Rich Hill and the Conflicting Priorities of History

On Saturday night, Rich Hill was perfect. The Marlins sent 21 batters to the plate against him, and all 21 walked back to the dugout. But when the 22nd batter came up to hit, he did not see Rich Hill; he saw Joe Blanton instead. Faced with a choice of letting Hill chase history or preserve his team’s #2 starter for the postseason, manager Dave Roberts chose the latter, removing Hill from after seven perfect innings and 89 pitches thrown. After the game, he explained his decision.

“I’m going to lose sleep tonight,” Roberts said. “And I probably should.”

His voice was gravelly and low, unable to find joy even as hip-hop blared in the clubhouse. He suspected he will never “have to make a tougher decision” than the choice he made in Saturday’s seventh inning.

“I’m very, very sensitive to his personal achievements,” Roberts said. “I really am. But nothing should get in the way, or compromise, our team goal.”

As Roberts noted, a lot of people in Los Angeles were upset with him. Upset that he ended their chance to see history. Upset that he personified the way baseball has changed. Upset that Hill was denied a chance to do something that has only been done 23 times in baseball history. Even Hill himself was upset with the decision.

But in the end, Dave Roberts decided that his job wasn’t to make Rich Hill happy, or to make Dodgers fans happy; his job was to help the Dodgers advance as deep into the playoffs as possible. From Andy McCullough’s piece yesterday, going deeper into the story.

Acquired on Aug. 1, Hill has pitched in only three games as a Dodger due to blisters on his left hand. The training staff noticed the blisters starting to reappear. With Clayton Kershaw still rebuilding arm strength, Hill is the team’s most reliable, effective pitcher. Roberts felt the team could not risk losing Hill for the playoffs.

“If it was earlier in the year, I would have let him go back out there,” Roberts said. “What we’ve done since February, to get to the point where we’re at, with 2½ weeks left in the season, it just wasn’t worth the risk. Richie is throwing as good as anyone in all of baseball. To take the chance to lose him for the postseason is irresponsible.”

The trainers inspected Hill’s hand after every inning. Hill is combating multiple blisters. One is exacerbated by curveballs. The other is provoked by fastballs. On Saturday, the fastball blister was the one showing signs of life. The staff probed the hand and noted the tenderness of the skin.

“Those are signs that the next step is a blister,” Roberts said.

Roberts considered removing Hill after the sixth inning, when Hill had thrown 75 pitches. That’s when the bullpen phone rang. Grant Dayton started to warm up. But Hill disappeared with Roberts into the tunnel leading toward the clubhouse, and pleaded his case to remain in the game.

Hill received one more inning. Yasiel Puig made a preposterous diving catch in left field to collect the third out, extending Hill’s bid at perfection and raising Roberts’ blood pressure. Hill fought to return for the eighth. He lost the argument.

The easy joke here is that, once again, Yasiel Puig made life difficult for his manager and created even more clubhouse drama. Had Puig not made one of the most ridiculous catches of the year, this wouldn’t be a story, but Puig’s circus catch in left field preserved the perfect game and forced Roberts to make a choice. And in my mind, Roberts made the right one.

Roberts, after all, wasn’t choosing between a perfect game and Hill’s health; he was choosing between a chance at a perfect game and a chance that Hill’s blister would worsen over the next two innings. The medical staff was concerned enough about the blister issue to be checking his hand after every inning, so clearly, this is still something Hill is dealing with, and the Dodgers already had to sit and watch their prize deadline acquisition miss a couple of months because of the issue. How much extra risk of missing time Hill would have been facing had he kept pitching is unknowable, but clearly, the Dodgers’ medical staff thought it was higher than zero.

And even as great as Hill was on Saturday night, the perfect game was far from a certainty. Hill has allowed 26.3% of batters faced to reach against him this year; if we just take that as the probability of success for each of the Marlins next six batters — a dubious assumption, given his potential fatigue and the times through the order penalty, but let’s give Hill some benefit of the doubt here — then Hill still only had a 16% chance of completing the perfect game. Five out of six times, Hill would have racked up additional pitches and additional risk to his health, and would have been removed from the game before it ended anyway.

With six outs to go, Roberts had to make the call then and there. If he sent him back out for the eighth inning, and Hill retired all three batters he faced, there would be no removing him from the ninth inning until a batter reached base. If Roberts was going to choose the team over the individual accomplishment, he had to decide then whether he’d be willing to give Hill a long enough leash to get six more outs.

