Well, that was one of the craziest baseball games anyone has ever seen. A would-be triple that hit the bill of Chris Taylor’s cap and then bounced right to Joc Pederson, a pickoff at second base that looked like Laz Diaz got challenged to an impromptu game of dodgeball, and finally, an extra inning home run derby led to a 7-6 Astros victory, tying the series at one game apiece. If we get any more baseball games like that one, this series will be a classic.
But before most of those crazy things happened, Dave Roberts made a decision that seemingly set the wheels in motion. In the top of the fifth inning, the Dodgers’ manager summoned Kenta Maeda from the bullpen to take over for Rich Hill.
Rich Hill had thrown just 60 pitches, 42 of them for strikes. Hill had given up just one run, so he wasn’t chased from the game by the Astros hitters. But with the top of the order coming up a third time and Justin Verlander looking like he wasn’t going to give the Dodgers many chances to score, Roberts opted for Maeda to face five consecutive right-handed batters and try to keep the game close.
Going to Maeda in the fifth inning pushed the team’s match-up relievers into the game in the sixth and seventh, with Ross Stripling and Tony Watson each only facing one batter in their outings. Brandon Morrow was called in to pitch the seventh inning once Stripling issued a four pitch walk, which meant that Kenley Jansen was asked to get a six-out save, with only Josh Fields, Tony Cingrani, and Brandon McCarthy to pitch if the game went extra innings.
Of course, the game did go extra innings, because Jansen couldn’t strand Alex Bregman at second base after relieving Morrow in the 8th inning with a runner at second base, and then he gave up a game-tying home run to Marwin Gonzalez in the ninth. And then Fields gave up two homers in the 10th. And after a miraculous comeback, McCarthy gave up a two run homer to George Springer, which proved to be the decisive blow.
If one so chooses, all of that can be traced back to the decision to pull Hill after four innings. The early bullpen usage led to the team running low on pitchers by the end of the night, and the Astros getting clutch hits against guys they probably weren’t expecting to face in high leverage situations this series. Given what came after Hill was removed, it’s very easy to claim that things would have been different had Roberts just done what managers have been doing since baseball was invented, and stuck with his starter until he had no other choice.
For basically all of baseball history, pitching changes have been made based with “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Starters pitch until they get in trouble, then relievers try to get them out of that trouble. Rich Hill was not in trouble but was removed anyway, and the guys who came after him gave up the runs that cost his team the game. And so now Roberts will spend the next 48 hours being pilloried for “overmanaging” or “outsmarting himself” or whatever other term people want to use to disparage the decision to remove Hill after four innings.
But when you look at the decision with the information Roberts had at the time he made it, the decision seems perfectly reasonable.
Let’s start with the reality that this isn’t new for Roberts. This was Hill’s third start of the postseason; in his first start, he was removed after facing 18 batters over four innings, and in his second start, he was removed after facing 19 batters over five innings. Tonight, Hill again faced 18 batters over four innings. In three postseason starts, Hill has faced exactly one batter three times in the same game. The Dodgers plan for his usage this postseason couldn’t be more clear; he gets two trips through the line-up, and then is pulled as soon as possible.
And the first two times Roberts made this decision, it worked out just fine. The Dodgers won both of Hill’s prior two starts. The idea that pulling Hill early had an obvious and foreseeable negative outcome simply isn’t supported by the results of the Dodgers managing Hill exactly in this way in the first two rounds.
And given the handedness of the Astros best hitters, changing plans to rely more heavily on Hill in this series didn’t really make sense. When Roberts removed Hill, the next four batters due up were George Springer (165 wRC+ against LHPs this year), Alex Bregman (160), Jose Altuve (164), and Carlos Correa (187). The four of them combined for 586 plate appearances against lefties this year, batting .340/.422/.569 between them. Hill is a better than average lefty, and he’s better against RHBs than most LHPs, but that’s a group where minimizing their plate appearances against left-handed pitchers makes all kinds of sense.
Kenta Maeda, who relieved Hill, has been nails all postseason, now throwing in the mid-90s as his stuff has played up in relief. Maeda made easy work of the top of the Astros order in the fifth, then came back out to pitch the sixth. Carlos Correa led off the inning with a single, but, well, here’s what Correa looked like right before and then right at the point of contact.
Maeda threw a 2-2 cutter off the plate that Correa lunged after, barely getting the end of the bat on the ball, and hitting it just 86 mph to the left side. Because Correa is a supremely talented hitter, he poked it over Corey Seager’s head for a dinker into left field. With Brian McCann on deck, Roberts made sure he had Tony Watson warm, and after Maeda got one more out, Watson came in to get a one-out double play to end the inning. The immediate results of taking Hill out? The Astros next six batters made six outs.
