Much has been made of Terry Francona‘s bullpen use this postseason. His aggressive use of relievers, Andrew Miller in particular, has garnered him a considerable amount of praise from all corners. Phrases like “leverage index” have been evoked beyond just the confines of websites like this one. Francona has managed the postseason very differently from the regular season, and that approach has worked very well given the personnel with which he’s working. Francona has felt comfortable using Miller early in games to preserve leads and once even used him to maintain a tie. In the fourth inning of last night’s Game Five loss, however, Cleveland was presented with a high-leverage situation. Instead of turning to the bullpen, Francona chose to stick with his starter, Trevor Bauer. Bauer gave up three runs in what would ultimately be a 3-2 loss. Did Francona wait too long to make a move?
First, a bit of context. As noted, Bauer started the game for Cleveland — and, over the first three innings last night, was significantly better than he appeared in Game Two. In Bauer’s first World Series start, he recorded 71 pitches through three innings, labored to get outs, and struggled with the strike zone. After a walk, a double play, and a single, Bauer was out of the game, having thrown 87 pitches before completing four innings. Last night, Bauer completed his first three innings efficiently, requiring only 45 pitches against 10 batters, striking out five of them. When he headed out to pitch the fourth inning, Bauer had three very good innings under his belt.
The fourth inning didn’t go as well for Bauer, however. On the third pitch of the inning, he sent a sinker down the middle of the plate to Kris Bryant, and Bryant crushed it to tie the game. Nor was Bryant’s shot a wind-aided gift. Consider: of all batted balls this year which left the bat at 105 mph and with a 23-degree launch angle, 70% of them were home runs.
The sinker is a pitch that Bauer uses quite a bit, and it generates a lot of swings. When he leaves it in the middle of the plate, however, the pitch has caused problems, as this zone map depicting slugging percentage illustrates (from Brooks Baseball).
On at-bats against Trevor Bauer this year that ended with a sinker in the zone, hitters produced a collective .539 slugging percentage. As you can see, that figure is significantly lower for Bauer on sinkers to the outside corner to righties/inside corner to lefties. In other words, location is pretty essential for Bauer with this pitch. Bauer did leave a couple sinkers in the middle of the plate against the Cubs on Sunday, but he generally pitched on the corners of the plate in the first three innings, per Baseball Savant.
When Bauer approached the middle of the plate last night, it was generally with the curve and generally at a spot closer to the bottom of the zone. In the fourth inning, Bauer avoided the sinker almost altogether, using the four-seam as his principal fastball, as the pitch chart from Baseball Savant reveals.
Unfortunately, when Bauer missed in the fourth inning, he missed right in the middle of the plate. He had trouble finding the location that allowed him to thrive over the first three innings. The red dot in the middle of the above chart — the one just barely in the top half of the strike zone and slightly inside — was the sinker that Bryant hit for a home run. Bauer’s next pitch was a sinker, as well — this time at the very top of the strike zone — and Anthony Rizzo nailed it for a double. Bauer was a little lucky this pitch wasn’t a homer as well, as two-thirds of batted balls with the same exit velocity go for extra bases, and there were slightly more homers than doubles on the pitch.
Bauer then threw three straight balls to Ben Zobrist before the Cubs outfielder sent a line drive through the infield on a pitch right down the middle of the plate. With runners on first and third and nobody out, the Cubs tried to give up a run, bunting on an 0-1 count. Addison Russell‘s squeeze went foul and a swinging bunt on a curve scored Rizzo and put runners at first and second with nobody out.
