The Gambit Versus the Ace

Early in this NLCS, when the defining feature of it seemed to be the randomness of Brandon Woodruff‘s Game One homer off Clayton Kershaw and Wade Miley’s Game Two double off Hyun-Jin Ryu, it was easy to scoff at the hype equating the series to a chess match between managers Craig Counsell and Dave Roberts. As the series has unfolded, however, watching Counsell handle the Brewers’ pitching staff in a fashion largely without precedent in postseason baseball and Roberts use the Dodgers’ roster’s depth and versatility to counter with “line changes” (in the hockey sense) to secure the platoon advantage in as many spots as possible has made for a compelling accompaniment to the action on the field.

Never was that more true than in Game Five, when Counsell’s shockingly quick hook of Miley in favor of Woodruff — echoing a tactic from a World Series nearly a century ago — and Roberts’ persistence in sticking with Kershaw made for the series’ starkest contrast yet. Ultimately, the Dodgers outlasted the Brewers for a 5-2 win and a 3-2 series edge.

The wily, left-handed Miley had pitched brilliantly in Game Two, retiring 17 of the 19 Dodgers he faced while helping to keep the Dodgers scoreless through six. Only after he departed did Los Angeles’s offense show signs of life, ultimately breaking through for a 4-3 win. When Counsell announced that Miley would start Game FIve on three days of rest, the choice seemed logical given the team’s loose definition of a “rotation,” because nobody expected seven innings or 100 pitches. Four innings, give or take, made perfect sense, even with the staff having been stretched for 13 innings in their Game Four loss.

Roberts, whose all-righty starting lineup from Game Two floundered against Miley, sensed an early move might be afoot and guarded towards an early change to a righty by starting two lefties and rejiggering his outfield:

Dodgers NLCS Lineup Comparison
# Game 2 Bats Game 5 Bats
1 Chris Taylor, CF R Cody Bellinger, CF L
2 Justin Turner, 3B R Justin Turner, 3B R
3 David Freese, 1B R David Freese, 1B R
4 Manny Machado, SS R Manny Machado, SS R
5 Matt Kemp, LF R Max Muncy, 2B L
6 Enrique Hernandez, 2B R Chris Taylor, LF R
7 Yasiel Puig, RF R Enrique Hernandez, RF R
8 Austin Barne,s C R Austin Barnes, C R
9 Hyun-Jin Ryu, P R Clayton Kershaw, P L

Muncy, who hit for a 141 wRC+ against southpaws, was starting at second base for the first time since September 11 and just the 14th time all season. Bellinger, Tuesday night’s hero, managed just an 88 wRC+ against southpaws this year.

As it turned out, Miley threw just five pitches, walking Bellinger and getting the hook — not for injury or performance reasons, but because that had been Counsell’s plan all along — to switch to the right-handed Woodruff, who had thrown two impressive, perfect innings in Game One. The idea to bring Miley back to start Game Six in Milwaukee. It was a plan so secret that only the two pitchers, Counsell, and his staff knew ahead of time; Woodruff couldn’t even tell his family, and players such as Lorenzo Cain professed to be caught off guard.

Miley’s exit was just the second time in postseason history that a starting pitcher was removed after one batter, the other being the Reds’ Johnny Cueto in the 2012 Division Series opener against the Giants, but he left due to back spasms. In spirit, Counsell’s move was more akin to the Senators’ Curly Ogden gambit in Game Seven of the 1924 World Series against the Giants. Washington manager Bucky Harris started the right-handed Ogden in order to encourage New York manager John McGraw to start lefty-swinging first baseman Bill Terry, a future Hall of Famer who, as a rookie that year, hit just .239/.311/.399 (90 wRC+).

Ogden faced just two hitters, both future Hall of Famers. Striking out 18-year-old rookie third baseman Freddie Lindstrom enabled him to talk his way into facing veteran second baseman Frankie Frisch (“My curve ball has got the old hop,” he said), whom he walked before giving way to left-hander George Mogridge, who pitched the next 4.2 innings in a game Washington won in 12 innings, 4-3. Terry was pulled after going 0-for-2 and thus wasn’t around to face Walter Johnson, who finished the game with four shutout innings; in two earlier series starts, he’d gone 4-for-7 with a triple, a homer and three walks against the Big Train.

*This history lesson seems like a great time to interject that you can read about the mess Frisch and Terry made of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee from 1967 to -76 via substandard selections such as Lindstrom and the Giants’ other first baseman, George “High Pockets” Kelly, in The Cooperstown Casebook.

Counsell had actually tried a similar move himself. On September 24 against the Cardinals, he started lefty Dan Jennings, a first after 381 major-league relief appearances, instead of scuffling righty Chase Anderson. Jennings got lefty-swinging Matt Carpenter to ground out, then yielded to righty Freddy Peralta, who worked into the fifth in what turned out to be an important 6-4 victory. Afterwards, colleague Craig Edwards dug in to explore some regular-season precedents of the one-batter strategy.

