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.