between them in the second half of the season:

Against Eaton, though, the two were less than 2 mph apart. That distance would decrease when Kershaw returned to the mound in the eighth.

Having given Kershaw his close-up, Roberts could have passed the baton to the bullpen, but he got greedy, leaving him in to face the right-handed Rendon instead of trusting Maeda, who’d been dominant down the stretch and perfect in games 1, 3, and 4. Maeda, who started for most of the season but has much more relief experience than Kershaw, would have been a better matchup for Rendon and could have handled Soto with care before feasting on the three right-handers due up after him, but Roberts said later, “I wanted to keep Kenta away from Soto.”

Kershaw’s second delivery to Rendon, a fastball at 89.4, was low and in, but Rendon golfed it over the left-center-field fence. Surely this was the time to break glass in case of Soto. Kolarek, a side-arming southpaw-killer, was the Dodgers’ designated Soto specialist, and he’d already retired him in the first three games via a strikeout, a groundout, and a second strikeout. Kolarek was warming with Soto due up in the third inning of Game 4, but he didn’t come in, so he’d had two days off. “Having a guy like Adam to deploy against Soto certainly is a nice something to have in your back pocket,” Roberts had said earlier in the week. Yet Roberts never reached into that pocket, and on the first pitch he saw—a slider at 89.3, virtually the same speed as the preceding four-seamer—Soto crushed Kershaw and the Dodgers with a homer to right. To add insult to injury, Maeda then came in and racked up three straight strikeouts.

Roberts pinch-hit for Maeda in the bottom of the eighth, then replaced him on the mound with Joe Kelly. Kelly, who excelled for the Red Sox in last year’s postseason, had an ugly start to 2019 in L.A., but from June through September, he was one of the Dodgers’ most reliable relievers, striking out 12 batters per nine and posting a sky-high ground-ball rate. He’d melted down in Game 3, allowing two runs on one hit and three walks without recording an out, but it took him only 10 pitches to set down the Nats in the ninth in Game 5. Again, Roberts had done something dubious and seen it work out. And again, he got greedy.

Kelly came out for the 10th, even though he hadn’t pitched more than an inning in any game since August, and even though he’d tended to get thrashed in extended outings earlier in the year. His night ran off the rails right away: He walked Eaton and gave up a double to Rendon. Roberts passed up another opportunity to use elite grounder-getter Kolarek against Soto, electing to intentionally walk Soto to load the bases with a walk-prone pitcher on the mound. Then he left Kelly in to face Howie Kendrick with closer Kenley Jansen warm and watching from the pen. Jansen, like Kershaw, is coming off his worst season; he too has lost a few ticks on his hard stuff, tried to compensate by throwing more off-speed pitches, and grown vulnerable to big flies. Even so, he seemed like a safer option than the unraveling Kelly.

“I just felt that Joe had a good chance to put Howie on the ground and potentially then get Kenley on Zimmerman,” Roberts said. “And so my thought was to try to get a ground ball right there.” Another thought he acknowledged: “Don’t have a lot of guys as far as behind Kenley.” With the game on the line, Roberts made the Showalterian, Mathenian mistake of looking beyond the current crisis to one that would never exist.

A walk would have been better than what happened next: Kendrick drove a dinger to center, a death blow to the Dodgers that cleared the bases and gave the Nats a four-run lead. Incredibly, Roberts kept Kelly in for two more batters, pulling him only after a single by Yan Gomes. Only then did closer Kenley Jansen come in to get back-to-back popups—a tantalizing glimpse of how the game could have gone, like Maeda’s three consecutive Ks.

In past postseasons, Roberts has been criticized for adhering too strictly to the Dodgers’ sabermetric script, but his postgame comments about Kershaw and Kelly fell far closer to the “feel” side of the spectrum than the stats side. “He’s probably the best pitcher of our generation. … I’ll take my chances any day on Clayton,” Roberts said. He continued, “Clayton, it’s not about analytics. It’s about, he’s one of the best pitchers in the game, and for him to go out there and throw four pitches and to go back out there and get two hitters, I felt really good about that. … I don’t think it was an analytic question. It’s a guy that I believe in and I trust, and it didn’t work out.” One wouldn’t catch Kevin Cash saying that.

