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The nuances of the Yankees’ and Dodgers’ opener strategies

Dave Roberts copied Aaron Boone’s Game Two bullpen kerfuffle for no good reason.

World Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Dodgers did a questionable thing on Wednesday. With a 1-0 lead in the World Series, they decided to turn to the pen for Game Two, opting not to hand the ball to arguably their best pitcher, Walker Buehler, albeit on short rest. After hanging on to a 1-0 deficit through three innings, the dam broke behind rookie Dustin May, allowing three more runs across an inning and a third. The Dodgers ended up scoring in the contest’s latter half, but lost the game 6-4. Of course, May wasn’t solely responsible for the Dodgers’ loss, but the five runs given up by the bullpen through the first five innings of the game was simply not good enough to put the Dodgers in position to win Game Two.

With a 1-0 lead over the Rays in Game Two of the ALDS, Aaron Boone made a nearly identical decision. Without tapping Masahiro Tanaka, their presumptive number two, Boone decided to start the right-handed Deivi García to induce Kevin Cash to start a lefty-heavy lineup, and then “bulk” with his lefty veteran, J.A. Happ. It didn’t work, as García gave up a first inning homer before Happ surrendered two-run homers in each of the second and third innings, providing the Rays with a cushion large enough to survive a late-inning Yankees rally.

When Boone decided to bait-and-switch García with Happ in order to, in his words, “negate the [Rays’] platoon advantage,” I defended his decision even after the loss. I argued that the Yankees had one great starter, Gerrit Cole, and a good one, Tanaka, followed by a handful of inexperienced or under-qualified arms, so doing anything you can to leverage a second win out of that latter group would be in the team’s best interest in a five-game series with two Cole games. Further, Boone anticipated riding the Yankees’ withering bullpen harder in Games Two and Four with a day of rest in-between, hoping Tanaka could turn in another playoff gem.

As it turned out, despite Tanaka’s poor postseason, the Yankees were able to win one with Jordan Montgomery on the mound, which should have been enough for a series victory. Had Tanaka been able to throw as well he had in postseasons past, or if the offense had shown up with Cole on the mound in Game Five, the Yankees would have had a chance at exacting vengeance upon the Houston Astros* for their near World Series misses in 2017 and ’19. Alas, counterfactuals aside, the Yankees’ downfall had much more to do with their limited pitching options, in the rotation and the pen, than Boone’s frankly savvy move to hold Masahiro Tanaka for Game Three. The malleable Rays’ lineup’s platoon advantage, limited bullpen rest during a condensed playoff schedule, and their front-loaded bullpen and starting corps made Boone’s innovative move defensible.

When Dave Roberts bumped back Buehler’s start and went with the pen in Game Two, he over-managed himself into an unnecessary loss, fading an opportunity to go up two wins to none in the World Series. The most significant similarity between the two managers’ Game Two decisions is the extra day (or two) the pitching swap afforded the bullpens. For the Yankees, that extra day, with Boone handing Game Three to innings-eaters after Tanaka crumbled, was essential to winning Game Four, as Chad Green, Zack Britton, and Aroldis Chapman combined for five scoreless innings in the Yankees’ 4-1 victory.

The Dodgers however, could have expected at least five solid innings out of Walker Buehler, as he’s made it at least that far in his last two starts while allowing just a single run. In all likelihood, the Dodgers wouldn’t have needed much from their pen (third-best in fWAR in the regular season) to keep the Rays in check afterwards. Further, Buehler didn’t necessarily need an extra day of rest, as he hadn’t pitched since Game Six of the NLCS, on October 17, when he went six innings, but only threw 89 pitches. With three days rest, the same as Cole got between Games One and Five of the ALDS, Buehler should have been able to go in Game Two, having only pitched 19 total innings over his past four starts. Additionally, throwing him in Game Two would allow for a full five-day rest before throwing again in Game Six of the World Series. If there’s ever a time to empty the clip, it’s in the World Series.

When Boone went to the García-Happ, opener-bulk, bait-and-switch, he was attempting to work around the Yankees’ perennial weakness, starting pitching depth. The Yankees, in these playoffs, only had one available great starting pitcher in Gerrit Cole. They rode him as hard as they could, but even that wasn’t enough. The bait-and-switch move wasn’t an example of the Yankees pulling any punches, just reordering them so that they had the best opportunity to hit their target.

The Dodgers should have leaned into the strength of their top three starters rather than trying to be cute and steal a Game Two win with a fully rested Buehler in Game Three. Had Buehler gone in Game Two, Julio Urías, who’s been sensational these playoffs, allowing just one run in 16 innings, would have had ample rest to start (or bulk) Game Three after closing out Game Seven of the NLCS with four scoreless innings. Further, rookies Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May, who had excellent regular seasons as starting pitchers, have pitched worse in opener/relief roles during the playoffs. Though it doesn’t entirely excuse their lackluster performances, Roberts’ lack of faith in either guy as a starter, and their unfamiliarity with relieving roles, could have contributed to undermining their confidence when they did enter the game, setting them up to fail.

Even the Rays, who won the American League pennant with a democratic approach, deploying a variety of matchup-dependent lineups and a bevy of relief options, have relied on the same top three starters every single round (Glasnow, Snell, Morton). Instead of trying to onside kick their way into a cheeky Game Two victory, Roberts should have trusted his defensive ace, Walker Buehler, to limit the Rays’ offensive production enough to earn a victory just as he has all postseason.

If Roberts had tried to win Game Two as opposed to not losing it, the Dodgers might have been sitting pretty up 2-0 on their way to their first World Series championship in 32 years. Though Buehler was able to carry his team to a necessary win in Game Three, Roberts’ rotation re-ordering made things harder than they had to be.