It’s safe to say that Dusty Baker is not exactly the most progressive manager in baseball. Baker has always been an old school guy, and relative to what is becoming the new normal, he’s definitely a traditionalist. So as we live-blogged game five of the NLDS last night, one of the common questions in the early innings is what mistake Baker would make that would cost his team the game. The expectation was set in advance; if the Nationals lost, Baker’s old-school philosophies would be part of the reason why.
Of course, the Nationals did lose, 4-3, in one of the most intense playoff games you’ll ever see. And as is the case in any one run loss, there’s always second guessing of decisions the next morning, wondering if things would have turned out differently if other choices would have been made. But in reality, Dusty Baker’s big expected mistake last night never came, and we shouldn’t blame him for last night’s loss.
The primary decision being second-guessed this morning is Baker’s decision to remove Max Scherzer from the game following Joc Pederson’s game-tying home run to leadoff the seventh inning. To that point, Scherzer had been absolutely dominant, and the decision to remove him led to a procession of pitching changes, with various pitchers unable to hold the Dodgers offense down; by the time the seventh inning ended, the Dodgers were up 4-1. But in this case, the data supports Baker’s decision to trust his relievers over a tiring Scherzer.
At the point he was removed, Scherzer had faced 24 batters, and he was attempting to get through the Dodgers lineup a third time. You’re certainly familiar with the times-through-the-order penalty by now, and Scherzer, like pretty much everyone else, gets worse the more often hitters see him in the same game. Like most high-quality pitchers, his drop-off is smaller than the league average, but it’s still there; his career .303 wOBA allowed on the third time through the order is 17 points higher than the .286 he allows the first time he faces hitters in a ballgame.
But it wasn’t just the fact that Scherzer was going through the lineup a third time; he was also going to have face left-handed hitters a third time. And Scherzer, as great as he is, still has some weaknesses against lefties. His career wOBA allowed against RHBs is just .264, but spikes up to .321 against LHBs; the gap was even more pronounced this year, at .206/.323.
And when asked to face left-handed hitters a third time through the order, Scherzer is just simply not a great option. In 1,101 career plate appearances against LHBs a third time in the same game, those lefties have hit .276/.350/.448 against Scherzer, good for a .348 wOBA against him. When he’s tiring and faced with left-handed hitters, his strikeouts go down (23.4% K%), his walks spike (9.4% BB%), and his home run rate (1.17 HR/9) becomes a real problem. He’s also allowed a .345 BABIP to LHBs when facing them a third time through the order, so there are just no real positive indicators here.
In the seventh inning, the Dodgers were sending up Pederson (LHB), Yasmani Grandal (switch-hitter), and Andrew Toles (LHB), and if a rally started, a pinch-hitter for the pitcher, then Chase Utley (LHB) and Corey Seager (LHB). Scherzer, who started the inning at 98 pitches, was facing a gauntlet of lefties, and while he’d looked good in the sixth inning, history suggests that you don’t want to leave Scherzer out there to face a bunch of lefties if things start going off the rails. Given his dominance and the fact that he was throwing a shutout, asking him to try and get through the seventh was reasonable, but at any sign of trouble, Baker should be ready to remove Scherzer and go with his deep, quality bullpen.
Which is exactly what he did. Scherzer gave up a leadoff home run to Pederson, so Baker went and got him, turning things over to a bullpen group that was terrific during the regular season. Of the relievers the team carried in the postseason, they combined for a 63 ERA-/79 FIP-/87 xFIP-, pretty similar to the 71/71/82 marks that Scherzer himself put up during the regular season. On a per batter faced basis this season, the relievers in the Nationals bullpen were about as effective as a rested Scherzer.
|Pitcher||wOBA allowed, 2016|
You could probably quibble with going to Rzepcczynski first, rather than Solis, given the run of lefties due up and the likelihood that Dave Roberts would force Scrabble out of the game by pinch-hitting some righties — but he did get Solis in the game to face the team’s top two hitters in the lineup, which caused Roberts to send Carlos Ruiz to pinch-hit for Chase Utley.
This was, of course, the big at-bat of the inning, but if you had to honestly ask the Nationals and Dodgers front office guys who had the advantage in a Solis-Ruiz matchup, I bet everyone would admit that was a better spot for Washington, not LA. Ruiz might have had the platoon advantage, but he’s still a slow-footed backup catcher facing a quality pitcher in a situation where a double play ends the rally. And, while the results went against the Nationals, Solis got exactly what he wanted; a weak (85 mph exit velocity) groundball that, if it was hit a few inches to the left, would have been the double play the Nationals were looking for.
The ball hits Anthony Rendon‘s glove. This is about as textbook a “game of inches” play as you’re going to get, but because Ruiz’s grounder was just out of the third baseman’s range, the Dodgers took the lead, and the rally continued. Baker, again going with the data, wisely ignored Justin Turner’s reverse-platoon split, and went after the Dodgers best right-handed hitter with the team’s best right-handed setup guy, Shawn Kelley. Kelley held RHBs to a .173/.203/.336 line this year, a paltry .224 wOBA, and has been death to right-handed hitters his whole career.
Turner won that battle, though, doubling off the wall and bringing in two more runs. And that hit proved to be the decisive blast. But you can’t fault Baker for turning to Kelley against a right-hander; that was also a good match-up for Washington. Turner just won the battle, but questioning having Kelley on the mound there is using hindsight at its worst.
Despite expectations, there was no monumental mistake from Baker last night. He didn’t send Jayson Werth around third base when Corey Seager was already holding the ball on the relay home, after all. He took Scherzer out perhaps a batter too late, but that was at a point when no one was calling for Scherzer to be removed, given how dominant he had been up to that point, and he certainly didn’t take Scherzer out too early, as some have suggested since. He got good match-ups with good relievers against weak pinch-hitters, but had to watch as a seeing-eye single found a hole. That’s baseball.
And even as old school as Baker is, he still hit Bryce Harper second all series, which isn’t something he would have done in prior years. Under his watch this season, the Nationals shifted 758 times this year, up from the 216 times (second-fewest in MLB) they shifted under Matt Williams in 2015. Baker isn’t a perfect manager — no one is — but he’s not the scapegoat for the Nationals this year. The team had a successful bounce-back season and then played a really good division series to as close as a draw as you can get.
It’s easy to draw up a narrative around Baker’s postseason losses, especially since he doesn’t exactly endear himself to the analytics crowd with some of his comments, but that narrative is no more fact-based than the one about Clayton Kershaw not being able to live up to big pressure moments in October, and hopefully we watched the death of that silly story last night.
Baker’s not the modern-day archetype of manager bucking traditional wisdom, but he did just fine this year, and the Nationals didn’t lose last night’s game because of any decision that came out of the dugout.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.