Wobbly Dodgers starter pitches his way into a jam. Red Sox lineup turns over to the third time through the order. Manager Dave Roberts summons reliever Ryan Madson. All runners score, Red Sox take the lead for good. You could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu regarding the basic template of the first two games of the 2018 World Series.
The Dodgers beat the Braves in the Division Series and the Brewers in the and League Championship Series in part because Madson, an August 31 acquisition from the Nationals, came up very big in a few key spots, but they’re down two games to none in this World Series because he’s failed to replicate that success. But whereas one could point to at least half-a-dozen other mistakes the Dodgers made en route to losing Game One, particularly in the field — to say nothing of Roberts’ ill-fated summoning of Alex Wood, who surrendered a game-breaking three-run homer to Eduardo Nunez — the Madson move stood out in Game Two, in part because the Dodgers played a cleaner game and in part because it cost them their only lead in this series thus far.
The Dodgers traded for Madson not only because they needed additional bullpen support due to myriad injuries but because the 13-year veteran is about as battle-tested as they come. His numbers at the time of the trade weren’t good (5.28 ERA, 4.36 FIP, 21.0% strikeout rate, 0.0 WAR in 44.1 innings), but he’d made 47 postseason appearances (fifth all-time) in six previous trips (2008-11 with the Phillies, 2015 with the Royals and 2017 with the Nationals), winning World Series rings with the Phillies and the Royals. “The numbers aren’t indicative of the stuff,” Roberts said at the time. “For us, we’re betting on the stuff and the person.”
Madson was charged with six runs in 8.1 innings in September, but he did strike out 36.1% of the 36 hitters he faced, walking just 2.8%, a performance that earned him a spot on the postseason roster. And he’s passed some difficult tests in the playoffs so far. Between the bases-loaded, one-out situation he entered in Game Four of the NLDS, plus other high-leverage moments he faced in Games Two and Four of the NLCS (against the heart of the Brewers’ lineup, no less), he allowed just two of seven inherited runners to score. In all, Madson allowed just one run in 6.1 innings through the first two rounds, striking out six without issuing an unintentional walk.
You can understand, from that, why Madson has earned the trust of Roberts, but he’s just one of several Dodgers relievers who came through during those series; as noted in my piece on Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel, while Wood and Kenta Maeda struggled, righties Madson, Pedro Baez, and Dylan Floro, and lefties Caleb Ferguson and Julio Urias had combined for 27 strikeouts and just 20 baserunners (14 hits and six walks) in 24 innings.
In Tuesday’s World Series opener, Madson entered a 3-3 game in the fifth inning with two on, nobody out, and the middle of the order coming up after Roberts went a bridge too far with a flagging Clayton Kershaw. As it turns out, he wasn’t fully warmed up when he entered. “I think I pride myself on being able to get ready quickly,” he told reporters. “So on an 80-degree day, that was probably just fine. But I don’t think I was completely ready going in there. My arm was ready, but I don’t think mechanically I was ready, and it showed that first at-bat.”
Blame it on the October chill — the first-pitch temperature was just 53 degrees — but Roberts and the Dodgers’ staff should have foreseen the possibility of pulling Kershaw in a hurry, and gotten Madson warm earlier. Either way, his first pitch to Steve Pearce, an 84 mph changeup, bounced in front of the plate and sent runners Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi to second and third. Madson walked Pearce on four pitches, got a big strikeout of J.D. Martinez, and then induced Xander Bogaerts to ground into a run-scoring force play at second base. But two pitches later, he left a 95 mph fastball in the middle of the plate, and Rafael Devers ripped it to right field for an RBI and a 5-3 lead that the Red Sox never surrendered.
In Game 2, Ryu was cruising along with a 2-1 lead in the fifth, having gotten two quick outs on a total of three pitches to Ian Kinsler and Jackie Bradley Jr. Then Christian Vazquez and Mookie Betts hit back-to-back singles. After a mound visit, Ryu walked Benintendi to load the bases. With three straight righties — Pearce, Martinez, and Bogaerts — looming, obviously Roberts needed a righty. He had no shortage of options:
|Pitcher||2018 wOBA||2016-18 wOBA||PS PA||PS AVG||PS OBP||PS SLG|
I’ve ranked the four non-Jansen righties by 2018 wOBA for that split while also showing their small-sample postseason numbers, and if you want to argue that even the regular-season numbers constitute a small sample, you’re not wrong, which is why I’ve included their three-year numbers, as well. The thing to keep in mind regarding the latter set is that talent isn’t constant, and those numbers might not be capturing (for example) the changes that led to Baez’s year-over-year improvement from a .327 wOBA allowed to righties or Madson’s apparent decline from 2017 (.210 wOBA versus righties) to 2018. I wouldn’t ascribe much meaning to the postseason numbers, but the recency bias has a tendency to trip up many a manager, and I don’t think Roberts has shown he’s immune. And anyway, even then, Baez and Floro have been more effective of late in that context than Madson, and this is a big, honking high-leverage spot, with a 2.45 LI according to our play log. The 2016 model Terry Francona might bring in his Andrew Miller in such a situation, damn the platoon mismatch, but 2018 Roberts isn’t doing so with Jansen, so he might as well have picked his next-best option instead of defaulting to the one he seems to have labeled his Fifth-Inning Guy Come Hell or High Water.
