If I wanted to explain the major principles of sabermetrically inclined manager tactics to my parents, I might start by invoking 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a book that I know resided on my dad’s dresser at one point. The first habit is: “Be Proactive.”
It handily encompasses quite a few of the things we associate with a savvy contemporary manager. They should pursue platoon advantages when reasonable, and treat high-leverage situations as such regardless of inning. They should mind the times-through-the-order penalty and replace pitchers before trouble rears its head.
The thinking man’s manager is ready to act before his hand is forced, to put it simply. And perhaps no one this side of Cleveland does that more stridently than Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. Look. Look! I would have called out as Roberts guided Rich Hill cleanly through his second go-round with the Astros’ lineup, and then inserted Kenta Maeda to take a max-effort run through it. That’s what we’re talking about, I might have said. Watch how he does this.
I might have extended the metaphor by incorporating the second habit for highly effective people, which is: “Begin with the End in Mind.” And that’s where the trouble with World Series Game 2 would have started.
We can talk about removing Hill. He made it through the order twice in 60 pitches, but gave up ringing contact to George Springer (105.7 mph single) and Alex Bregman (100.3 mph single) the second time he faced them. They were the two batters due up to begin the fifth inning. From the dawn of baseball until—what, last year?–last year, Hill keeps pitching every time. In some percentage of those times, he gets through another inning or two just fine. But that percentage is smaller than the one denoting how often a different, fresher pitcher gets through the top of the order just fine.
So Maeda came in, ready to spend every ounce of energy knocking over the five right-handed dominoes laid out before him. And he mostly did–getting four and leaving the game with Correa on first base.
With the left-handed Brian McCann coming up, Roberts went to lefty-killer Tony Watson, who induced a double play to escape the inning on his very first and only pitch. Astros manager A.J. Hinch, were he a more proactive soul, might have pinch-hit for McCann in that spot. The Astros are carrying three catchers, one of whom is right-handed slugger Evan Gattis. Why didn’t he? Well, he might have felt that a bigger situation would arise where McCann would be the preferable hitter. It’s a defensible position considering the dearth of threatening lefties in the Dodgers’ bullpen, but McCann’s superiority as a receiver was likely the greater consideration.
I don’t know exactly how sound that logic was, but before the game, Roberts explained an eyebrow-raising decision–starting Joc Pederson in left field over Andre Ethier and the other options–by telling reporters: “I think that [Justin Verlander] is obviously plus, plus velocity. I like Joc a little bit better with the velocity. And I think Joc is a better defender in left field, too.”
At this point in the game, more than halfway through, theoretically, Roberts and the Dodgers were following the rails they laid out for themselves because Pederson had tied the game with his first major-league homer since July … on an 88 mph slider.
All according to plan. Right.
One of the things you’re supposed to internalize from the late Dr. Stephen Covey’s wildly popular habits is an attitude of independence, of self-reliance. The world doesn’t do things to you; it is the object of your verb. If by some cosmic happening this game were instead played in Houston, under AL rules, the bottom of the sixth is the frame that would have blasted that attitude to smithereens, where the game of the mind’s eye would diverge from the game that was actually played in Los Angeles.
That’s when Watson’s place in the batting order–the normal ninth spot–came up. There was one out, no one on. Verlander wasn’t being threatened, but this being a tie game in the World Series, with a choke-hold 2-0 lead there for the taking, Roberts sent Ethier to the plate as a pinch-hitter. He made an out. Before the inning ended, though, Chris Taylor walked, Corey Seager homered, and the Dodgers suddenly had a lead–a wonderful, joyous, beautiful lead.
The best plan to protect it, however, was no longer available to Roberts.
Marwin Gonzalez was due to lead off the seventh inning. Gonzalez is a switch-hitter, but displays more power and better overall results from the left side. In Roberts’ proactive universe of good habits, he had a lefty to throw at him. In Roberts’ real universe, he had just burned his best lefty and only had one viable southpaw option left–Tony Cingrani. He didn’t deign to use him on the opposing seventh-place hitter. Instead, he brought out Ross Stripling, a righty. Stripling promptly walked Gonzalez on four pitches, forcing Roberts to bring in Brandon Morrow to avert the potential crisis.
That stretched Roberts. He suddenly needed nine outs from Morrow and Kenley Jansen, who had so smoothly sailed through six outs in Game 1. Morrow’s leash ran out on a ground-rule double by Alex Bregman to start the eighth, at which point Roberts had reached the end.
Jansen was the end. In every Dodgers plan, he is the end. Except when he isn’t.
Gonzalez got Jansen to tie the game in the ninth. Had he faced Watson or Cingrani instead in the seventh, maybe a fresh Jansen retires him. Maybe Jansen finishes off the game or, if nothing else, pitches into an alternate universe 10th inning. Maybe Stripling, had he not been called upon in the seventh, gives up one fewer dinger in extras.
Maybe. Roberts did virtually all of the things we want a contemporary manager to do, and yet in navigating the bottom of the Astros’ order, he burned Watson and Stripling and used up the more effective portion of Morrow’s night. He eventually double-switched Taylor and Cody Bellinger out of the game in service of not having a pitcher’s bat force a similar decision in extras. Jansen entered with a better chance at closing it out than he did in last season’s NLDS Game 5.
This is why self-help books sell so well. You miss one run on a rainy day. Your phone goes off during one yoga class. You witness an intelligent bunt. You get one granola bar you just can’t stomach, and then you’re not in control and the whole program is poppycock. You move on to the next thing, the next grand scheme to live a better life. And they all work until they don’t. But if you stick with them, they all lead to the same thing: Lots of success, with the occasional stinging loss–like Game 2–that feels even worse because it wasn’t in the plan. They can’t advertise that part, though, because then you’d never buy it in the first place.