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Prior to Game Four, baseball twitter was abuzz with two topics: Andre Ethier replacing the struggling Yasiel Puig in the lineup and Clayton Kershaw going on three days’ rest. Turns out, we were all focusing on the right things, as all three players placed their stamp on the outcome of this game in their own way.

Ethier got on base twice, both time via the walk, and was hardly a disastrous replacement for Puig. However, his base-running gaffe to end the sixth—after the Dodgers had just scored two runs and things really seemed to be looking up for them with Kershaw cruising—may be an overlooked turning point.

With the angles we had in those replays, it’s hard for me to definitively say that Ethier was out. But that isn’t really the point. He probably could have done a better job at getting back to the base and unfortunately for him and manager Don Mattingly, his mistake is amplified by the fact that he replaced Puig. It’s certainly a key moment in the game and it would look bigger just an inning later.

For the second time in four days, Kershaw was cruising against the Cardinals through six innings. He’d shut out St. Louis, given up just one hit, walked two guys and struck out nine. In a word, he was dominant. Then came the seventh. Matt Holliday led-off with a single, followed by a Jhonny Peralta single, bringing up Matt Adams with two on and no out.

In 203 plate appearances against lefties, Adams had career .553 OPS while delivering an .851 OPS off righties. Here’s how he’s done against lefties by pitch in his career:

And this is how Kershaw has done against lefties in his career:

In both tables, take note of the numbers next ‘Curve.’ Adams doesn’t hit curves from southpaws all that well (though to be fair, of the eight home runs he has off lefties, two were off curve balls) and Kershaw, well, he just doesn’t allow anything off the curve when a lefty steps in the batter’s box. So this result was certainly a surprise.

Kershaw had faced Adams eleven times prior to Tuesday night and he’d only thrown him four curveballs. Only one of those was in the strike zone and it came last Friday:

The one Kershaw hung on Tuesday was a little more out and over the plate, but nonetheless, Adams had a pitch to hit on Friday and just didn’t do anything with it. He didn’t make the same mistake on Tuesday. Whether Kershaw should have been in there to even face Adams is certainly debatable. Well, once he got to Adams, it’s hard not to let him face the lefty, but should he have been in to start the inning with his pitch count nearing 100 while working on three days’ rest?

There are two schools of thought here. He’s going on short rest and he’s tossed a fair number of pitches, it’s time to rely on a bullpen no one would want to rely on. The second thought is that Kershaw is their ace, he’s paid an insane amount of money to be leaned on in situations like this and to come through. Mattingly doesn’t trust his bullpen and with good reason, I tend to lean on the side of sticking with Kershaw into the seventh. He was absolutely mowing down the Cardinals up to that point and despite the craziness in the seventh last Friday, nobody expected it to happen again Tuesday night.

Ultimately, I believe a manager’s most important job is to have an intimate knowledge of his players. Know when they need to be pushed, when they need to be coddled, when they’re running on fumes and when they say they’re fine and they really need to take a seat. It’s possible that Mattingly knows his players that well and there was just no way of predicting Kershaw would fall apart once again. However, with that aforementioned bullpen, even if Mattingly did have an inkling Kershaw wasn’t at full speed, he likely didn’t feel any better with his other options.

Frankly, I give managers a lot of leeway. Managing a pitching staff is an insane juggling act and many times there are issues with players in the bullpen that the fans, and sometimes even the media, don’t really hear about. But benching Puig and then compounding that odd move by not giving him a single plate appearance in an elimination game is something I can’t defend.

Puig posted a .296/.382/.480 line on the year and his .320 TAv was fourth in the NL (minimum 500 plate appearances). I don’t care how bad he’d looked in the previous two games, this was the team’s best offensive player and he didn’t see a pitch in a game they lost by a run and sent them home for the season. Dylan Hernandez did report that Puig was fine with benching and admitted he’d been dealing with an ankle issue during the final stretch of the season. But if that was really limiting him, it’s certainly strange that Mattingly would pinch-run with Puig after A.J. Ellis drew a walk, especially considering that Puig is considered an average baserunner, at best.

After choosing to pinch-run with Puig, Mattingly then pinch-hit with Justin Turner, and it became clear that Mattingly preferred not only Turner, but Ellis, to Puig in the biggest situation of the Dodgers season. Again, his eight strikeouts in nine at-bats mean little to me considering what Puig had done all season. Add in the fact that his triple just a day before led to the team’s only run of that game and the decision becomes all the more confounding. It’s nearly impossible to justify sitting your best player with your season in the balance and this case was definitely no exception.

Of course, the blame for the Dodgers coming up short shouldn’t all go on Mattingly. The bullpen gets its fair share – and it was that dreadful unit that seemingly handcuffed Mattingly much of the series. And after scoring nine runs in the first game, the offense practically shutdown, combining for six runs in the final three games. And, of course, the Cardinals deserve their share of credit, it’s not as if they’re pushovers.

But for a team that looks pretty clearly to be the most talented on paper in the National League, after the front office addresses the bullpen – and let’s be clear, spending a bunch of money rarely works with relievers – for the second offseason in a row, they may have a bigger issue of deciding whether Mattingly – who has two years left on the three-year extension he signed in January – really is the man they want leading this team now and in the future.

