Baseball

Giants Best Dodgers in Tight, Windy Battle

It was windy in Los Angeles on Monday night. Not your garden-variety baseball wind — the kind that might turn a fly ball in the gap into a home run or vice versa. This was gnarly wind, blow-gigantic-human-being-Max-Scherzer-over wind:

That kind of wind can turn anyone’s control scattershot, and it appeared to weigh on Scherzer early. He labored through a 25-pitch first, frequently pushing the ball gloveside — three full counts, a blistered line drive single, and a walk, but also three strikeouts.

Alex Wood looked equally affected in the first. He threw a clean inning, but some of his sinkers sailed sideways, and the odd pitch darted strangely down as if pushed by an invisible hand (shout out to the Adam Smith fans out there). A game matching the two best teams in baseball, with a commanding 2-1 series lead in the balance, decided by wind? It’s exactly the kind of nonsense that makes me dislike five-game series.

Luckily, the wind seemed to agree. Though the conditions remained difficult and a steady stream of dust and debris kept the air hazy, both pitchers mastered the elements as the game went on. Scherzer poured on the strikeouts — eight through the first four innings. He stopped walking Giants hitters, too, and even stopped wasting pitches: after that strenuous 25-pitch first, he needed only 37 pitches to navigate the next three innings.

Wood thrived on soft contact — in those same first four innings, only one Dodger managed to hit a batted ball at least 90 mph and in the air. Even that one found a glove. Though Wood wasn’t missing bats altogether, he was missing the barrels, and that’s nearly as good.

I cut those statistics off after four innings because the fifth is where things started getting good. Scherzer, even when he’s on, has one weakness: his fly-ball based game makes him homer-prone. Evan Longoria jumped all over a middle-middle fastball and absolutely clobbered it, 407 feet into the wind. 1-0, Giants.

What followed was a referendum on why managing is so hard. The two starting pitchers had been excellent on the mound so far, but they’re among the worst hitters in baseball. They were both due to bat in the fifth. Darin Ruf was preparing to bat for Wood when Longoria left the park, but he sat back down. With a lead, and with no one on base when Wood’s spot was due, Gabe Kapler traded a nearly-certain out on offense (grounder to third, out by 20 feet) for some extra length on the mound.

Right on cue, the Dodgers threatened. Albert Pujols smashed a single through the infield to lead off the inning, and Wood was under the gun. He got Will Smith on a pop up, which turned the spotlight on Dave Roberts — Scherzer was up, and he’s a worse hitter than Wood.

What would you do in this spot? The Dodgers needed runs, but they weren’t down by a field goal or anything. A couple singles could knot things, and with nearly half the game remaining, preventing further Giants runs was far from a given. It came down to this: how many runs would Scherzer cost the Dodgers by batting, and how many runs would he save in the rest of his outing?

You can approximate the run cost by giving Scherzer a 50/50 shot of landing a sacrifice bunt. That works out to roughly 0.3 runs sacrificed relative to an average hitter — the best case scenario, a runner on second and two outs, still wasn’t very good, and a strikeout or botched sacrifice was even worse.

How many runs did the Dodgers expect Scherzer to save? It comes down to outs and innings. If you’re generous, you might expect two more innings worth of outs — with a pitch count in the 80s, it’s hard to imagine much more than that. Some of the time, though, he wouldn’t last that long — let’s call it 1.5 innings on average. Scherzer projects to allow roughly three runs per nine innings, but of course he’s worse as the game goes on; adjusting for times through the order, it works out to something on the order of 3.2 runs per nine innings.

How good would the pitchers replacing him be? The Dodgers had everyone available, which meant their third- and fourth-best relievers would likely cover those innings. That’s Brusdar Graterol and Corey Knebel, who project to allow an average of 3.7 runs per nine collectively. From there, the math is straightforward — 1.5 innings of a 0.5-runs-per-nine differential works out to just under a 10th of a run. Getting Scherzer’s arm for an extra handful of outs cost them (in expectation) three times what pinch hitting for him would have gained them.

Back in the real world, Roberts disagreed. He left Scherzer in — the result, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a strikeout on a foul bunt. That led to another strange pitching move — after letting Wood hit for himself, Kapler pulled him rather than let him face Mookie Betts for a third time.

My estimated costs and benefits on the Scherzer decision roughly bore out. The Dodgers didn’t score that inning. The Giants didn’t score in the next two innings, both of which Scherzer threw. The Dodgers got their run prevention, but they sacrificed scoring to do it, not the way you’d draw it up in a game where you trail.

It’s reductive to say that one decision decided the game, but one decision certainly tilted the outcome. The Dodgers only threatened once more, though it was quite a threat: with runners on first and second and two outs, Betts smashed a line drive that Brandon Crawford high-pointed, turning a run-scoring single into a harmless out.

Scherzer put together a dominant performance. In seven innings, he struck out 10 batters and allowed only a single run. It was heady stuff, a turn-back-the-clock performance that evoked his world-devouring peak.

It didn’t matter. The last two of those innings came at too great of a price. Dodgers relievers, too, are excellent. Chances to score don’t grow on trees, particularly against the Giants, who were one of the toughest teams to score on in all of the majors this year. A runner on first and one out isn’t the best spot in the world, but you can’t screw around given how good pitchers are these days; when you get a chance to score, you better make the most of it.

Single decisions don’t decide games. Leaving Scherzer in likely cost the Dodgers some tiny fraction of a win — 3% if I’m being generous. Play this game a trillion times, and they’d win 5-1 sometimes, making the question moot, or smack a two-run homer and hang on 2-1. Even tonight, a score of other plays were every bit as impactful as the pinch hitting decision.

The Giants won this game because they made more plays, period: Evan Longoria, not Dave Roberts, crushed the game-deciding homer, and Camilo Doval blew away the Dodgers for six outs to send things home. It was a near thing — Gavin Lux sent the last out of the game to the warning track — but Doval stepped up in a huge situation and didn’t surrender so much as a baserunner. With the Giants pitching like this, it would always be hard for the Dodgers to win.

That doesn’t mean the decisions don’t matter, though. Managing means giving your team the best chance to win, and let’s not mince words: Roberts didn’t do that tonight. The pursuit of a great story — of Scherzer delivering a strong seven innings and the Dodgers offense scoring just enough to win — overtook the imperative to maximize the Dodgers’ odds.

Bullpens exist so that you can use them; pinch hitters are there because sometimes your poor-hitting pitchers come up in important spots in close games. The Dodgers have an excellent bullpen. Graterol was a top 100 prospect; Knebel was one of the best closers in the game only a few years ago. They have an embarrassment of riches on their bench, going 13 deep with solid hitters. They don’t need to rely on just a few players; the team is built specifically to avoid that shortcoming.

Probably, the Giants would have won even if Roberts pulled Scherzer. More than 60% of the time, the pinch hitter would have made an out too. Maybe they would have grounded into a double play, even. I don’t want you to leave this article thinking that Roberts alone lost this game.

I do want you to wonder what he was doing, though, whether he thought it all the way through or just wanted Max Scherzer to throw a great postseason start. These two teams are separated by very little; getting every advantage absolutely matters. Monday night, the Giants were the better team, and Gabe Kapler was the better manager. That’s a tough combination to overcome, even if the first of the two matters more. The two teams will clash again Tuesday, and if Monday is any indication, the Dodgers will be fighting uphill again, sacrificing small edges in a series where they undoubtedly matter.

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