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October 14, 2016 / Nat Anacostia

Notes on the 2016 NLDS

In their third NLDS appearance in the last five years, the Nats lost again, giving up the lead in the seventh inning as the bullpen collapsed. I don’t feel as crushed as I did in 2012—the lead was only one run, and when you’ve watched Max Scherzer pitch for two seasons, you’re always half expecting the solo home run to happen. Simply as a baseball game, this was a great one, and in fact the whole series has been pretty great. It’s kind of sad that this will be remembered as the game of Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, and Joc Pederson, when really Scherzer, Mark Melancon, and Chris Heisey were just as good. But there were too many instances where the Nats were unable to deliver, so it’s Los Angeles that’s going on to face the Cubs.

Here are a few miscellaneous comments about the series.

The Nationals played well—well enough to have won the series. Over the series, the Nats outscored the Dodgers 24 to 19, had a .716 OPS compared with the Dodgers .696, and their pitchers had a 1.25 WHIP compared to 1.45 for the Dodgers. The Dodgers took all three victories in one-run games.

Even though I’m going to talk about some of Dusty Baker‘s decisions, Baker didn’t lose the series. I can’t think of any of his decisions that were obviously wrong, though several may have been debatable. By and large, though, the outcome was about the players’ performance, and about taking gambles that worked and gambles that didn’t work.

It was a bit surprising when the Nats used their extra roster position (coming from only having to use four starting pitcher) for an extra position player rather than an extra bullpen arm. In retrospect, I think it’s pretty clear that Sean Burnett or Matt Belisle would have been more useful than Michael A. Taylor. The Dodgers had a deep bench, and the way to respond to a deep bench is with a deep bullpen.

The Dodgers didn’t win because their manager is a genius and Kershaw is a bulldog. They won because their lineup is deeper, with a deeper bench and bullpen. The Nats actually did pretty well against Kershaw all series – his ERA during the series was 5.86 and his WHIP was just 1.46. While Roberts bringing in Jansen with no outs in the seventh was a gutsy move, it also very easily could have backfired—Jansen had a 6.75 ERA and 1.69 WHIP during the series, and one more hit in either the seventh or ninth inning could have turned Jansen, and Roberts, into goats rather than heroes. But while it almost didn’t work, it did work and Kershaw, Jansen, and Roberts will be remembered for the move.

As everyone has said, the Jayson Werth send by Bob Henley at the end of the sixth inning was just awful — Werth was out by about 40 feet. The worst thing about the play is how out of position Henley was — instead of coming up the line toward home so he could send Werth back if he saw the throw beating him, he was way past third base toward the outfield. It’s past time for the Nats to part ways with “Bob Sendley.” While it’s not likely that this misplay cost the Nats the game (Urias was pitching well and Espinosa was one deck), it did seem like a momentum changer.

In terms of Baker’s decisions that are worth discussing, here are my takes:

  • There were relatively few questionable decisions in the first four games. In game 4, I probably would have pulled Blake Treinen in the bottom of the eighth just before Utley got the game-winning single, just because Treinen hadn’t looked sharp. But I doubt that bringing in Sammy Solis then would have gotten them the platoon advantage—at least in the next game in a similar situation, the Dodgers sent in Ruiz to pinch hit for Utley when Baker replaced Treinen with Solis.
  • In game 5, the most controversy has been about pulling Scherzer after he gave up the home run to Pederson leading off the ninth. Dave Cameron at Fangraphs makes the argument that this was the right move to make, analytically, based on the fact that Scherzer would have been facing a number of left handers for the third time if he had stayed in the games. I agree—at the time I thought Baker was making the right move, and even though it didn’t work out as planned, I can’t fault Dusty.
  • I do question Baker bringing in Marc Rzepczynski as the first replacement for Scherzer (independent of the fact that Rzepcynski would then walk Grandal on four pitches). We know that with a left-handed Nats reliever, the Dodgers were going to use their right-handed bench players for the bottom of the lineup, so Rzepczynski was probably going to face only a single batter. I’d have saved him for someone other than Grandal, and would have brought on Treinen immediately.
  • If pulled about three more inches toward the line, Ruiz’s go-ahead single easily could have been an inning-ending double play, and the game would have had an entirely narrative. I assume that Shawn Kelley was already experiencing discomfort when he gave up the triple to Turner. Kelley is normally exactly the pitcher we wanted to have in there in that situation.
  • In the bottom of the seventh, after Clint Robinson singled (following Heisey’s home run) it seems weird that Baker waited until Trea Turner‘s plate appearance was over before replacing Robinson with a pinch runner (and that the pinch runner was Joe Ross instead of Taylor). Several times this season I’ve seen Baker wait to send in a pinch runner, and I’ve always wondered about it.
  • In the eighth, asking Danny Espinosa to bunt after Stephen Drew reached seemed like a questionable call, especially since Pedro Severino and Taylor were the next two batters. I’m sure Espinosa was hoping to bunt for a hit, but with the second baseman in at double play depth, it didn’t seem like a good risk.

I wound up watching the games on television. (I had planned to go to game 2, and was only about a mile from the stadium when I heard the game was postponed. I had a conflict on Sunday, though, so I wound up selling my tickets to that game.) I thought the broadcasters on Fox Sports were actually pretty good. Tom Verducci always had something interesting to say, and while Harold Reynolds can be obnoxious at times, he’s also a keen observer of the games. All in all, I felt like I was learning from them, which is what I’m looking for from an analyst. On the other hand, the broadcast of game 2 on MLB network with Bob Costas and Jim Kaat was just awful… all reminiscing about players from 20, 30, or 50 years ago. I’ve seen the networks really vary with their broadcast teams, but the Fox Sports team was really quite good.

I have to end with a comment about the length of the games. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed the games, and all four hours and 32 minutes of Game 5 was pretty wonderful. But baseball really isn’t going to be able to grow its fan base if it asks its fans to stay up past midnight to watch its yearly playoff series. Maybe that would work if they were all scheduled on weekends, but they’ve got to figure out a way to cut back the length of postseason games. Four hours for a 9-inning game just isn’t going to work.


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