Dave Roberts has, by all accounts, done an excellent job in his first year as skipper (for a team in the majors or minors, actually). He led a team plagued with a historic number of injuries to a playoff berth, a division crown, and a tooth-and-nail NLDS victory over a tough Washington Nationals team.
So it’s unfair to judge his entire season based off one poor decision, just like it was with Buck Showalter in the AL wild card game. Roberts has been an unequivocal success in general, and it’s important to remember that managers, like players, umpires, broadcasters, and fans, aren’t perfect.
But with all of that in mind, make no mistake, his management of the top half of the eighth inning of NLCS Game 5 was an utter failure.
The Cubs were leading, 3-1, heading into the top of the eighth. Due up was Addison Russell, David Ross’ spot, and the pitcher’s spot. Roberts elected to bring in Pedro Baez to begin the inning, which was a perfectly logical and defensible choice. It was the bottom of the order, so Roberts could save his horses for the next time the heart of the order got to hit. Coming up was likely two to three right-handed hitters (it ended up being all three), as Addison Russell was to lead off, and Willson Contreras was likely to bat for one of the next two hitters, as Ross’ services were no longer needed without Jon Lester in the game. Between the leverage of the situation and the likely favorable matchups, Baez was a fine choice to start the inning.
As it turns out, Baez got Russell to hit a weak chopper to first base, but due to Baez’s own bobble, Russell reached first on an error. Contreras then got jammed, but he fought it off for a single to right. At this point, the situation was high-leverage enough that the Dodgers’ best weapon, Kenley Jansen, should have entered the game right then and there. According to FanGraphs, the Dodgers’ win expectancy at that moment was 7.8 percent. Now, 7.8 percent isn’t a lot, but it also isn’t nothing, and it’s substantial enough that the game was still within reach. You don’t just give up on a two-run game with two innings of offense to go. The Dodgers’ win expectancy to start the inning was 11.7 percent, and it would’ve probably jumped to somewhere around 15 percent should the Dodgers have escaped the top of the eighth unscathed.
If there were anyone capable of escaping that situation without a score, it would be Jansen. Jansen led all of baseball with a mind-boggling 0.67 WHIP, and he also ranked second in the majors with a 1.44 FIP and 1.60 SIERA. He struck out a ridiculous 41.4 percent of batters faced while walking just 4.4 percent, leading to a 37.1 percent K-BB% that also ranked second in all of baseball.
Jansen had also been warming up in the bottom of the seventh inning when the Dodgers had been threatening the Cubs’ lead, meaning that he was both available and in fact likely to be used had the Dodgers taken the lead. From a workload standpoint, Jansen was undeniably available, as he didn’t throw the day before in Game 4, and the off-day between Games 5 and 6 meant that he wouldn’t pitch the next day either. However, not only did Roberts elect not to use him, but he did not even warm up his fireman at any point in the eighth inning.
Now, the problem here has nothing to do with Pedro Baez. Baez is a fine pitcher in his own right, and maybe Roberts wanted to stick with him because the hitters that had reached base in the inning hadn’t squared up Baez well in either at-bat. The problem here is that Pedro Baez isn’t Kenley Jansen, and that no one besides Kenley Jansen would’ve been the right answer here. In a game where workload doesn’t matter much, you absolutely must use your best pitcher, and arguably the most dominant pitcher on the planet, in the game. It’s very reminiscent of the Orioles and Showalter not using Zach Britton, except that Jansen is even better than Britton and the game is even deeper into October.
But Roberts elected not to use Jansen, and Albert Almora, Jr. laid down a bunt that he almost beat out while succeeding in moving over the runners to second and third. With Dexter Fowler coming up, Baez no longer had the platoon advantage, but neither does any pitcher because of Fowler’s switch-handedness. So this became another perfect spot for Jansen, as he neutralizes lefties just like he takes cares of righties. And because there are under two outs, only a strikeout or infield pop-up will be guaranteed to retire Fowler without allowing a run, both outcomes Jansen excels at inducing. However, Roberts again left Baez in, and Fowler proceeded to hit a chopper to Adrian Gonzalez; due to a lack of communication between Gonzalez and Baez, Fowler reached on a single while scoring the runner from third.
I’m starting to feel like a broken record by now, but this is absolutely a spot where Jansen has to be used. Runners are on first and third with one out and the likely-MVP in Kris Bryant due up with the equally dangerous Anthony Rizzo on deck. If Roberts were truly saving Jansen for the next turn through the heart of the order, well, this is it. But Roberts again decided not to use his unhittable reliever, and the inning ended with an 8-1 Cubs lead.
The top of the eighth began with a Dodgers’ win expectancy of 11.7 percent and ended with that number at 0.3 percent. In a game that easily could have seen the Dodgers holding the Cubs to three runs, it only adds salt to the proverbial wound that the Dodgers offense rallied to score three runs in the final two innings.
Now, we at Beyond the Box Score pride ourselves in a process-based approach, not a results-based one. Yes, hindsight is indeed 20/20, but foresight doesn’t have to be 20/180. As I sat in the stadium with my hands frustratedly draped around the top of my head in the eighth inning, I knew that I was going to write this article even if Baez and company got out of the inning scoreless. I knew that I was going to write this article even if the Dodgers didn’t score in the final two innings, and I knew that I was going to write this article even if the Dodgers won.
Sure, there are a lot of what-if’s either way; managing the game as I would have liked wouldn’t have necessarily secured the victory. Kenley Jansen easily could’ve allowed just as many runs, or Aroldis Chapman could have pitched the Dodgers hitters differently in the ninth inning if the score were 3-2 instead of 8-2.
But the whole point of the sabermetrics movement is that a team should act in a way that maximizes its chances to win. It may or may not work out, but if the team acted tactically in its best interest and still lost, then fans could go home knowing that there was nothing that could’ve been done or was left out on the field. However, it’s when the team didn’t maximize its chances to win that leaves the fan wondering “what if...”, and that’s the feeling that every Dodgers fan should be feeling after Game 5.