There are few things in life that have the same panache, rhythm and vibe as a baseball team’s clubhouse. It doesn’t matter what level of ball is played; may it be high school, college, Low-A, High-A, Double A, Triple A or the Majors. Clubhouse chemistry is often cited as the reason why teams succeed or fail, and there are examples of this everywhere. Hell, you could make the argument that the Red Sox had a toxic clubhouse in 2017, even after winning 93 games and a division title.
The way that a manager gains control of the clubhouse is an absolute crucial part of the role, an importance that is often overlooked by GMs, baseball executives and ownership groups.
A story that I’ve been keeping my eye on involves the struggling Los Angeles Dodgers and their current manager, Dave Roberts. Roberts, probably best known for pinch running for Kevin Millar in the 2004 ALCS, became the manager of the Dodgers in 2017. Roberts adopted a well-constructed roster that Don Mattingly lead before leaving Los Angels for Miami.
Roberts’ decision to bench Cody Bellinger in the 5th inning on Sunday has come under an immense amount of scrutiny. Roberts stated that he removed Bellinger from the game for a “lack of effort”, when Bellinger half-heartedly legged out a double. The Dodgers went on to lose the contest 4-2, and Bellinger made it incredibly clear that he did not understand why he was pulled for lack of effort, and seemed genuinely perplexed by the decision.
The Dodgers were 12-15 going in to Sunday, playing a division rival to try and split the 4-game series, at best. The Dodgers have struggled mightily in the first month and change of the season and every win, particularly a divisional win, is extremely important.
A lot of blame has been placed on Dave Roberts, who has won just over 60% of all games that he has managed since becoming the Dodgers’ skipper. There have been numerous devastating injuries to this team and the Dodgers have discovered a disturbing lack of depth throughout their system, including starting pitching. This is a team that traded for Yu Darvish at the trade deadline last year to bolster their rotation. But that was certainly a swing that they had to take, even though it didn’t work out as planned.
I realize that the numbers do NOT support pulling Bellinger out of the contest on Sunday. What a lot of critics fail to understand is that there are always two games being played when you’re talking about a baseball club. There is the numbers game on the field, which, arguably, should be the most important factor. However, there is also managing the mental aspect of the game. Managers who solely focus on the numbers often times wind up being unsuccessful. It is a balance, and a very tricky balance at that. The clubhouse has to be managed with an underlying authority, while letting the veteran guys step up and lead the youth to more success.
By benching Bellinger on Sunday, Dave Roberts was trying to send a message to his team: any lack of effort will not be tolerated. Even if Bellinger perceived this differently, Roberts clearly felt otherwise, and since he is THE voice in the room, it is incredibly important to assert that when the team is struggling the most.
People want to bag on Roberts for pulling Bellinger, but to be honest, it was absolutely the right move from the clubhouse side of things. This team needs to understand that just because they have faced diversity with injury, it is not time to throw in the towel. Those are the times when the clubhouse has to show some grit and perseverance.
The Dodgers are in the unfortunate position of having to chase one of the best teams in the NL, the DBacks, in their division. This team is 13-17, 8 games out of first place in the NL West. They are only 3 games out of second place, however, and if this team is going to be able to tread water until recovering from key injuries, it will require some clubhouse grit. It will require criticism of every single move.
I’ve certainly seen crazier things happen in my years of watching baseball but Roberts has made it abundantly clear that he will not sit idly by while the team plays themselves right out of a wild card hunt within the first month of the season.