The MLB season lasts half the year, and it can be hard for the average fan to keep up. That’s where we come in. Every day during the 2017 season, Beyond the Box Score will be recapping all the biggest action from the previous day — with a sabermetric slant, of course — and looking ahead to what today will bring.
Yesterday’s biggest play
Justin Turner belts a walk-off dinger — +.057 cWPA
After 8 2⁄3 innings of a tense pitching duel, Justin Turner stepped to the plate with two outs and two men on. One grooved fastball later, and the Dodgers had a two-game lead in the NLCS. This was also the longest home run of the night, so we can talk about the mechanics of the home run down below. Up here, we’ll talk about the real hot topic: Joe Maddon’s managing.
Jon Lester cruised through four innings unscathed, and when he ran into some slight trouble, Maddon went to the bullpen early, bringing in Carl Edwards Jr. to close out the fifth and take the sixth. Pedro Strop was called upon for the seventh — a reasonable choice, with a 2.83 ERA and 3.31 FIP in the regular season — and after he pitched a scoreless frame, Maddon was faced with a tied game entering the bottom of the 8th and an off-day tomorrow. This is remarkably similar to the situation that faced Buck Showalter last season in the AL Wild Card game, when the score was tied at 2 in the 11th and Showalter pitched Ubaldo Jimenez over Zach Britton and lost the game (probably) as a result. This was not technically a must-win game for the Cubs, and it was not yet extra innings, but the difference between 0–2 and 1–1 is huge in a best-of-seven series, and a run for the Dodgers would’ve put the Cubs in a horrible position.
But instead of going to his best option — Wade Davis, outstanding pitcher, owner of a 2.30 ERA and 32.6 percent strikeout rate in the regular season — Maddon called on 34-year-old veteran Brian Duensing. Duensing had a good year with the Cubs, with a 2.74 ERA, but you can pick from any number of peripherals to make him look much worse: a 3.41 FIP, for example, or a 4.08 DRA, or career figures of 4.02 and 4.92 in those categories. The standard rationale managers give for this sort of move is that the excellent pitcher needs to be saved for the moment when the team has the lead, because that will be the most important inning. What that analysis ignores, of course, is that if the subpar alternative pitcher gives up a run before you take the lead, you lose the game, and never have the chance for your actually good pitcher to throw a single pitch.
I’m writing this before Maddon’s postgame comments have been published, so I don’t know what his rationale is. But what he says shouldn’t really matter. Maddon has always excelled at wooing the media, and looking the part of an innovative, creative manager; last night, he managed like an old-school guy, and lost as a result. Duensing, funnily enough, had a fine 8th inning, but yielded a leadoff walk in the 9th. After a sacrifice and a strikeout, with the game perched at a critical moment, Maddon chose to go with John Lackey instead of Davis. Lackey promptly walked Chris Taylor, and Maddon still left Davis in the bullpen. Then Justin Turner hit this three-run home run, and the Cubs and Dodgers both got what they deserved.
Yesterday’s best pitching performance
Rich Hill — game score of 62
Rich Hill did have the best game score of the day yesterday (edging out Jon Lester’s 51), but we’ve loosened the rules for this section during the postseason. That means that Hill is in this slot not because he was the best starter, but because he was the best pitcher period. Five innings is a totally respectable total for a starter in the playoffs, and Hill’s eight strike outs, one walk, three hits, and one run make this a deserving recipient of this honor.
The defining characteristic of post-breakout Rich Hill has been his adaptability. A few months ago, we might’ve said that it was his curveball, a pitch he threw more than almost anyone else and that hitters never seemed able to do much of anything with. But after his spate of blister issues, as Ben Lindbergh of the Ringer noted, Hill moved toward the fastball instead, and it’s worked really well.
