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Welcome To The 2018 World Series, Where Even Sale-vs.-Kershaw Turns Into A Bullpen Battle

BOSTON — Tuesday night was billed as one of the greatest pitching matchups in World Series history: Clayton Kershaw versus Chris Sale — two of the elite starters of their generation. On a cool night in Boston, a sold-out Fenway Park was well-aware of the pedigree of its foe and greeted the Los Angeles Dodgers ace with chants of “Ker-Shaaawww, Ker-Shaaawww,” drawing out the last syllable of his surname as he pitched. But the lyrical taunting was short-lived as Kershaw didn’t make it far into Game 1 — and neither did Sale, for that matter.

We didn’t get a classic pitching duel. Instead, we received a heavy dose of 2018 baseball. And that style of play — namely bullpenning — favored the Red Sox en route to an 8-4, series-opening victory.

Six Red Sox relievers combined to allow just one run over five innings, and Boston pinch-hitter Eduardo Nunez broke the game open with a three-run homer off Dodger reliever Alex Wood in the seventh inning.

That both of the starting pitchers lasted only four innings is telling of how quickly the game is changing. Tuesday marked just the fourth Game 1 — the game that often features a pair of aces — in World Series history in which neither starting pitcher recorded an out in the fifth inning. In the three previous occasions — in 1923, 1966 and 2004 — all but one of the starters allowed as many or more runs as Sale or Kershaw did in fewer innings prior to departing.1 In other words, those starters had been battered. That wasn’t the case Tuesday. Instead, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and Red Sox manager Alex Cora had their aces on short leashes.

Teams have become aware of how performance typically declines the deeper a starter pitches into a game, and teams are also eager to try to gain righty/lefty platoon advantages when they can find them in the later innings. Teams also monitor fatigue, and Sale was somewhat taxed in throwing 91 pitches.

During the 232-minute game Tuesday, the two clubs combined to use 12 pitchers, who threw a total of 308 pitches. Through Tuesday, relievers have accounted for 50.5 percent of innings this postseason, which would be a record. That mark is up 4 percentage points from last postseason (46.5 percent) and significantly from the 2010 playoffs (32.3 percent). While bullpens have taken on more and more work in the regular season, their usage and importance in the postseason is reaching unprecedented levels.

Dodger infielder Brian Dozier said “anything goes” in the World Series. But the urgent, anything-goes practices employed Tuesday were carryovers from the regular season. In fact, the Dodgers have already faced the most extreme form of pitching game strategy this postseason.

While some traditionalists have bemoaned the move toward bullpens, Red Sox reliever and Game 1 winner Matt Barnes told FiveThirtyEight in a cramped postgame clubhouse that he is all for this style of play.

“I’m about whatever it takes to get wins in the World Series,” Barnes said. “How you do it? It doesn’t matter to me. You just have to win 11 games before anyone else does.”

Cora began the Red Sox parade of relievers in the top of the fifth when he summoned Barnes out of the right-field bullpen to replace Sale, who had walked the lead-off batter, Dozier. Barnes, who has become a trusted setup man, allowed a single to Justin Turner, and Dozier later scored on a Manny Machado groundout to tie the score at 3.

Kershaw entered the game with questions about his postseason performances and left with a career ERA of 4.28 in 145 postseason innings. He also continues to suffer from declining fastball velocity, as the pitch sat between 90 and 91 mph Tuesday. He relied heavily on his breaking pitches. Only CC Sabathia owns a worse ERA among pitchers who have made at least 15 postseason starts. While Kershaw was hit hard at times on Tuesday — including a 105.9 mph single and a 109.1 mph double off the bat of J.D. Martinez — he wasn’t helped by his surrounding cast, either. L.A.’s starting first baseman, David Freese, failed to catch a foul pop-up in the first inning. It wasn’t ruled an error but was a play that could have been made — and it might have cost the Dodgers two runs.

Kershaw allowed three runs through four innings. After walking Mookie Betts and allowing a single to Andrew Benintendi to begin the fifth, he was was pulled from the game. Roberts called on Ryan Madson, who allowed both inherited runners to score to give the Red Sox a 5-3 lead.

More innings pitched by relievers requires lineups to remain flexible as offenses try to counter the platoon advantage gained by switching the handedness of pitchers. For instance, the Brewers had left-handed starter Wade Miley throw just five pitches in a start in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series before going to a right-handed-heavy cast of relievers against the platoon-heavy Dodgers. And on Tuesday, five of the six relievers that followed the lefty Sale were right-handed.

In response to pitching strategies, Dozier joked Monday that the Dodgers have begun to pull hockey-style line changes in games. Los Angeles was the first club in World Series history to start nine right-handed batters with no switch-hitters. But by the seventh inning Tuesday, three L.A. lefties and a switch-hitter had joined the game, and only three Dodgers were playing positions they had occupied on the starting lineup card: Turner (third base), Machado (shortstop) and Yasiel Puig (right field).

While the two managers traded chess pieces, it was Cora who seemed to win the most strategic battles, as he has done all October. He struck a decisive blow on Tuesday by pinch-hitting Nunez for left-handed hitter Rafael Devers when Roberts called the left-handed Wood into the game in the seventh.

“Cora is prepared,” Barnes said. “Tonight is another example, pinch-hitting (Nunez). It’s a lot of fun playing for him. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

The Red Sox have won 116 games under Cora this season, a year in which the game seems to be changing so quickly. They are now three wins from a fourth championship this century.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. And that other starter — Baltimore’s Dave McNally in 1966 — had walked the bases loaded in the third inning before getting the hook.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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