Could Hill have gotten some of those outs without giving up any runs to some of the best right-handed hitters in baseball? Maybe. But if one is going to use the late-game Dodger bullpen results as proof that pulling Hill early was a mistake, the same kind of results-based analysis could be used to “prove” that riding a dominating starter doesn’t always work either.
Justin Verlander has been the dominant force in the postseason thus far, and for the first four innings tonight, he looked as good as ever. He went 12-up, 12-down in his first four innings, with only a Chris Taylor walk spoiling a perfect start to the game. At that point, his postseason ERA stood at 1.29. Pulling him at that point would have been unconscionable for A.J. Hinch, and it looked like Verlander was cruising towards another seven, eight, or even nine inning throwback-style outing.
But then, in the fifth, Joc Pederson homered. And in the sixth, Taylor walked again, and then Corey Seager homered. And all of the sudden, after four dominant innings, Verlander gave up three runs in the next two innings and was on the hook for the loss. No one is claiming that Hinch should have pulled Verlander before those home runs — he doesn’t have Maeda, Morrow, and Jansen, after all — but it should be impossible to look at how the Dodgers bullpen blew the game, claiming it proved Roberts made a mistake in taking his starter out too early, without recognizing that the manager who stuck with his dominant starter then had to watch that guy give up the lead in the very same game.
In the fifth and sixth innings, Verlander showed that riding your dominant starter is no guarantee of success, and that great pitchers give up runs sometimes. It happens. It’s baseball.
But we don’t get to just wave away Verlander’s failures while acting as if Jansen’s were somehow written on tablets the moment Roberts pulled Hill after 18 batters faced. Tonight, both an elite starter and an elite closer blew leads. If anything, the story of tonight’s game is there is no perfect way to manage, and that no matter what you do or what they’ve done previously, no one can be counted on to perform in a certain way every game.
If Roberts sticks with Hill, perhaps he gets another scoreless inning out of him, or perhaps Altuve and Correa hit their monstrous home runs five innings sooner. We’ll never know. We can’t know. And pretending that it was clear that Hill would have rolled through four guys who just destroyed left-handed pitching this year, the best hitters on the best offense in baseball, is silly.
Everything in baseball is a calculated risk. In this case, the Dodgers’ calculations suggest that they don’t trust him to face batters a third time through the order, especially not elite right-handed hitters, when the alternative is a right-hander throwing 96 whose only hit allowed in October came on an 86 mph blooper tonight. And that calculated risk got the ball to Kenley Jansen with six outs to go.
And while you don’t want to ask your closer to go multiple-innings every outing, the reality is that Jansen’s track record in these kinds of outings is impeccable.
In his postseason career, he’d been brought into a game in the eighth inning or earlier eight times. His line in those eight outings:
14.2 innings, 3 hits, 0 runs, 5 BB, 25 K.
During the 2017 regular season, Jansen got at least four outs on 14 different occasions, and his line in those outings:
19.2, 14 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 28 K.
Those three runs allowed all came in one outing — July 23rd against the Braves — where he blew the save. In the other 13 outings, he recorded 12 saves and picked up a win, and didn’t allow a run in any of those appearances.
Tonight, Jansen wasn’t perfect. He gave up a bouncer up the middle that scored his one inherited runner, and then in the ninth inning, he threw a middle-middle cutter to Marwin Gonzalez that got launched into the seats. Like Verlander, Jansen just couldn’t keep runs off the board when he most wanted to. It happens. It’s baseball.
Did Roberts manage this game perfectly? No, of course not. Just like Jansen would probably like to have his cutter to Gonzalez back, I’d guess that, in hindsight, he wouldn’t have used Ross Stripling to start the seventh. With Gonzalez and Reddick due up to start the inning, that could have been a good spot to try and get a couple of outs from Cingrani, potentially saving Morrow for the 8th inning and Jansen for the ninth, or at least asking the pair to maybe get seven outs instead of nine.
But despite what John Smoltz spent most of the game telling the audience, the decision to remove Hill early didn’t doom the Dodgers. It was a perfectly reasonable decision that, this time, didn’t work out, because the team’s unhittable closer couldn’t hold a two-run lead. Sometimes, good pitchers get beat. Just like Justin Verlander got beat tonight, after looking untouchable for the first four innings of the game.
Baseball has changed. These days, starters get taken out before they get into jams, because the preponderance of the evidence shows that it’s better to go to your bullpen too early than too late. It doesn’t mean it’s always going to work, just like riding your starters isn’t always going to work. But despite Smoltz’s protestations, baseball isn’t going back to the days where starters are workhorses who carry their teams through October. The Dodgers had better options than letting Rich Hill face some great right-handed batters a third time through the order.
And if this series goes to Game 6, it’s a good bet that Roberts will manage his staff the same way. As he should. Because the Dodgers got here by trusting in the weight of the evidence, and they’re not going to stop just because Kenley Jansen blew one save.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.