Don Mattingly, Clayton Kershaw, Pedro Baez, and the Seventh Inning

Look, I don’t really want to talk about last night. I prefer writing about happy things. You probably don’t want to read about last night, either, because reliving a nightmare is not fun. But, at a certain point, it has to be done, especially while it’s fresh in everybody’s minds. Let’s talk about that seventh inning.

Clayton Kershaw finished the sixth inning on just five pitches. He had allowed one run to that point, striking out 11 (!) batters against one walk. He was Clayton Kershaw. He had made only 88 pitches at that point, and 64 of those were strikes. He was on cruise control, dealing, keeping the Mets guessing, whatever superlative you want to use.

However, Kershaw quickly issued a five pitch walk to Lucas Duda to lead off that fateful seventh. Kershaw then quickly induced a groundout by Michael Cuddyer, but it was hit too softly to turn a double play. That was the first turning point. The second turning point was when Kershaw allowed a walk to the light-hitting Ruben Tejada after an eight pitch battle.

Kershaw was left in to face Jacob deGrom, who sacrifice bunted the runners over to second and third. With two outs in the inning, it was completely feasible that Kershaw could have gotten out of it. Curtis Granderson was batting. Granderson has massive platoon splits. This season he had a 61 wRC+ against LHP and a 151 wRC+ against RHP. His career splits are a bit smaller but still not great – 87 and 130 wRC+ respectively. There was hope, until that hope got yet another free pass to first base.

After throwing 64/88 strikes in six innings, Kershaw had only thrown 11/25 in the seventh. Two very easy outs had been allowed to reach base for free. It was the first time Kershaw had walked three batters in an inning in over two years. David Wright, a much better hitter than any of the batters he walked, was due up. Kershaw had no control, was tired, and was facing the platoon disadvantage and was on his fourth trip through the order. Don Mattingly pulled him. The timing was controversial:

Three people I respect a lot, and three completely different opinions of the timing. Playoff baseball!

For what it’s worth, to me it seemed like the right time to get Kershaw out of there. Leaving Kershaw in until after he falters leads to situations like Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams. If a pitcher looks tired or ineffective, you have to take your chances elsewhere.

Of course, you have to replace Kershaw with somebody, and that’s the other half of this controversy. The bases were loaded with two outs in the seventh inning, down by one. A loss roughly cuts the odds of making it out of this series in half. The right answer here was probably Kenley Jansen (who, of course, did not pitch last night). The game was in the balance, the odds of an actual save situation ever happening were slim, and Jansen was the best pitcher available with things on the brink. A manager creative enough to put in Jansen probably does not exist in baseball today, which is a huge disappointment.

If “closers close” or whatever, it’s worth looking at the other choices:

With David Wright batting right-handed, eliminating the first three options is probably the right call. One of the primary reasons for taking Kershaw out was to gain the platoon advantage, so a right-handed pitcher was needed. Peralta just barely scraped onto the roster (a decision which I did not agree with), leaving Garcia, Baez, and Hatcher.

Yimi Garcia has been outstanding since he was recalled from the minor leagues, though his strikeouts have gone down significantly. Still, his control has been excellent, so the Dodgers could have at least counted on him to not walk in a run. Garcia walked a batter on the very last game of the season, but had not walked one in his previous 33 outings, a span of 33-2/3 innings. However, Garcia’s fly ball profile and the resulting weakness to the home run, which would have put a dagger in the Dodgers’ game 1 hopes, makes the decision to not pitch him understandable.

That leaves Baez and Hatcher. Here was Mattingly on the decision:

Having a power pitcher face David Wright was not a terrible idea. Wright missed most of this season with a back issue, so his swing could presumably be a bit slower than it was previously. Via Baseball Savant, here is how Wright has fared on pitches 95mph+ since his return:

WrightFastballs

5 whiffs in 68 pitches is not a particularly high percentage for fastballs that hard, but neither is 8 balls in play and two hits (one double and one single). When you’re up against somebody as good as Wright, that’s as good of a scouting report you’re going to get as any.

Of course, both Baez and Hatcher throw that hard. I like Baez more than most, even going so far as to say he was breaking out back in August. Since that post, he’s been an absolute disaster. He still has great strikeout and walk numbers, but his command within the strike zone has been poor, and as a result he gets hit really hard. I don’t really buy into the “not clutch” reputation that Baez has being predictive of the future (remember, going into last year’s postseason, he was considered to be very clutch), but his overall profile has some serious issues.

The same could have been said for Chris Hatcher in April, but since his return he’s been excellent. Powered by a new pitch, better command, and willingness to throw fewer straight fastballs, he’s clearly a better pitcher than Baez right now. He also fits the “power pitcher” bill that Mattingly was looking for. With the game in the balance, why not put him in?

This is inexcusable. The quote implies that Mattingly knows that Hatcher is a better pitcher. Also, double switches exist. That’s what Don Mattingly does, he double switches. Three platoon outfielders in the game and he can’t pull the trigger on getting one of them out to allow Hatcher to pitch another inning? Andre Ethier made the last out of the sixth inning, so put Yasiel Puig or Justin Ruggiano in right field. It’s not difficult!

Fuck.

If Pedro Baez executes better, doesn’t fall behind in the count, and maybe throws a breaking ball, we’re not talking about this right now. Baez is worse than Hatcher, but he still gets batters out more times than he does not. If David Wright hits that ball two feet further to the right, Howie Kendrick probably catches the ball, and we’re not talking about this right now. Maybe if Don Mattingly called upon a better pitcher, we’re not talking about this right now. Of course, the Dodgers could have also gotten out of that inning unscathed and still lost. So many hypotheticals, but here we are.

The Dodgers are down 1-0, but not out. Last year, Zack Greinke temporarily saved the Dodgers’ season with one of the best starts of his amazing career. The Dodgers need a similar performance tonight, or the taste of losing another Kershaw-started game 1 will linger for a long time.

About Daniel Brim

Daniel Brim
Daniel Brim grew up in the Los Angeles area but doesn't live there anymore. He still watches the Dodgers and writes about them sometimes.