Managerial Report Cards: American League Division Series

© Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

With the ALDS finally finished, I’m continuing my annual series grading each manager’s playoff decision-making. As always, I’m focusing on the lineup and pitching decisions that each manager made in the course of their series. I’m honing in on process rather than results, and taking into account the limitations of each roster.

That might mean not docking Dusty Baker, in a future edition of these report cards, for failing to bring in a lefty specialist; he doesn’t have any. It might mean taking it easy on teams with limited platoon or pinch hitting options. It doesn’t mean that you get a pass for not doing anything, though; just because a manager’s resources are limited doesn’t mean they should automatically sit on their hands. Of course, sometimes doing nothing is good, too. Leaving your excellent starter in or skipping pinch hitting when it only confers a marginal advantage can both be smart moves.

What qualifies me to issue these grades? Well, nothing really. They’re just the opinions of someone who spends a lot of time thinking about baseball. I’m sure teams are doing their own evaluations, and they probably have a better handle on the exact individual matchups, but the point is this: these decisions matter, and while the team- and consensus-building aspects of a manager’s job are far more important over a 162-game season, little edges can be decisive in a short series. A run could send you home or catapult you to glory, as these two managers will demonstrate. A note: both ALDS losers played in the three-game Wild Card round, and I’ll cover all of their decisions, starting with the most recent series.

Scott Servais, Seattle Mariners

Batting: B+
To be frank, the Mariners don’t have a lot of moving parts on offense. In the playoffs, their lineup was essentially plug and play. Jarred Kelenic and Dylan Moore form a left field platoon, and with no lefty relievers on Houston’s roster, Servais could roll with Kelenic for the entirety of any game he started. When Framber Valdez started, Moore drew the start, then departed for Kelenic when the Astros brought in their relievers.

That flexibility meant that Moore could pinch run for slow-footed Mariners when a righty was on the mound, and Servais brought him in for Eugenio Suárez in Game 3, in a high-value spot: bottom of the ninth, tie game, after Suárez hit a leadoff single. He also used Taylor Trammell to run for Carlos Santana twice; both times, the run was important and Santana’s spot never came up to bat again. That’s just ABC managing.

The Blue Jays series was more of the same. In Game 1, the Mariners didn’t make a single substitution all game. In Game 2, they swapped in Moore for Kelenic against lefty Tim Mayza in the sixth inning. I wasn’t wild about that decision – with two outs and no one on, I think I’d take the power hitter over the contact man, even with a platoon disadvantage. With a three-run deficit at that point in the game, you don’t need to play for the long-shot odds of a two-out rally; you can just hope to spike a home run and retain a pinch hitter for later. Moore faced Jordan Romano with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth; I’m sure the Mariners would have loved to use Kelenic there.

That’s small potatoes, but given how few decisions Servais had to make, I can’t give him an A. When you only have one moving part, you should think ahead with that part. Still, I give him high marks overall: his pinch-running decisions were consistently solid, and he knew not to mess with the lineup that gave the Mariners their best chance to win.

Pitching: B+
Let’s start at the top: Was bringing in Robbie Ray to face Yordan Alvarez a good move? Jake Mailhot dove into the particulars last week, but I’m not sure there’s an obvious answer either way. Alvarez is an unsolvable riddle, the sound of one hand clapping. Leave in Paul Sewald to face him? Use Ray? Pitch around him? You won’t catch me clearly saying that these are right or wrong, because I think this one was entirely a matter of preference. Would I have thrown him some center cut sinkers? Obviously not. But it’s hard to pin that on Servais.

That decision aside, I thought Servais managed his pitchers exceedingly well in the divisional series. He trusted Andrés Muñoz and Sewald in big spots, which lines up with how he used them all year and also with best practices; putting your best relievers in the biggest spots is exactly what you should do. He emptied out the bullpen in the 18-inning series clincher, and showed a good balance of urgency – he yanked Diego Castillo and Matthew Boyd quickly when they struggled – with planning for the long game. It didn’t work out, but holding the Astros to a solitary run over 18 innings is a tremendous accomplishment.

Servais also deserves credit for his aggressive management in Game 2 of the team’s series against the Blue Jays. With his team trailing 4-1 and the top of the lineup due up for Toronto in the fifth inning, he brought in Sewald, the nominal closer. That move blew up spectacularly, but that doesn’t make it wrong. When the offense roared back and tied the game, he went to Muñoz, followed by George Kirby to close things out. Kirby was available in relief for the Wild Card round, which let the team operate with three lights-out relievers. I loved everything about the management of this game aside from the strange absence of Erik Swanson, who appeared in only one postseason game.

