LOS ANGELES -- The pitching moves came early each night -- and as a result, often -- for the Los Angeles Dodgers' Dave Roberts in his first season as a major league manager.
Roberts characterized his extreme use of the bullpen more of a necessity than an identity. Starters were hurt, including staff ace Clayton Kershaw, and finding length from whoever remained proved difficult.
Roberts resembled a conductor each night, working his orchestra from the podium of the pitching mound. Left arm up for rhythm, right arm up for tempo.
It helped Roberts conduct music to the tune of the National League Manager of the Year Award, an honor he received Tuesday. He became the first Dodgers manager to win the honor since Tommy Lasorda (1983, '88).
Lasorda was also known for his bullpen usage, but in his case it was more the longevity he got from a pitcher each night, not necessarily liberal use. Roberts used his group of relievers like no other manager in baseball history.
His 606 pitching moves this season were an MLB record, getting a big league-leading 590⅔ innings from the group. And Roberts managed it all to a 3.35 ERA from his bullpen, second best in baseball. The relievers helped the Dodgers to ultimately complete 46 comeback victories, second most in the game to the Texas Rangers' 49.
And the bullpen usage only got more extreme in the postseason, as Roberts leaned heavily on the relievers, taking the club two games from the World Series.
So the question now is whether Roberts can turn the necessity of his bullpen use into his very own identity.
"Well I think that obviously with the young players we had and some of the injuries we had, and certain games that were performance driven, changes needed to be made in game, as far as going to the pen," Roberts said, refuting the suggestion that the heavy bullpen usage was a part of his master plan.
"But I do believe and I am aligned with our front office in the sense that there are certain spots in each individual game that can really affect an outcome. So to have an advantage hitter versus pitcher makes sense and it is something I know that I believe in."
A versatile bench allowed Roberts to carry an extra reliever most of the season and the roster alignment was not wasted. In addition to the 3.35 ERA from the bullpen, the group also recorded 633 strikeouts, also tops in the majors.
Most amazing of all is that the only reliever with a set role all season was closer Kenley Jansen. Guys such as Joe Blanton (a team-leading 75 appearances), Pedro Baez (73 appearances) and lefty Adam Liberatore (Dodgers record 28-appearance scoreless streak) pulled their weight. Liberatore was finally slowed by injury. Rookie Grant Dayton emerged to take Liberatore's left-handed innings.
"I think that all players feel comfortable with certain roles, but everyone, for me, outside of the closer, when you are talking about the pen specifically the role is to pitch after the starter," Roberts said. "So I think our guys, fortunately, bought into that role as far as pitching when called upon."
Over stretches when Roberts was barely able to get five innings from his starters, while Kershaw was out for 75 days, Roberts turned a revamped offense and his bullpen's performance into victories. The Dodgers went from a season-worse eight games behind the San Francisco Giants to a division title with a week to play.
Yet there may have been two bullpen moves that stood out over all the rest. On April 8, Roberts removed rookie Ross Stripling from a no-hitter at San Francisco. The bullpen was not able to finish the job. On Sept. 10 at Miami, Rich Hill had a perfect game through seven innings when Roberts removed him from the game. Again, the bullpen was not able to complete the task.
Both moves were made for health concerns. Stripling was two years removed from Tommy John surgery and in his first major league start. Hill was just two starts removed from a lengthy disabled list stint because of blister issues. The moves might have prevented history, but they also prevented losing both pitchers, who went on to participate in the postseason.
Looking back at it, Roberts would not change a thing.
"The thing that surprised me was the next day after dealing with some scrutiny -- or second guessing, if you will -- how I told myself I would do the same thing again," Roberts said. "I think that under what I went through and how it was received, for me to say I would do the same thing over again really surprised me in a good way."
The season ended those two victories short of the World Series, but the manager of the year award has validated most of Roberts' moves, even the ones involving Stripling and Hill. Roberts overcame more DL stints than any manager ever and made it to the playoffs.
If there was a bright side, it is that the injuries gave young players such as Julio Urias, Jose De Leon, Dayton and Andrew Toles opportunities nobody expected. And it sends Roberts into next year with the proof that feeling sorry for yourself is not an option.
"Did I expect us to have the injuries that we did?" Roberts said. "I think when you look at it from that lens, it was more challenging. But I think that the support that I had completely exceeded what my anticipation was. The relationship with the front office, the coaches, the way that the players bought in to us, made this whole season considerably easier than I anticipated.
"I think the focus on the day to day, and not getting even ahead to tomorrow or the next day, made it a lot easier. And I think that at any point of the season I would have stepped back and looked at the expectation or the injuries, it would have felt daunting, but it never really felt that way, even in late June when we were eight games back."