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If This World Series Becomes a Battle of the Bullpens, the Dodgers May Be Out of Luck

In Game 2, the Rays showed that they’ve found a formula to win games in this series—and it’s one Dave Roberts and Co. could learn from 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kevin Cash didn’t win the World Series by bringing in Josh Fleming for mop-up duty in Game 1. But if the Rays do win their first title in franchise history next week, that move will be an important part of how they did it.

Fleming is a 24-year-old rookie out of Division III Webster University, an unassuming, bespectacled left-hander whose fastball—like the Soviet Union—made it into the 90s, but only barely. He pitched quite well in his first big league season, winning all five of his starts and allowing a 2.78 ERA in 32 1/3 innings. But his stuff and experience—or more precisely, his lack of both—make him suitable only for mop-up duty in a World Series against a lineup as potent as the Dodgers’.

But mop up he did. The Dodgers tagged Fleming for two runs in his first inning of work on Tuesday, but the game was all but lost when the rookie entered. A messy four-run fifth inning had put the Dodgers up 6-1 with four innings to go; the Rays scored five runs across an entire game just 26 times in the regular season and four times in 14 playoff games. FanGraphs gave Tampa Bay a mere 2.3 percent chance of coming back to win the game when Cash called on Fleming.

After that shaky first inning of work, though, Fleming settled down enough to get the Rays to within one out of the finish line. Tampa Bay lost Game 1 8-3, but the team escaped having used none of its top three right-handed relievers—Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks, and Nick Anderson—or lefty-killer Aaron Loup. All four pitched in Game 2, and all four were needed to bridge the gap from starter Blake Snell to the end of a series-tying victory.

In Game 2, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts started his own hirsute rookie, Tony Gonsolin, who’d posted a 2.31 ERA in the regular season but struggled in two NLCS starts against Atlanta. After just six batters, Gonsolin had already surrendered a run and had a runner on third, at which point Roberts came to get him. Despite the distress Gonsolin was in, his quick removal appeared to have been the plan all along, and Roberts used six relievers to get from one out in the second inning to the end of the game. Three of the first four relievers out of the pen—Víctor González, Dustin May, and Joe Kelly—allowed at least one run, and the Dodgers lost 6-4.

This is the first postseason series in baseball history that features both off days and 28-man rosters. The expanded rosters were a necessary stopgap during the regular season, a crutch with which to weather scheduling- and health-related externalities. And in the first three rounds, played straight through without rest, teams might have needed a baker’s dozen of pitchers just to navigate a series without risking unnecessary trips to the orthopedist.

But this World Series combines the surfeit of pitchers and the traditional two-three-two playoff schedule. Three years ago, the Dodgers needed 12 pitchers to get through a World Series that went seven games, two of which went to extra innings. This year, they’ve taken 15 pitchers into their matchup with the Rays.

Increased use of relief pitchers has been a trend throughout baseball history, and over the past five years, that trend has lit its booster rockets and taken off into outer space, particularly in the postseason. There is, therefore, the temptation to narrow the playoff rotation to the bare essentials—Cy Young finalists and guys who throw 100—and turn every other game into a bullpen game. The problem with that approach is that at some point, it requires a manager to hand the ball over to his 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-best pitchers in important situations. A generation ago, a team’s 12th-best pitcher would watch the World Series on TV. Now, he might decide it.

Of the six relievers the Dodgers used on Wednesday night, all but May had a regular-season gmLI (average leverage index when entering the game) below 1.00—in other words, they tend to be low-leverage relievers. But there isn’t really such a thing as a low-leverage situation in a close World Series game, even if it’s early. Yes, the Dodgers fell behind two batters into a game in which Snell took a no-hitter into the fifth, but they were within three runs almost the whole way. The Dodgers have made 10 pitching changes in two games, and somehow Alex Wood has pitched late in a close game, while Kenley Jansen, Brusdar Graterol, and Blake Treinen have pitched not at all. With such a potent offense, a three-run deficit is worth burning at least one key reliever, particularly with an off day coming. The Dodgers were able to keep things close on Wednesday without using Treinen, Graterol, or Jansen, but they were fortunate to do so.

So far, Cash is doing a better job than Roberts—and here, the managers’ names are metonyms for the front office analysts who advise Cash and Roberts on game planning—of getting his best pitchers into important situations, while avoiding overusing his big guns. But there are mitigating circumstances.

The Rays’ top four starters—Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton, and Ryan Yarbrough—are probably better than the Dodgers’ top four of Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, and Gonsolin. Tampa Bay’s bullpen is markedly better than Los Angeles’s, to the point that it’s not useful to compare the Anderson-Fairbanks-Castillo trio to their Dodger counterparts because it’s not clear who the Dodgers’ three best relievers even are. That makes life harder on Roberts for obvious reasons.

Then there’s the great reductor of managerial analysis: Whatever plan the front office and manager implement, however clever or foolhardy, is only as good as the players who execute it. In both games so far this series, the team whose starter pitched better and lasted longer won. It’s easy—and appropriate—to second-guess the Dodgers for starting Gonsolin and pulling him after an inning and change, but given how he’s looked not just on Wednesday but throughout the playoffs, would he have lasted twice through the order? If so, would the Dodgers have been down three runs after four innings anyway? Quite possibly.

Among the seven Dodgers pitchers used in Game 2, it was May—on paper, the best of the bunch—who got tagged for three runs, while Alex Wood, who’s pitched poorly and infrequently over the past two years, spun two scoreless innings to keep the Dodgers in the game. And it’s not like the Rays’ relievers have performed flawlessly, as both Fairbanks and Anderson surrendered home runs that kept Tampa Bay from putting the Dodgers to bed early.

But this World Series is an interesting contrast of styles. Not just because the Dodgers’ lineup is as imperious as the Rays’ pitching and defense, but because the Rays are pushing their starters fairly deep into games (by today’s standards) and finding opportunities for bulk relievers to take up the rest of the burden when possible. Meanwhile the Dodgers, the team in this series that has one of the best pitchers ever and did not invent the opener, are daisy-chaining middle relievers together and hoping they’ll hold.

The Dodgers are going to have Buehler, Urías, and Kershaw—their three strongest starters—in the middle leg of this series. If those pitchers can give Roberts some length, this problem goes away. But the more this series becomes about bullpen depth and picking the right pitcher for the right spot, the more the scales tip in the Rays’ favor. The Dodgers would likely win an orderly series, but the Rays are at their best in times of chaos.