In the fall of 2015, as he prepared to interview for the post as Dodgers manager, Dave Roberts reached out to a friends and mentors for advice. One of the men he contacted was A.J. Hinch, who had just completed his first season managing the Houston Astros.
Hinch understood the dynamics of running a baseball club for a sabermetrically inclined front office. The Astros had risen from the ashes under the leadership of general manager Jeff Luhnow. Hinch operated as a translator for the information as it flowed from the front office to the diamond. Hinch figured the Dodgers’ baseball operations department of Andrew Friedman would seek a similar figure in a manager.
Roberts heeded the message. He got the job. And nearly two years later, he prepared to duel with his friend Hinch in the World Series, which will begin on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.
On Monday afternoon, as the Dodgers took batting practice at the ballpark, Hinch visited Roberts and gave him a hug. The men met while working for the San Diego Padres. Roberts rose through the ranks as a coach. Hinch toiled in the front office.
Over breakfast one morning this summer, they joked about the prospect of facing off in the World Series — “we’ve got to be careful what we wish for,” Hinch said.
“I love the man,” Hinch said. “He’s an excellent example of what leadership should be about. I have a lot of respect for how he connects well with players and how he’s leading his team. And I’m really happy and proud that we’re in this together.”
The connections between the clubs extend beyond the managers. Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, grew up in Houston. His father is the chairman of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, which operates as the landlord of Minute Maid Park. After the 2011 season, Astros owner Jim Crane approached Friedman about taking over his franchise’s baseball department.
At the time, Friedman was the general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. Friedman said he spoke “informally” about the position with Crane. He declined to pursue the position. “I just wasn’t in the frame of mind to leave,” Friedman said.
With Friedman out of the picture, Crane hired Luhnow, an executive with the St. Louis Cardinals. Luhnow embarked on a strategy of winning through losing, placing his franchise on the vanguard of the tanking phenomenon. The Astros lost 107 games in 2012, 111 games in 2013 and 92 games in 2014. Along the way, they drafted future contributors such asshortstop Carlos Correa, pitcher Lance McCullers and third baseman Alex Bregman, They built around a core of second baseman Jose Altuve and outfielder George Springer.
By 2015, the Astros had reached the playoffs. Houston won 101 games in 2017 and boasted the league’s best offense. Altuve might win the American League MVP. Springer hit 34 homers. Ten of their players hit 13 homers or more, including former Dodger Josh Reddick.
“Their whole lineup is really solid,” Game 1 Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw said. “You saw that all year. They won a hundred games for a reason. Starts without Altuve and Correa in the middle of that lineup. They’re both exceptional baseball players. Really all the way down. They have a lot of guys that swing the bats well.”
Defusing the Astros lineup may be the biggest challenge facing the Dodgers in this series. Houston went cold for three games in the American League Championship Series, allowing a two-games-to-none lead over the Yankees to morph into a 3-2 deficit, before returning to life during the final two games at Minute Maid Park.
Along the way, Hinch struggled to find a reliable rotation of relievers. He leaned upon McCullers for the final four innings in Game 7 last week. McCullers will probably start either Game 3 or 4 in this series.
The late August acquisition of Justin Verlander, a former Cy Young Award winner in Detroit, revitalized the Astros’ rotation. He gave up two runs in 16 innings against the Yankees, and will start on Wednesday in Game 2.
“He raises everybody’s game, not just mine,” Astros Game 1 starter Dallas Keuchel said. “You heard Altuve talk about him. He said he literally loved Justin Verlander. If Jose says that about you, he really means it.”
The Dodgers are unlikely to ask their starters to last late into games. Roberts has relied upon a five-man fleet of relievers to shut down opposing lineups. The duo of Kenta Maeda and Brandon Morrow can overpower right-handed hitters; Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani handle left-handed hitters. Kenley Jansen awaits at the end of the line, and he has overwhelmed all hitters this postseason.
In this regard, Roberts holds a clear advantage over Hinch, his contemporary and his friend. After the Dodgers downed the Cubs last week, Hinch congratulated Roberts with a text message. Roberts returned the favor after Houston outlasted the Yankees.
“And from that point on,” Roberts said, “it’s been radio silence.”