It could be argued that Andrew Miller — or perhaps Cody Allen or Bryan Shaw — should have actually started the fourth inning, given both Bauer’s recent history and Francona’s clear willingness to use his bullpen. However, that would have been aggressive even by Francona’s standards. While Cleveland led 1-0 entering the fourth and while the heart of the Cubs lineup was coming up, the situation wasn’t a particularly high-leverage one when Bryant stepped to the plate. Even when Rizzo followed with the game tied, the leverage was nearly average. After Rizzo’s double, however, the leverage increased significantly. The table below shows the 10 highest-leverage moments of the game when the Cubs were batting.
|T Bauer||D Ross||4||1||123||3-1||David Ross hit a sacrifice fly to left (Fly). Ben Zobrist scored.||2.30||1.53||79.1%||0.012|
|T Bauer||A Russell||4||0||1_3||2-1||Addison Russell singled to third (Grounder). Anthony Rizzo scored. Ben Zobrist advanced to 2B.||1.81||1.81||77.2%||0.06|
|T Bauer||J Baez||4||1||12_||2-1||Javier Baez singled to third (Bunt Grounder). Ben Zobrist advanced to 3B. Addison Russell advanced to 2B.||1.77||0.88||77.9%||0.053|
|T Bauer||J Heyward||4||0||12_||2-1||Jason Heyward struck out swinging.||1.63||1.44||72.6%||-0.047|
|T Bauer||B Zobrist||4||0||_2_||1-1||Ben Zobrist singled to right (Liner). Anthony Rizzo advanced to 3B.||1.48||1.08||71.2%||0.078|
|C Allen||B Zobrist||7||2||12_||3-2||Ben Zobrist flied out to shortstop (Fly).||1.38||0.42||75.6%||-0.035|
|T Bauer||J Heyward||2||1||1__||0-1||Jason Heyward struck out looking.||1.34||0.50||40.6%||-0.031|
|T Bauer||K Bryant||4||0||___||1-1||Kris Bryant homered (Fliner (Fly)).||1.20||0.47||55.8%||0.141|
|M Clevinger||A Russell||5||2||1_3||3-1||Addison Russell flied out to right (Fliner (Liner)).||1.13||0.48||79.2%||-0.031|
|T Bauer||J Lester||4||2||12_||3-1||Jon Lester struck out looking.||1.10||0.42||76.4%||-0.028|
Of the 10 most important moments that occurred when Cleveland was pitching, seven occurred in that fourth inning when Trevor Bauer was pitching. The top four occurred after Bauer allowed the first three batters to reach on hard contact. Last night, was the first game of Cleveland’s playoff run where the team had either had a lead or were tied after three and went on to lose. Holding a lead has been very important to Cleveland in the playoffs; getting a lead has been a big factor, too. Heading into last night, Cleveland was 10-0 when tied or ahead after the third inning and 0-2 when trailing after three. Comebacks have not been Cleveland’s forte (and they haven’t needed to be).
Was Francona just a moment too slow in Game Five? He could have called for a mound visit after Rizzo’s shot to get somebody warm. In that case, he might have had somebody ready to face Russell after Bauer lost his control against Zobrist. It’s hindsight analysis to note that the Cubs scored two more runs and, therefore, Francona’s decision to stay with Bauer was the wrong one. It would be similarly short-sighted to look at the weak contact by Russell and Baez that followed in the fourth, the out recorded by David Ross, and the strikeout of Jason Heyward and conclude that Bauer actually performed pretty well after Zobrist’s single.
We also might point to the influence of Andrew Miller’s usage the night before, when Miller pitched two pretty low-leverage innings. If Miller had faced fewer batters then, would Francona have been more aggressive with his pen in Game Five? If so, the blame could be laid at the feet of Francona’s decision-making in Game Four for making Game Five’s options weaker. Even with limited availability, there’s a very good argument to be made that Trevor Bauer wasn’t the best pitcher to finish out the fourth inning for Cleveland — given how the inning started and how Bauer faltered against those first three batters. Perhaps the more appropriate question isn’t “Where was Andrew Miller?” (or Cody Allen, etc.), but rather, “Where was Terry Francona?”
At the time, Francona didn’t know if there was going to be a higher-leverage situation later in the game, on in which he might need Cody Allen or Andrew Miller. We can’t know if it would have even made a difference in the fourth inning. It certainly looks like it could have, though — and also looks like the first occasion this Word Series on which Francona was presented with multiple high-leverage plate appearances (in a non-Kluber start) and made the passive choice. Given the uncertainty with Miller, and all of the outs ahead, this was not a major blunder, but it’s fair to wonder if a different decision might have given Cleveland a better chance at a better result.