In front of an emotionally eviscerated Dodger fan base, in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2018 World Series on October 27, Kiké Hernández came to the plate at Dodger Stadium.
Only an hour earlier, a thrilling glow suffused Chavez Ravine. Having survived an 18-inning Game 3 marathon, Los Angeles had taken a 4-0 lead into the seventh inning against the Boston Red Sox. The Dodgers were eight outs away from evening the Fall Classic at two games apiece.
Then their world collapsed around them like a dream in Inception. Nine Boston baserunners crossed the plate, the final four in the top of the ninth, obliterating a beautiful consciousness.
In that soul-darkening ninth inning, Hernández stood at the plate as a symbol of star-crossed Octobers. Coming off the most successful regular season of his major-league career, Hernández homered in his 2018 playoff debut, the Dodgers’ 6-0 trouncing of Atlanta in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. The multiposition master, baseball’s Swiss Army knife, then went 12 consecutive games without a single extra-base hit or RBI.
Hernández couldn’t hit right-handed pitching. He couldn’t hit left-handed pitching. He couldn’t hit, period. Entering the gloom of Game 4’s waning moments, Hernández had made 30 outs in his past 33 at-bats.
As another fallen hope stood on first base in the person of Brian Dozier, Hernández took two fastballs from Boston closer Craig Kimbrel, then let rip at a knuckle-curve and launched a fly ball to deep left-center for a two-run home run. Except for the fleeting sliver of hope it kindled in those who could conceive the greatest miracle postseason comeback in Dodger history, it was a footnote. The Dodgers lost the game by the score of 9-6 instead of 9-4.
The next day, in a game the Dodgers could not spare, Hernández was in the starting lineup against Boston lefty David Price, batting third.
Not a single time had Hernández batted third in the playoffs. In fact, he had not started and batted higher than sixth for the Dodgers for exactly one month, dating back to September 28. When the Dodgers faced the very same Price in Boston four days earlier for Game 2, Hernández batted seventh.
Whatever means the Dodgers used to make their starting lineups — whatever combination of computers, cogitation and collaboration — not once in October had anyone or anything determined that Hernández should bat in the first inning of a game. To say the least, nothing in the 140 innings following Hernández’s NLDS Game 1 homer provided any reason to do anything differently.
But this much we know. Hernández homered in the bottom of the ninth of Game 4. And then he was batting third in the lineup in Game 5.
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This wasn’t the first time in the World Series the Dodgers had zagged from their usual zig.
You could point to the opening game, when David Freese, 2 for 2 at the time, came to the plate against Red Sox right-hander Matt Barnes in a critical situation, with two on and none out in the fifth inning and the Dodgers down by a run. Throughout the seven-game National League Championship Series, Freese — who was acquired during the stretch run to mash lefty pitching — was constantly replaced once a right-hander came to the mound. He exited games he started as early as the second inning. But this time, seemingly too hot to sit, Freese batted … and struck out.
You could also point to Dozier, who hadn’t started a game batting leadoff since September 9, suddenly being tapped to be first man up for the Dodgers in the first two games of the Series — but not in Game 5, even though that was a repeat of the Game 2 matchup vs. Price.
In the 2018 World Series, the Dodgers made multiple decisions that deviated sharply from their very own norms. I don’t have 100 percent knowledge that any of those decisions were hunches, but man, they sure read like hunches.
Before you lay into me, let me try to be clear about what I’m saying here. I am not in denial. Clearly, the Dodgers’ decision-making is heavily driven by analytics. Moreover, since the World Series ended, they have not shown any intention to apologize for that or back away from it.
But just as clearly, there are frequent moments when they will go away from the book. From their book. And (this has been approved by the Irony Committee), it’s very often the hunch play, like Hernandez batting third or Dozier batting first, that angers the anti-analytics crowd.
To be fair, some of their moves are capable of angering everyone.
The point, though, is that the Dodgers go with their gut more times than people seem to realize. What they don’t do necessarily is go with your gut.
And I really don’t believe you need more evidence of this than Kiké Hernández, in the most inopportunely disappointing month of his career, batting third in the game the Dodgers couldn’t afford to lose.
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Typically when I write a piece like this, and then share it on Twitter, there will be people who call me, quite simply, an idiot. Or, they will call me an apologist for a failing leadership.
To them, I can only say that I am writing what I observe to be happening.
You can make the case — and many have — that the Dodgers lost the World Series because individual leaders didn’t trust their instincts enough. But you can also make the case that playing the hunches is what led the Dodgers astray.
Personally I’m not going to make either case. It’s enough for me to show that both cases exist.
With his option for 2019 exercised, Dave Roberts will be managing the Dodgers next year and, pending the official announcement of a contract extension, for years to come. For that matter, though general manager Farhan Zaidi has left to plant his own flag in San Francisco, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman remains. In short, the two most prominent names in Dodger leadership are back for Year 31 A.G.
Some people are happy about this, and some people are furious.
I’m happy, but I’m not here to argue with the fury. There’s no point in it. If, for example, your point of view is “Roberts failed when it counted and deserves to lose his job,” I have no intention, much less hope, of trying to convince you otherwise.
I will make my case for being happy, though. Even though the past two World Series are filled with regret for Dodger fans, I believe that in winning three straight division titles and the first two NL pennants for the Dodgers in a generation, Roberts has shown more than enough touch and skill as a manager to deserve more chances (same as I would have said for Tommy Lasorda before the 1981 season, had blogging exsited then).
I believe the fact that the Dodgers have come so close to triumph under Roberts speaks to his quality. And I believe that his thirst and capacity for learning makes the future under Roberts even more promising. I respect that others will disagree with me, but I am not going to feel anything but enthusiastic having Roberts — or Friedman, as long as we’re talking about this — lead my team into the next campaign.
If the Dodgers see it the same way, call it a gut instinct.
The Dodgers have work to do this offseason. They have soul-searching to do this offseason. They always will, even after they finally end their World Series title drought.
But whatever your opinion on Roberts or Friedman is, my main point tonight — and I’ll admit I’ve gone a long way around to making it — is that those of you yearning for more human element in Dodger decision-making, those gunning for more gut instinct, don’t need to fret. Like it or not, the human element is already there.
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