In the playoffs, managers will be first-, second-, and third-guessed. It’s just the way it is as the situations are under a much more powerful microscope. We try to be fair, like when I gave Terry Francona credit for a move that didn’t pan out in Game 4 of the ALCS. Here, I’d like to second-guess Dodgers manager Dave Roberts’ decision to use closer Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning of NLCS Game 3 against the Cubs with a six-run lead.
The Dodgers brought a 4-0 lead into the eighth inning. Starter Rich Hill went six innings and reliever Joe Blanton pitched the seventh, so Roberts handed the ball to lefty Grant Dayton to begin the eighth. Cubs manager Joe Maddon countered by sending Willson Contreras to the plate to pinch-hit for the lefty-hitting Miguel Montero. Contreras struck out. Albert Almora, Jr. pinch-hit in the pitchers’ spot and grounded out. Dexter Fowler kept the inning alive by slapping a double down the left field line, prompting Roberts to bring Jansen into the game. Jansen got likely National League MVP Kris Bryant to fan at a cutter for strike three, ending the inning.
The Dodgers padded their lead to 6-0 in the bottom of the eighth on a Yasiel Puig single, a Joc Pederson double, and a Yasmani Grandal ground out. With a 6-0 lead, it seemed like a great time to save Jansen and bring in any other reliever. Pedro Baez, Ross Stripling, Josh Fields, Luis Avilan, and Alex Wood were all available and suitable candidates with the switch-hitting Ben Zobrist leading off the inning. The Dodgers’ probability of winning the game going into the ninth inning was 99.8 percent, according to FanGraphs. It was essentially worst-pitcher-in-baseball-proof.
But Jansen returned to the mound to start the ninth. He only threw five pitches to strike out Bryant in the eighth, so that likely influenced Roberts’ decision. Jansen, as expected, didn’t have much trouble getting through the ninth, working around a one-out infield single by Anthony Rizzo. He threw 16 pitches in the ninth.
Given how good Jansen is, there’s a realistic chance his usage in Game 3 won’t cost the Dodgers the series or anything. But each pitch is more taxing and stressful than its predecessor. Using Jansen for four outs and 21 pitches in Game 3 might mean Roberts can’t use him for an extended save in Game 4 in what will likely be a more important situation.
When Orioles manager Buck Showalter received heavy criticism for not using closer Zach Britton against the Blue Jays in the American League Wild Card game, Craig pointed out that Showalter likely wasn’t making his decision out of ignorance. Rather, he was just scared to lose the game bucking traditional strategy. That was likely how Roberts was feeling. What if he sent Stripling or Wood out to the mound and the Cubs staged an epic comeback, keeping his best reliever in the dugout to start the ninth?
To steal Craig’s phrasing, “Human beings are inherently risk-averse.” The problem is that, in avoiding a risk in Game 3, Roberts set his team up for potentially greater risk as the series goes on. Whether that bites him in the butt or not remains to be seen, but the outcome won’t prove anything either way. Process, not results.