Throughout October, Dave Roberts has aggressively ensured his hitters and pitchers have platoon advantage at every possible moment. He’s been blessed with a talented, versatile roster that’s equipped to handle just about every situation. Detractors of Roberts claim that he has over-managed in the postseason. “Analytics!” they cry in a non-sequitur as they point to him replacing Pedro Baez with Ryan Madson in Game One. Yet in Game Three, Roberts managed traditionally. He set his lineup, and he let his players play. At least on the surface.
In the fifth inning, Alex Cora brought in Eduardo Rodriguez to face Joc Pederson. Rodriguez was coming into relieve Rick Porcello whose only blemish was allowing a solo home run to the guy stepping into the box. As the leadoff hitter, Pederson’s at bat marked the beginning of Porcello’s third time through the order. The move made sense for the Red Sox. They were removing a starter who was about to become overfamiliar with the Dodgers’ hitters to get a lefty against someone who had hit for a 61 wRC+ against lefties in his career.
But this moment of the game was one of the more interesting from a game theory perspective. At that point in the game, the Dodgers still had Matt Kemp, Austin Barnes, Kiké Hernández, Roberts opted to leave Pederson in, and while the results are less importance than the process, the results weren’t good.
Pederson struck out swinging on a changeup thrown toward his back foot. Rodriguez gave him three middle-middle pitches, but Pederson never looked timed to Rodriguez.
With a runner on, Pederson remained in the game and struck out despite there being several right-handed bats in the dugout. The results reflected what one would expect to happen in that situation. Pederson looked overmatched.
But was the process bad?
Sure, leaving in a hitter who can’t hit lefties to face a lefty in a close game doesn’t look good. Especially when Rodriguez was only in to face Pederson, and the only other lefties in the bullpen were Drew Pomeranz (who has been bad this year), David Price (who threw 88 pitches on Wednesday), and Chris Sale. A casual observer might chalk it up to Roberts letting it ride with a hitter who knocked the last pitch he saw over the fence. But replacing Pederson at that moment would have had ripple effects.
If Roberts had brought in Matt Kemp to hit for Pederson, it’s likely Cora would have just pulled Rodriguez for Ryan Brasier. While Kemp doesn’t have severe platoon splits, Brasier is a much better pitcher than Rodriguez. Is it really better to have Kemp or another righty facing Brasier than to take out a powerful lefty when the other side has a bullpen full of righties?
Roberts probably wanted there to be a reason for Cora to resort to Pomeranz or Price on short rest. The more lefties that remained in his lineup, the greater the likelihood of that happening.
When Price finally got into the game, the Dodgers manager made a similar decision in the ninth inning. With one on and one out, Yasmani Grandal stepped into the batter’s box. Grandal is a weaker hitter from the right side, and the only righty who had been burned was Kemp. Roberts still had four righties on the bench, but if he brought in a pinch-hitter, Cora would have countered with Kimbrel. A righty against Kimbrel is almost assuredly worse than Grandal against Price on short rest.
Being conservative allowed him to use David Freese as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the 14th while the Red Sox had to ask Nathan Eovaldi to swing a bat. But it’s not as if you can give Roberts credit for that kind of foresight. It’s not like anyone could have predicted Bellinger would save the game in the tenth, Muncy would blow the game in the fourteenth, and Kinsler would blow the game in the fourteenth again.
Roberts has typically gone after the moment at hand rather than wait for a theoretical high-leverage situation later. And hey, it didn’t really matter, as the results show a 3-2 Dodgers victory and a team on the precipice of knotting the series at two. These non-moves were seemingly out of character, but I don’t think that Roberts didn’t think them through.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, McCovey Chronicles, and BP Wrigleyville.