Danny Lehmann took the unconventional path to managing the Dodgers for a day

The Dodgers were embarking on a major transition in the winter of 2014-15. The team’s new president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, was furiously filling out a front office and player development staff, and creating several new behind-the-scenes support positions. This was the occasion that led Jeff Pickler, the Dodgers’ newly appointed special assistant of professional scouting and player development, to call his father, Scott.

The Dodgers needed an advance video scout. The job was fairly straightforward: to review video of the team’s upcoming opponents, focusing on who would be in the lineup and how to get them out. It was an entry-level job, the kind of work a player takes on when he is ready to hang up his uniform but not ready to leave baseball altogether.

Scott Pickler has seen a few baseball players in his day. He began coaching high school teams in Orange County in 1979, then embarked on a legendary career at Cypress College from 1985-2016. When his son called asking for a recommendation, Scott didn’t need long.

“He gave me three names and I knew two of them,” Scott recalled. “And I said, ‘Eh.’ ‘Eh.’ This is the Dodgers. I said, let me think about this. I hung up. It didn’t take me five minutes. I said ‘I got your guy.’ Because I had to see if he was still playing. I was shocked that he never played in the big leagues.”

The guy was Danny Lehmann.

Scott Pickler was Lehmann’s head coach in the Cape Cod League in 2006. With Lehmann at catcher, the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox won the championship that summer. Coincidentally, the team’s shortstop, a freshman from Florida State named Buster Posey, would take over behind the plate the following year when Lehmann was drafted by the Minnesota Twins.

The recommendation Jeff Pickler received was a strong one.

“Danny Lehmann was the best receiver I had in the Cape,” his father said.

Lehmann topped out at Triple-A in the Twins’ organization in 2010, then repeated the level the next three seasons. He spent a year in independent ball with the Sugar Land Skeeters in 2014, batting .266 with a decent walk rate but zero home runs. At 29 with a wife and two kids, his career and his life had reached a critical juncture.

So Lehmann re-enrolled at Rice University, hoping to finish his degree while entertaining a few offers to return to play affiliated baseball. That’s when the Dodgers called.

“I thought this was a really good opportunity outside of playing,” Lehmann said. “It was the right decision for me at the time, and my family, and we made the decision to do it. The transition part for me wasn’t that hard. It’s hard to let go of playing. Other than that it was a no-brainer.”

Job-hopping is the rule, not the exception, for Lehmann’s generation. This is true in most industries, sports or otherwise. (Jeff Pickler, for example, is currently the game planning and outfield coach for the Cincinnati Reds, his second organization since leaving the Dodgers.) Yet the eight-year line from when Pickler called Lehmann, to Saturday in San Diego, when Lehmann managed his first game in Dave Roberts’ absence, is remarkably straight.

Lehmann spent three years in the Dodgers’ video scouting room. In 2018 he was named game planning/communications coach, a uniformed position. (Lehmann chose jersey number 6, then switched to 0 when the Dodgers traded for Brian Dozier.)

In 2019, Lehmann’s title changed to “special assistant,” then in 2020 he was back in uniform in the game planning/communication chair. Finally, in 2022, he was named the team’s bench coach, with Bob Geren shifting to major league field coordinator.

Ask Roberts, Geren or Lehmann, and they will tell you not to get lost in the titles. Geren and Lehmann do essentially the same pregame prep this year as they have in the past. Being the bench coach comes with one important asterisk: the responsibility to fill in for the manager when he is absent.

Lehmann said he learned a couple of weeks in advance that he would manage the Dodgers on Saturday, when Roberts attended his son’s graduation at Loyola Marymount University.

“You grow up as a kid thinking you’re going to play and that didn’t happen for me,” said Lehmann, now 37 and a father of four. “This did. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s an honor. The trust from the organization, and specifically from Dave, is an honor.”

Roberts said he marvels daily at Lehmann’s “crazy bandwidth” for information. That, in part, explains why Lehmann was able to ascend from the video room to the (interim) manager’s chair without ever leaving the organization.

The Dodgers currently employ three former major league skippers. Geren managed the Oakland A’s from 2007-11. Special assistant Chris Woodward managed the Texas Rangers from 2019-22. Special assistant Ron Roenicke managed the Milwaukee Brewers from 2011-15 and the Boston Red Sox in 2020. Third base coach Dino Ebel managed minor league teams for nearly a decade in the Dodgers’ and Angels’ organizations.

Soaking up their expertise – as well as Roberts’ – has proven to be a valuable proxy for the first-hand experience that Lehmann lacks. For someone with aspirations to manage in the future, rising the ranks with the Dodgers could be a more valuable experience than managing a minor league team somewhere, Lehmann believes.

“How managers are picked today is very different than 10, 15, 20 years ago,” he said. “There was a progression in the past, where it was kind of like you managed whatever league in the minors, and you progress, or became a base coach. It’s just very different. I think now it’s a little bit more specific in how you want to run your team, and I think that makes a lot of sense.

“You see a lot of teams doing it now as far as their hires throughout the major league staff. Not just the manager. It’s more filling holes. You want to have a complete staff, all areas covered. Being around it in years past – this is my ninth year – it gave me a really good understanding of what is needed at the major league level, and to contribute however I could.”

Saturday, that meant removing starting pitcher Dustin May after six shutout innings and navigating a tricky bottom of the eighth that began with back-to-back doubles against reliever Brusdar Graterol.

Lehmann kept the infielders at normal depth with a runner on second base and no outs. He pulled the infielders in with one out. He sent them back with two outs. Graterol induced three straight ground balls and no one scored. The Dodgers won, 2-1. Lehmann’s winning percentage as a manager was, and is, a perfect 1.000.

Sunday, he was back in pregame meetings with Geren and Roberts, spitting out some knowledge and soaking up even more.

“There’s always a learning curve because each year they’ve given me more responsibility, which I’m super grateful for,” Lehmann said. “The game takes a while for you to understand: what you need to be thinking about, and how things layer in on top of each other, and how things connect from one series to the next.”

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