- Managing in the playoffs is getting more advanced every year. Craig Counsell and Dave Roberts are proving that the game changes once October arrives.
This story appears in the October 22, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
When baseball seasons end, Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell disconnects from the game by playing golf most days in October. Not last year. After his team won 86 games and missed a wild card spot by one game Counsell kept the golf bag stored another month so that he could watch almost every inning of postseason games. He kept notes on what essentially was an auditing of Postseason Managing 101.
“I figured I better prepare myself for these games,” Counsell said as his Brewers played the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, “because I knew you must manage them differently than regular season games.”
From watching Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, Counsell said, he learned the importance of matching up relievers on hitters throughout the game, not just in the late innings. From watching Astros manager A.J. Hinch he learned the need for conviction by riding a hot hand on the mound rather than sticking to a script.
Actually running a postseason game, however, especially against the noise of a hyper-analytical, hyper-critical world, is like skydiving or baking a soufflé: the approximations of it don’t do justice to the difficulty of the real thing. It took running only his fifth postseason game for Counsell’s soufflé to drop.
In Game 2 of the NLCS, he pulled his starting pitcher, Wade Miley, with a 3–0 lead after a harmless two-out single in the sixth inning, even though Miley had thrown only 74 pitches and was the first starter in 166 games to hold the Dodgers without a run or a walk for more than four innings. You know what happened next: a cascade of relievers blew the game. Milwaukee lost, 4–3, on a home run (what else these days?) by Justin Turner.
“Look, you’re either too early or too late,” Counsell said about pulling a pitcher.
The business of managing in October is fraught with more peril than ever before. That’s because how baseball is played has changed drastically in just the past four years. Since 2014 home runs increased by 46 percent and pitching changes increased by 13 percent. To keep the ball in the ballpark managers are running out more and more pitchers. The paradox is that as they run out more pitchers, like hitting on 16, they increase the risk one of them will go bust.
In the NLCS Counsell and Roberts shattered a record by using 27 pitchers to cover the first two games of a postseason series. The old record was 23. The Yankees and Braves used 18 pitchers to cover the entire 1999 World Series. The constant switching by Counsell and Roberts meant all pitchers, with starters included, faced an average of only 5.5 batters.
“You plan things out, but every game is different,” said Roberts, who entered his third straight NLCS having already run 30 postseason games. “There are so many twists and turns. You have to watch the game. By that I mean there is a feel to running these games.
“You have to resist the urge to blink. At the first sign of trouble and pressure you have to understand the leverage and ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it?’ You have to resist the urge to react quickly.”
More and more, however, managers do react quickly and aggressively. Boston manager Alex Cora used two starting pitchers as relievers in four Division Series games (Chris Sale and Rick Porcello). Only once in 38 team games did a manager not call on multiple relievers (NLDS Game 3, when Roberts used only Kenley Jansen after Clayton Kershaw gave him eight innings).
Managers used five relievers or more 20 times in those first 38 team games this October. In 2000, Joe Torre won the last of his four titles as Yankees manager without ever using five relievers in his 15 postseason games. It happened only seven times overall in 62 team games that postseason.
Current Yankees manager Aaron Boone found out quickly how different his job is from the one Torre had. Boone, who had never managed on any level before this year, and who picked an inexperienced bench coach in Josh Bard, went home after two home losses in the Division Series in which he was slow to go to his bullpen.
In Game 3 against Boston, for instance, he stuck with Luis Severino for a fourth inning even though Boone admitted, “He wasn’t on top of his game.” The game devolved into a 16–1 disaster for New York. “I probably got greedy,” Boone said.
Leaving a pitcher in too long has become even more taboo because we’re conditioned to seeing so many more pitching changes. It’s also because the wide availability of data means second-guessers are armed with far more information than Torre faced. It’s a smarter, angrier and, with the bullhorns of social media, louder rabble to which a manager must answer. Postgame media sessions with the losing manager almost always hammer pitching decisions.
Beneath the noise of the LCS, six teams were searching for new managers: the Angels, Blue Jays, Orioles, Rangers, Reds and Twins. Angels general manager Billy Eppler captured the trend of hiring young, inexperienced managers with his business-school phraseology in explaining what he is seeking: someone with “connectivity with the players” who “can think with a probability-based mindset” and “develop a culture that will put the welfare of the team above any singular person.”
You needed only to look to the LCS to understand what he meant. The four managers left standing, Counsell, Roberts, Cora and Hinch, are all between 42 and 48 years old. Hinch has the most wins among them with just 493—15th among those who managed in 2018. The other three are still on their first job. All are fluent in analytics and strong communicators, especially with young players.
As for running postseason games, however, no interview process, no matter how thorough, can reveal how a young manager might survive that gauntlet. What Counsell calls “the decision tree” of running a postseason game today is more complicated than ever because of bullpen use and frequency of home runs. It is a conspicuous, tricky and often humbling job—though still preferable over October golf.