Mattingly’s Decision

Before I say anything about Don Mattingly or Clayton Kershaw, let’s address the elephant in the room.

Jacob deGrom was incredible. The Mets took Game 1 of the NLDS last night with a 3-1 win over the Dodgers, and deGrom was the reason why.  Kershaw didn’t lose the game. Neither did Mattingly or the Dodgers bullpen. deGrom won it. He started the game by striking out the side in the first two innings. He ended it by retiring nine batters in a row. The Dodgers managed to get a guy to second base twice against him, and both times he ended the threat by retiring Kershaw. In a road matchup against the best pitcher in the world, deGrom stole the show.

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Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what was undoubtedly the most controversial moment in last night’s game. In the top of the seventh, trailing 1-0 with the bases loaded and two outs, Dodger manager Don Mattingly pulled his ace, Clayton Kershaw, from the game. Kershaw had been fantastic through the first six innings of the game, save for one 4th-inning mistake that Daniel Murphy deposited deep in the right field stands. Minus the Murphy solo homer, Kershaw had allowed just three other hits, all singles, and one walk. He struck out eleven.

In the seventh, however, he began to waver. He walked lefty Lucas Duda on five pitches to begin the inning. Then after retiring Michael Cuddyer on a ground ball to third, he walked Ruben Tejada despite being ahead 0-2 in the count. With runners on first and second and one out, Mets manager Terry Collins opted to leave deGrom in the game rather than call for a pinch hitter. deGrom dropped down a sacrifice bunt that he narrowly missed beating out for an infield single. Kershaw then walked his third batter of the inning, Curtis Granderson, in an eight-pitch sequence. At that point, Mattingly had seen enough.

I have no problem with Mattingly pulling Kershaw there. Walking three guys in an inning is so out of character for Kershaw that it became clear he was running on fumes. His pitch count was up to 113 and he was about to face the heart of the Mets order for the fourth time. David Wright, who has a career OPS of over 1.000 against left-handed pitching, was coming to the plate. It’s possible, if not probable, that Mattingly had last year’s NLDS playing in the back of his mind when he made his decision. In an almost eerily-identical circumstance against the Cardinals in 2014, Mattingly stuck with Kershaw, who promptly gave up a go-ahead 3-run homer to Matt Adams. Regardless of whether that outcome influenced Mattingly’s decision, he made the right choice last night.

But as TBS cut to a commercial break after announcing righty Pedro Baez was entering the game, I tweeted this:

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Kenley Jansen is about as good as it gets for relief pitchers. Jansen threw 52.1 innings in 2015 after missing the first month and a half with foot surgery. In those innings, he struck out 80 batters and walked just 8, with a 2.41 ERA. Jansen throws one of the most devastating pitches in the game, a cutter that he can dial up to 98 mph with movement that seems to defy physics. 

In mid-September, Sports Illustrated’s Joe Sheehan wrote at length about the Dodger bullpen in his newsletter. Regarding Jansen he said, “Jansen’s cutter is, for my money, the best single pitch in the game. If I had to retire one batter for my life right now, I’d probably pick Jansen to do so.”

The only reason Mattingly doesn’t go to Jansen in that situation is because Jansen is the team’s closer. And in today’s game, managers treat their closers like fine china, only breaking them out when the circumstances are just right. “He’s our closer,” has become a bit of a meme in the baseball community over the past few years, with guys like Mike Matheny, Matt Williams and even Mattingly himself trying to explain their way out of bullpen catastrophes in which the team’s best reliever never even saw the mound. Managers almost universally reserve their closers for save situations, as if there is some secret baseball rule that prevents them from using their relief ace in any situation other than the 9th inning with a 1-3 run lead. In reality, they should be deploying their best weapons in the highest-leverage situations. On Friday night, a 1-0 score with the bases loaded in the 7th inning was about as high leverage as that game was going to get. By not using Jansen there, you’re saving him for a purely hypothetical future save situation that would almost assuredly be of lower leverage anyway. If you find yourself in a save situation later in the game with your closer already burned, then take solace in knowing that things have gone very right for you. That means you’ve likely held the Mets from scoring and that your team has come back to take the lead.

Baez gave up a single to David Wright that scored two runs, essentially putting the game out of reach for a Dodger-offense that looked futile all night. But even if Baez had gotten Wright out and escaped the jam, not going to Jansen in that situation is still poor process. Mattingly chose to die with his second or third best option on the mound, while Kenley Jansen collected dust in the bullpen.

I don’t mean to single out Mattingly because this is an issue that’s much larger than just him. I’m not convinced there is a single manager in baseball that would bring in Jansen if faced with Mattingly’s dilemma. Certainly some managers are more progressive than others. In Tuesday night’s American League Wild Card game, for instance, Yankee manager Joe Girardi didn’t hesitate to bring Dellin Betances in with one out in the 7th inning of a ballgame he was losing 2-0. Last October, Kansas City’s Ned Yost matured in front of the nation as his bullpen leverage-management seemingly improved with each game. Still, in both of those situations the managers had bullpens with at least two Jansen-esque relievers. It’s easier to bring in Betances or Wade Davis in the 6th or 7th inning when you have an Andrew Miller or Greg Holland still in the chamber. Do either of those managers make the move without that safety net? Almost assuredly not. Based on that, this criticism is less aimed at Mattingly and more aimed at the state of closer-usage in general.

Having said all that, I will reiterate that Jacob deGrom was the first, second and third reason that the Dodgers lost Game 1. If their bats don’t wake up (and it won’t get much easier with Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey on the mound for New York in the next two games), then it won’t matter what buttons Mattingly does or doesn’t push in this series.

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