His hesitation around using Swanson and an iffy intentional walk of Alvarez were my only two issues with Servais, but I don’t find either particularly shocking. Game flow dictated Swanson’s absence; I think the team liked him fifth-best among relievers behind Muñoz, Sewald, Castillo, and Matt Brash. That leaves Game 2 against the Jays as the only natural spot to use him before the 18-inning game, but when Swanson would have come in, the Mariners were down a ton late, with an exhausted bullpen before a potential winner-take-all Game 3. In my opinion, it’s reasonable to keep Swanson fresh there, and then Muñoz and Kirby were available after they rallied back.

As for walking Alvarez, it might have been a bad decision by the numbers, but it wasn’t a huge blunder given the game state. Additionally, I think it provided a mental benefit. The team’s plan against him simply hadn’t worked. Telling everyone to take a breath, regroup on the day off, and come up with a new way to get him out feels fine to me; letting Alvarez continue his otherworldly ways would’ve been crushing. I don’t put a lot of stock in keeping team morale high – rosters full of high-confidence professional athletes tend to be naturally high in confidence, particularly if the team is playoff caliber – but as a silver lining on a bad decision that cost only 0.7% of a win in expectation, it’s fine with me. Overall, I thought Servais did an exemplary job managing his pitching, even if it didn’t pan out.

Terry Francona, Cleveland Guardians

Batting: D
The Guardians are built to win with pitching. That doesn’t mean they don’t have good hitters! Their offense features a few clear standouts – José Ramírez, Steven Kwan, and Andrés Giménez are all great. Oscar Gonzalez, Will Brennan, and Gabriel Arias are interesting youngsters. Amed Rosario and Josh Naylor are solid veterans. You can build a good lineup with what they have here. But that lineup probably shouldn’t bat Rosario (103 wRC+ and .312 OBP this year, both near his career marks) second and Giménez (140 wRC+ and .371 OBP this year) sixth. Skeptical of single-season data? Projections also like Giménez far more as a hitter.

This wasn’t a playoff thing – Rosario batted second in 85% of his plate appearances this year while Giménez rarely batted higher than sixth. That doesn’t make it right; Rosario got three more PAs than Giménez, hardly an ideal distribution. Did Giménez play poorly? Indubitably! That doesn’t mean dropping him in the lineup was good process, though. Giménez fell in the lineup against lefties, which makes sense – but Rosario was a rock in the two spot, even when better hitters were available.

Likewise, Naylor batted too high for my tastes when Nestor Cortes started for New York. The Guardians carried several useful right-handed bench pieces in Owen Miller and Arias. They were on the team to face left-handed pitching. Naylor batted 22 times in this series, and 11 were against lefties. That’s far from ideal; he was 1-for-11 in those at-bats, with the lone hit an infield single. Naylor has displayed enormous platoon splits in his career; he’s 30% better by wOBA against righties, a split so big that it’s still 13% even after heavy regression. He really didn’t need to face so many left-handed pitchers.

Could it be that Cleveland simply didn’t have any other answers? I don’t buy it. Wandy Peralta faced Naylor in every game of the series and retired him every time. Either Arias or Miller was available on the bench in four of those five games. The other six lefty at-bats were against Cortes; why not just start one of the righties and bring Naylor in off the bench in a good matchup? This really bothered me throughout the series, and it clearly bothered Naylor as well; he hit .273/.273/.636 against righties and .091/.091/.091 against lefties.

There’s much less to say about the Guardians/Rays clash; the offense scored three runs on the back of two homers. Naylor batted nine times; five were against lefties. Rosario hit second, while Giménez was buried. I’m not saying the Guardians had a ton of options; they scored 17 runs in seven games, which simply isn’t going to get it done. But some of that was self-inflicted.

Pitching: D
Cleveland has, in my opinion, the best array of late-inning arms in the game. Perhaps the Dodgers and Rays would disagree, but they’re unquestionably one of the best teams in the majors when it comes to rolling out inning after inning of excellence. Francona simply didn’t do enough to leverage those arms.

In Game 1 against the Yankees, Cal Quantrill provided five solid innings, allowing two runs against 18 Yankee batters. Despite having an off day upcoming and a wide array of bullpen options, Francona let Quantrill face the terrifying top of the Yankee lineup for a third time. Aaron Judge walked, after which Anthony Rizzo promptly homered. With the horses gone, Francona slammed the door: Trevor Stephan entered, and the bullpen shut the Yankees down for the last four innings of the game.

In Game 2, Stephan combined with James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase for 4 1/3 scoreless innings – top marks here. In Game 3, the lesser lights of the bullpen – Sam Hentges, Enyel De Los Santos, and Eli Morgan, all of whom could pitch high-leverage innings for most teams – held the Yankees to one run over four innings to sneak out a win; Francona didn’t goof around with letting starter Triston McKenzie start the sixth inning, leaning on the bullpen even with a deficit. In Game 4, Francona learned from his mistake and pulled Quantrill rather than letting him start the sixth. When Morgan gave up a sacrifice fly [this said homer earlier innacurately – Ben] to give the Yankees a two-run lead, Francona made what I consider a wise retreat, using Cody Morris and Zach Plesac to play out the string.

