In a few hours, the Dodgers and Nationals are going to play for their seasons; one team will advance, one will go home. The Nationals are in a pretty good position, hosting the game in Washington while throwing their ace, Max Scherzer; it’s hard to ask for much more than that if you’re in an elimination game. The Dodgers used their ace in Game 4, however, so they’re going to be mixing and matching in order to try win this one.
While they haven’t officially announced anything, the team is expected to start Rich Hill. Given his health track record, however, and the fact that he’s going on three days rest, they’re probably not going to have him work too deep into the game. In fact, reading the tea leaves from Andy McCullough’s game preview, it sounds like the Dodgers are going into this game planning for something of a tandem start.
“We talked about Rich as an option, obviously,” Manager Dave Roberts said after the Dodgers’ 6-5 win on Tuesday. “But so is Julio, and how we want to strategize to win Game 5, we’re going to talk through it.”
The combination of Hill and Julio Urias is unorthodox, but it would reduce the chances of Washington’s top four hitters — Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Daniel Murphy — from getting comfortable at the plate against either. Hitters tend to perform better when they have seen a pitcher more than once in a game. The Dodgers will try not to allow that to happen on Thursday.
If the Dodgers are serious about limiting Hill and Urias to one trip through the order, that would be something indeed; they’d be limiting themselves to getting likely six or seven outs from each pitcher, and would be relying on the rest of their bullpen to get the other ~13 outs, despite being worked pretty heavily in both games in Los Angeles. It would be the most aggressive kind of bullpen game we’ve been expecting so far in the playoffs, but unfortunately for the Dodgers, I’m not sure how well set up they are to actually pull it off.
Ideally, in a tandem start, you’d like to have two different kinds of pitchers, giving hitters different looks, and making it difficult for the opposing team to set a lineup that combats pitchers of the same handedness. But like Hill, Urias is also left-handed. And when you look at the Dodgers bullpen, the lack of good right-handed options today might be a legitimate problem for the bullpen-start concept.
Kenley Jansen, of course, is a good right-handed reliever, and he’s basically a lock to pitch today. But Jansen is likely to be held back for the end of the game — Dave Roberts chose to use Pedro Baez and Luis Avilan in relief of Kershaw in the seventh inning on Tuesday, despite the fact that the Nationals had the go-ahead run at the plate — and won’t be available to break up the lefties on whom the Dodgers are leaning today.
The team’s other high-leverage right-hander, Joe Blanton, threw 35 pitches on Monday and another 19 on Tuesday, so while I’m sure he’s available after the day off yesterday, you do have to wonder about how many pitches he’ll be able to throw effectively. The team’s most well rested right-handed reliever is Josh Fields, but while Fields throws hard, he’s not all that good, and you probably don’t want him on the mound in an elimination game if you don’t have to use him.
A reliever the Dodgers do want on the mound today is Grant Dayton, their excellent setup man who held opposing batters to just a .219 wOBA this year. Dayton, though, like Hill and Urias, is left-handed. If the team plans to piggyback the two starters, and then wanted to bring in their best non-closer reliever if Urias gets in trouble, they’d potentially be throwing three straight lefties at the Nationals to start the game.
And while that would be a good plan against the Dodgers, who have struggled against left-handed pitching all year, the Nationals offense is actually one of the best in baseball with southpaws on the mound. On the season, Washington’s position players put up a 111 wRC+ against lefties, tied for the fourth-best mark in baseball. The loss of Wilson Ramos makes their current lineup a little less fearsome, but even just limiting the data to players on the team’s active roster, the Nationals hitters put up a 110 wRC+ against lefties this year.
So throwing Hill, Urias, and Dayton against that lineup, hoping to get to Blanton and Jansen in the late innings, is probably not the best of plans. So let’s see if we can figure out how Roberts might mix his pitchers today to get through the Nationals lineup.
Let’s assume that Hill won’t be limited to just nine batters; as much as the times-through-the-order penalty and the detriment of short rest come in to play, it seems more likely that the Dodgers will try to get four or five innings out of Hill if they can. And since you don’t want to really bring in a lefty to replace another lefty if you can help it, Blanton should probably be the first guy up in LA’s bullpen, ready to help Hill get out of any jams that arise as he runs out of gas. It’s probably not a bad goal to see if Hill and Blanton can get LA their first 15 outs of the game, leaving just 12 for Urias and the rest of the bullpen.
With McCullough noting that Urias won’t be allowed to go more than three innings, it does seem like the plan would be to limit him to one trip through the order, so you probably don’t want to count on him for more than six outs. But if Hill and Blanton can get the team 15, and Urias gets six, well, then all of the sudden they’re in Jansen territory, and could theoretically get through the game without having to lean on the weaker relievers in the bullpen.
But this is where I’d suggest Roberts should diverge from traditional usage. If you’re going to get through five innings with Hill and Blanton, then use Urias to try and bridge the gap in the sixth and seventh, you want a dominant right-hander ready to get out of any trouble that arises. And in the Dodgers bullpen, that’s Kenley Jansen. The Dodgers’ best chance to effectively mix-and-match their pitchers today is to free Jansen from having to be around the get the last few outs, and instead, use him as the guy to end any jams into which Urias gets himself.
In a perfect world, Hill and Blanton get you five innings, while Urias and Jansen get you four, and the Dodgers advance with just four pitchers used. But it’s probably not going to work quite that nicely for LA, and if they get into a situation where they have to choose between going to Dayton to replace a fellow lefty, or using Baez again in a high-leverage situation, I’d suggest the team is best off using Jansen earlier, then allowing Dayton to pitch after him, even if that means letting the rookie get the save opportunity if one arises. Going Hill-Blanton-Urias-Jansen-Dayton would be the team’s best shot at using their five best arms today while mixing and matching lefties and righties, and those five should be able to get 27 outs in some combination.
If Roberts sticks with the traditional path of having Jansen as the last guy on the mound, though, the team is either going to have to stack lefties together or use Baez or Fields in an earlier right-on-right situation. And those are probably not the guys the Dodgers want to see pitching with their season on the line. If the Dodgers want to avoid the lefty-stacking issue against a team that has hit lefties well this season, using Jansen earlier in the game is probably their best option.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.