Managerial Report Cards: National League Division Series

Last week, I reviewed the managerial decisions from the two teams that lost in the ALDS. With the NLDS now over, it’s time to do the same thing for the Brewers and Giants. As a reminder, I’m judging teams based on expectations, not results. Pinch hit for your MVP candidate with a pitcher? Not that it would ever happen, but you’d get an F for that. Bring in your best pitcher in a big spot, only to have him give up a three-run homer? That’s still an A, results notwithstanding.

These grades don’t cover everything that a manager does. Deploying your best players in the biggest spots and hiding their weaknesses where possible is a big part of a manager’s role, but it’s definitely not the only part. As an example, Kevin Cash and the entire Rays staff deserve a permanent A for their work in getting their pitchers and hitters ready for flexible roles all season long. Likewise, Dave Roberts and the Dodgers coaching staff benched a former MVP and seem to have kept the clubhouse roughly in order, always a tough task. None of that will be reflected in these rankings, but it’s absolutely important managerial work — it’s simply work I don’t have much insight into.

Gabe Kapler, San Francisco Giants

Lineups/Pinch Hitting: C-
Kapler almost always merits high marks in lineup management. He and the Giants front office were unmatched this year when it comes to putting their hitters in the best situations for success. Fastball hitters against fastball-heavy pitchers, lefties against righties, Buster Posey against literally anyone: they did it all well. That trend continued in the first game of the NLDS, where Wilmer Flores batted second against Walker Buehler, a matchup you wouldn’t expect but that makes sense given Buehler’s pitch mix.

We could go through the whole series and find little edges like that. The Giants are great at it. I want to talk about the last game of the series, however, where I think Kapler fell victim to overthinking and didn’t give his team the best chance to win.

The Dodgers went with an opener, Corey Knebel. The Giants countered with two platoon bats — Tommy La Stella leading off and Mike Yastrzemski hitting sixth. It wasn’t a straight platoon by any means — again, the Giants are clever with their matchups — but it might as well have behaved like one. When Julio Urías entered the game in the third inning, both hitters were removed after only one plate appearance.

Were they the right matchups against Knebel (and, I suppose, against Brusdar Graterol, who unexpectedly followed him)? The Giants certainly thought so, and I’m not going to argue that point with them. The cost, however, was far too high.

Removing both players after only one time through the lineup left the Giants bench light on lefties. When Blake Treinen entered the game in the seventh inning, he faced Flores, Evan Longoria, and then the pitcher’s spot. The Giants let the two righties bat, then brought in a left-handed bat, Alex Dickerson, for a low-leverage spot (bases empty and two outs).

In the eighth, they continued to eat bad matchups. Donovan Solano, who took La Stella’s spot, faced Kenley Jansen. Darin Ruf, more of a breaking ball specialist than someone you want facing a giant stack of cutters, also batted. The ninth featured more of the same — LaMonte Wade Jr. replaced Austin Slater (who had replaced Yastrzemski) as the last lefty off the bench, which left Flores to bat for himself in a tough matchup with Max Scherzer.

One way of looking at this is that Kapler only left one righty in for two bad matchups, which means he wasn’t overly punished by the decision. But he didn’t benefit much from it either — neither Knebel or Urías have huge platoon splits (in fact, they both have observed reverse splits), and burning legit hitters (La Stella and Yastrzemski are better overall than their replacements) in pursuit of narrow platoon edges would already be bad without the cost, which was letting platoon-vulnerable relievers face their best possible matchups.

I thought Kapler might sacrifice one bat, or simply let one of his lefties battle it out with Urías. By going much further than that, he didn’t put his best hitters on the field for the majority of the game. Managing is tremendously hard, and the Dodgers’ machinations added to the challenge, but for a team that normally gets a leg up before the first pitch is even thrown by mixing and matching lineups, this game stuck out like a sore thumb.

Pitching: A-
Kapler executed a master class in appropriate use of both his starters and relievers in this series. Logan Webb is the best pitcher on the Giants, reliever or otherwise, and Kapler maximized his time in the series. He got two starts and 14.2 innings out of him, and did it without ignoring game context.

Twice in Game 1 (the sixth and seventh), Webb gave up a double. Twice, Kapler left him in. Why? The matchups dictated it. The first time, Trea Turner was due up next, a decent matchup (righty, better against four-seamers than sinkers). The second time, it was Matt Beaty, and pulling Webb for a lefty reliever would only let the Dodgers bring in a righty for one of their weakest hitters. Again, Kapler stayed the course.

