When recording a segment with Ben Clemens for FanGraphs Audio last week, our Dodgers conversation naturally delved into their at-times off-kilter pitching usage, particularly in regards to rookies Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin. After following a mostly straightforward (for 2020, that is) pitching arrangement — both spending the year in the starting rotation — the two were shoved into very different roles in the postseason. May was asked to start, follow, take over the middle innings, or anything else the Dodgers needed of him. Gonsolin, meanwhile, was suddenly less a starter than an opener, and never quite got settled into a typical rest schedule. The result of this constantly evolving usage were postseason performances filled with several unpleasant memories for both young pitchers.
We did not talk about Julio Urías during this part of our conversation, even though Urías is younger than Gonsolin, just a year older than May, and had seen his role tinkered with just as much during the postseason. He didn’t come up because we were talking mostly about the pitchers on the Dodgers’ staff who had been struggling, and Urías had been great. He was great when he started, he was great when he was asked to throw in the middle of games, and he was great on Tuesday, when he closed Game 6 of the World Series by retiring all seven batters he faced and striking out four to clinch the Dodgers’ first championship in 32 years. Read the rest of this entry »
Maybe you’ve heard — Blake Snell pitched a nifty five-plus innings two nights ago. The decision to pull him or leave him in has been hashed, rehashed, diced, A-Rod’ed, and generally poked and prodded like a murder victim in an episode of CSI. If you want my opinion on it, I would have kept Snell in, though I don’t think that was in any way the determining factor in the game.
That’s not why I’m writing today, though. Any honest analysis of that decision is going to come down to a minuscule edge. Use one good pitcher, or use another good pitcher? It doesn’t matter much — the players on the field determine the game, not the manager, even if you think the decision was clearly one way or the other. Instead, let’s appreciate not what Blake Snell could have done if he stayed in, but what he did do when he was in the game.
Snell threw 73 pitches on Tuesday night. He generated a whopping 16 swinging strikes, a 21.9% swinging strike rate. That was his second-highest mark of the year, behind a September 29 start against the Blue Jays. That might not sound impressive, but the Dodgers are, well, the Dodgers. No other starter this year topped a 20% swinging strike rate against them; they simply aren’t the kind of team that swings and misses. Read the rest of this entry »
Facing elimination in Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Rays were in desperate need of some offense. As he has so many times, rookie outfielder Randy Arozarena delivered. With one out in the top of the first inning, Los Angeles starter Tony Gonsolin threw a slider running off the plate outside that wasn’t able to evade the bat of Arozarena, who launched it over the right field fence to give the Rays a 1-0 lead. It was his record-setting 10th homer of the postseason; no other player in history has more than eight in any playoff run.
But in a game that would see the Dodgers tally three runs, one solo homer wasn’t going to cut it for the Rays. And in spite of Los Angeles using seven pitchers in a bullpenning effort, one solo home run was all Tampa Bay was going to get. After Gonsolin exited just five outs into the game, Tampa Bay totaled just two hits and zero walks over the final 7.1 innings. It was the third game of the series in which they scored two runs or fewer, and the second time they totaled five or fewer hits. Given those numbers, it’s hardly a surprise the team in the other dugout was the one celebrating a championship on Tuesday.
During and after the loss, much of the discussion surrounding the Rays had to do with the pitching staff — both the way it performed and the way it was managed. There was the controversial decision to lift Blake Snell in the midst of a shutout in the sixth inning, the sudden struggles of Nick Anderson, the disappointing pair of starts made by Tyler Glasnow in this series, and plenty of other points to dissect. The focus on the pitching side makes sense. The Rays are a team known not only for the lights-out arms they boast, but also for the unconventional-yet-typically-successful ways those arms are utilized. Tampa Bay’s pitching staff was the reason the team had made it this far, and if the team won the title, the pitching staff would probably be the reason for that too. It isn’t, however, the reason it lost. Read the rest of this entry »
The Dodgers are world champions! On Tuesday night in Game 6 of the World Series, they capitalized on a shockingly quick hook of Blake Snell, who in a must-win game for the Rays had utterly dominated them for 5.1 innings. The decisive rally started with a single by number nine hitter Austin Barnes, just the second hit surrendered by a 27-year-old lefty who had summoned the form by which he’d won the AL Cy Young award just two years ago. The turnover of the lineup was the script to which Rays manager Kevin Cash insisted upon sticking, that despite Snell striking out nine over the course of his 73 pitches while limiting the Dodgers to a paltry 78.4 mph average exit velocity on the balls with which they did make contact.
