Playoff Mismanagement

Hot Take: Managers are the worst.

Seriously. I’d tell you to go ask a Nationals fan, but my guess is that they’re all slumped over in a confused stupor, mumbling Aaron Barrett’s name repeatedly with this image looping in their heads:

That mess of a play was actually a bright spot for Washington, as they inconceivably recorded an out on the play. Still, it’s an image symbolic of the catastrophic bullpen management rendered by manager Matt Williams that may have cost the Nats their season…a season in which many predicted them to win the World Series. Dave Cameron already took to Fox Sports to eviscerate Williams on his bungling of the Nationals bullpen Tuesday night, and it’s difficult to find much else to add.

The Giants-Nationals contest was not the only game ripe with managerial miscues, however. The Dodgers were also sent packing, once again by the St. Louis Cardinals. The game and series ended in a 3-2 stunner that saw the best pitcher on the planet fall apart in the seventh inning for the second time in five days, this time giving up a pair of singles and a homerun to essentially end LA’s season. Not unlike Williams, Don Mattingly, Dodger manager and namesake of this very site, played a hand in ending his team’s season prematurely.

It’s easy to say, in retrospect, that Mattingly should have pulled Clayton Kershaw. I find it hard to be critical of him there. Kershaw had been brilliant against the Cardinals to that point, allowing no runs and just three baserunners through six innings, striking out nine. He struck out the side in the sixth, looking as dominant as ever. Even the two hits he allowed to start the seventh were at the mercy of the BABIP gods, each one glancing off the gloves of outstretched middle infielders. Yes, it was his third trip through the St. Louis lineup, a point in time in which a pitcher’s effectiveness diminishes. Yes, Kershaw was already paying a penalty for pitching on short rest. On a team with a decent bullpen, Kershaw, by all rights, should have been done. But the Dodgers, a $240 million dollar team with a $24 bullpen, had no inspiring relief option short of closer Kenley Jansen.

Even after allowing the first two batters to reach base, Kershaw was probably as good a candidate as Los Angeles had to pitch to Matt Adams, who has been absolutely abysmal against left-handed pitching in his career (.197/.227/.326 with a 51 wRC+.) But Kershaw hung a curveball and Adams crushed it for a three-run homer. One bad pitch erased six superb innings. Sometimes them’s the breaks. Sometimes you have no good options. And sometimes even when you do, they blow up in your face. 

No, Mattingly’s greatest sin wasn’t sticking with his ace. It was inexplicably benching his best position player in an elimination game. Yasiel Puig had struggled in the first three games of the series to be sure. He struck out nine times in 14 plate appearances, including a stretch of seven consecutive Ks that fell one short of the postseason record. Puig also picked up three hits and a walk, however, including a triple in the sixth inning of Game 3 that led him to score the tying-run, before the dumpster-fire of a Dodgers bullpen struck again.

Basing any decision on a sample size of three games is ludicrous in its own right. The fact that Mattingly tabbed Andre Ethier as Puig’s replacement made it all the more baffling. Ethier has been a RHP-killer in his career (.304/.383/.506 with a 139 wRC+.) But in 2014 he’s only been killing the Dodgers, to the tune of a .253/.325/.385 triple slash and 102 wRC+ against righties, while making $15.5 million as a fourth outfielder. Ethier has been just a league-average hitter against RHP this year, and that’s supposed to be his bread and butter. 

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Yasiel Puig 2014 NLDS .250/.357/.417 124 .345
Andre Ethier 2014 Season .249/.322/.404 98 .307

Mattingly seemingly sat Puig down because he had played poorly for three games. Yet Ethier had been even less productive than that, and in a full season’s worth of work. Mattingly then doubled down on a poor decision by opting to insert Puig into the game in the ninth inning, not as a pinch-hitter but as a pinch-runner. With the pitcher’s spot in the order due up. Mattingly, in a one-run elimination game, in the ninth inning with the tying-run aboard, chose to send Justin Turner and Dee Gordon to the plate rather than a guy who posted a .296/.382/.480 line with a 147 wRC+ in 2014. He pinch-ran that guy on first base instead. For as fast as Puig is, he was about an average baserunner in 2014, owns a very lousy 60% career stolen base success rate and has been battling an ankle issue on top of it. That is just indefensible.

Ethier, for what it’s worth, went hitless in two at-bats but did draw a pair of walks. His biggest at-bat came in the top of the sixth inning amidst a Dodger rally. With a run already in and Hanley Ramirez on first, Ethier chased a laboring Shelby Miller from the game with a five-pitch walk. Juan Uribe promptly delivered a two-out single off new reliever Seth Maness, driving Ramirez home and giving the Dodgers their second run. Ethier moved to third. Then, with A.J. Ellis at the plate, Maness bounced a sinker that got away from Yadier Molina momentarily. Ethier wandered too far off the bag and then made a weak attempt at retreat, getting picked off by Molina. The blunder ended the inning and the Dodgers best chance for a third run that they would never wind up scoring.

As Cameron said in his piece, a manager’s duties extend further than just filling out a lineup card and deciding which reliever to use. Coaching up players and juggling egos are elements of the job that, despite not always being measurable skills, should not be dismissed.  But on-field decisions are still a big part of the overall picture. You can argue it wouldn’t have mattered. The Cardinals were up 2 games to 1 with Puig playing the first three games, and there’s a very good chance they would’ve won the game and the series regardless of Mattingly’s decision. But a manager’s job first and foremost is to put his team in the best possible position to win. Barring some undisclosed injury that would prevent him from hitting normally, giving your best player zero at-bats in a do-or-die game is doing the very opposite of that.

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