It’s also worth keeping in mind the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Red Sox hitters with respect to how they match up to the repertoires of Madson (primarily sinker/four-seam fastball/changeup against righties in 2018), Baez (four-seamer/slider), Floro (sinker/slider), and Maeda (four-seamer/slider). Both Madson and Baez can dial their fastballs above 95 mph.
|Batter||1-yr FB 95+||3-yr FB 95+||1-yr SI||3-yr SI||1-yr SL||3-yr SL||1-yr Ch||3-yr CH|
That’s a lot of information, and it’s complicated a bit by the classification differences between Pitch Info and Statcast when it comes to four-seamers and other fastballs. (Statcast has separate classifications for two-seamers and sinkers that don’t add up to Pitch Info’s sinker counts.) The larger sets of data do suggest that being armed with a slider against this trio could be helpful and that throwing a fastball of any kind to Martinez is a bad idea. Given the additional info of Madson having thrown eight four-seamers and three sinkers out of his 14 pitches in Game One, he doesn’t look like the strongest choice. If I had to pick, I’d lean Baez given his slider and the the overall quality of his stuff lately — dating back to August 13, he’s allowed two runs and two inherited runners to score in his last 27.2 innings, with a 31:7 strikeout-to-walk ratio — but your mileage may vary.
We know which way Roberts went and how badly it turned out. Madson walked Pearce on a total of five pitches that were all high and inside, forcing in the game-tying run. He then gave up a single to Martinez on a 91.6 mph sinker that dunked in just in front of right fielder Yasiel Puig to bring around Betts and Benintendi.
And that, effectively, was the ballgame. Credit to the Red Sox, who have scored 36 of their 68 postseason runs with two outs on .268/.400/.423 hitting (compared to .261/.345/.404 overall); in the World Series, they’re hitting .364/.440/.545 with two outs en route to nine of their 12 runs. That’s not something upon which you can bank from a predictive standpoint, but it does point to the focused approach their lineup has brought to such situations and the mistakes they’ve forced opponents into making.
In all, nine of the 12 pitches Madson threw were either four-seamers or sinkers. Afterwards, Madson told FanGraphs’ David Laurila, “I’ve been throwing everything the same. It’s just that what’s been working is the fastball. My fastball’s been good. My changeup’s been good, too. I think all pitches are available.” His command, he said, has been lacking: “The ball’s just not going where I want it. Last night it was pulling down to the left, and tonight it was high and to the right… I don’t know if it’s mechanical, or physical, or emotional. There are a lot of elements going in there. I just to regroup and start all over again.”
As for the rest of the game, Red Sox starter David Price built on his ALCS-clinching start with a solid six-inning stint. Joe Kelly, Nathan Eovaldi, and Craig Kimbrel needed just 33 pitches to get the final nine outs.
So now the Dodgers find themselves behind the eight ball. They’ve hit just .175/.239/.222 over two games and are 2-for-20 with one of their six runs scored with two outs (and a dismal .160/.281/.298 in such situations in the postseason), but they had a chance to steal one nonetheless. Down two games to none, they can point to the fact that 11 teams (out of 54) have recovered from a two-games-to-none World Series deficit to win, six of them (out of 26) since division play began in 1969: the 1971 Pirates (over the Orioles), 1978 Yankees (over the Dodgers), 1981 Dodgers (over the Yankees), 1985 Royals (over the Cardinals) 1986 Mets (over the Red Sox) and 1996 Yankees (over the Braves).
In something of a fluke, only the first three of those teams lost the first two games on the road — as these Dodgers have — and then mounted their comebacks at home. They’ll have to hope that rookie Walker Buehler can summon the spirit of 1981 hero Fernando Valenzuela for Game Three, but Roberts probably isn’t going to let Buehler throw a 147-pitch complete game. He might want to rethink his options when it comes time to get his 24-year-old righty.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.