The Dodgers are in the World Series for the third time in four years, and it’s starting to look like that’s as sure a sign of fall in Los Angeles as the leaves on the trees remaining green. MLB’s condensed version of a baseball season this year didn’t result in a final showdown between the two teams that were arguably the best of the era. The tarnished Houston Astros stumbled at the threshold last week, losing to the anonymous and algorithmically sound Tampa Bay Rays. With several of Houston’s core players leaving next year, this was probably that team’s last hurrah. The argument appears to be over; this version of the Dodgers may be one for the ages. But hanging over the team’s, Manager Dave Roberts’ and pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s heads is the fact that they haven’t won a World Series.
Manager Roberts and his Tampa Bay counterpart, Kevin Cash, are leading examples of a trend in major league managing that famously began with general manager Billy Beane in Oakland. Baseball has always been in love with statistics. Inspired by writer Bill James, Beane and his mentor, Sandy Alderson, started crunching numbers a different way and discovered having the winner may not depend on having the most money. Having a few players with specialized and complimentary skills could be as effective as having one big player if they were used at maximum efficiency. And it could be a lot less expensive.
It was the sixth inning of game seven of the ALCS and veteran Charlie Morton was pitching a beautiful game. The Rays were ahead 3-0 when he gave up his second hit and a walk in the fifth inning. When Cash walked out to pull him for a reliever, I immediately thought of former Angel pitcher John Lackey. It was going to be easy to lip read the expletive-laced objections aimed at his manager over being sent to the showers in the middle of pitching a gem.
Nothing of the sort happened. Morton knew that this decision, like several others by Cash, had already been made before the game by the front office and eminently knowledgeable computers. For Morton, outrage would have been as fruitless and absurd as arguing with an automated robo-umpire.
Roberts has insisted, and continues to, that he makes out the lineup card for the Dodgers. But questions persist about the influence of the flow of information being fed to him by people being paid by the organization to have an impact. Accepting full responsibility for failures becomes complicated for Roberts. He is second-guessed mercilessly by critics who question his “gut instincts”, especially when handling his ace Clayton Kershaw during the postseason.
The Rays have a very low payroll, ranking 27th out of 30 teams. By contrast, the Dodgers are certainly not afraid to spend money, and do so wisely. The no-name Rays have the player with the most mellifluous name in baseball, Randy Arozarena, while the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw seeks to neutralize his reputation as a postseason choker. The organizations and managers may have similar approaches, but whether or not the outcome finally relies on the soundness of Cash and Tampa Bay’s formulas or the effectiveness of Roberts’ selective use of instinct remains to be seen.
Jerry Howard’s “Baseball Notes” appear on Fridays during the baseball season. And postseason.