From boos to cheers: Why Lovullo's hook of Pfaadt made sense

October 20th, 2023

I can’t be the only one whose dad chimed in with a text when D-backs manager Torey Lovullo yanked his Game 3 starter, Brandon Pfaadt, with two outs in the sixth inning of a two-hit shutout bid against the Phillies in the National League Championship Series on Thursday.

“I don’t like this move at all,” my dad wrote.

Dads, as a rule, don’t like prematurely pulled pitchers. They grew up in a game without openers and analytics and 13-man pitching staffs. Even when managers did come out to pull a starter, they had to walk uphill both ways. It was a different time.

But I have to tell you: In my gut, I didn’t love the move, either, as I watched it transpire with the game in the midst of a scoreless tie.

Pfaadt phenomenally flustered the Phillies for those 5 2/3 innings, striking out nine and walking none. He and Philly starter Ranger Suárez, who allowed just three hits in 5 1/3 innings, gave us the kind of starting pitching duel this postseason needed. It was hard to watch it end so abruptly just because the top of the Phillies’ lineup was coming to the plate for the dreaded Third Time Through the Order.

A sold-out Chase Field crowd booed Lovullo heavily as he brought in lefty reliever Andrew Saalfrank to face the left-handed Kyle Schwarber. Lovullo’s own players had their doubts.

“If anything,” said right fielder Tommy Pham, “I would have left him in.”

Heck, Lovullo himself had some doubts.

“The conversations are very typical,” he said of his in-game deliberation with pitching coach Brent Strom. “‘Am I an idiot if I take him out of the game with nine strikeouts at 5 2/3?’”

You knew right then that this tight tilt would be viewed through the prism of this decision and that Lovullo would be roasted like chestnuts on an open fire if it blew up in his face.

But Lovullo’s gutsy move worked!

Well, except, of course, when it did not. Saalfrank walked Schwarber, but he was able to escape the inning by getting Trea Turner to ground into a forceout. In the seventh, Saalfrank walked leadoff man Bryce Harper, who wound up scoring the game’s first run.  

But because of the D-backs’ eventual 2-1 walk-off win that made a series out of this NLCS, Lovullo is a genius in our results-oriented enterprise.

Allow me to tell you, though, why this was the right move, regardless of result.

My gut and your gut don’t matter much when you stare at the stone-cold stats, and they tell you that Third Time Through the Order stuff is pretty freaking real when it comes to Pfaadt.

First time through: .703 opponent OPS

Second: .859

Third: 1.193

Schwarber was due up against the right-handed Pfaadt. The same Schwarber who had a .645 OPS the second time facing opposing starters this season and a .996 OPS the third time.

As romantic as the idea of an unheralded rookie with a 5.72 ERA shutting down a Phillies lineup that had previously treated this postseason like beer league softball might be, how long could we reasonably ask Lovullo to tempt fate? Coming into this start, Pfaadt had allowed 23 homers in 103 innings, including the playoffs. Only six pitchers across MLB with at least 100 innings had a worse home run rate than Pfaadt’s 2.01 per nine innings.

Sometimes it’s time to cash in your chips and walk away from the table.

If the statistics don’t move you, then consider what happened across the way. Phillies manager Rob Thomson left Suárez in for the bottom of the sixth with the top of the D-backs’ order due up a third time, and leadoff man Ketel Marte doubled, then advanced to third on a groundout. At that point, Thomson went to his bullpen to escape a jam that, perhaps, could have been avoided via the ‘pen in the first place.

I don’t like this stuff any more than you do. I would love to see real developmental changes -- possibly even rule changes, such as further pitching staff size restrictions -- that get us back to a game in which a starter going into the sixth isn’t some especially notable achievement.

But it’s hard to deny the data, especially when it is as extreme as those numbers put up by Pfaadt’s opponents this year.

“I want everybody to know that is trying to think along with me that we have a strategy,” explained Lovullo postgame Thursday. “I have a strategy for everything that's done. Everything that's done has been well talked about. It's not just analytics. I know how quickly playoff baseball can change, and I felt like Brandon kept the game under control, and it was time to turn it over.”

Many people are still up in arms about Rays manager Kevin Cash pulling Blake Snell in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the 2020 World Series, when he was dealing against the Dodgers. Fewer people remember that, in his previous start, in Game 2 of that Series, Snell had a no-hitter going in the fifth when he gave up a walk, a homer, a walk and a single.

It can unravel that quickly, and it’s better to have a proactive plan than be reactive … and late.

Lovullo had a plan. And after absorbing the data, which is plain as day, I would defend Lovullo even if it hadn’t worked.

But it did work. Mostly. And when the D-backs won, my dad texted again:

“I never doubted his decision for a minute.”