Hey Managers, Stop Overthinking It: Looking Back at the NLDS and Ahead to the NLCS

In playoff baseball, managers often ask their players to do things they haven't done all season. Except for Joe Maddon, who's been doing it all year.

by Steven Goldman
Oct 14 2016, 3:12pm

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

In his nightmares, Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker sits down at the blackjack table. Looking up, he sees a familiar toothpick-sporting visage: He is also the dealer. Glancing at his cards, he says, "Hit me." Dusty-the-dealer throws an entire pack of cards at himself. Then he throws the shoe.

In the top of the seventh inning on Thursday night in Washington, Baker couldn't awaken from that dream as he made a continual circuit from the dugout to the mound and back. In a span of an hour and six minutes, he went through six pitchers, starting with Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer and a 1-0 lead and ending with Oliver Perez on the mound and his team looking up at a 4-1 deficit. Having pushed every button without finding the right one in the top of frame, in the bottom of the inning he made another move that got a better result, sending the right-handed-hitting outfielder Chris Heisey up to pinch-hit against lefty Grant Dayton with a man on. Heisey hit the ball out, making the score 4-3, but manager Dave Roberts, working through some strange visions of his own, turned his pitching staff into a yogurt with fruit on the bottom, finishing with starter Clayton Kershaw, and won the game.

As David Roth recently pointed out, October baseball only slightly resembles the version played during the regular season. One way this is true is that managers get anxious to affect outcomes in ways that they're restrained from trying in the regular season, and it usually backfires.

One reason is that it's unwise to ask players to do things in October you haven't asked them to do from April through September. In the regular season, Roberts had exactly five successful bunts by position players, three of them by catcher A.J. Ellis, who isn't even with the team anymore. As a player, Roberts had four seasons in which he personally equaled or surpassed his own players' bunt totals, and the very fact that this rookie manager has escaped the seductive lure of, "Just do it the way I did," speaks highly for his mental acuity. Nevertheless, on Thursday Roberts kept calling for them. Sometimes this might even have been the right move in terms of percentages, but as he hadn't dedicated resources in terms of perfecting such plays beforehand, he got predictably poor results.

Similarly, using closer Kenley Jansen in the seventh inning instead of the ninth was an insightful reversion to the old Goose Gossage fireman way of using closers, going not for the save, but for the win. Conversely, taking a pitcher whose season high for pitches thrown was 30 and asking him to make 51 pitches very easily could have blown up in Roberts' face, and very nearly did. Roberts was a very active manager in the regular season, leading the majors in pinch-hitter plate appearances by a wide margin and setting a record for relief pitchers used, so his actions in October haven't been wholly inconsistent with his typical day. It's the degree to which he let it all hang out—just what Kershaw and Jansen have left for the next round remains to be seen, and while the Dodgers had to win Game 5 to get to another Game 1, it's possible Roberts made the Western movie character's mistake of emptying his gun at one bad guy only to find there's another still standing.

Now the Dodgers will face the Chicago Cubs in the seven-game National League Championship Series beginning Saturday night at Wrigley Field. Not only were the Cubs the best team in baseball, with depth that brings to mind the great Yankees teams of the 1950s, Joe Maddon has been October-weird throughout the regular season. It's not that he's worked his pitchers in any frantic way—with a staff like his it would have been counterproductive to try—and although he bunted more often with position players than Roberts did (Ben Zobrist and David Ross had four successful sacrifices each) he's hardly pretending it's the Deadball Era. Rather, he's cultivated versatility and kept his entire team in games. He started 101 different defensive configurations. He has a third baseman-outfielder who is also an MVP candidate, a second baseman-outfielder, and a catcher-outfielder. Despite moving players around like chessmen, his team turned more balls in play into outs than any team in baseball.

Maddon's only postseason misstep to date came in NLDS Game 3 when he deployed closer Aroldis Chapman in the eighth inning and the closer failed. In the same way that Jansen in the seventh was the right call for the Dodgers, this was likely the right move for the Cubs. A bad outcome doesn't always invalidate a strategy, it just means it didn't work this time. That said, Maddon's great advantage over Roberts in this series is that he doesn't have to think nearly as hard. His thinking got done in the spring—he had the depth to execute on his plan, and doesn't have to color outside the lines to succeed now. Certain improvisations, like precise positioning and defensive versatility, have been standardized. Others, like playing find-the-bad-pitcher the way the Nationals did, have been dispensed with.

The Dodgers might win, because any team might win four of seven games in a given week, and no doubt if they do Roberts will have thrown the kitchen sink at them. But, in truth, their best chance might be that Maddon loses his sangfroid and does the same—just as Baker did. It seems unlikely. To invoke a sports cliché, you dance with the one who brung ya. That applies to strategy and tactics as well. The fastest way to kill a curse is to ignore the little man in your head telling you to do something-anything. Roberts, in year one of what may be a long career, has yet to learn that. Maddon already knows.

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