Opportunity knocked, and the Dodgers let it in, converting Cash’s ill-fated decision into a lead they would not surrender via yet another tour de force by their marquee offseason acquisition and new franchise cornerstone, Mookie Betts. The 28-year-old right fielder greeted reliever Nick Anderson with a ringing double, took third on a wild pitch, and scored on a fielder’s choice. Betts would later provide insurance with a solo homer, and Julio Urías would cap a stifling 7.1-inning, 12-strikeout effort by an oft-rickety bullpen with his second hitless, multi-inning, series-clinching outing of the fall.
The Dodgers are world champions! I was 18 years old when I could last say those words, a college freshman struggling to stay afloat in my new surroundings some 2,350 miles from home. I had briefly fallen in with a couple of beefy football players who owned a 27-inch television. Somehow, they didn’t mind the near-nightly company of an engineering nerd living and dying with the team he’d grown up rooting for, and clung to extra-tightly amid one of life’s rites of passage.
Seven years earlier, I’d seen the Dodgers chase away the ghosts by vanquishing the Yankees, whose consecutive defeats of them in the 1977 and ’78 World Series marked the birth of my baseball fandom. Watching the likes of Mike Scioscia, Kirk Gibson, Mickey Hatcher, and Orel Hershiser conquer the Goodens and the Eckersleys didn’t carry quite the same psychological weight, but it certainly helped to combat the homesickness.
Clayton Kershaw was just seven months old when Hershiser capped his magical run — a 23-8 regular season with a 2.26 ERA, a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings, a 3-0, 1.05 ERA postseason punctuated by a 12th-inning save in the NLCS — with the last of those victories over the A’s. The vast majority of his current teammates, including Barnes, Betts, Urías, Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, and Corey Seager, weren’t even twinkles in their parents’ eyes when Hershiser and company hoisted the World Series trophy. None of that bunch, and only a few current Dodgers, were even in the majors when Kershaw began carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders as his team failed to add another championship, despite opportunity after opportunity.
“When you don’t win the last game of the season and you’re to blame for it, it’s not fun,” said Kershaw after serving up back-to-back homers against the Nationals’ Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto in Game 5 of the Division Series last year. The latter tied a game they would lose in 10 innings. “It’s just a terrible feeling.”
As much as anything this side of the golden voice of Vin Scully, it’s been the fate of Kershaw that has cut through the emotional distance I’ve cultivated while walking an improbable career path, from engineering student to biology/pre-med student to graphic designer to professional writer. Thirty-two years ago, there was no way I could have imagined writing about baseball for a living; there was barely even an internet, at least as we understand it now. Though I was assigned an email address when I arrived at Brown University, I never once used it, didn’t connect my computer to a modem until I’d moved from Providence, Rhode Island to New York City at age 25. With the exception of the postseason, baseball had receded into the background in the years since the Dodgers’ 1988 win, and it was the late-’90s Yankees — of all the teams! — that pulled me back in, as the first major league team whose games I could attend regularly.
