Down, 3-2, heading into Game 6 of the World Series tonight in Los Angeles, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts finds himself with a problem. He's got two games he has to win. Roberts has a bullpen that is terribly overworked, particularly when it comes to his "big three" of Kenley Jansen,
Down, 3-2, heading into Game 6 of the World Series tonight in Los Angeles, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts finds himself with a problem. He's got two games he has to win. Roberts has a bullpen that is terribly overworked, particularly when it comes to his "big three" of Kenley Jansen, Brandon Morrow and Kenta Maeda, partially due to the fact he didn't get long starts from either Yu Darvish in Game 3 or Clayton Kershaw in Game 5.
It won't be easy, is the point, but when you're down 3-2 in the World Series against baseball's best offense, it's not supposed to be easy. Still, Roberts and the Dodgers have to figure out a way to get this pitching staff through 27 outs tonight, and it can't be the same way that it's been managed to this point. Let's help him map out a strategy.
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Trust Rich Hill more, but not too much more
This isn't an indictment of Roberts' controversial decision to pull Hill after four innings in Game 2, because that was a sound strategic decision that mirrored the strategy that got the Dodgers to the World Series in the first place; Hill has yet to throw 80 pitches in a game this postseason. With five straight very good right-handed Astros batters up, Roberts deployed Maeda, his designated righty-crushing weapon, and Maeda did his job, throwing 1 1/3 scoreless innings.
Ultimately, the Dodgers got a lead into the hands of Jansen, baseball's best reliever, which is a situation Roberts would take 10 times out of 10 -- even though, in this case, Jansen wasn't able to nail it down. While the decision caused Los Angeles fans to fume, it's also overlooked that in the same game for Houston, Justin Verlander was left in through six innings, and allowed a 1-0 lead to become a 3-1 deficit by the time he left.
"I wouldn't change it," Roberts said before Game 5. "I would do it again."
Unfortunately for Roberts, the events of subsequent games mean that he no longer has that luxury. While the choice to remove Hill made sense, the Dodgers still used eight relievers in Game 2. Darvish's short start in Game 3 meant that five relievers had to follow him, with Maeda eating up 2 2/3 innings. Alex Wood pitching into the sixth in Game 4 helped, but the insanity of Game 5 required six relievers to follow Kershaw.
We saw some of the aftereffects of all this on Sunday night, as Morrow, Maeda and Jansen all allowed runs. Even with Monday's travel day, Los Angeles is now facing (potentially) two must-win games back to back, and as one of the team's few rested high-quality pitchers, the situation dictates that Hill eat up a few more outs, potentially 15-18 rather than the 12 we saw in Game 2. Since his 2015 rebirth, he's actually been better against righties (.243 wOBA) than lefties (.300) anyway.
"Once Game 6 starts, we'll see," Roberts said before Game 5. "We'll evaluate. We'll watch how it goes, how [Hill] is throwing the baseball, how the 'pen is, how the usage is at that point in time and what's at our disposal."
Hill, however, has to step up as well. It's easy to say "he allowed only one run" in Game 2, but he allowed three hits with over 100-mph exit velocity in the third inning alone, and if not for a fortuitous bounce off Chris Taylor's hat, the Astros would have scored at least one more. As it usually does, this all starts at the start.
Remember that other members of the bullpen exist
If there's one thing it's fair to question Roberts on this postseason, it's that he's relied too heavily on the trio of Morrow, Maeda and Jansen. Dodgers relievers have thrown 709 pitches in the playoffs, and those three have thrown 487 of them -- nearly 70 percent. L.A.s five other relievers (Tony Watson, Tony Cingrani, Josh Fields, Brandon McCarthy and Thomas Stripling) have combined for only 222 pitches.
While each has his flaws, those are five talented pitchers. Combined, they gave the Dodgers 263 1/3 innings of 3.49 ERA ball this year, and in a sport where the average wOBA was .321, all five produced Expected wOBA marks well better than average, ranging from .227 (Cingrani) to .289 (McCarthy). (For context, xwOBA accounts for quality of contact and process, as opposed to results; more here.) While Fields and McCarthy each allowed home runs in Game 2, that alone shouldn't be enough to nail them to the bench. If it were, then literally no reliever would still be eligible to appear.
It may be too late for this, really. In retrospect, any appearance from McCarthy or Fields, or more than 15 pitches out of Stripling, following Darvish in Game 3 might have preserved Morrow or Maeda. If anything, Los Angeles might have been better off if Darvish had allowed 10 runs rather than four, putting the game fully out of reach.
Deploy Wood as needed
Roberts does have one advantage in Game 6 that he didn't have earlier, and that's Wood, who ought to be available in relief after starting Game 4, and no longer needs to be held back for another start, with Darvish lined up for a potential Game 7.
Though the composition of Houston's lineup doesn't lend itself strongly to the lefty Wood -- there's that pesky "five straight righties" situation atop the lineup again -- it's easy to see a situation where Wood is capable of coming in to get four or five outs at the bottom of the lineup. Wood does have relief experience, and in his career, he's been more effective out of the bullpen, getting a higher ground-ball rate (55 percent as compared to 49 percent starting), a higher strikeout rate (27 percent to 22 percent) and a lower ERA (2.53 to 3.26).
At the very least, Wood represents a fresh arm (he's pitched just twice in October) for a bullpen that terribly needs one, and this is about as all-hands-on-deck as baseball gets.
If the Dodgers can do all of this -- and, of course, if the offense can touch up Verlander -- then they'd head into Game 7 with Darvish, some amount of Kershaw available in relief, and whomever is still standing from Morrow, Maeda and Jansen, which wouldn't be a bad position to be in at all. They have to get there first, of course. Los Angeles needs to coax 27 outs out of a variety of talented, tired pitchers, and it has to get through baseball's best offense to do it. It won't be easy. It's not supposed to be easy.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.