Inside the Numbers: Explaining Dave Roberts in Game 5


Photo Credit: Sean Gladwell

The game plan going in for Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was playing out from the first few minutes of NLDS Game 5.

Max Muncy got to Washington Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg early, hitting a two-run homer in the first to put LA on top, and when Kike Hernandez went deep in the second to make it 3-0, it was just a matter of how long Game 1 winner Walker Buehler would go.

Ideally, for Roberts, Buehler would go at least six, so when he came back out for the seventh, even better.

Because Roberts had maybe the best pitcher of the current MLB generation, Clayton Kershaw, in reserve, to go an inning, two if needed, to help close things out.

OK, so Kershaw is the best pitcher of his generation from April to September.

Career regular-season ERA: 2.44.

But in October: 4.43.

With two out and a runner on first, the score 3-1 Dodgers, Buehler walked Trea Turner, and Roberts, looking at the pitch count for his starter, which stood at 117, decided that Buehler “had had enough. I thought he emptied the tank.”

Enter Kershaw, who struck out Adam Eaton on three pitches to get out of the seventh, setting off a party-like atmosphere at Dodger Stadium for the seventh-inning stretch, with six outs to go to get back to another NLCS.

If fans were nervous to see Kershaw return to the mound for the eighth, it wasn’t immediately obvious.

Roberts had the fourth-best bullpen in MLB in 2019 fully rested and ready to go, but he also had Kershaw, also fully rested, also ready to go.

“Clayton, it’s not about analytics. It’s about, he’s one of the best pitchers in the game, and for him to go out there and throw (three) pitches and to go back out there and get two hitters, I felt really good about that. So, it’s more of, I don’t think it was an analytic question. It’s a guy that I believe in, and I trust, and it didn’t work out,” Roberts said.

No, it didn’t work out.

Kershaw fell behind Anthony Rendon 1-0, then threw a fastball, 89 mph, low and probably out of the zone.

Rendon golfed the ball out to left for a solo homer to make it 3-2.

The existential dread for Dodger Nation didn’t quite have time to sink in before the next pitch, a first-pitch slider to Juan Soto that the young slugger rocketed to right-center, 449 feet, the longest homer of his brief career.

Tie ballgame.

Just like that.

Two pitches.

Kenta Maeda, being Kenta Maeda, pitching against the Nats, whom he seems to own (Nats hitters are 4-for-51 career against Maeda, so, yeah), came in and struck out Howie Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman and Yan Gomes to get out of the inning with no further damage, but then, the damage was sorta already done.

Roberts, two-time pennant-winning manager, four NL West division titles in four seasons as manager, had to answer afterward why he didn’t go to his Nats Killer sooner.

“For Maeda to go through Soto, Kenta in this role, we really liked him against the righthander. And the success that Clayton’s had against Soto with the two-run lead, I’ll take Clayton any day in that situation. I just think it’s one of those where it was easy for me to get Clayton, with the low pitches to get Rendon and to go out there and get Soto. And to have Kenta behind him. That was my thought, and not have Kenta go through Soto.”

Fair, with lefties slashing .247/.324/.427 off Maeda in 2019.

(Righties slashed .158/.219/.316 off Maeda in 2019.)

So, Roberts didn’t want Maeda to have to pitch to Soto, to save him for righties, but he did still have Adam Kolarek, the Soto Neutralizer (.178/.221/.262 slash vs. lefties in 2019; Soto was 0-for-3 with two Ks against Kolarek in the 2019 NLDS), who wouldn’t get used here, or in the 10th, when Soto came to plate with runners on second and third and no outs, after Joe Kelly walked Eaton and surrendered a ground-rule double to Rendon.

Kelly was an interesting choice in the ninth, when Roberts could have gone to closer Kenley Jansen, so it was even more perplexing when Roberts sent Kelly, who as of a week ago was dealing with an undisclosed injury, back out for a second inning of relief.

“Kelly goes in there, throws 10 pitches, and he’s throwing the baseball really well. He’s arguably our most rested reliever, and the way he was throwing the baseball, so I felt it was pretty easy. Don’t have a lot of guys as far as behind Kenley. I liked Joe right there in that spot, I really did. After 10 pitches there was no stress. Ball coming out well. So, for him to go out there and take down that inning and to have Kenley take down the other part of the order, I felt really good about it,” Roberts said.

Roberts had Soto walked intentionally to get to Kendrick, who had gone 0-for-4 to this point, and the thinking was clear.

“And as far as that second and third, nobody out, you’re in a tie ball game, yeah, you could go to Kolarek, infield is going to be in, hope for a punch, but I just felt that Joe had a good chance to put Howie on the ground and potentially then get Kenley on Zimmerman. And so, my thought was to try to get a ground ball right there,” Roberts said.

Kendrick fouled off a first-pitch curve, then said later that he had a “gut feeling” that the 0-1 pitch was going to be a fastball.

Ninety-seven, up, over the plate, in fact.

Four hundred ten feet later, the Nats were up 7-3.

Roberts did eventually go to Jansen, who got the last two outs of the LA season, as it turns out.

Final line, then:

  • Maeda/Jansen: 1.2 IP, 0R, 0H, 3K, 0BB
  • Kershaw/Kelly: 1.2 IP, 6R, 5H, 3K, 2BB
  • Kolarek: DNP/CD

This is why Dave Roberts won’t be back in LA in 2020.

Story by Chris Graham



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