When I began The Futility Infielder in 2001, I blogged frequently about both the Dodgers and the Yankees, exploring the contradictions of my dueling loyalties when I wasn’t ranting about relievers and managers and free agent busts and labor strife and Hall of Fame ballots. Even as I began writing with increasing professionalism at Baseball Prospectus and Sports Illustrated, nobody told me I had to surrender my fandom, though the need to tamp it down arose once I was admitted to the BBWAA in December 2010. There’s no cheering in the press box, and while I’ve never come close to maximizing the privilege of covering games in person, emotional detachment and a solid veneer of objectivity have become much easier to maintain in that context. Particularly so as the players for whom I rooted most fervently began to dwindle, and my own profile as a national writer, adept enough at grappling with the arcs of all 30 teams, grew to the point that somebody paid me real money to do it.
Kershaw, though… watching his regular season ups — the three Cy Youngs and MVP award, the five ERA titles, the no-hitter, the path to Cooperstown — and postseason downs has cut through all of that. I’ve wanted the Dodgers to win a World Series during his time with the team, wanted him to chase away his season-ending despair as badly as I’ve wanted anything in baseball. Not for myself, but for him, so he wouldn’t have to endure the endless questions and bad-faith hot takes about why he can’t win the big one. So his teammates and manager weren’t left wondering what they could have done differently this time around. And so my family and far-flung friends who have pulled for him so fervently and for so long didn’t have to wait ’til next year.
I did not want Kershaw to become baseball’s equivalent of Karl Malone or John Stockton. Having grown up in Salt Lake City, I rooted for the Utah Jazz as they rose from franchise-relocation ignominy into one of the sporting world’s most agonizing near-misses — to hell with you, Michael Jordan — even while the pair asserted themselves as all-time greats. Disciplined to the point of obsession, they spent decades expending every last ounce of energy and effort to shed the can’t-win label, yet still came up agonizingly short. Watching it all pay off for Kershaw as he slayed those particular demons with some dominant October showings and some all the more admirable for his survival when he wasn’t dominant… I’ll never forget that.
BIG EMOTIONS SEEING THIS ONE https://t.co/ZFeGBbVWcs
— Jay Jaffe (@jay_jaffe) October 28, 2020
BIG EMOTIONS SEEING THIS ONE https://t.co/ZFeGBbVWcs
— Jay Jaffe (@jay_jaffe) October 28, 2020
In the annals of baseball history, there exists a very short list of teams who within a five-year span lost back-to-back World Series, then returned to win it all. The 1921 and ’22 Yankees, the first World Series teams with Babe Ruth, lost twice to the Giants before avenging those defeats in ’23. The 1952 and ’53 Dodgers — Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe and the rest of the Boys of Summer — lost twice to the Yankees before beating them in ’55. The 1977 and ’78 Dodgers, those of the longest-running infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey, lost twice to the Yankees but then finally won in ’81, fueled by the additions of Fernando Valenzuela and Pedro Guerrero. The 1991 and ’92 Braves, with young John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, lost to the Twins and the Blue Jays before adding Greg Maddux and beating the Indians in ’95. And then these Dodgers, who lost to the Astros in 2017, and then the Red Sox in ’18, before defeating the Rays.
My baseball DNA runs through that last paragraph. My paternal grandfather, Bernard Jaffe, was born in Brooklyn in 1908, and brought baseball history to life for me by regaling me with stories of watching Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit home runs. The Jaffe family of Walla Walla, Washington huddled around the radio during those 1950s World Series, and I came to understand baseball as something beyond a backyard sport with those ’70s teams; by the end of the 1978 season I could read a box score, recite a batting order from memory, and retrace the climax of the NL West race through a stack of old Salt Lake Tribunes. I didn’t see a single pitch of the 1990 World Series, but it was the riveting ’91 classic, capped by the epic duel between Smoltz and Jack Morris, that brought me back to watching postseason baseball.
The 1981 Dodgers won in a season cleaved by a seven-week players’ strike. Guaranteed a playoff berth by their standing atop the NL West when the strike hit on June 12, they did not need to muster the same urgency in the second half of the season, and so they didn’t finish with the division’s best overall record, but they did own the majors’ best run differential. They survived an unprecedented three-tiered playoff format by overcoming a two-games-to-none deficit in a best-of-five Division Series against the Astros, a two-games-to-one deficit in a best of five Championship Series against the Expos, and a two-games-to-none deficit in the World Series against the Yankees. Somewhere, some assholes may have affixed their own asterisks to that accomplishment because of the shortened season, but the fire those Dodgers walked through in that October, to claim the title that had long eluded them, made them as worthy as any other champions.