Woodruff, who made four starts and 15 relief appearances in the regular season, then fired three shutout innings as the starter in Game One of the Division Series against the Rockies, relieved Miley and hit Turner with his fifth pitch, but escaped by striking out Freese and getting Machado (Tuesday night’s villain) to ground into an inning-ending double play. He then retired eight of the next 10 hitters he faced, excepting a one-out walk of Kershaw in the third and a leadoff single by Joc Pederson in the fourth, the latter erased by another Machado GIDP. The lefty-swinging Pederson had entered as part of Roberts’ fourth-inning switcheroo, batting in Freese’s spot and playing left field, with Taylor moving to center, Bellinger to right, Hernandez to second and Muncy to first.

By that point, the Brewers had broken through for a 1-0 lead. Kershaw had enjoyed relatively smooth sailing in the first two innings, throwing 22 pitches that were blemished only by a leadoff single from Cain — a near-catch by Bellinger that required a replay review — who was caught stealing two batters later. The all-too-familiar Labor Intensive Kershaw showed up in the third, however, struggling with the bottom of the lineup en route to a 32-pitch inning. He needed six pitches to strike out Erik Kratz, the No. 7 hitter, then yielded a single to Orlando Arcia, who has bedeviled the Dodgers in this series, and walked Woodruff. Cain then doubled home Arcia, and while Kershaw struck out Christian Yelich on just four pitches, he walked Braun to load the bases, then needed eight pitches before getting Jesus Aguilar to chase a low, inside slider.

The Brewers had Kershaw on the ropes, but he got his pitch count back under control with a nine-pitch fourth inning and a 12-pitch fifth, running his total to 75. Meanwhile, the Dodgers broke through against Woodruff, thanks in part to an Arcia throwing error on a Taylor infield single. Two batters later, with Yasiel Puig in the on-deck circle to hit for Kershaw, Barnes — starting for the third time in this series in place of Yasmani Grandal — stroked a single up the middle to plate the tying run.

Now, in this space I criticized Roberts for letting Walker Buehler — who had thrown 78 pitches and was dealing — hit in the fifth inning of Game Three, down a run with one out and a man on second; he struck out, the Dodgers failed to score, and then the 24-year-old righty faltered, allowing three runs over his next two innings. At this point in Game Five, the leverage index was even higher than in Game Three (2.31 versus 1.99) but the run expectancy lower (0.89 versus 1.05) and the Dodgers’ chances of winning higher (56.7% versus 42.6%), though with Kershaw’s earlier struggles in both the series and the game in mind, pinch-hitting looked to these eyes like the right call.

Yes, the Dodgers’ bullpen had been called upon for eight innings in Tuesday’s epic win, but of the seven relievers used besides Kenley Jansen (who threw 34 pitches over two innings), the maximum pitches thrown by any of them was 16 by Alex Wood, with Ryan Madson and Julio Urias throwing 14, Pedro Baez 13 and Dylan Floro 11. Kenta Maeda threw just three. Of that group, only Wood and Floro had also thrown on Monday (15 and 21 pitches, respectively). Compared to the Brewers, who had used Junior Guerra for 51 pitches, Peralta for 47, Corbin Burnes for 22, Josh Hader for 20 (after eight on Monday), Corey Knebel for 18 (after 19 on Monday) and Joakim Soria for 14 (after four on Monday), the Dodgers appeared to have rest on their side.

What’s more, Kershaw had already faced Cain for the third time and was about to go through the rest of the lineup, starting with Yelich, Braun, and Aguilar. While he’d held that trio to a combined 0-for-9 with two walks and a catcher’s interference in his two starts to that point, we’re talking small sample sizes. Here’s a quick look at Kershaw’s 2018 times-through-the-order numbers, as well as those of the league:

Kershaw’s Times Through the Order, 2018
1st .223 .260 .362 .269 .304
2nd .206 .248 .321 .249 .316
3rd .250 .282 .441 .307 .336

Now, here’s Kershaw’s 2013-18 body of postseason work, the span during which he’s been one of, if not the, best pitchers on the planet:

Kershaw’s Times Through the Order, 2013-18 Postseason
1st .133 .170 .202 .373 .646
2nd .256 .307 .444 .751 .726
3rd .245 .299 .439 .738 .673

Yow. This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, both because of the differing time frames and because I’ve had to settle for OPS instead of wOBA for the postseason set, but the sample sizes are at least in the same order of magnitude (171 third-time PA this year, 107 for the postseason). Two things are apparent from the tables:

  1. The current version of Kershaw, while still suffering some degradation of performance in his third time through the order, was still a well above-average pitcher under such circumstances during the regular season; and
  2. In Kershaw’s spotty postseason history, he’s been insanely dominant the first time through but worse than average as soon as his second time, with his performance more or equivalent for the third.

