ATLANTA — Put yourself in the place of every top executive whose team was not active in the third week of October. Do what they all surely were doing, which is scrutinizing the only game played Saturday like baseball forensic scientists trying to find clues to make sure their club is alive at this time next year.
You would be watching the two winningest teams in the National League over the last four years. Two teams who were eight for eight combined in that period in making the playoffs and, in the case of the Dodgers, owning the longest unbroken streak of postseason appearances in the majors at nine.
Surely, you could watch and glean valuable lessons. Right?
But if this is what you were doing, you were more likely heading to the liquor cabinet for solace than your laptop to begin formulating plans. You were not encouraged by unearthing the keys to success as much as sullen about the unpredictability of it all, not just in the supposed crapshoot that is October baseball. But the whole darn season.
The team that assembled the most expensive, accomplished rotation in history lost because it ran out of starting pitching. The team that lost arguably the best player in the National League midway through what at the time was a discouraging Braves season won because one of Ronald Acuna Jr.’s replacements — a guy in Eddie Rosario who in the last calendar year had been non-tendered, then salary-dumped — earned the NLCS MVP.
Cue the zany circus music, pour a couple of fingers of whiskey and let’s toast to the randomness and absurdity of it all. Then let’s get right to work putting together our team for next year by throwing darts at a dartboard.
Of course, there is more to it than that. The Dodgers didn’t only fail to defend their title because by October they were using relievers to open, starters to close and Walker Buehler on three days’ rest for the first and second time in his career. But the team that did everything to defy the baseball saying that “You can never have enough starting pitching,” actually didn’t have enough starting pitching. Despite:
- Taking on half of former Cy Young winner David Price’s contract (which is $16 million a year) just to lower the prospect return price to obtain Mookie Betts.
- Looking at the NL’s best rotation of Price, Buehler, Tony Gonsolin, Clayton Kershaw, Dustin May and Julio Urias and deciding, sure, let’s add 2020 NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer.
- Not stopping at the trade deadline and acquiring three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. And for good measure, trading for Danny Duffy and signing a World Series MVP, Cole Hamels.
And in 12 Dodger playoff games this year, career-long reliever Corey Knebel had the same number of starts (2) as Price, Gonsolin, Bauer, Kershaw, May, Duffy, Hamels and Urias had combined (both by Urias). Some of that was opener strategy, but lots of it was desperation. By the weekend, Scherzer reported an arm out of life, which forced him to bow out of his NLCS Game 6 start. Thus, Buehler, who had never worked on short rest before Oct. 11, was now doing it for a second time in 12 days. The Dodger workhorse lasted 4 ¹/₃ innings the first time and four innings Saturday.
The key blow against him in Game 6 was a three-run homer by Rosario in the fourth that broke a 1-1 tie in what would be a pennant-clinching 4-2 win by a team that did not get over .500 until Aug. 6. The Braves fell back to .500 the next day. Three days later they recalled A.J. Minter from the minors after sending him down yet again in July for infuriatingly not being able to command his obviously terrific stuff. They were still three weeks away from having the most afterthought of all their late July acquisitions, Rosario, make his Brave debut.
Those acquisitions of Rosario, Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson and Jorge Soler were made as an attempt to solve the loss of Acuna. But in the moment it played like, “Hey, Adele can’t go on tonight, go get me four lounge singers.” In the aggregate, they smashed 44 homers with an .828 OPS in 758 regular-season plate appearances with Atlanta.
Rosario was non-tendered last offseason by Minnesota and produced a .685 OPS for Cleveland, which was happy to just move his salary in exchange for a player who used to answer to Pablo Sandoval. Rosario did not play for his first month as a Brave due to an abdominal strain.
But he was terrific down the stretch and otherworldly in the playoffs — hitting in all 10 Braves games with a .474 average, a 1.313 OPS and the kind of clutch streak that would make Reggie Jackson modest. And the reality is he might not have been the NLCS MVP. With all that Dodger pitching, the best two arms in this series belonged to the lefty relievers Minter and Tyler Matzek. So a guy in the minors as late as August and a guy who was out of the majors for four seasons mostly due to having the yips and was a member of the independent Texas AirHogs as recently as 2018.
If you were watching, what could you have learned to apply to your team? Don’t try to add great starting pitching? Get your best player hurt? Scout the Texas AirHogs?
Maybe the best answer is this: Get the dartboard, pass the whiskey.