If Roberts had uttered the same sentences a few years ago, he would have been right, but peak Kershaw is gone, and his playoff implosions are less puzzling. Facially, physically, Kershaw looks his old self, but his stuff isn’t the same. Roberts was relying on reputation rather than reality, recalling a Kershaw that no longer exists. Yet in Kelly’s case, Roberts’s memory bank contained just 10 pitches. “I don’t think anybody could have been more effective than Joe in that ninth inning,” he said, adding, “My eyes tell me that he should go back out there because he’s throwing the ball really well.”

In his postgame presser, Roberts gave angry fans more rhetorical ammunition. “I feel that my job is to put guys in the best position to have success,” he said. By bringing in Kershaw, bypassing Kolarek, and extending Kelly, he didn’t do that in Game 5. His performance fell short of the standard he’d described. “If the blame falls on me, I’ve got no problem with it,” Roberts said, adding, “If it doesn’t work out, there’s always going to be second-guessing, and I got no problem wearing the brunt of that.”

Roberts has worn the brunt of it before. At times, Roberts has made smart moves in October, and the ones that have backfired before have been easier to justify than his handling of the pen in Game 5. But L.A. has lost in the playoffs in each of his four seasons as skipper, and each time, fans and media members alike have found fault with his choices. In last year’s World Series, the crowd at Dodger Stadium booed Roberts, as it did when he trudged out to take the ball from Kelly on Wednesday.

In postseasons past, though, Roberts’s bosses haven’t held him responsible—or, if they have, they’ve decided that his steadying presence en route to October was worth the occasional costly miscue. Last December, Andrew Friedman drowned out the boo birds by chanting, “Four more years,” signing Roberts to an extension that runs through 2022. Despite that commitment, this year’s exit may be the hardest for him to survive. This was the best Dodgers team of the Friedman era—possibly the best team in franchise history—but it made an earlier exit than the Dodgers had suffered since 2015, due in part to Roberts’s least defensible decisions. On a night when two of baseball’s most tiresome repeating plot lines—“Kershaw can’t pitch in the playoffs” and “The Nationals can’t win a postseason series”—faced off in a fight to the death, Roberts stole some of the spotlight, much to the Dodgers’ dismay.

Ultimately, Roberts’s job security depends less on public opinion than on how his performance conformed to the front office’s thinking. For the most part, modern managers don’t act on their own, and Roberts may have been drawing on proprietary intel or following front-office orders. Getting to October, as the Dodgers do every year, is a manager’s main charge. Beyond that, randomness undoes the best-laid plans: Good decisions backfire, and bad ones work out. Still, teams try to push the probabilities as far in their favor as they can. A team with as much talent as the 2019 Dodgers likely would have won the West with or without Roberts, and without him, it might have had a better chance of moving on.

Suboptimal matchups or not, Kershaw should have been capable of facing two hitters without allowing two runs. Kelly shouldn’t have coughed up four. Roberts didn’t throw any fat pitches or take fruitless swings. The official scorer didn’t hand him the loss, and he didn’t record any negative WPA, while Kelly, Seager, Kershaw, and Pollock combined for almost two wins’ worth. The other guys live in big houses too. (If Soto and Rendon don’t, they’re about to.)

Yet for fans who live through a tough loss, there’s a special psychological scarring reserved for managerial missteps, bad bullpen decisions foremost among them. Hitters’ swings and pitchers’ deliveries are acts of incredible coordination that transpire in split seconds, whereas bad bullpen moves unfold slowly enough to see coming but, nightmarishly, not slowly enough for spectators to stop. Worse, they’re unforced errors, flubs that someone opted into. Kershaw didn’t try to throw a meatball. Seager didn’t try to swing and miss. Roberts decided to do what he did. The difference between a manager opting for the wrong pitcher and that pitcher throwing the wrong pitch is like the difference between premeditated murder and manslaughter. Both are bad, but only the former leads to life sentences. Roberts just started serving his.