This Dodgers team only played 60 games due to the coronavirus pandemic, and in a schedule further limited by geography. Within those boundaries, they steamrolled opponents, winning at a 116-game full-season pace, and then seating all comers in playoffs that included an unprecedented fourth round as well as a relentless schedule that eliminated off days within the first three of those series. They blew away the Brewers in the Wild Card Series, routed the Padres in the Division Series, and overcame a three-games-to-one deficit against a strong Braves team in the Championship Series. Facing a tough-as-nails Rays team whose smarts helped to overcome a massive gap in payroll, they rebounded from one of the most improbable, gut-wrenching defeats in Series history to claim the championship that they might have won in 2017 or ’18 had not their opponents been illegally stealing signs. They’re just the fifth team this millennium to win the World Series after finishing the regular season with the majors’ best record, and by the look of things, they might have earned a spot in the debate alongside the mid-’70s Big Red Machine and the late-90s Yankees among the top powerhouses in recent memory. Damn straight they are worthy champions.
Due to a pandemic that has killed upwards of 225,000 in this country alone, and that has not been contained due to an utter failure of leadership at the federal level, 2020 has largely been a miserable year for most of us. The deciding game of the World Series did not escape the shadow of the virus, as Justin Turner was removed in the eighth inning due to the belated reporting of a positive COVID-19 test, yet inexplicably and indefensibly allowed to return to the field to celebrate with his teammates — often unmasked, at that. In a season that sometimes looked as though it would not and could not be played to completion, MLB’s eight-week long winning streak, without a positive test among players, came crashing to a halt just as its ultimate trophy was being hoisted. The league is hardly without culpability, having sent a very mixed message about its own protocols and punctured the bubble by admitting over 10,000 paying fans to each NLCS and World Series game at Globe Life Field. We can only hope that the Dodgers’ celebration was not also a super-spreader event.
In this grim and fraught year, however, no joy is so small that it shouldn’t be savored. Seeing Kershaw and teammates with that trophy won’t salvage 2020 by any means, but nobody should begrudge the relief and exhilaration that the Dodgers and their fans feel right now. Nobody can take this moment away.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the results of Justin Turner’s initial COVID test were inconclusive, prompting the processing of his second test to be expedited. That test was positive, resulting in his removal from the game.
The players gathered on the field in various states of face-covering. The winning team was at home, but wasn’t; they gathered in the middle of a dark, huge, faraway stadium, with fans spread haphazardly in the stands, some gathered in jubilant, worrying clusters. And as the trophies were about to be presented, the broadcast was interrupted by an announcement: Justin Turner, one of the most important members of this team for the past eight years, had exited the game mysteriously in the eighth inning. The reason for that exit, the public was somberly told, was that he had received a positive COVID-19 test.
But then, all of a sudden, it cut back to the field, to the smiling, hugging, weeping players, the speeches and the trophies and the booing and the cheering, just as if it was a normal World Series. Even Turner got his on-field shot with the trophy, despite being removed from the game to be isolated and prevent the spread of infection; even Turner joined the team for their group photo.
The pandemic rages on, even within the confines of the diamond: a place that so often attempts to shelter itself from the realities of living in society, that had been fighting to keep their bubble — or, at the very least, its appearance — intact. Turner’s test results from yesterday were, apparently, revealed to be inconclusive in the second inning of tonight’s game. His test results from today were confirmed positive later. And yet, they kept playing baseball, right to the very end, through Game 6 of the World Series, with over 11,000 fans in attendance. The Dodgers, appearing in their third Fall Classic over the last four seasons, beat the Rays 3-1. In this truncated, bedeviled, dubious season, in a world rife with uncertainty, and heading into a dark and fearful winter, it was the best team in baseball that emerged victorious. And now, with Turner’s positive test and the questions it raises, the best team in baseball leaves their celebration not to celebrate further, but to rapid testing and quarantining — a shadow hanging over the sublime joy of a championship a long time in the making.
