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Game 2 Was A Lesson In How Not To Manage A Bullpen

Game 2 of the World Series was a wild roller-coaster ride that saw both the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers battle back from two-run deficits in the late innings, before the Astros finally won in the 11th. Along the way, it was also a showcase for the many different ways a manager can botch his bullpen management.

When sabermetricians uncovered nuggets like relievers being far more effective than starters, or the penalty a starter faces every time he cycles through the batting order, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts must have been taking notes. But for all the strides smart managers have made in bullpen management, it is still possible to get a little too cute with cutting-edge relief strategies. Roberts might be the poster child: He used nine pitchers Wednesday night, and pulled starter Rich Hill after four well-pitched innings — decisions that left L.A. undermanned when the game turned to extra innings.

Roberts had already yanked Game 1 starter Clayton Kershaw relatively early, giving him the hook after seven innings despite his throwing only 83 (dazzling) pitches. (Kershaw ended up with the third-best seven-inning World Series start ever by Game Score.) With Hill, the leash was even shorter: Despite tossing the third-best World Series start for a starter in four or fewer innings (according to Game Score), Roberts went to the pen anyway, turning instead to a relief corps that went 82-5 when leading after six innings, and 90-0 when leading after eight.

But that plan went awry six pitchers in, when closer Kenley Jansen — who’d only blown one save (in 42 tries) during the entire regular season — gave up a game-tying home run to Marwin Gonzalez in the top of the ninth. By the 10th, Roberts was down to using Josh Fields, who had a 4.18 FIP during the regular season — and Fields promptly allowed a pair of homers. By the 11th, Roberts had to use 34-year-old Brandon McCarthy, who hadn’t pitched all postseason — and McCarthy served up another homer, in this case George Springer’s decisive two-run shot.

Relying on Jansen wasn’t a bad idea — he was the backbone of an LA bullpen that literally never blew a ninth-inning lead — but Roberts’s unnecessarily quick hook and subsequent relief carousel left the Dodgers with little in the way of a backup plan if Jansen didn’t slam the door shut. (To say nothing of the way Roberts also emptied the Dodger bench of any potential pinch-hitters or defensive subs.) If the game had gone on any longer than it did, LA’s only available pitchers would have been Yu Darvish, Alex Wood and Kershaw — the Dodgers’ scheduled starters for Games 3, 4 and 5.

At the other end of the spectrum was Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who rode starter Justin Verlander as long as he could (six innings) and was loath to make a pitching change even as the Dodgers chipped away at Houston’s lead in the bottom of the 10th. Astros closer Ken Giles was on his second inning of work, something he did only four times during the regular season. He was also hovering around 30 pitches — the most he threw in an outing all regular season was 311 — when he yielded the game-tying RBI to Kiké Hernandez. In contrast with Roberts, Hinch probably stuck with his pitchers too long, and it almost cost him.

From a fan’s perspective, the bullpen charades made for exciting baseball. The Astros’ eventual victory ended up being the 15th-most exciting World Series game ever according to the total movement in Win Probability Added during the contest. And the eight combined home runs hit in this game became a new World Series record — one that’s fitting for this season of unparalleled slugging. Now, the Astros have a fighting chance to win this series, with a 46 percent probability according to the FiveThirtyEight model and three straight home games coming up. If they do end up champions, they can point to Roberts’ bullpen micromangement as the deciding factor in Game 2 — oh, and those four clutch late-inning homers helped, too.

Footnotes

  1. He did toss 37 pitches in an ALCS appearance against the Yankees.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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