With his stellar performance down the stretch — including in the Game 163 tiebreaker that won the NL West — Walker Buehler may have supplanted Clayton Kershaw as the Dodgers’ ace. In Monday night’s Game Three of the NLCS, manager Dave Roberts nonetheless went a bridge too far with the 24-year-old fireballer. For five innings, the young righty had pitched brilliantly, if not flawlessly, against the Brewers, allowing just a lone run. But that run loomed large. For the third time in the series, the Dodgers had failed to put a dent in the Brewers’ starter, and so they entered the bottom of the fifth trailing 1-0 against Jhoulys Chacin, who to that point, had allowed just two hits and two walks (one intentional) himself.
On Chacin’s fourth pitch of the inning, Yasmani Grandal — who has had a rough series on both sides of the ball — dunked a slider into left field for a ground-rule double. Enrique Hernandez lined out to bring up Buehler, who to that point, had thrown 78 pitches and struck out eight while yielding just two hits and one walk. The Brewers had done their damage in the first inning, when Ryan Braun followed a six-pitch walk to Christian Yelich with a scorching double to left field for the game’s only run. From there, Buehler had settled down, striking out the next four hitters and retiring 14 of 16. He was dealing.
Nonetheless, the Dodgers offense was gasping for air, and Roberts had a full and rested bullpen thanks to the off day. He’d stacked his lineup with lefties — Joc Pederson, Max Muncy, and Cody Bellinger — against Chacin, who struggles without the platoon advantage. That left Roberts with a bench full of righties, namely Brian Dozier, David Freese, Matt Kemp, Chris Taylor, and, if necessary, backup catcher Austin Barnes. No doubt the skipper had his eye on using some of those righties to combat lefty Josh Hader later in the game. Still, Freese, Kemp, and Taylor all posted a wRC+ of 113 or better against righties this year, though only Taylor had been that strong last year. Of that trio, both Freese and Taylor handled sliders from righties well this year, with wOBAs of .388 and .336 according to Baseball Savant; over the past three years, however, only Taylor (.350) has been above .300 among that trio.
So the Dodgers were down a run in a high-leverage spot (LI = 1.98) with a run expectancy of 1.05 runs and a win expectancy of 42.6% according to our play log. That run expectancy assumes an average hitter, not a pitcher who hit a measly .163/.200/.163 in 47 PA for a wRC+ of 2 — yes, two. Even without the platoon advantage, it made sense for Roberts to pull his pitcher. In general, such a strategy is a net gain, even when the pitcher being replaced is a good one. The offensive upgrade is significant, managers tend to overestimate how long they’ll stick with the starter in question, and eventually the times-through-the-order penalty shows up to degrade the starter’s performance anyway. And again, here the Dodgers had better-than-average options to pinch-hit.
Instead, Roberts let Buehler hit, and the kid didn’t even take the bat off his shoulder while facing four pitches from Chacin, striking out looking. Pederson followed with a loud out to center field to end the inning and the threat, and the Dodgers’ win expectancy sank to 32.3%. It would never get higher while they were at bat, and the team wouldn’t even see another situation with a run expectancy above 1.0 until the ninth inning.
In the sixth, Buehler retired Yelich and Braun (the Brewers’No. 2 and 3 hitters in the order) but allowed a two-out triple to Travis Shaw (aided by a misread from Bellinger in center field), who scored on a curveball in the dirt that squirted away from Grandal, a wild pitch that gave the Brewers a 2-0 lead. With his pitch count at 88, and the Dodger offense still flatlining, Buehler returned for the seventh as well. He remained in the game after allowing a one-out double to Erik Kratz, then served up a 356-foot two-run homer to Orlando Arcia that extended the Brewers’ lead to 4-0 and put the ballgame just out of the Dodgers’ reach, their bases-loaded ninth inning against Jeremy Jeffress notwithstanding.
Roberts’ decision to stick with Buehler wasn’t nearly as egregious as Aaron Boone’s reluctance to pull Luis Severino or CC Sabathia in the ALDS against the Red Sox, only to watch both dig deeper holes. National League baseball, with the pitchers batting (or not) and double-switches, is a different beast. We’ll never know whether the Dodgers would have plated a run or more had Taylor (or somebody else) hit for Buehler, and we’ll never know how the bullpen would have fared thereafter. The unit looked like a shaky proposition heading into the postseason, below average relative to the field, but entered Monday night having allowed three runs in 20.1 innings this postseason, with a 21:6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Had Ryan Madson or Dylan Floro or whoever Roberts brought in combined to allow three more runs in a 1-0 game, Roberts would have been barbecued in the media for not sticking with his ace — or his co-ace, or whatever — particularly with the low pitch count. Not pinch-hitting for Buehler was the safe call, the conventional move. Pinch-hitting for him would have been the aggressive one, and for whatever reason, Roberts chose not to take the chance.
The decision, of course, was hardly the only reason the Dodgers lost. They went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position and struck out a total of 14 times against a Brewers staff that dominated pretty much from start to finish, save for Jeffress’s ninth-inning hiccup. Chacin pitched 5.1 scoreless innings, running the postseason tally for Milwaukee’s starters (or “starters”) to 25.2 innings with 12 hits and one run allowed. Corey Knebel struck out four of the five hitters he faced, and they needed just eight pitches from Hader, likely retaining his availability for Game Four. Meanwhile, the Brewers’ 7-8-9 hitters (Kratz, Arcia, Chacin, and substitute second baseman Hernan Perez) combined for six of the Brewers’ 14 total bases on the night; for the series, the bottom three spots in the order are hitting .250/.333/.594 with three homers in 36 PA, helping to cover for the fact that Yelich, Braun and Moustakas are a combined 6-for-34 with a lone double and three walks between them.
Some nights, things go your way, and the Brewers caught most of the breaks in this one. They’re two wins away from their first trip to the World Series since 1982. Had Roberts been proactive and hit for Buehler, that might not be the case.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.