That trend has continued through the postseason, and Hill threw a whopping (for him) 64 percent fastballs last night. The shift has seemed to help his curveball, as it had a whiff percentage of 18 percent last night (compared to 12 percent in August, the last month when Hill was throwing it more than 40 percent of the time). The fastball hasn’t been hurt, however; a 14 percent whiff rate is perfectly in line with his seasonal averages. The thing about extreme strategies (like throwing curveballs more than half the time) is that they gain some of their value by being surprising. When opponents start to anticipate that surprise, it’s important that a pitcher be able to shift. Hill has done so perfectly, and last night, it paid off.
The Dodgers’ starters have been merely okay in the postseason, with a 3.55 ERA that ranks third of the four remaining teams. But betting for Clayton Kershaw to keep struggling seems risky at best, and Hill and Darvish are a better #2/#3 combo than any other team can boast. The Dodgers looked like the consensus favorite entering the postseason, and if they can keep getting performances like this one from Hill and other members of their supporting cast, that favoritism seems entirely reasonable.
Yesterday’s biggest home run
Justin Turner — 416 feet
Now that we’ve thoroughly panned the decisions that led to this home run, let’s talk about the homer itself. In the prior PA, against breakout Dodger Chris Taylor, Lackey had gotten two strikes but was unable to get a third before throwing ball four. On the one hand, when a game is tied in the bottom of the 9th, it doesn’t matter how many runs the other team scores, so the difference between the situation with a runner on second and the situation with runners on both first and second is pretty slim. But eventually, you run out of bases, and the walk to Taylor likely meant that Lackey had to be slightly more aggressive with Turner than he would’ve otherwise. He started the PA off with a cutter that missed badly, then threw a 92mph fastball right over the middle of the plate and in the lower third of the zone. Grooving a pitch was bad enough, but Lackey chose literally the worst part of the zone to throw a meatball to:
Turner has had a remarkable four years with the Dodgers. He hit new offensive heights this season, and after accumulating almost no value in the first five seasons of his career, now has nearly 19 WAR in his time in Los Angeles. In a year when many offensive breakouts were the result of changed swing paths, Turner’s success had little to do with his power; his ISO remained almost totally stable from 2016 (.218) to 2017 (.208). Instead, Turner’s big leap forward came in his patience. As pitchers started to treat him with the respect that he deserves, the Dodgers 3B welcomed the walks that resulted, and ran a walk rate of 10.9 percent and a strikeout rate of 10.3 percent. The list of players who did that this year is pretty impressive: Turner, Anthony Rendon, Mike Trout, Joey Votto, and Anthony Rizzo.
Of course, inside every good patient hitter sits a power hitter. What each of those players has in common is the ability to crank a home run when a pitcher does make the mistake of throwing them a hittable pitch. Only two of those players are still watching the games from the dugout instead of on television: Turner, and Rizzo. Only one of them will be headed to the World Series, and Turner just put himself (and his teammates) comfortably in the lead.
- Did you know that teams can interview coaching candidates before the playoffs end? I did not, so I was surprised to read Matt Collins on Over the Monster describing the Red Sox’s interviews with Alex Cora of the Astros and Ron Gardenhire of the Diamondbacks. It’s hard to imagine two more different candidates, and it seems that the Red Sox are at a real crossroads in their managerial search.
Tonight’s best pitching matchup
Charlie Morton (3.93 projected ERA) vs. CC Sabathia (4.65 projected ERA)
This is a very interesting matchup to see in the ALCS, in that neither pitcher is exactly the kind of high-octane hurler who you’d expect to see here. Charlie Morton’s 2017 was the best of his career, however, and his 3.62 ERA/3.46 FIP/3.46 DRA are all the numbers of a very good starter. And while the projections don’t like CC Sabathia much at this point in his career, his 2017 ERA of 3.69 was also quite good, even if his 4.49 FIP/4.52 DRA were pretty ugly. He’s had a very interesting postseason thus far, with 14 strikeouts, three walks, and six runs (two unearned) across two starts spanning 9 2⁄3 innings. If he can keep striking out batters at that rate, Sabathia should be more than a worthy opponent for Morton, and give the Yankees a good chance of climbing back into this series.