Wild World Series Tactics: 2017-2019

I know what you’re thinking — the most recent World Series won’t have the same wild tactical decisions that were so common in the early 90s. You’re right! That’s true! What am I going to do, though — leave this series unfinished? Not likely. Today, we’re looking to the recent past.

2017

First things first: you can’t bring up this World Series without mentioning the Astros’ sign stealing scandal. I don’t think it had any effect on their tactics, so this is the only time I’ll address it — but yes, before you head down to the comments to let me know about it, I’m aware.

Lineup-wise, both of these teams knew how to set things up. Alex Bregman batted second for the Astros, with Justin Turner filling that role for the Dodgers. They were each arguably the best hitter on their team — modern lineup construction in action.

Both managers used appropriately short leashes on their pitchers. The Astros’ could have been even shorter — they let Dallas Keuchel face the top of the righty-stacked Dodgers lineup a third time in Game 1, and Turner punished him with a two-run homer. Clayton Kershaw went a similar length — one fewer pitch, one more out, and the same number of batters faced — but escaped with only one run allowed. That was the game — Turner’s home run provided the margin of victory.

Both teams went further in Game 2 — Rich Hill faced only 18 batters and Justin Verlander faced 21. Verlander’s last three batters nearly cost the Astros the game — like Keuchel before him, he gave up a two-run shot to the Dodgers’ number two hitter the third time through — Corey Seager this time. With Hill providing only four innings of work, the Dodgers needed a two-inning save from Kenley Jansen — reasonable with an off day to follow. Unfortunately for them, Jansen coughed up two runs, and after two extra innings, the series was tied.

Games 3, 4, and 5 kicked both teams’ strategies into overdrive. Starters left earlier — Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. lasted longest at 22 batters faced, and no pitcher approached 100 pitches. Relief appearances went longer — 2.2 innings for Kenta Maeda, 3.2 for Brad Peacock. Closers got rocked — Ken Giles allowed all three batters he faced to reach, and Jansen gave up another dinger (a meaningless capper to Game 4) in addition to taking a loss in Game 5.

In Game 6, with a rested bullpen, both teams leaned into their bullpen strategy even further. Hill came back and faced 19 batters — the 19th was an intentional walk, which meant he never pitched to a batter the third time through the order all series. Verlander went six innings and, yet again, the Dodgers put two runs up the third time through the order, this time courtesy of a Chris Taylor double and a sacrifice fly from Seager. Jansen came in for a two-inning save, sending the series to a decisive seventh game.

Game 7 was mostly a story of Yu Darvish getting shelled, but it also showed inventive bullpen management. Kershaw threw 43 pitches in relief. Charlie Morton threw 52. Peacock joined the party with 37, and heck, even Jansen and Alex Wood managed 20 pitches apiece. Both teams emptied their bullpens to vary the looks to hitters, and both succeeded; the Dodgers relief corps allowed no runs in 7.1 innings, and the Astros allowed none in 6.2. The five-run outburst against Darvish was the difference in an aggressively managed slugfest of a World Series.

2018

Having fallen short at the final hurdle in 2017, the Dodgers retooled and reached the World Series again. Their plan was the same: bring a lineup packed with platoon bats and get enough out of the starting pitching to let the bullpen take over. The Red Sox countered with a star-heavy lineup and a similar pitching philosophy; use your aces when you can and let the bullpen do the rest. What they lacked in platoon bats, they made up for in sheer firepower; Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers don’t exactly need any help, but it was also a good year for Andrew Benintendi and even Steve Pearce.

Think Dave Roberts was too quick on the eject button with his starters in this series? In Game 1, Clayton Kershaw faced only 20 batters. Why pull him? Well, he got shelled, more or less. When he allowed the first two baserunners of the fifth inning to reach base, Roberts had seen enough. But was that even a quick hook? Chris Sale had already hit the showers in the top of the fifth after allowing the leadoff man aboard on his third time through the order.

Maybe Roberts should have followed suit. Those two baserunners Kershaw allowed were Betts and Benintendi the third time through. It probably didn’t matter — the Sox tacked on three runs against the bullpen to win 8-4. But while both managers clearly had times through the order on their mind, they also both gave their aces a bit of rope, and both were burned by it.