When Webb finally left, it was with runners on and Corey Seager batting — this time, Kapler went with Tyler Rogers, a reverse-split submariner who Kapler uses against batters of both persuasions. In Game 5, Webb left for a pinch hitter after seven effective innings. I liked each of these decisions by Kapler — his willingness to pull his pitcher when necessary but also his recognition that playoff managing doesn’t mean you can’t leave your starters in, only that you should be mindful of how you do it.

In the rest of the series, he showed a keen eye for leverage. When Kevin Gausman got shelled and Dominic Leone failed to put out the fire, Kapler emptied the low-leverage underbelly of the bullpen. When Anthony DeSclafani didn’t have it, Kapler pulled the plug early, though the Dodgers ended up getting the best of the bullpen on that day.

Even Kapler’s strangest pitching decisions seem okay to me. In Game 3, he let Alex Wood bat for himself (one-run lead, one out, none on in the fifth) and then pulled him with two outs in the bottom of the inning. It might seem like he was giving up a valuable at-bat, but with no one on base and a lead, preventing runs is more important than scoring them, and Kapler wanted to shorten the bullpen by getting extra outs.

That led to another decision — getting maximum distance out of his best relievers. Rogers faced eight batters and Camilo Doval six, which shortened the game considerably. That stretched Rogers to his longest outing of the year, a test he handled admirably. Still, those two relievers got seven innings in the series, as compared to 10 for the entire rest of the bullpen (10.2 if you count two outs of Gausman as a desperation stopper). I would have liked to see a more egalitarian distribution by at least a little, but I’m willing to believe that the Giants simply liked Rogers’ and Doval’s matchups with the Dodgers more than any of their other pitchers. Overall, Kapler did a superb job of knowing when to run with starters, and when and how to deploy a complicated bullpen.

Craig Counsell, Milwaukee Brewers

Lineups/Pinch Hitting: B
I’m not really sure what to do here. I don’t think Counsell made any huge mistakes, or many decisions of huge import at all, when it comes to Milwaukee’s lineup. The Brewers scored six runs in four games, and you can’t do that without plenty of batters all struggling at the plate at once.

Was Kolten Wong a strange leadoff choice against Max Fried? Indubitably. Did Eduardo Escobar deserve another start somewhere? I would have tried to find one. For the most part, though, the Brewers played their best hitters, used their best bench bats in good situations, and generally seemed to have a good sense of when to use substitutes. They just didn’t have the firepower to trouble Atlanta’s pitching, at least in this series. Hence, a B.

Pitching: A
Counsell is a marvelous bullpen manager, and he showed it again in the NLDS. From the first game, he was on point. He got six strong innings from Corbin Burnes, then pulled him for a pinch hitter to try to add runs. He used Adrian Houser, his best multi-inning weapon, in relief, then closed the door with Josh Hader — a letter-perfect way to drop the hammer when your ace gives you six shutout innings.

Later in the series, Houser gave up a three-run homer to Joc Pederson that provided the margin in Game 3. That doesn’t change the fact that I think he was the right guy to be first out of the bullpen. Nor does Aaron Ashby’s blown save in the next game mean Ashby was the wrong choice — the Braves simply got to him. At that point, using Brandon Woodruff in relief makes sense, given that a loss ended the Brewers’ season and Burnes was lined up to start Game 5. Sometimes, Hader just gives up a home run.

Is it weird to give perhaps the worst team performance of the playoffs the best managerial grade? I don’t think so. Counsell has always been an excellent tactician, and he proved it again this series. It’s also a good reminder that while pulling the right levers in the bullpen matters, the players have the final say in whether a given move works.

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

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Not much to argue here, especially on Kapler. I will say in regards to Counsell that hitting for Peralta in Game 3 after just four innings was something I wouldn’t have done, but I understood being desperate to score a run. If Cain does his job the previous PA, however, this is not even a discussion. I also thought that pinch hitting for Burnes after 6 innings when he was at just 91 pitches was a bit wonky, and I could not comprehend for the life of me why they pinch ran for Vogelbach (good move) only to have JBJ stand on first and do nothing against Morton, who’s bad at holding runners.

Then there’s not going to Burnes on short rest for Game 4 with the season on the line, but apparently Burnes himself said he wasn’t capable, which sounds pretty suspect by itself. You wouldn’t expect a 26-year-old who’s been handled so cautiously in terms of workload throughout his career to not be good to go on short rest in October, especially after a light workload in Game 1.


You said it yourself — a 26-year-old who’s been handled so cautiously in terms of workload throughout his career…. Modern Starters now are not suited for short rest starts. LA has proven this since 2013.