It feels like an entire off-season since the end of the NLDS, yet in reality it’s only been a week. Some are moving onto a hot stove mindset, but for most (myself included), the devastation of the loss still weighs heavily.
I feel a fundamental shift in Dodgers Twitter today, from anger, to Hot Stove.
— Jim Furlong (@EWOKinLA) October 16, 2019
While it would make more sense to shift gears and focus on off-season moves, the truth is this first-round loss is one that should be discussed and evaluated for a long time. It is a paramount disaster for the franchise, one that justly calls into question everything about how they operate.
As I’ve made clear, I agree with most of the narratives. The first is Clayton Kershaw’s label as a postseason failure. Look…he’s still the regular season GOAT, and I hope those fans who threw his jersey onto the field and ran it over in the Dodger Stadium parking lot never set foot in Elysian Park again.
I’ll be honest with you, though: I gave up defending Kershaw in the playoffs immediately after game 5 of the 2017 World Series. I maintain (and always will) that performance is the central source of blame for not winning that series (a blame shared with others, of course). Game 5 of this NLDS unfortunately only adds to that.
The next is Dave Roberts’ playoff managing, which is the main reason for this particular loss. I won’t elaborate here, as I already did that. Another is Andrew Friedman’s unwillingness to trade prospects for relief help or other big acquisitions. This one is debatable, but whether by trade or free agency, it is indeed time for the front office to get more creative.
There is another prevailing narrative, however, that is dubious and frankly nonsubstantive. That is that the Dodgers lost to the Nationals due to over-reliance on analytics, apparently made true by dint of Roberts’ terrible decision-making. It’s a belief even Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez shares.
Except, his moves were not tied to analytics. Quite the opposite, they failed because they weren’t anywhere near that. They were, by his own admission, “gut” moves completely divorced from statistics.
After a week, it’s no less shocking and horrifying that the Dodgers blew an entire season built on analytics by ignoring them when it was on the line.
— #DoodleYourFriend ? (@dodgerdudel) October 17, 2019
Let’s start with the move that set the game spiraling off course, letting Kershaw pitch the 8th. By every measure, this was not an analytically-driven decision. In addition to Kershaw’s checkered October past, he is evidently not the same pitcher he was in his prime. His fastball velocity is down, thus taking the bite off his once famous slider.
Another damning statistic is that of Kershaw’s performance in the first inning throughout 2019. With an ERA that got as high as 6.00 in the first frame, often due to surrendering home runs, having him pitch a veritable first inning with the season on the line in the 8th makes even less sense.
Put it all together, and it’s highly unlikely anyone in the analytics department advocated for a full inning from Kershaw in this scenario. Yet Roberts’ defense of his indefensible decision showed he threw out all of those verifiable factors in favor of reeky sentimentality.
“He’s probably the best pitcher of our generation,” he blandly stated afterwards. “It just didn’t work out. There’s always going to be second-guessing. But I’ll take my chances any day on Clayton.”
Right there is an admission that he didn’t follow any predetermined playbook. He plainly stated that he did it out of reverence for Kershaw’s cumulative track record, rather than any merit in the present.
If he were more statistical, he likely would have used Kenta Maeda from the start, who has a far better playoff track record and had absolutely dealt throughout this NLDS. Roberts had reservations about him facing Juan Soto, which is understandable, but that leads into another head-scratcher.
If Roberts were sticking to analytics for that concern, he likely would have summoned Adam Kolarek in either the 8th or 10th to face Soto. In three match-ups, Kolarek had tamed Soto each time, two by strikeout. That’s a case where playing by the book had worked perfectly, and deviating from it proved disastrous.
Finally, another move that clearly wasn’t analytical was sending Joe Kelly out for the 10th inning. This was the first time Kelly had worked multiple innings since August 24, with viable options like Dustin May, Julio Urias and Kenley Jansen available to lock down the 10th. No algorithms could possibly justify that.
After Kelly surrendered the grand slam to Howie Kendrick, Roberts showed his lack of logic even further by letting him face two more batters before finally summoning Jansen. This, to me, showed carelessness on his part.
Of course, I could be wrong on some (or all) of this. It’s no secret that most managers today are basically figureheads for analytical FOs that call the shots. Maybe every move Roberts executed was handed down from the top.
Yet I have a hard time believing that. I am not putting Friedman and company beyond reproach, but what transpired in the last game of the season is the result of plainly incompetent managing, not the cutting-edge approach that has led many teams (the Dodgers included) to great success.
If these moves were the dictate of the analytics department, then simply put, the Dodgers need to clean house in that department. More likely than not, though, they were simply the latest (and worst) moves of a skipper who clearly doesn’t function straight in October.