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MLB

Will the Los Angeles Dodgers win the World Series this season?

Pulling Clayton Kershaw off of the mound after seven perfect innings brought the conflict within the baseball community into sharp focus: heart vs head.

Jeffrey May
Update:
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 12: Chris Taylor #3 of the Los Angeles Dodgers slides into third base after hitting a triple against the Minnesota Twins in the seventh inning of the game at Target Field on April 12, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.   David Berding/Getty Images/AFP
== FOR NEWSPAPERS, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY ==
David BerdingAFP

The Los Angeles Dodgers are a sensational team. They were touted as the best ever in 2020 and they improved in 2021. This season sees them field a lineup that is a veritable who’s who of generational talent. By every metric available, they should win the World Series, and win it comfortably. But they won’t.

The modern game has moved away from “gut feeling” and “ride or die” baseball toward a more stat-driven, clinical approach. Small ball is dead and hitters who get out 85% of their at-bats, but put up big home run numbers are the sought-after commodity in today’s MLB. Hall of Famers like Rod Carew and Rickey Henderson would struggle to find a spot in a modern lineup.

And this approach to baseball has migrated, and found its natural home, from the plate to the mound. “Bullpenning” is a strange term, one that has not perhaps caught on, but aptly describes the philosophy awash in the modern game. It is basically a management style that relies not on how the pitcher feels, but on counting pitches. There is no greater evangelist for bullpenning than Dave Roberts.

The proponents of this style of play argue that it is less traumatic on pitchers’ arms. However, the durability of Nolan Ryan, who often threw 200+ pitches and had a 27-year stellar career, and Roger Clemens, with 118 complete games in his 24 year career, would argue against that. Of course, these may be outliers rather than the rule, but the shift of the game toward shorter stints by starters and longer relief periods have made baseball more methodical and less… well, fun.

Over the past seventy years, it has been a rule of thumb by starting pitchers everywhere that their season goal going into spring training was to pitch 200 innings in a season. In 2001, just at the beginning of the Bill James-inspired recalibration of baseball management, there were 45 pitchers who hit or exceeded that mark and 90 who threw over 150 innings. Twenty years later, that has been reduced to 55 pitchers throwing over 150 innings and only four throwing 200 or more.

Walker Buehler was one of those four, with 207.2 innings pitched, so we know that Dave Roberts is not opposed to working his work-horse. And situational baseball cuts both ways, it isn’t always about riding a guy until he drops but also resting your pitcher while he is still feeling good. But in pulling Clayton Kershaw when he did, the way he did, Roberts perhaps displayed an inflexibility that will keep the Dodgers close, but out of the dance.

Roberts approached Kershaw in the sixth inning and asked how he felt and Kershaw replied that he could go at least another inning, feeling comfortable for 80-85 pitches. While other managers, given the historic situation, might approach the pitcher again after seven, or even give him the first batter of the eighth before yanking him, Roberts simply counted 80 pitches and sat Kershaw down.

In fairness to both men, it must be emphasised that Kershaw defended his manager’s decision post-game saying, “It’s a hard thing to do to have to come out of the game when you’re doing that. But we’re here to win and this was the right choice.”

“It’s a hard thing to do to have to come out of the game when you’re doing that. But we’re here to win and this was the right choice.”

Clayton Kershaw

Perhaps Kershaw didn’t protest the move, but the look on his face in the dugout told a different story. This is perhaps the closest he will ever come to immortality, at 34 years of age, this kind of opportunity is unlikely to come calling again.

The clinical approach taken by the Dodgers, standing their bullpen up against the rest of the league’s hitters, is effective. They have made the Fall Classic three times since 2017 and came away with one championship. Under Dave Roberts, the Dodgers are .622 in the regular season and .571 in the October.

But to get over the hump, to grab ahold of that brass ring, to be truly dominant, you need to have answers when questions are thrown at you. The Dodgers were asked questions by Atlanta last October and were found wanting. The flexibility to change tack, the creativity to try something else, is a quality that the Dodgers don’t seem to posses. And with only a 1-in-5 chance to get to the World Series by any team, it is the creative teams who will come away winning.

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