Just a few hours ago, though, none of this — Turner, COVID, the questions facing MLB and the Dodgers going forward — was in the game story. The game story was Randy Arozarena putting an exclamation point on his historic postseason, hitting his 10th October home run off Tony Gonsolin in the first to put the Rays up 1-0. When we look back on this October, Arozarena’s out-of-nowhere explosion into the most fearsome hitter on any postseason team’s lineup, a bonafide star carrying the Rays’ offense on his back, will certainly be near the top of the list of memorable moments.
And the game story was the Dodgers’ bullpen, so often postseason goats, who took over from the clearly struggling Gonsolin after just five outs in what was intended to be a full start from him. It was Dylan Floro, who came in with two on in the second and struck out Arozarena on three pitches to end the inning. It was the mostly-sidelined Alex Wood pitching two perfect, shockingly efficient innings of middle-relief; Pedro Báez, to whom much is always, somehow, given, redeeming the two-homer egg he laid in that wild Game 4; Victor González, who bailed out Báez after Arozarena got yet another hit; Brusdar Graterol, who overcame his wildness — and got a little help from Cody Bellinger’s superb fielding in center — to record two outs in the seventh; and Julio Urías, who closed out the NLCS, once again shutting down the opposing team over the final innings of the game. Read the rest of this entry »
Read the rest of this entry »
There’s a left-handed first baseman putting on an absolute clinic at the plate in the World Series. Throw him a ball? He’s not interested. He’ll take and take until you challenge him in the strike zone. Even then, he might take — it’s three strikes to a strikeout, after all, and you might walk him all the same. He’s hitting well enough to keep people honest, but really, the walks are the main event. No, it’s not Max Muncy (or fine, it’s not just Max Muncy). It’s Ji-Man Choi.
Let’s start with the basics. Here are the playoff batters who swing least often at pitches outside the strike zone, minimum 40 opportunities to chase:
Saturday night, the Rays and Dodgers played one of the wildest World Series games ever. Leads changed hands, runners slipped, pitchers crumbled, and the Rays walked it off in spectacular fashion. At the time, I criticized several managerial decisions, and I wasn’t alone. With the benefit of a few days of thinking, however, I wanted to look back at a few key decisions each manager made and decide whether they were blunders or merely tough decisions that looked worse in hindsight.
For the Dodgers, the key managerial decision was the relief pitcher hierarchy. After a spectacular pitching performance from Walker Buehler the previous night, Dave Roberts had the entire bullpen available. His first decision came with two outs in the fifth inning, when Julio Urías began his third trip through the Rays’ lineup. Urías had been up and down on the night; he had nine strikeouts, but he’d also allowed some loud contact and two home runs. The Rays stacked their lineup to challenge him; the first four hitters were all right-handed.
Roberts went to Blake Treinen, and I think that’s a reasonable choice. The Rays had a bench full of lefties, which means any stretch of righties in their lineup can turn into lefties at the drop of a scorecard. Despite that fact, however, Randy Arozarena probably wasn’t leaving the game, and guaranteeing a Treinen/Arozarena matchup, plus forcing Tampa Bay to use some left-handed pinch hitters, is as close to a positive platoon matchup as the Dodgers were going to get.