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mhmosher
10/08
I can't imagine the Dodgers braintrust isn't at least considering firing Mattingly at this point.
apbadogs
10/08
Maybe we can get another awkwad press conference before he goes!
johnwood427
10/08
Great Read!
tmangell
10/08
Bottom line: Kershaw made a mistake and Big City capitalized. Donnie Baseball has done a remarkable job dealing with gigantic egos in that clubhouse. Name another manager (maybe Buck) managing currently who could run that team with the cast of characters they have, plus ownership who believe they can buy a championship. I don't envy Mattingly.
atelgenhof
10/08
When you criticize someone's missteps, you should spell their name right in the headline.
atelgenhof
10/08
Wow, that was a quick fix.
BillJohnson
10/08
I am seeing this "considering what [X] had done all season" line all over the place, where X equals Puig or Kershaw or Taveras or Strasburg or just about anybody, and I consider it badly misguided. Of course Mattingly considered what Puig had done all season; that's why Puig got starts in the previous three games. He then saw something -- we may never know exactly what, since it's not necessarily the kind of thing that a manager will discuss candidly -- that convinced him that Puig not only shouldn't start this one, but shouldn't be trusted with a key at-bat. The question is whether what he saw was (1) correctly seen and (2) sufficient to trump Puig's rest-of-season record. We'll never know. "What he had done all season" has become the latest analyst's unthinking mantra. It is far more valuable, when a manager departs from "what he had done all season," to ask why, rather than to blindly criticize the manager for doing it.
sahadev22
10/08
I think this is a very fair criticism with my piece. When I first read this comment, I figured you'd missed something, because I was sure I'd put a similar thought in there. It was in my notes, I tweeted something similar and I was certainly thinking it when I wrote the piece. Apparently, I never put it in there, so that's on me. What I wanted to get across initially is that we shouldn't jump on managers right away. When they make a move that seems so odd, we need to ask, what could have possibly motivated them to do such a thing? My thought process was, if Puig isn't hurt or didn't do something off the field/in the clubhouse that garnered a playoff benching, then what did Mattingly see in three games that overruled everything that happened in the previous six months? It can't be as simple as, 'he struck out in eight of nine plate appearances,' or at least it shouldn't be that simple. If it was that simple... And that's where my criticism of the benching comes in. So obviously, without the above in there, it looks like all I'm saying is the stats say this, he needs to be in there. That's my screw up for not elucidating my thoughts clearly, it won't happen again. Thank you for the fair criticism.
Dodger300
10/08
I don't even find convincing the underlying assumption in your premise:That striking out eight in nine plate appearances is a "simple" thing. Let alone following you to the next step that whether or not it is simple, 'it "can't" or "shouldn't" be a good reason. And whileyou assume that your logic is so obvious to readers that there is no need to even finish the sentence (If it wast that simple...), I have to guess at your meaning. Are you implying that your disapproval is so universal that all would agree with you? Well, it's not. I love a Puig, but he looked clueless out there this week. And with some exceptions, He has really looked pretty clueless since July. April and May stats just can't be counted on in October.
Behemoth
10/09
He had an OPS+ of 127 in the second half.
beaversnkings
10/08
Good comments, Bill Johnson. I agree with your "what he had done all season" criticism, particularly with Puig. Puig had looked helpless for 8 of his last 9 ABs, and the triple was a bit fluky, as he cued a ball pretty far out of the strike zone the opposite way. Granted, that how you should hit that ball if you're going to swing at it, but let's not pretend that it was a particularly repeatable occurrence. And it's not like Andre Ethier is chopped liver - he's "struggled" to the tune of a 97 OPS+ this season when relegated to being a 4th outfielder, but has a career 121 OPS+. And as far as the "Dodgers were the most talented on paper" if you ignore the bullpen line, I think that you have to ignore the defense, too. Would a better SS than HanRam have turned Holliday and Peralta's hits into outs? I think that's a very fair question. I don't think Mattingly is a good tactical manager, but bad bullpens like the Dodgers' make managers look worse than they are, and the Puig/Ethier decision was a very defensible one.
Duranimal
10/08
Nuts to think Mattingly is the problem.
LynchMob
10/08
I was not watching the game ... checked an online box score and noticed that Kershaw had just hit in the top of the 7th ... that caught my eye ... I'm not a fan of using pitchers on short rest ... and it's always a tough decision to let any pitcher bat late in a close game ... I don't see/read anyone suggesting that Mattingly is *the* problem ... and it sure does seem like there's good data that suggests he's *a* part of the problem ("the problem" being that the Dodgers did not even reach the NLCS, let alone the WS, given their payroll).
SteveOSama
10/08
Good stuff, Sahadev...nice to see your work here these days.
BaseballFuries
10/08
...and thanks to a weird, miscalibrated center field camera, all the best highlights of this great series will forever have a pink tinge.
352361957
10/08
I cannot fault Ethier getting picked off at 3rd base. The ball got away from Molina far enough that he considered trying to score and who is to say that if Puig was the baserunner in the same circumstance, that he wouldn't have continued to home and been tagged out. The way Puig had been hitting and swinging at anything, it's not likely that he would have even reached base to put himself in that position.
jrbdmb
10/08
I'm dismayed to see that all of the articles on small sample size that we see every year here still don't seem to be sinking in. An entire year of Puig at bats leading to a team-high OPS are overruled by a three-game mini-slump (where he still managed 4 runs scored and a .774 OPS). Sorry, but I consider the Puig benching to be a panic move by Mattingly. I can't prove that it made any difference in Game 5, but I am certain that it was the wrong move.
lakenan
10/09
blah blah blah...dodgers lost. when do we see the cardinals won review?