You often hear broadcasters talking about how pitchers want to get in games, stay in games, and hold on to the ball until it’s pried from their hands. When they’re lifted for relievers, you often see them get angry or frustrated. Pitchers will do anything and say anything to stay in games, even if they’re out of gas. They’re athletes. They’re competitive. They’re just wired that way.
Which means that one of the manager’s most important jobs is knowing the difference between a pitcher who really does have something left and a pitcher who is just saying so even though he doesn’t. Dave Roberts failed in that task last night when he brought in Brandon Morrow.
Morrow had pitched in the previous four games, with one day off, and had pitched in all but one of the Dodgers’ postseason games before last night. He’d pitched well, of course, but it was a heavy workload, especially for a converted starter who doesn’t have much experience pitching nearly every day. He’d never once pitched three days in a row before last night. As such, prior to the game, Roberts told the press that Morrow would not be available to pitch.
Morrow, of course, pitched. And he pitched horribly, allowing four runs on four hits, two of which were homers, and needing only six pitches to do it. It was clear he had nothing from the get-go. So what in the hell was he doing in there? Roberts in the postgame press conference:
“He called down and said that he felt good. He was throwing today, he felt good. He called in the middle of the game, said, ‘Hey, if we take the lead, I want to pitch. I want the ball. My body feels good.’ So in the 7th inning there, you can’t turn him down. He’s felt good, he wanted to be in the game. It’s a credit to him to be used the way he has been and want the baseball.”
Actually, you can turn him down and you should. It is Roberts’ job to know the difference between a player with confidence and a player with stamina. As a former player himself, he has to know that almost no major leaguer is going to voluntarily spit the bit and say he can’t go. He also has to know that, in a game with mounting drama, the adrenalin a player feels is likely to make him think he has more energy than he really does. This is not hindsight. Roberts himself made this call hours before the first pitch when he made the decision not to use Morrow before the game. He let emotion take over to go back on that decision once the game was underway. It was a decision everyone from the announcers to the fans following along online questioned the moment he made it.
Of course Roberts then compounded the error by leaving Morrow in as long as he did. He gave up a homer to a dead straight fastball right in George Springer‘s wheelhouse on his very first pitch. That alone should’ve told Roberts that Morrow had no command, because a pitcher with command doesn’t leave a straight pitch in George Springer’s wheelhouse. His next pitch was a solid single by Alex Bregman. At that point he should’ve fetched him, but he left him in to give up a double to Jose Altuve and a homer to Carlos Correa. He blew the lead and, ultimately, the game (though he had lots of help in that regard).
There’s a fallacy about managers, especially about managers on teams which are heavily into analytics like the Dodgers. The claim is that they manage from spreadsheets and binders. That they only take orders from the front office. That they don’t allow feel and gut and heart an stuff enter into their decision making. That’s baloney, as there are always situations in games that cannot be planned for and, even in situations that can be expected, every manager has a free hand to make his own calls in the moment. There are a ton of games of lesser consequence in the regular season where even the most analytically-inclined manager says, afterwards, that he made thus and such a decision because he “felt” like it was the right one, someone had a hot hand or that he liked some matchup or another that no one with an analytical mind would consider statistically significant. Those decisions often work and much of what we consider managerial greatness is a product of such decisions, most of which go mostly unnoticed, working out well in the aggregate.
Last night, Roberts made one of those decisions. If it had worked we’d be talking about Morrow’s guts and determination today. It didn’t work, though, and today we question Roberts’ gut. Quite fairly. It may have been the biggest mistake by a manager in the postseason. And the most consequential.