That leads us to a pivotal pitching change in the sixth: two runners on, one out, and Brandon Lowe stepping to the plate. Behind Lowe, the Rays had Willy Adames and Hunter Renfroe due up. In theory, that’s two righties and a lefty. In practice, Lowe is the only Tampa Bay hitter who the team couldn’t substitute. That left Dave Roberts with three decisions, in my mind — all of which he would have had to make several batters earlier to allow the pitchers time to warm up. Read the rest of this entry »
He hasn’t hit as many homers as Corey Seager, or made as many highlight-worthy plays as Mookie Betts or Cody Bellinger, but Justin Turner has been a crucial part of the Dodgers’ October success to this point — success that has the team one win away from its first championship since 1988. A perennial force in the postseason during his seven-year run with the team, the 35-year-old third baseman began this year’s playoffs in a bit of a funk, but went on a tear that started in the middle of the NLCS, and has raked at a .364/.391/.818 clip through the first five games of the World Series.
After batting a more-than-respectable .307/.400/.460 (140 wRC+) during the regular season — we’ll get back to that performance — Turner went hitless in eight plate appearances during the Wild Card Series against the Brewers, and just 2-for-10 in the Division Series against the Padres, though he did walk three times and drove in a run in all three games. He singled in each of the first three NLCS games against the Braves, and scored twice during the 15-3 Game 3 rout, but to that point was batting just .167/.278/.167 though 36 PA, with an average exit velocity of just 88.8 mph and an xwOBA of .296. While the two hits he collected in Game 4 came during garbage time, when the Dodgers trailed by six runs, his eighth-inning double off Tyler Matzek was a portent of things to come.
Since then, through the remainder of the NLCS and the first five games of the World Series, Turner has gone 12-for-35 with six doubles, three homers, and four walks (.343/.410/.771), with an average exit velocity of 95.1 mph, a .441 xwOBA, and at least one extra-base hit in seven of the nine games. He homered off Max Fried in the first inning of NLCS Game 6, walked twice and scored the first Dodgers run in Game 7 (the only game in that stretch in which he didn’t hit safely), and collected doubles as his lone hits in the first two games of the World Series.
Turner’s bat was a much bigger deal in Games 3 and 4, as he became the first player to hit first-inning homers in back-to-back games of the World Series. The first of those, off Charlie Morton, gave the Dodgers a lead they didn’t relinquish, and his third-inning double off Morton preceded a two-run single by Max Muncy. After homering off Ryan Yarbrough to start the scoring in Game 4, his third-inning single went for naught, but his seventh-inning double off Aaron Loup set up Joc Pederson’s two-run single, which gave the Dodgers a 6-5 lead, and his eighth-inning single of John Curtiss sent Seager to third base with two outs. Muncy couldn’t bring them home, which proved significant as the Rays came back in the most improbable fashion, but none of that was attributable to Turner’s play. Those big hits:
Watching Game 4 of the World Series, you may not have felt as exhausted as Brett Phillips did when the plane celebration ran out of fuel, but you probably came pretty close. Baseball is at its best when it’s full of unresolved tension, and until that moment of catharsis when the Rays highlight-reel celebration ensued, there were a good six or seven innings of nonstop pressure Saturday night.
Looking at the win probability graph for Game 4 illustrates the rollercoaster everyone rode:
The sheer number of peaks and dips is scary. The outcome was mostly in doubt for the final two-thirds of the game and the arrow of fate couldn’t decide where it was going. For a much less suspenseful game, let’s look at an earlier Dodgers tilt this postseason, the Game 3 NLCS laugher against the Braves that started with an 11-run first inning:
Given how little suspense there was, that might as well have been a graph of fan interest. While the Dodgers were rightly pleased to bank such an easy win, watching eight-and-a-half innings of baseball that’s all but certainly decided isn’t the most compelling viewer experience. I was still watching the game, but at that point, I was paying more attention to the Paladin I was leveling in World of WarCraft!
So how does Game 4 fit into baseball history? To answer this question, I took every win probability change for all 125,000 plays in postseason history in postseason history and tracked them on a game-by-game basis. I then crunched the numbers to determine which games had the most change in expected outcome per event and thus to see how all 1,668 games ranked in terms of volatility. If you thought you were watching a special game, you were right; the uncertainty in Game 4 was definitely meaningful on a historic level: