Dodgers starter Rich Hill was pulled after four innings of work and 60 pitches last night. The Dodgers ended up losing the game. This has caused a good number of people to argue that manager Dave Roberts pulled Hill too early.
For examples of this you can go here, here, here, and here, probably about 500 more places and, I presume, to your local sports talk radio show this morning. As it was, John Smoltz was beating that drum in the Fox booth last night too. The consensus seems to be that pulling Hill after four was “analytics” run amok and that Roberts and maybe the Dodgers front office should be blamed for the loss due to the quick hook.
Thing is, pulling Hill was not a bad move at all. It was absolutely the right move. That’s the case even though the Dodgers lost.
Let’s start in a completely non-analytical fashion: did you see Rich Hill last night? He held Houston to one run, but he was nowhere near as sharp as he usually is. He should’ve allowed more runs, actually, but some good defense behind him and some dumb luck — that ball that deflected off of the bill of Chris Taylor’s cap and went right to Joc Pederson, preventing an extra base hit — saved his bacon. He did not have his best stuff. Far from it, as he had walked three batters. There were five consecutive right-handed hitters due up the next inning too. Hill was lucky to leave with his team down only by one run, frankly, and it’s a safe bet that he would’ve had a difficult fifth inning ahead of him. The people slamming Roberts today usually love the eyeball test. It doesn’t seem to count here for some weird reason.
If you want to go after the analytical aspects of this, fine. Let’s talk about the Dodgers alleged brain-geniuses who, we are led to believe, only looked up from their spreadsheets long enough to create a PowerPoint slide that says “Rich Hill must be pulled before his third time through the order,” which they then crammed down Dave Roberts throat. Assuming, without checking, that that’s what happened, can we maybe acknowledge that it’s a strategy that has worked really damn well all season? Indeed, Hill faced 105 batters who were seeing him for the third time this year, compared to 220 a second time and 225 a first time. He had a really nice year. A big part of that was getting him out before the lineup turned over a third time unless he was totally cruising. As anyone watching last night can tell you, he wasn’t cruising.
So you go to the pen. The Dodgers pen which had not allowed a single run in the postseason. Going to a strong pen in the postseason was what, I thought, helped the Cubs and Indians win the pennant last year and the Royals win the World Series in 2015. Heck, go back to 2014 and the Giants can thank early, unconventional bullpen usage for their win in Game 7. I know everyone loves to talk about Jack Morris in 1991, but last night’s Rich Hill was not Jack Morris in 1991. He wasn’t even Rich Hill, really. Successful teams in recent history have more often than not succeeded by not leaving starters in too long. Unsuccessful ones have left their best relievers in the pen a batter or an inning too long. Ask Joe Maddon and Buck Showalter about that.
While we’re still talking about Hill, can we point out that he has pitched 148 innings between the regular season and postseason this year? This after only pitching 123 last year and a TOTAL of only 182 innings in the previous eight years combined? He’s way beyond his historic workload and he’s no spring chicken. You pull a guy like that a batter too early, not a batter too late.
The guy who replaced Hill, Kenta Maeda, pitched fantastically. Maybe someone should mention that. You can blast some of Roberts’ later bullpen moves if you want to, but the idea that’s pretty far removed from anything having to do with Hill.
Then let’s go to where all of this ended up: the Dodgers, with the lead in the ninth inning, with Kenley Jansen on the mound. The Dodgers were 98-0 in 2017 with a lead after eight innings. NINETY-EIGHT-AND-OH. Kenley Jansen had not blown a save since July 23. If you hadn’t watched the game and I told you that whatever Roberts did with his starter, it ended up with Kenley Jansen on the mound in the ninth inning protecting a one-run Dodgers lead, I think you’d feel like things worked out OK.
Obviously, of course, they didn’t turn out OK. As I said above, there were some questionable moves by Roberts, including maybe pulling Maeda to quickly and particularly letting Brandon Morrow begin the eighth inning if he was gonna bring in Jansen for a six-out save anyway. Let Jansen pitch a clean inning, right? And, of course, the Dodgers lost the game, so you can say the entire game was a failure for L.A. if you’re into the whole black-and-white thing.
The Dodgers, however, lost because the Astros are good and their bats were not going to stay sleeping forever. They lost because the ball bounced oddly a few times and, at least in the opinion of some, was juiced to the gills. They lost because the game went into the 11th inning and past midnight back east and all bets are off once that happens and we enter the realm of ~weird baseball~. The Dodgers lost because it was a baseball game and stuff happens in a baseball game.
They did not, however, lose because Rich Hill got pulled too early. I suspect most of the people arguing that are doing so because they have romantic memories of big strong starting pitchers like Jack Morris going the distance in games in their youth. Or of throwback guys like Justin Verlander doing it now (not that he did last night either). They are also doing so because early postseason hooks have been portrayed as a sabermetric or analytical strategy and for a certain sort of fan and commentator, any excuse that can be found to beat up on sabermetrics or analytics is a good excuse.
Rich Hill is not Jack Morris or Justin Verlander, though. Never was, never will be. And pulling him last night was the right baseball move, not just some flight of fancy born of the databases of nerds who report to Farhan Zaidi. Sometimes good decisions happen in games that end badly. Sometimes the opposite occurs. Last night was a bad outcome for Los Angeles, no question. But it had nothing to do with Dave Roberts pulling Rich Hill after four.