“It can’t get any closer after two games, right?” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell after Game 2 of the NLCS. “It’s been two hard-fought games, two one-run games, tying run on base in scoring position to finish each game. So they’ve been about as close as they can be. We’re looking forward to the next chapter.”
Counsell’s right. The NLCS so far has been extremely tense, with Miller Park’s atmosphere lurching wildly from raucous joy to silent anxiety with every bounce of the ball. More than that, the first two games have been weird. Baseball is known for its inveterate unpredictability—for instance, Brewers pitchers are 3-for-4 with a home run and a double—but both Counsell and his counterpart, Dave Roberts, are managing as hard as they possibly can, with mixed results.
Every playoff series has a couple of watershed managerial decisions—a starting pitcher comes in to stamp out a rally on short rest, a pinch hitter comes through in a big moment—but both Counsell and Roberts are getting a moment like that every couple of innings. And through two games, it’s not clear if either manager’s giving his team an edge.
In last season’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament, UConn beat St. Francis 140-52, the second-most lopsided game in the history of March Madness. Anytime UConn trucks an inferior opponent like that, we get concerned discussion and think pieces about the state of competitive balance in women’s basketball and whether UConn’s superiority undermines the legitimacy of the sport. So that night, Louisville head coach Jeff Walz was asked about the game. Walz knows a thing or two about getting blown out by UConn. Five years prior, his Cardinals suffered the most lopsided loss ever in an NCAA tournament final. But rather than speak in generalities about UConn, Walz addressed St. Francis’s game plan directly.
The gist of Walz’s answer is that St. Francis lost by 88 because it played to win. St. Francis could’ve slowed down the game in an attempt to keep the score close, but instead they took 81 shots in 40 minutes, including 57 3-pointers. Playing UConn straight-up meant near-certain defeat, but playing fast and chucking 3-pointers meant that if everyone on the team had a career night, St. Francis’s chances of winning would’ve gone from none to slim. The downside was that if the team didn’t shoot the lights out—or even if they did—the game would still have enough possessions for UConn to score 140 points.
Walz then told the story from his national championship game loss to UConn. Down 16 at halftime, he gave his Louisville team a choice: slow the game down and try to limit the damage, or play a strategy that gave them a slim chance of winning but also carried the risk of their deficit ballooning to embarrassing levels. His players chose option no. 2 and ended up losing by 33.
This is what’s known as a high-variance strategy, and it’s a hallmark of smart underdogs throughout sports. Play a stronger opponent straight-up and you’ll lose; the best way to beat that stronger opponent is to play in such a way that increases the chances that something weird will happen. The best example in the current sporting landscape is the Houston Rockets, a team built to play fast and take a ton of 3-pointers in an attempt to outscore the Warriors.
In other sports, this frequently means controlling the flow or tempo of the game, either slowing it down to limit the number of total possessions or ratcheting it up to cause defensive mistakes. Either way, the point behind systems from the Seven Seconds or Less offense of the Phoenix Suns to service academy football teams running the triple option to the mid-’90s New Jersey Devils’ neutral zone trap is to alter the state of the game to the point where the favored team plays outside its comfort zone.
The Brewers, despite being the higher seed, are the underdog in the NLCS. Not just in the sense that they’re a smaller-market team making its first trip to the playoffs in seven years, while the Dodgers have won six straight division titles, but they also entered the series as significant betting underdogs. The ZiPS projection system at FanGraphs had Milwaukee as more than a 2-to-1 underdog.
On a strategic level, baseball has long embraced nonconformity and high-variance techniques in team-building. That’s the original point of Moneyball: “If we try to play like the Yankees in here, we will lose to the Yankees out there.” The problem for Counsell is that baseball’s gameplay is more rigid than other sports—there’s no equivalent to limiting possessions or running the wishbone. The Dodgers have somewhere between three and six starting pitchers (depending on how good you think Jhoulys Chacín is vs. Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, and Alex Wood) who are better than anyone Milwaukee can respond with, and there’s just no way to game plan around that.
Instead, Counsell has tried to cobble together an ace or two out of an army of elite relievers and white-knuckle his way through the other innings, aiming to steal the odd game behind Chacín and having Wade Miley junkball his way into 5 2/3 innings of weak contact and sawn-off bats, as he did in Game 2. Over a 162-game season, Counsell’s pitchers would burn out quickly, but not after September 1, from which point he used every inch of his expanded roster and finished 20-6. And not, the hope is, in October, which is a sprint to the finish with an off day following every two or three games, rather than once every six.
What’s interesting about Counsell’s pitching tactics is that they constitute a tacit acknowledgement of his team’s deficiencies. Even if he’d never put it this way in a million years, Counsell is finding a creative way to work around a hole in his roster, and, unlike the bullpen-heavy 2016 Cleveland Indians, who were covering for injuries to Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar, the best version of the Brewers doesn’t have enough starting pitching. Counsell’s self-awareness and pragmatism are refreshing in a sporting culture that valorizes standing toe-to-toe and slugging it out.
