October. That time of year when couch managers criticize every waking moment of a manager’s job. This isn’t something unique to baseball, it’s legitimately fun to imagine yourself as being in charge of a professional team and pretending you could do a better job than them, but there’s one issue with that: you can’t. Managing is hard and there are a multitude of reasons these guys stay employed by organizations long after making questionable in-game decisions that we won’t speak to in this article. The reason we are here: Julio Urias gave up a Dodgers 4-2 lead in the bottom of the 8th inning of game two vs the Braves on Sunday night, the same Julio Urias who pitched four innings on Thursday and the same Urias who is scheduled to start game four on Wednesday. The decision to go to Urias was much maligned on the internet, but I think this is simply a case of judging results rather than the process.
The State of Urias
As previously mentioned, Urias threw 59 pitches this past Thursday in four innings of relief in game five of the NLDS against the Giants. Typically, three days after a start (or a long relief appearance in this case) a pitcher will have a bullpen where they throw 25-30(ish) pitches at or almost-at max effort to prepare for their next start, a day that we have seen managers exploit in the playoffs in recent years (looking at you Davey Martinez) in order to get their best pitchers in games as much as possible. With an off day scheduled for the day after this game and NL Cy Young candidate walker Buehler scheduled to toe the rubber in game 3 on Tuesday, this was as good a game as any to get an inning out of another pitcher who will receive down-ballot Cy Young votes this season in Urias.
The State of the Bullpen
One would have to think that Max Scherzer of all people would be able to go more than five innings in a playoff start, but he was visibly gassed and missed several spots that cost him in this game. In a very un-Mad-Max fashion, Scherzer even alluded to the fact he was tired in the postgame presser and that he agreed it was time for Roberts to go to Alex Vesia to close out the 5th inning (which he did beautifully).
Two scoreless innings from Joe Kelly and Blake Treinen later brings us to the scenario in question: bottom of the 8th inning Dodgers up 4-2, with Eddie Rosario, Freddie Freeman, and Ozzie Ablies due up. Here are all available options at Roberts’s disposal at this moment (handedness in parentheses): (R) Phil Bickford, (L) Justin Bruihl, (R) Brusdar Graterol, (R) Kenley Jansen, (R) Corey Knebel, (R) Evan Phillips, and (L) Julio Urias. You’ll notice that’s only two lefties available after already having burned Vesia earlier, and the Braves had two lefties due up to begin the inning, albeit with the caveat that known lefty masher Ozzie Albies and scorching-hot Austin Riley were due next.
Bickford, Knebel, and Phillips are not in the high-leverage section of the bullpen, so it’s not likely any of them were considered to come in. Justin Bruihl also fits into this category, but a lefty reliever is more likely to appear in a high leverage spot that he doesn’t belong in solely due to the fact he’s a lefty, so I believe he was in the mix here since two lefty hitters started the inning. This leaves us our core four: Graterol, Jansen, Urias, and Bruihl.
Urias vs Bruihl
If Roberts was set on rolling out a lefty to take care of Rosario/Freeman, these were his only two options. No offense to Justin Bruihl who may carve out a nice career for himself, but a 24 year old career reliever with all of 18.2 innings of major league experience under his belt with a 5.30 K/9 and a 3.38 BB/9 is not exactly someone you trust to get you three outs in the bottom of the 8th in an NLCS game with a two run lead and the 1-2-3 spots in the order due up.
Urias vs Graterol
Graterol throws gas and is one of the most fun pitchers to watch in baseball. The problem with him is that he doesn’t miss many bats, which is surprising for someone who throws as hard as he does. He does a great job keeping the ball on the ground however, a 58.3 GB% is nothing to sneeze at, but one look at his sinker heatmap (a pitch he throws nearly 60% of the time) shows you why Roberts might be hesitant to let him face the middle of the Braves order:
Urias vs Jansen
Kenley Jansen is not the pitcher he used to be in the early 2010’s when he’d go out and basically tell everyone in the stadium he was going to absolutely dominate you with cutters almost 90% of the time. He sits more at 60% with his cutter and leans more heavily on a newfound sinker/slider combo with his remaining pitches to great effect. Generally, a cutter-heavy pitcher is not who you want facing lefties because you’re more likely to hang one that runs directly into the barrel of the hitter instead of away from a righty, but the introduction of the sinker (or two-seam, whichever you prefer) has made him much less vulnerable to this phenomenon by giving him a pitch to move away from lefty barrels if he doesn’t have the feel to run a cutter inside. The biggest issue here that I can tell that persuaded Roberts to avoid Jansen in this scenario was his propensity to not be as good in multi-inning outings.
Given this discrepancy and the platoon advantages mentioned earlier, it’s not unreasonable that Roberts decided Urias was the better option.
The Bottom of the 8th Inning
Obviously, the plan with any relief appearance is to get three straight outs, but the main reason Urias was in there was to get Rosario & Freeman out and then deal with Albies with no one on base. What ended up happening was a disaster, as Rosario singled, Freeman flew out to LF and advanced Rosario to second (as an aside, I don’t care that he was safe, that was a bad send), Albies singled which scored Rosario (on another aggressive send by Rangers legend Ron Washington), and then things really went south.
The real culprit here I think though is this pitch call by Will Smith:
A high and away fastball is a high risk/high reward proposition against Riley however, his wOBA on Contact this season against lefties was a .000 (you read that right), but if you leave it towards the middle or the inner third of the plate, he does damage.
The pitch ended middle up, and he did exactly what you’d expect a scorching hot Austin Riley to do with the pitch.
Personally, this is where I would have liked to see Kenley Jansen come in. Riley vs a lefty is not a great matchup even though he does have reverse platoon splits this season, and Jansen’s inside cutters make an uncomfortable AB for any hitter in baseball. Urias had already given up two singles vs one flyout to LF by this point, clearly not having the level of dominance you want with a bold move like that, and with the tying run at the plate who also happens to be the teams best hitter at the moment, I want my best reliever on the bump in that situation. I think Roberts got caught being too cute here looking forward to known lefty-slumper (or whatever the opposite of masher is) Joc Pederson on deck and tried to squeeze another out of Urias to get to that matchup. Just how it played out though, you have to get to the situation first before you can get the advantage, and by the time Urias got to him, the damage was done (he did end up striking out Pederson). 4-4 game going into the 9th.
Hindsight is 20-20 they say. It’s easy to judge managerial decisions based on results rather than the process. But what would we have said if Urias went out and got three straight outs? Did anyone criticize Joe Torre anytime Mariano Rivera would blow a save? No, because most of the time it will work out. This was obviously a riskier situation than bringing in the greatest closer of all time, but I believe it was a defensible decision. In the words of the great Dwight Schrute: “Not everything’s a lesson... Sometimes you just fail.”