PHOENIX — Dave Roberts has the most meaningful, and most fearless, stolen base of his generation. His managing style has the same look: Informed, relevant and a little bit on the edge.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have put together the best first half in the National League through a combination of strong pitching and Roberts’ adept handling of his versatile position players. Roberts should be considered the top contender for NL Manager of the Year in his second season on the job, although Torey Lovullo, Bud Black and Dusty Baker also are in the conversation.
Roberts’ style is open and hands-on. He makes it a point to speak to each of his players before every game, even if it is a quick, ’How are you doing today?” moment during batting practice.
The players, and the Dodgers have some good ones, have spoken back with a 61-29 start that included a 26-4 run entering the All-Star break.
Some things never change, and for the Dodgers that starts with perennial Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw, the staff horse who once again is among the favorites for the award as post-All Star break commences. The unexpected success of Alex Wood has given the Dodgers the best 1-2 starting pitching punch in baseball, and the staff sports the best ERA in the majors.
The final several outs have not been a problem, either, and Roberts has had a hand in that.
Roberts has stretched Kenley Jansen beyond traditional closer restraints this season, and Jansen has embraced the expanded role after re-signing a five-year, $80 million deal with the Dodgers over the winter.
Jansen has reprised the role he had in the 2016 NLDS against Washington, when he got five outs in a Game 1 victory and seven outs in the clinching Game 5 (which Kershaw saved), both on the road.
Jansen has gone more than one inning eight times this season, with the same stifling results. He has seven four-out saves and one five-out save. And not only has he converted all 21 save opportunities this year, he has walked only two batters all season.
Roberts’ playing history has helped on the other side of the ball. Mainly a platoon outfielder in a solid 10-year major league career primarily with the Dodgers and San Diego, Roberts has used statistical data and input from the front office, as well as personal experience, to inform his every-day lineups. All 84 of them, so far. The most common starting lineup has been used exactly three times. Three.
Everyone plays. Everyone feels a part. Everyone wins.
“First of all, he’s the kind of person who can get along with everyone,” one NL West talent evaluator said. “People respond to his integrity and personality. And he’s a competitor. He has installed a blue-collar, edgy vibe to that team.”
The Dodgers have won without Justin Turner, who missed threw weeks with a hamstring injury before returning on June 9. They have won without Logan Forsythe, out five weeks with fractured toe. They have won without Adrian Gonzalez (elbow, back), Joc Pederson (groin, concussion) and Andrew Toles (season-ending knee injury in May). Kershaw is the only member of the starting rotation who has made every scheduled start.
The Dodgers have used 38 players, 19 position players and 19 pitchers, none of which are named Andre Ethier or Scott Kazmir, who are owed a combined $33.5 million this season.
As in the case with Jansen, Roberts has gotten the buy-in from his position players, who have been asked to broaden their horizons around the four regulars who start almost every game — shortstop Corey Seager, third baseman Turner, right fielder Yasiel Puig and, more recently, rookie first baseman/left fielder Cody Bellinger. The Dodgers have 11 players who have at least 180 plate appearances. The multi-tasking Chicago Cubs are the only other NL team with that many.
Just because you don’t start doesn’t mean you won’t play.
It is not unlike the “anybody, any time” Arizona Diamondbacks of 2007, which won the NL West and was the first team in modern history to win 90 games while scoring fewer runs than they scored. They out-pythagorean-ed their expected record by 11 games.
Roberts seems to get the most out of everyone by finding ways to maximize their value daily. He has used 84 batting orders (not counting the pitcher) and 64 different position player groupings, according to baseball-reference.com. Some of that has been due to injuries, but still … Eleven different Dodgers have hit fifth, 14 have hit sixth, 15th have hit seventh. The most common defensive group has started six times.
Seeger (77) and Puig (76) have made the most starts, with catcher Yasmani Grandal (65) and Bellinger (64) next. Bellinger has started almost every game since his arrival in the the majors the last week of April, at first base and left field, depending on the other matchups Roberts wants to put in place.
With handymen Kiké Hernandez and Chris Taylor stepping in to start against left-handed pitchers, the Dodgers have found a balance that most teams can only strive for. The Dodgers (60-29) have a .677 winning percentage against right-handed starters and a .679 winning percentage against lefties. So far this season, Seager, Turner and Bellinger have hit equally well against both sides, and the tradeoffs at the other positions have led to no drop-off from either side.
Taylor, who had never played the outfield in his major- or minor-league career, has made 17 starts in center field and 20 in left, his right-handed bat giving the Dodgers a more productive option than the lefty Pederson. Taylor is hitting .365 against lefties. Pederson is hitting .206. Hernandez is hitting .250 against lefties and .186 against righties, and with his versatility can help Roberts make the most of virtually any situation. Hernandez has played all eight positions this season and started at seven.
Roberts seems to have changed the mindset of his team. It is not about who is hitting third or who is the eight-inning reliever more than it is what can the player do to help the team this day.
“It starts to build on itself,” the talent evaluator said.
With Roberts leading the way, the players have been flexible and open-minded in embracing new challenges, and the Dodgers are better for it.
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