MLB's Postseason of Chaos and Gamesmanship

Whether it's Craig Counsell pulling a pitching switch, the Astros attempting to spy on other teams, or Javy Baez hugging someone, everyone's doing whatever they can to get an edge this year.

by Rachael McDaniel
Oct 18 2018, 2:02pm

Photo by Adam Davis/EPA-EFE

On Monday afternoon, as the Dodgers and Brewers got ready to start Game 3 of the NLCS, Brewers manager Craig Counsell announced that Wade Miley would start Game 5 on short rest. Miley had been supremely effective in his Game 2 start, pitching two outs into the sixth without allowing a run. He’d also been successful when facing the Dodgers in the regular season. And his one previous career start on three days’ rest, while more than six years ago, set a good precedent: six innings, seven strikeouts, no runs. Whether the Brewers would be looking for a series win or looking to avoid falling behind 3-2, Miley was as solid a choice as any to get at least the first few outs of the game. Nothing seemed amiss.

The Brewers won Game 3, putting them ahead 2-1 in the series, before losing the 13-inning marathon that was Game 4 by a score of 2-1. With the series tied, then, Miley took the mound in the bottom of the first in Game 5. To counter him, Dave Roberts sent out a lineup stacked with right-handers, save for Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger—the latter making a rare appearance out of the leadoff spot. Miley walked Bellinger on five pitches. And then out came Counsell. He made the call to the bullpen. Right-hander Brandon Woodruff was coming into the game.

One would be forgiven for being a little confused. The game had already featured a managerial challenge and a call on the field overturned. To have an unprompted first-inning pitching change on top of that seemed a little much. But this had been Counsell’s plan all along. Miley was never going to actually start Game 5. No, Miley had always been intended to start Game 6 on regular rest. It had all been a ploy, trying to gain whatever slim advantage they could over the Dodgers by pre-empting Dave Roberts’ platoon-matched lineup. The Brewers were so committed to the deception that even the Brewers’ own position players weren’t aware of the plan.

To listen to John Smoltz tell it on the broadcast, the Brewers were trying to introduce an element of chaos to the game: “They want chaos to win this series,” he said, as Brandon Woodruff prepared to make his first pitch to Justin Turner. Smoltz, of course, is a noted hater of baseball in its current iteration. His comment was likely meant to disparage the Brewers’ strategy: They were trying to win via cheap disorder, rather than by good old-fashioned honest baseball, the way they played it back in Smoltz’s notoriously controversy-free 90s heyday. But there was an element of truth to Smoltz’s analysis, though it might have been unintentional. Because this postseason, and these championship series especially, have had an uncharacteristically large focus on the exploitation of chaos—players and teams doing their best to affect variables of baseball that go beyond the mechanics of the game.

The most obvious instance of this was the Astros’ apparent attempts to steal signs, sending various team employees into the field-level camera well, having them film opposing dugouts using their cell phones, and presumably relaying information back to someone else who could then pass it on to the Astros dugout. The Astros first did this in their ALDS sweep of Cleveland, who warned the Red Sox that something similar might happen. (The Red Sox themselves, one might recall, were caught using an Apple Watch for similar trickery last season.) And, sure enough, an Astros-affiliated man named Kyle McLaughlin was removed from the camera well at Fenway Park during Game 1 of the ALCS. The Astros claimed that they were merely making sure that the other teams weren’t cheating. MLB decided to take that flimsy defense at face value, and considers the matter closed.

According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, the Astros aren’t even the only team accused of employing shady sign-stealing tactics this postseason. There were reports of an illegal coach on of the benches in the Red Sox-Yankees series. There were further accusations of sign-stealing in the NL West tiebreaker played between the Dodgers and the Rockies. Sign-stealing and accusations thereof have been part of the game for as long as there have been signs to steal. But with the technology and equipment available to use for spying now, the practice—and the paranoia surrounding it—has taken center stage in the narrative of this postseason.

And it’s not just teams who’ve been trying to exploit whatever advantages they can find, spirit of fair play be damned. Players on the field have been finding ways around rules, or through them. Who could forget Javier Baez’s double play-preventing hug in the NL Wild Card game? It was an astute, successful bit of psychological warfare from Baez: Arenado instinctively reacted to the unexpected hug by hugging Baez back, cloaking the interference in a tender embrace. The hug, and the fact that interference wasn’t called on the play, ended up being a non-factor in the outcome of the game. But if the Cubs had gone on to score and win that inning, the hug would surely have become one of the most-discussed pivotal events of this postseason.

There’s also the matter of Manny Machado. Machado has been hitting well this series for the Dodgers, with a .316/.409/.526 line. He’s scored four of their 16 runs. He’s also been drawing attention to himself for employing a style of play that other players have described as “dirty.” Like in the Dodgers Game 3 loss, when he grabbed Orlando Arcia’s leg while sliding into second on a double play ball and was called for interference. Or like in Game 4, when he kicked Jesus Aguilar in the ankle as he ran out a grounder to first, an incident that resulted in the benches clearing and Machado getting fined.

Machado, for his part, didn’t deny that he was trying to interfere with Brewers players, or to mess with their heads. Instead, he justified his attempts to do so because they were done in the service of winning ballgames. "We’re trying to win," he said. “[Aguilar]'s trying to do whatever he can to help his team over there, and we're doing the same over here." Which echoed the remarks made by Astros president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow when asked about the sign-stealing incident: “We’re playing defense. We’re not playing offense. We want to make sure it’s an even playing field.” More conciliatory words, but a similar sentiment: We’re just doing what the other guys would have done to us. We’re just playing the game.

Only a few years ago, there were still front offices in baseball who didn’t employ a full-time analytics department. Certain teams were quite literally years ahead of their competitors in their data collection and use of analytics, and could use this to strategic advantage. Their understanding of the game was simply better than others’. This is no longer the case. The analytical playing field is much closer to level, and the gaps in knowledge from team to team are negligible. Which might be why teams and players seem to have been making more concerted attempts than usual to find any possible competitive edge—whether through unidentified men in camera wells, mysterious extra coaches in dugouts, unexpected hugs, or false starters.

It remains to be seen whether this is a theme that will extend beyond this postseason. As in the case of bullpen use in the 2016 postseason, we’ve seen the playoffs foreshadow the broader trends of baseball before. When all was said and done, though, Counsell’s gambit couldn’t save the Brewers in Game 5. Their lineup couldn’t solve a sharp Clayton Kershaw. There are still some things in baseball that even the cleverest of gamesmanship can’t overcome.

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