Author: Jon Green
The Los Angeles Dodgers have the second-highest payroll, some of the best hitters, and one of the best rotations. Let’s dive into how did the Dodgers, a 106 win team, fell to the 88 win Atlanta Braves in six games of the National League Championship Series.
The Root Cause
The biggest question is what was the root of the cause of their failure to reach the World Series? They overanalyzed their pitching matchups. Having lost three dominant starters in Dustin May, Trevor Bauer, and Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers still had three CY Young candidates heading into the postseason in Walker Buehler, Max Scherzer, and Julio Urias. While that may only be three starters, they still had access to Tony Gonsolin, David Price, and other relievers capable of starting for a few innings. Before looking at what happened in the 2021 playoffs for the Dodgers, let’s look at the 2020 playoff run that led to their first World Series win since 1988.
High Hopes and Past Success
The starting rotation for the Dodgers in the 2020 World Series included Kershaw, Buehler, and Urias. Additionally, they had two bullpen games in which Gonsolin started for almost two innings and relievers carried the rest of the way. In fact, it was their second bullpen game of the series in which they clinched they took the crown. Having this bullpen game gave an extra day of rest for their starters.
In game six they had Urias close it out up two runs coming off only two days rest. However, Urias was not the scheduled starter for a possible game seven, so using Urias as a closer in game six was a smart move. It would be moves similar to this that would doom the Dodgers in their 2021 postseason run.
Trouble at the Turn: An Error in Strategy
In the National League Division Series the Dodgers forced a game five against the rival San Francisco Giants, a game where I thought, as well as everyone else, that Julio Urias would start. Instead, the analytics department came up with Corey Knebel opening the game and eventually putting Urias on in relief.
That was the first oddity. So, Urias would come on in the 3rd and go only four innings, giving up one run. Not bad, but it’s hard not to think he could have gone longer and spared some relievers if he had started the game like he had done all year, a year in which he had earned a league-leading 20 wins.
This would lead to Kenley Jansen, the closer being used in the 8th inning, and finally to the heavy misuse of Scherzer in the 9th, who was coming off only two days rest. While it seemed cool and logical at that time to have Scherzer close out an elimination game, it would only turn out to be a negative as they moved forward to the NLCS.
Using Scherzer as a closer forced the Dodgers to stop his scheduled game one start against the Braves. Instead, they rolled out with Knebel again, but it did not work as well as it did in game five. The Dodgers lost game one, then put an exhausted Sherzer on the mound in game two, a game in which they lost as well.
Short rest and messing with his pitching routine at a bad time could be and should be the primary blame. Scherzer’s arm would be so exhausted that he would not even be able to make a game six start with five days of rest. The start was given to Buehler who on three days of rest gave up four runs in four innings.
How the Braves Succeeded
Short rest, using starters as relievers and using relievers before starters were ideas that were spat out by the analytics department for the Dodgers. It would prove unwise, but even when they announced their plans, a cloud of doubt definitely filed my mind for what they were doing.
In comparison, the Braves had the more typical four days rest for each of their starters and had designated bullpen games where starters would not randomly appear in the middle of the game. The Braves did not try anything funky or unordinary. They did not try to think outside the box and they executed on both sides of the ball. This enabled them to win over the Dodgers, and deservingly so. They played smart, pitched well when it mattered, and hit in the clutch leading them to a World Series birth.
There was no reason to use Scherzer as a closer, no reason to use Urias as a reliever, no reason to push Buehler on three days rest. It all added up and ultimately cost the Dodgers. This mishandling of the best rotations should be a cautionary tale of how not to dispense your pitching in the playoffs. The analytics may tell-all and can help sort strategies and lineups, but for starting rotations come playoff time, it should be a little better than how the Dodgers used it.