To manage a baseball game is to look for every possible advantage you can gain. Alex Cora has a major opportunity to do so in Game 4 of the World Series.
Much of the talk surrounding the Los Angeles Dodgers’ roster has centered around its depth. Depth is undoubtedly a great quality for a team making a deep playoff run, especially in the National League where benches are more heavily relied upon. However, the Boston Red Sox have a unique opportunity to turn that strength into a weakness, and that opportunity looks to arise in Game 4.
Manager Alex Cora has already verbally committed to starters Chris Sale and David Price for Game 1 and 2, respectively, coming as little shock. Barring disaster, righty Nathan Eovaldi looks to be lined up for a Game 3 start following his 14.1 innings of 1.88 ERA ball thus far in the postseason.
Following that, conventional wisdom would have you penciling in Rick Porcello for Game 4, just as he had in both the ALDS and ALCS. Not so fast.
Let’s start with the background. In Game 5 of the NLCS, the Brewers started lefty Wade Miley against the Dodgers. Seeing the opportunity to gain the platoon advantage against a southpaw, Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts decided to start right-handed first baseman David Freese and bench left-handed left fielder Joc Pederson. Left-handed catcher Yasmani Grandal sat in favor of right-handed catcher Austin Barnes. Righty-mashing outfielder Yasiel Puig rode the pine while Enrique Hernandez took his spot. Left-handed utility slugger Max Muncy slid to fifth in the lineup from his usual second spot.
Having extraordinary depth like this allows the manager the flexibility to not only change around the order of names in the lineup but the actual names themselves. The Dodgers can plug and play a variety of combinations of viable major leaguers, something that 29 other teams cannot do in a similar fashion.
However, something unexpected happened in the first inning of that Game 5. Miley issued a walk to the leadoff hitter and was promptly pulled from the game by manager Craig Counsell. Rumors immediately began swirling about a potential injury to Miley, but it wasn’t long before reports came out that this was Counsell’s intention all along.
In from the bullpen jogged right-handed Brandon Woodruff, ready to throw several innings against a lineup optimized to face a lefty.
At this point, Roberts was left with two options, neither one particularly good.
He could utilize his deep bench, replacing Freese with Pederson and Barnes with Grandal. However, doing so would immediately deplete the bench of key resources early in the game. That could prove to be a massive disadvantage as the game went into late innings.
The other choice would be to stick with what he put out there and forfeit the platoon advantage he sought.
Take a look at some of the Dodgers’ key hitters and their respective platoon differences:
|David Freese||Austin Barnes||Joc Pederson||Yasiel Puig||Max Muncy||Cody Bellinger||Yasmani Grandal|
|OPS vs. LHP||.876||.722||.512||.628||.891||.681||.727|
|OPS vs. RHP||.786||.484||.893||.921||1.001||.880||.844|
|Difference from LHP to RHP||-90 points||-238 points||+381 points||+293 points||+110 points||+199 points||+117 points|
These are all significant differences that completely changes the outlook of the hitter. Simply by switching the handedness of the pitcher, each of these players goes from dangerous to docile.
What Counsell effectively did was have Roberts treat each of these hitters as if their splits were the exact opposite from what they actually are. Freese and Barnes were in a spot they would be normally in to face a lefty, only they were facing a righty. Same goes with Pederson, Grandal, and Puig on the bench, their glowing numbers versus righties remaining on the bench while righty Woodruff was throwing.
To put it another way: one look at these splits and the Dodgers roster and it’s obvious that an opposing right-handed pitcher won’t have an easy time. With one managerial move, that lineup all of a sudden becomes much less scary looking.
Brilliant. Now, where do the Red Sox come in?
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While Sale, Price, and Eovaldi are virtual locks to conventionally start the first three games, Cora can use the same strategy as Counsell in Game 4.
All he has to do is announce southpaw Eduardo Rodriguez as the Game 4 starter. From there, Roberts can again react in two ways.
First, he can play it the same way as Game 5 in the NLCS, putting out his lineup designed to face opposing left-handers like Rodriguez. Then Cora follows Counsell’s plan by pulling Rodriguez after recording at most three outs. In comes Porcello out of the bullpen, ready to give the Red Sox a normal start’s worth of innings.
Now Porcello is either facing a lineup meant for Rodriguez instead of him, or the Dodgers just burned through multiple bench spots in the second inning to recalibrate their offense.
Otherwise, Roberts can call Cora’s bluff, predicting that Rodriguez will be pulled after an inning or less in favor of Porcello. In this scenario, Roberts puts out his lineup meant for facing right-handed pitchers, except lefty Rodriguez is on the mount.
Now Cora can simply let his talented lefty throw multiple innings against a lineup featuring several lefties with severe platoon splits. Remember, Rodriguez threw 129.1 innings of 3.82 ERA with a 10.1 K/9 this season. He’s no slouch himself.
No matter what, the Red Sox find themselves facing a sub-optimal Dodgers lineup with a viable starting pitcher on the mound. Thanks for the tip, Counsell.