In Game 2, the Dodgers fell victim to a similar predicament. With two outs and a man on first, Hyun-Jin Ryu faced the top of the Boston order for the third time. Betts singled, Benintendi walked, and that was the end of Ryu’s night. Both scored off of reliever Ryan Madson. Those runs weren’t destined to score — those hitters weren’t even destined to reach base against Ryu. But given how quickly Roberts was willing to pull his pitchers, it would have behooved him to pull them before the damage was done, not after. The game, naturally, was decided by those two runs, with the Red Sox using the strength of their bullpen — Joe Kelly, then Nathan Eovaldi, then Craig Kimbrel — to keep the drama to a minimum.

Speaking of bullpen drama — while Game 3 went 18 innings and thus featured plenty of relievers, it also featured excellent bullpen usage in the early going. Alex Cora didn’t goof around with Rick Porcello getting the start — when the lineup turned over a third time, he acted. Joc Pederson facing Porcello a third time with a runner on base? No thanks. Eduardo Rodriguez came in to take the platoon advantage and struck Pederson out after a six-pitch battle.

As for the Dodgers, Roberts made it clear who he trusted most in the rotation when he let Walker Buehler face the teeth of the Red Sox order in the seventh inning. It’s a good reminder that pitchers don’t turn to stone the third time through — they simply lose a little effectiveness. If your starter is good enough, a compromised version can still beat any relief option — which is what Roberts declared about Buehler by leaving him in. Naturally, Jansen gave up a home run in his first inning of work — it had been a rough two years for Kenley.

While the game lasted 18 innings, most of the bullpen and pinch hitting decisions were driven by necessity. Eovaldi didn’t go six innings because Cora had some cunning plan; he went six innings because he could. David Price didn’t throw 13 pitches on a single day of rest because he wanted to test his arm — they needed a lefty. The Red Sox did pull out one interesting flourish, however: with Game 3 in Los Angeles, J.D. Martinez was manning left field. Starting in the eighth inning, Boston hid Martinez from pull hitters by moving Betts into center and Jackie Bradley Jr. into left against right-handed pull hitters, which is how Betts’ position for the game is listed as RF-CF-RF-CF-RF-CF-RF. It was a clever move that didn’t tip the scales in this game but saved the Red Sox a little theoretical value — clearly I loved it.

In Game 4, the Sox did something not seen in the World Series for years — they issued a dicey intentional walk. With runners on second and third and one out, they walked Machado to set up a Cody Bellinger/Rodriguez lefty/lefty matchup. In a 0-0 game in the sixth, that runner is valuable — and with only one out, there are more chances for the move to backfire. Indeed, Rodriguez got Bellinger to ground out. Yasiel Puig followed him, however, and Puig cranked a home run to drive Machado home. It was a confusing decision — surrendering a baserunner to face Bellinger and Puig rather than Bellinger and Machado. There was some peripheral value — setting up a potential double play, putting a force play into effect on every base — but that’s scant reward for such a steep price.

That wasn’t the sequence people will remember about this game — that would be Rich Hill’s “early exit.” Hill was pulled with a runner on first and one out in the seventh inning. Roberts had given Hill far more rope than he preferred to — he had already faced 24 batters and thrown 91 pitches. That was the most batters he’d ever faced in a postseason game, and only two pitches short of his highest pitch count.

That’s not to say he couldn’t do it — he eclipsed 100 pitches three times in the regular season — but the Dodgers didn’t like leaving non-Buehler starters in this long. Given the previous day’s bullpen air-out, however, Roberts gave him more room. Of course, just how much room to give is tricky, and Roberts may have erred there. If you’re going to use Hill a third time through, why not let him face Brock Holt? The Dodgers brought in LOOGY Scott Alexander, and subsequently were down a lefty reliever — the Red Sox ended up getting Bradley and Mitch Moreland at-bats against righty Ryan Madson (who replaced Alexander) and Moreland hit a three-run homer. Replacing a lefty with a LOOGY — hardly the bullpen-saving maneuver you want after an 18-inning game.

