In defense of Dave Roberts, the Dodgers manager played his cards right in pulling Pedro Baez in a bind vs. Boston. Eduardo Nunez and the Rox Sox simply called his bluff, blowing Game 1 out of reach to take a 1-0 World Series lead. 

By Ben Reiter
October 24, 2018

BOSTON — Many Dodgers fans will tell you that Game 1 of this World Series provided another entry onto the list of history’s great counterfactuals.

What if Germany had won World War II?
 
What if Oswald’s bullet had missed?
 
What if Dave Roberts hadn’t yanked Pedro Baez with two outs in the bottom of the seventh?
 
Baez, who had entered the inning with no outs and a man on second, had looked dominant, striking out Mitch Moreland and Xander Bogaerts with a pair of high, 97-mph fastballs, with an intentional walk to J.D. Martinez in between. But with the lefthanded-hitting Rafael Devers due up, Roberts—the Dodgers’ third-year skipper, who is regularly accused of being overly reliant on analytics to determine his pitching matchups—pulled him in favor of the southpaw Alex Wood.

Alex Cora, the Red Sox manager, countered with righthanded pinch-hitter Eduardo Nunez. Nunez drove Wood’s second pitch, a curveball that was down and in, over the Green Monster for a three-run homer. And Roberts bore the blame—at least within the Dodgers’ active Twittersphere—for his club’s 8-4 loss

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But should he have? “Whether they were going to hit Devers with the lead or go to the bench, I still liked Alex in that spot,” Roberts said. There was good reason for it. Devers, the 22-year-old third baseman, is one of the Red Sox’ hottest hitters. Thanks to his single in the bottom of the fifth, he has now driven in at least one run in each of his eight starts this postseason, and 18 of his 21 home runs during the regular season came against righties. Nunez, meanwhile, had just three hits in 16 at-bats this October; he fares worse against lefties (.641 OPS, two home runs during the regular season) than righties (.691 OPS, eight homers); and, according to the stats service Inside Edge, he’d hit a single home run off a relief pitcher all season long, in 204 at-bats.
 
It was, in other words, a defensible move. It just didn’t work out—in spectacular fashion—making it easy to imagine a scenario in which Baez blew Nunez away with another 97-mph heater, as opposed to a reality in which it appeared to many as if Roberts had again overmanaged the Dodgers out of another World Series game, something he has been accused of doing last year against the Astros.
 
The problem with counterfactuals is that they are impossible to prove or disprove. A particular problem with this one: Nunez’s home run almost certainly didn’t cost the Dodgers the game. While it accounted for the Red Sox’ final three runs, they had already scored the five they would prove to require. And they scored all of them against Roberts’s starter, Clayton Kershaw.

If he had his druthers, Roberts would rather not be forced to play matchup-ball at all. Before the series, he’d expressed a certainty that he wouldn’t have to, thanks to the quality of his four starters, most of all Kershaw. “To have four guys that you’re going to run out there that you feel confident that can give you ‘X’ amount of outs and shorten a game, I think that’s a lot more comforting than to kind of [plan to] get six to nine outs and then try to patch things together,” he had said.
 
But the great Kershaw failed to provide that comfort. On a chilly night in Boston, he couldn’t command his fastball, or regularly throw it harder than 91 miles an hour. His slider had little bite. The Red Sox teed off on him: seven hits and three walks in just four-plus innings of work.
 
Kershaw forced Roberts’s hand, but the manager likely had no good hands left to play. There’s a reason why the Red Sox were the league’s highest-scoring offense, and the winners of 108 regular season games and of seven of eight over the playoffs’ first two rounds: they are deep, and they are relentless, and they often snip off every string a skipper might be able to pull—whether he relies on analytics, or on his gut, or on an ideal balance between the two.
 
That, really, is what happened on Tuesday night in Boston. You shouldn’t blame Dave Roberts for the Dodgers’ loss. You shouldn’t even blame Clayton Kershaw.
 
You should blame the Red Sox.

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