The answer was rightly no. Hill required 89 pitches to retire the first 21 batters, an average of 4.2 pitches per batter. In a best-case-scenario where he could continue that average (even though pitchers perform worse the later a game goes), Roberts was looking at another 25 pitches to finish out the perfect game, which would put Hill at 114 for the night. Hill has not thrown 114 pitches in any start this season; he’s only cracked 110 once. He hadn’t even gotten over 90 since early July, before the blister problem derailed his second half.

If he was sitting at 75 or 80 pitches, and you think he could get all 27 outs in roughly 100 pitches, okay, you can probably push it. But to be looking at 115 if he keeps getting outs at the same pace, and potentially 120 if he ends up falling behind a couple of hitters, it’s difficult to argue that keeping Hill in the game was the responsible decision for the Dodgers. And ultimately, that’s who Roberts works for.

Certainly, part of a manager’s job is to keep his players happy, to make them feel that they have the support of their coaching staff. But that isn’t a manager’s primary priority; it’s a secondary goal they should try to reach if it doesn’t conflict with winning as many postseason games as possible, which is the real goal. In this case, Hill’s pursuit of history came into conflict with what was in the best interest of the team’s postseason run, and Roberts chose the Dodgers best interests over Hill’s.

It’s the kind of gutsy move that should encourage the Dodgers that they have the right person in charge. Despite knowing how unpopular the decision would be, even with his own players, Roberts put the the interests of the team first, and made the difficult call. He took the criticism for it. He lost sleep over it. But he did it anyway.

Too many managers in baseball make decisions designed to avoid criticism. Roberts ran headfirst into the criticism because he believed it was the right thing to do. That’s the kind of move we should respect, even if we all wish, in a perfect world, we could have seen Hill get a chance to get six more outs. It’s not a perfect world, and Rich Hill doesn’t have perfect blisters, so instead, we’ll have to settle for watching Rich Hill pitch in October. That will be fun too.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Brett W
6 years ago

Probably the right call to remove Hill, but if Roberts truly is sensitive to his players’ individual accomplishments, probably the wrong call not to go straight to Jansen.

6 years ago
Reply to  Brett W

For 2 innings? He hasn’t done that in over 3 years. I’m not sure that was the best path towards 6 consecutive outs.

6 years ago
Reply to  vivalajeter

And that leads to the strongest argument toward a middle ground here: leave in Hill not necessarily to finish the game, but at least to be able to get to Jansen to shut the door. If his fastball blister was causing the problem, he could’ve easily pitched another inning with nothing but curve balls, as it was REALLY biting for him and MIA didn’t look like they had many ideas…

6 years ago
Reply to  pcg

Then you’re going to have the same people, and maybe even more, yelling even more loudly that he only had one inning left to go.

They were up by, what, five runs? There’s no sense in trotting him out for the eighth unless you intend to trot him out for the ninth.

6 years ago
Reply to  0bsessions

Perhaps, though that complaint sounds a lot sillier at 105-110 pitches vs. 89. Plus, given his 26.3% OBP against, there’s worse than even odds (40%) that he even makes it through the eighth without allowing a baserunner, and Roberts is off the hook anyway.

Besides which, you just can’t make a decision about the ninth inning in the seventh. Plenty could happen in the eighth that would serve to help make the decision; one example would be if he walked a guy with two outs. The perfect game is gone, so yank him and send in Jansen to shoot for a four-out combined no-hitter. Another example would be if he got three outs in five pitches; sitting at 94 pitches after 8 sounds awfully close toward doing what the article described as “get[ting] all 27 outs in roughly 100 pitches”.

Of course, another could be that he goes out and tears a blister pitching to the first batter in the 8th. Then the yelling goes the other way and Roberts is an all-time goat among LAD managers. In the end, I don’t think it’s a terrible call on Roberts’ part. It’s certainly the safer call.

Brett W
6 years ago
Reply to  vivalajeter

Reasonable people can disagree. I think Roberts knows his bullpen better than you or I.

6 years ago
Reply to  Brett W

You seem to be saying that a two-pitcher perfect game would have been an individual accomplishment.

Bobby Ayala
6 years ago
Reply to  Brett W

Joe Blanton’s pretty good too, not like they were putting Bobby Ayala out there or anything.