Game 5 featured two tired bullpens, but it was essentially a coronation. Kershaw and Price both went seven innings, but the two runs the Red Sox scored in the first proved decisive. This wasn’t a tactical decision so much as necessity — the Red Sox used Chris Sale in relief and the Dodgers went to Kenley Jansen for a third straight day. Both teams simply had nothing left in the tank, and Boston’s nothing beat L.A.’s nothing decisively.

2019

The 2019 Series inverted the recent trend of teams relying on a deep bullpen to finish games. The Nationals asked their starters for length and put Patrick Corbin in the bullpen several times — he pitched the sixth inning in Game 1. The Astros had Zack Greinke, Verlander, and Gerrit Cole — while they had a dynamic bullpen, their starters were certainly the headliners.

After the Nats took Game 1 by overpowering Cole, both teams let their starters go long in Game 2. Stephen Strasburg threw six strong innings for the Nats, matching Verlander in a 2-2 tie. Verlander came back out for the seventh, though, and promptly gave up a home run and then a walk. Letting him face those two hitters seems fine — he’s Justin Verlander, after all — but pulling him after that, with the top of the order due up again, was automatic. One problem: Ryan Pressly melted down — after getting two outs, he gave up three straight singles with the bases loaded, and that was the game. The Nats bullpen, made up in this game chiefly of super glue and Fernando Rodney, made the 8-2 lead hold up.

In Game 3, the Nats stuck with their plan of a long leash for starters — but maybe that was a mistake. In his first two trips through the order, Aníbal Sánchez was somewhat effective — he gave up six hits, but struck out four while walking none. The third time through, he gave up four hits, including a homer, while walking one with no strikeouts. That’s not what you like to see, and it ended up being the margin in a game where Greinke lasted only 4.2 innings; the Houston bullpen simply did its job.

After complete washouts in Games 4 and 5 — Houston overwhelmed Corbin and emergency starter Joe Ross while allowing only two runs combined — the Nats showed their true colors. In Game 6, Strasburg threw 8.1 innings and faced a whopping 32 batters before giving way to Sean Doolittle. The team simply decided a tiring, TTO-penaltied Strasburg was a better option than their relievers. The Astros, meanwhile, got burned by that darn third trip though, though they were hardly going to pull Justin Verlander after four innings. In the fifth, he gave up homers to Adam Eaton and Juan Soto, and after the Nationals added a homer against Will Harris to break the game open, the Astros emptied their bullpen of the relievers they were unlikely to use in Game 7.

I won’t relitigate the decision to pull Greinke for Harris in Game 7 — I’ve written about it before, and still think it was a fine decision — it simply didn’t work out. With that, the Nationals had reversed the trend of early hooks. In an interesting way, however, they simply furthered the trend of the last few years: get your best pitchers into the game, adjusted for situation, as often as possible. Their best pitchers simply happened to be their starters, and they correctly adjusted to that by leaving them out there as long as they could stand it.

These last three World Series seem boring from a tactical standpoint. There were no weird bunts, no truly awful pitching decisions. It’s natural to say that this is largely because I’m judging all past World Series using a 2020 lens. Of course managers in 2019 look more like my view of optimal — they knew more.

But I don’t really think this is true. The times-through-the-order penalty was established sabermetrics by the mid-to-late 2000s. The futility of sacrifice bunts and intentional walks are hardly new concepts. Yet we saw all of these tactics in the 2010s. What changed, in the last three World Series, was that managers were far more likely to call for the tactics their front offices prescribed. Maybe that’s a fluke of history — Roberts, Cora, A.J. Hinch, and Dave Martinez might be outliers in their compliance.

More likely, though, I think it’s here to stay. Our understanding of optimal baseball tactics hasn’t changed much in the past three years, but managers’ control over their decision-making sure has. Managers are increasingly willing to listen to the front office. Whether that’s a result of better explanations or simply less managerial autonomy, I don’t know. Either way, it’s pushing the game towards our current view of optimality, one reliever at a time.

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Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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One thing that I haven’t seen talked about is Scherzer’s game 7 start. He has a k/9 of about 12 and a BB/9 of about 2 and he walks 4, strikes out 3. I’m not sure, but that’s probably one of his worst start in a Nats uniform in every way but good old runs. He definitely has another gear for RISP, but, from a FG perspective, should he have been pulled earlier?