The Dodgers Try an Opening Gambit

Tonight, there’s only one game in town, as the Giants face the Dodgers in a winner-take-all, NLDS Game 5 slugfest in San Francisco. It’s been billed as a matchup between two borderline Cy Young candidates: Logan Webb, who humbled the Los Angeles lineup in the first game of the series, and Julio Urías, who started Game 2 for the Dodgers after a superlative 2021 season. Only, nope:

This isn’t going to be a lengthy discussion of whether openers make sense. Teams clearly like the tactic as a way to fill innings, but almost never in front of a pitcher as good as Urías. I’m interested in what the Giants will do to counter it, and how that counter will determine Urías’s matchups.

When he took the mound last Saturday, the Giants set up like so:

Giants Batting Order, Game 2
Order Player Position Bats
1 Darin Ruf LF R
2 Kris Bryant CF R
3 Austin Slater RF R
4 Buster Posey C R
5 Wilmer Flores 1B R
6 Brandon Crawford SS L
7 Evan Longoria 3B R
8 Donovan Solano 2B R

That’s a lot of righty bats, and San Francisco has played matchups all year. Three of those batters were out of the game when Urías left, replaced by lefties who could target the Los Angeles bullpen. Putting Darin Ruf and Austin Slater — in particular — at the top of the lineup meant that the Dodgers would be stuck with a tough decision: let Urías face tough righties a third time, or make a substitution and allow Gabe Kapler to counter-substitute with good lefty hitters.

As it happens, the Dodgers brought in Joe Kelly to start the bottom of the sixth inning, facing Kris Bryant to start off — Urías had retired Ruf as the last out of the fifth. LaMonte Wade Jr. entered in relief of Slater, and the substitution train was off to the races.

With Corey Knebel pitching the first inning, the Giants need to reconsider. For one thing, Brandon Crawford should move to the top of the lineup. After that, however, it’s a bind. You could, in theory, give Wade or Mike Yastrzemski a start, then substitute them out when their time to face Urías comes due. That’s a high cost, though: sacrificing their defensive versatility and solid bats to get one low-leverage plate appearance against a tough reliever is tactically shoddy.

Another option: start one of them and accept the bad matchup against Urías. That would probably mean Yastrzemski over Slater; Kapler has used Ruf against breaking-ball-heavy pitchers more so than lefties, while Slater has rarely faced righties at all. I might normally suggest using Tommy La Stella in relief of Donovan Solano as well, but La Stella aggravated an Achilles injury Tuesday night, and will likely only pinch hit. A prospective lineup might look like this:

Giants Batting Order, Game 5?
Order Player Position Bats
1 Brandon Crawford SS L
2 Kris Bryant RF R
3 Mike Yastrzemski CF L
4 Buster Posey C R
5 Darin Ruf LF R
6 Wilmer Flores 1B R
7 Evan Longoria 3B R
8 Donovan Solano 2B R

By setting the lineup this way, the Giants guarantee a few favorable matchups against Knebel. Batting Bryant second is a concession to the fact that you can’t have the platoon matchup every time out. He’s an excellent hitter regardless of the pitcher, and keeping him high in the lineup increases his expected plate appearances.

Still, I love this move for the Dodgers. The Giants don’t have any great options. They could stick with their lineup from Urías’ last start, bump Crawford up, and accept a low likelihood of scoring in the first inning — Knebel against a bunch of wrong-side platoon bats is a really tough matchup. They can substitute in some lefties to make that matchup palatable, but it will cost them in future innings, either in diminished substitutions or Yastrzemski/Urías matchups.

The best part of this move for Los Angeles? They’re cutting Kapler off at the pass. Kapler has shown what he likes to do: when the Dodgers switch from lefties to righties, he’ll pour on the pinch hitters. His lefty bats are likely the better of the two platoon options in a vacuum, anyway. If Urías went five innings and then Knebel replaced him, Knebel would likely face two solid lefties and a good righty, the same three batters (in type, if not exact identity) I expect him to face tonight.

By changing the order, the Giants can’t have their cake and eat it too. If they want to play matchups against Knebel, they obviously can — but forcing that decision to happen before the Dodgers’ best lefty goes means that you can’t hit Yastrzemski against Knebel, Slater against Urías, and Yastrzemski again against the rest of the bullpen. Going right-left-right instead of left-right-right with their first three pitchers in the game means the Giants can’t tee off.

It’s a small decision. It likely won’t change the outcome of the game. But it’s an excellent move by the Dodgers, even if it means more pitching changes and generally dulls the excitement (and slows the pace) of the best game of the year.

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

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2 years ago

Rational side of my brain: great strategic move to get ahead of Kapler and force the Giants to react rather than dictate in a do-or-die elimination game.


2 years ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

Now knowing that Roberts tweeted Kapler about using Knebel as an opener, I think much of the reasoning behind the move was psychological. Roberts knows Kapler from his days in the Dodgers org, and probably figured that Urias would handle this switch-up better than Kapler would.