In Game 1, those tactics worked well, as starter Gio González lasted just two innings and gave up one run before Brandon Woodruff and Josh Hader followed him with five scoreless innings. Oh, and Woodruff also hit a home run.
But in the last two innings, the rest of Milwaukee’s bullpen—including relief aces Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress—nearly coughed up the game in a 6-5 win. Then in Game 2, most of those same relievers wasted what was probably the best start of Miley’s career by coughing up a two-run lead en route to a 4-3 loss. Jeffress walked in one run in the seventh and gave up the eventual game-winning home run to Justin Turner in the eighth. If Milwaukee’s bullpen had pitched as well as it did in the NLDS, the Brewers would be up 2-0, but as it stands, they very nearly went 0-2.
For all his reliever shenanigans, Counsell’s managing the Brewers’ position players in a straightforward manner. He’s double-switching a lot because he’s using so many different pitchers, but Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw summed it up well the day before Game 1.
“I think the outfield is obviously set. [Erik] Kratz looks like he’s swinging the bat well and probably will catch, and then it’s really just a matter of three infielders for two positions,” Kershaw said, referring to the middle infield pool of Travis Shaw, Hernán Pérez, and Orlando Arcia. “So it’s not that hard to figure out what they’re going to do.”
Roberts, however, enters every game planning to use at least 11 of the 13 position players on his roster. He’s not trying to throw off his opponent or alter the game so much as he’s trying to match particular players with specific situations: David Freese and Matt Kemp kill lefties but struggle against righties, Cody Bellinger is a better defensive center fielder than Chris Taylor, and so on. Roberts’s mass substitutions are so routine now he said after Game 2 that people had started calling them a “line change.” The only players who play every situation at the same position are Turner at third base and Manny Machado at shortstop.
“I think everyone wants to be there every game all game long, and that just speaks to the depth that our team has,” Turner said after Game 2. “I’m glad I get the opportunity to be out there every day … whether it’s a righty or a lefty. But we have a roster full of guys that are more than capable of doing that. It’s just kind of a blessing and a curse that we have that we have so much depth and we can mix and match.”
Turner’s exactly right. Roberts matching players with matchups has been both a blessing and a curse. The manager’s tactics have allowed Kemp to contribute with his bat while taking his disastrous glove off the field in crunch time. It’s also shielded Joc Pederson from left-handed pitching, to an extent. Pederson, whose platoon split was 381 points of OPS this year, has reached both times he’s faced right-handed pitchers, though Counsell has targeted him with lefty specialist Xavier Cedeño, leading to a groundout and a seeing-eye single against the shift.
However, the tinkering has also kept Max Muncy on the bench far too often. Muncy led the Dodgers in home runs and SLG, and was second in OBP (minimum 200 PA) during the regular season, and he’s come off the bench in both games of the NLCS. That’s not enough. Muncy’s reached base three times in five plate appearances, while Freese is 0-for-3. Muncy’s been on the bench for nine innings, in which the Brewers have outscored the Dodgers 5-1, and he’s been in the lineup for eight and a half innings, in which the Dodgers have outscored the Brewers 8-4. That’s nitpicking with small samples, but the larger track record also shows that Muncy should be an every-inning player.
Roberts is playing Freese and Muncy in a straight platoon because Freese hits lefties better than righties and Muncy hits righties better than lefties, but this season, Muncy hit lefties better than Freese did. Playing Freese over Muncy is chasing a margin that doesn’t exist.
Roberts almost paid for his overactive managing style in a huge way in Game 2. He used Yasmani Grandal, his backup catcher, to pinch hit in the seventh inning, which left him down a run, with two innings to play, and no position players left on his bench. Not only that, he also ran out of relief pitchers. When the game ended, the only unused Dodgers were starters Kershaw, Walker Buehler, and Rich Hill, in addition to Julio Urías, who is coming off shoulder surgery and pitched ineffectively in Game 1, and doesn’t pitch on consecutive days. (Why the Dodgers went into this series planning to substitute so much so early and carried only 13 position players is itself a mystery.)
If the Brewers had sent Game 2 to extra innings, Jansen, a converted catcher, probably would’ve hit for himself to lead off the top of the 10th. The Dodgers would’ve had nobody left on the bench in case of injury, and their situationally specific lineup would’ve been stuck in one form for the rest of the game. Turner’s eighth-inning home run off Jeffress was the only thing standing between the Dodgers and being overmanaged into an 0-2 series deficit.
So far, all the strange bounces and weird decisions have played out evenly, and either team could be up 2-0 with better performances from key players: In addition to Jeffress and Corbin Burnes coughing up Game 2, Christian Yelich is quietly just 1-for-8 through two games, and as much as has been said about Kershaw’s performance in Game 1, the less said about Grandal’s the better. But Roberts is getting the matchups he wants, and Counsell is getting the tilted pinball table he wants. At some point, one or the other is going to have its desired effect.