That set up a climactic Game 5, which is where I consider Francona to have made his greatest mistake. Unceasing rain on Monday caused a delay; that set up a Tuesday game with both bullpens fully rested. Francona had a tough choice to make; use Aaron Civale, his fourth starter, on full rest or bring back ace Shane Bieber early.

You probably have an opinion about which option Francona should have chosen. Using Bieber is playing to win the series at the expense of the future; he’d likely be pitching at less than 100%, and also wouldn’t be available to start Game 1 of a prospective ALCS. That hurts; a Game 1 start would have lined Bieber up to make two regular-rest starts in that series, and he’s comfortably Cleveland’s best starter. Civale gave the Guardians a worse shot at winning this game, but a better shot in the future should they survive, by virtue of keeping Bieber available.

I have no clue which of those options is superior. I wouldn’t have chosen either. The Cleveland bullpen was fully rested; its best pitchers all had three full days of rest. They’re all capable of handling multiple innings. Stephan, Karinchak, and Clase all threw multiple innings in this game, in fact. Given that, why not go to a full bullpen game? Six innings from that top three goes a long way towards getting to 27 outs. Even after those, I like Hentges, De Los Santos, and Morgan more in short bursts than I like Civale as a starter.

You could even mix-and-match based on leverage; give the great relievers the top of the order and the filler guys the bottom, or something to that effect. Imagine Karinchak starting a playoff game, pumping gas for two innings, then giving way to De Los Santos for the bottom of the order and Stephan again for the top. That’s nightmare fuel for the Yankees.

Cleveland’s best relievers were phenomenal in the 2022 playoffs. Stephan faced 18 batters and allowed one baserunner, on a walk; he struck out 11 for good measure. Karinchak faced 22, and while he was wild (four walks and a hit by pitch), he was also effective (three hits, no runs). Clase is Emmanuel Clase, ender of games: He pitched six innings in only four games and was flawless. In total, those three combined for 16.2 innings and allowed one run. That’s a build-your-own-Koufax.

The next tier of the ‘pen wasn’t bad either. De Los Santos, Hentges, and Morgan put up an aggregate 2.07 ERA in 13 innings. Use those six relievers to pitch an entire game, and you could win while only scoring two or three runs – something the Guardians needed to plan for given the caliber of their offense. Instead, the Yankees hung three on Civale before he could escape the first inning and cruised from there.

Would the Guardians have lost even if they bullpenned the game? Probably. The offense only scored one run, and that’s just not enough. But Francona didn’t trust his bullpen enough considering how great it was. He didn’t use them quickly enough in Game 1 and picked Aaron Civale over them in Game 5. When you’re an underdog in a series, you need to maximize your edges, and Francona simply didn’t do that.

Terry Francona doesn’t care what I think about him. He probably won’t read this, and if he does, he’ll rightfully say I don’t know all the factors involved. But I feel confident in saying this: when Francona looks back on his performance this offseason, he’ll be disappointed in himself. He’s one of the best managers in baseball. He just didn’t perform up to that level this October.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

I don’t think you looked at Owen Miller’s splits if you say he was on the team to hit lefties. He had reverse splits this year. That being said, going from Naylor vs. LHP to Miller vs. LHP was like going from a D to a D+ offensively. Also, Naylor had to DH later in the series due to his injured leg, and they went with Arias>Miller at 1B for defense, and because his at bats were better (and results, as well).

1 year ago
Reply to  JayCle

Agreed; Miller’s career wRC+ against RHP is 80, and career wRC+ against LHP is 65. Marginally better than Naylor’s LHP-hitting, sure, but still woeful.

1 year ago
Reply to  JayCle

As someone who watched the Guardians all year, Miller (and Myles Straw) got way too many at bats. It was a mini Godsend just to see Arias over him in the lineup in the last two games of the ALDS. Tito is a great manager but often inexplicably gives too many at bats to really sucky utility types (Mike Aviles, Ryan Rayburn are other examples). Same thing with Straw as, aside from like a one week stretch where rookie Will Benson got three or four starts, he was in the lineup every day in spite of being among, if not the worst hitter to qualify.

Last edited 1 year ago by jb1245
1 year ago
Reply to  jb1245

Another great manager, Jim Leyland, also gave Ryan Raburn too many AB’s.

Raburn must have had a mental hold over these 2 or something?

1 year ago
Reply to  JayCle

Single season platoon splits are not really predictive.