With all of this in mind (even without having put together those tables until after the fact), my needle pointed to pinch-hit. Roberts was apparently ready to go that route if Barnes hadn’t come through, “But once he got the base hit it was moot,” he told reporters later. Kershaw sacrificed Barnes to second but the Dodgers didn’t score.

The remarkable thing, given the 30-year-old lefty’s fraught postseason history, is that Kershaw continued in the groove he’d begun in the fourth, needing 13 pitches for a 1-2-3 sixth against Yelich and company, then 10 pitches for a spotless seventh. That’s 44 pitches for his final four frames, 12 up, 12 down (and 13 straight going back to his strikeout of Aguilar). He finished having induced 19 swings and misses from among his 98 pitches, 10 from among his 45 sliders, and another eight from among his 21 curves. By comparison, he got just five swinging strikes in Game One, none from his 32 sliders thrown and two from among his 10 curves. After striking out just five in 11 innings over his first two postseason starts, he K’d nine while walking just two and allowing three hits. It was about as close to vintage Kershaw as we’re likely to see in 2018. Unable to make things look effortless, he was still tough as nails.

As for Woodruff, through his first five innings, he’d been both brilliant and quite efficient, mixing mid- to high-90s heat with his slider, holding the Dodgers to three singles, a walk, and a run while striking out seven on just 56 pitches. When he began the sixth, however, he too was facing the lineup for the third time, something he has scant experience with in the majors — just 43 batters faced under such circumstances last year and three this year. His splits under such circumstances are excellent (.175/.283/.275, for a .257 wOBA), but a very small sample. Moreover, he hadn’t thrown more than 48 pitches in any outing since September 2.

The Dodger offense, having broken through by focusing on using the whole field, caught up to him. Turner hit a leadoff single to right center, and after Pederson struck out and Machado was hit by a pitch (inadvertently, not as payback for his bad actions on Wednesday night), Muncy singled to left center for a 2-1 lead, ending Woodruff’s afternoon. Burnes came in, and after striking out Taylor, gave up an RBI single to Puig, with Muncy out at third in a rundown but the damage done. The Dodgers added two more runs in the seventh against Soria and Xavier Cedeno, with Roberts even letting Kershaw hit for himself against the former; he walked and came around to score. When he did, Roberts called it a day for his ace, and after Baez pitched a perfect eighth, the Brewers plated a run on back-to-back doubles by Curtis Granderson and Aguilar, such that Jansen needed to be summoned for the final out, a strikeout of Moustakas.

While the Brewers lost, it’s unfair to call Counsell’s switch-up a failure. On the contrary, it stifled the Dodgers, until the inevitable fatigue and familiarity — both with regards to Woodruff and a gassed bullpen — took their toll. That said, it’s fair to question the overall, series-long efficacy of their approach, and the impact of the Dodgers’ hitters being exposed to the same relievers so many times. What’s more, Counsell’s use of Hader, even for eight pitches, to protect a 4-0 lead in Game Three looms large given the manager’s (understandable) unwillingness to use his top fireman for a third day in a row. Still, the blame is on the Brewers’ offense, whose No. 2 through 6 hitters (Yelich, Braun, Aguilar, Hernan Perez, and Moustakas) went just 2-for-18 with a walk on Wednesday. Yelich is just 3-for-20 with four walks in this series, Braun 5-for-21 with a double, and Moustakas 2-for-21 with one walk.

The Brewers will have to improve upon that if they’re to rebound and advance to their first World Series since 1982. Fortunately for them, they’re going home to Miller Park and will have a well-rested staff headed by Miley and Jhoulys Chacin to throw at the Dodgers — unless Counsell has something else up his sleeve.

As for the Dodgers, they’re one win away from a return trip to the World Series, and Kershaw one step closer to chasing away the ghosts that have haunted his Octobers. Roberts’ gambit, sticking with his superstar, was as old-school as it gets, but on this day it worked as well as it ever has.

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.

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Well, I said not uncynically at the beginning of this series ‘Let’s see if Roberts has learned anything after last year’s postseason fiasco’ (or something like that)–and all evidence is that he has. Like many here was I not really impressed with the choices he made with Buehler in game 3, but I would go less far than many others here in criticizing him for that, and there isn’t really anything else significant that he’s done that I’d criticize. In stark contrast to last year, he’s actually paying attention to how tired his relievers might be, he isn’t making nearly as many gratuitous and bizarre double or triple switches (I mean he’s doing it but you don’t have nearly as much feeling that he’s doing it just because it looks cool), in general he’s letting his players play without personally creating the state of constant tension bordering on panic which has been so characteristic of Dodger postseason baseball for so long. He’s actually doing a pretty good job. Kershaw has just not generally been a tough-as-nails pitcher (as you put it) in his postseason career–when he hasn’t been able to blow the other team out, he’s tended to fall apart–but he sure looked like one yesterday, and I think that’s likely to be related to Roberts’ attitude this year.