When appropriate, Big League Stew reviews key decisions in the postseason to see if the right one was made. Welcome to: ... The Second Guess.
The Issue: The Atlanta Braves fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-3 on Monday night in Game 4 of the NLDS and were eliminated from the playoffs. His team ahead by a run in the bottom of the eighth, Atlanta setup man David Carpenter hung a changeup to Juan Uribe, who clobbered it way over the fence in left for a go-ahead two-run homer.
The Question: Instead of Carpenter, should Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez have used closer Craig Kimbrel, reputed by many to be the best relief pitcher on the planet, for a six-out save by bringing him in during the eighth?
The Case For: Nobody in the majors is better in relief than Kimbrel, who has a 1.39 ERA and 381 strikeouts in 227 1/3 innings coming into the playoffs. He's not only the best the Braves had, but he's the best anybody has. He was healthy, he was rested, he was warming up when the game was lost.
The Case Against: In his career, Kimbrel retired six batters in a game exactly one time — in Game 2 of the NLDS 2010 against the Giants, when he wasn't the team's closer and Bobby Cox still was Braves manager. In 237 career appearances including the playoffs, Kimbrel has gotten more than three outs six times. Not many. Getting six outs certainly isn't something Kimbrel is used to attempting. He also has blown 15 saves in his career. He's not perfect.
Carpenter came into the 2013 season with a 5.70 ERA and a healthy strikeout rate in two seasons with the Astros and Blue Jays, but his career wasn't amounting to much before e joined the Braves. This season he became one of the best setup men in the majors. He had a 1.78 ERA, a dominant strikeout-to-walk ratio (10.1 to 1) and hadn't blown any saves during the regular season
Fredi Gonzalez: "We had it set up to bring him [for] four outs. I think six outs was something that we weren't even talking about in the dugout. But I think with two outs we were planning to do that. We set up the eighth inning to be able to do that."
Brian McCann: "We've got all the confidence in the world in Carp. He's had an unbelievable season. He's been a big powerhouse for us, and it's the right play."
Dave Carpenter: "I wanted the ball. I wanted to be there in the eighth inning, and I just didn't get the job done. ... It was my fault. I'm the reason we're not going back to Atlanta tied 2-2. I'll take the responsibility for it."
Stew Verdict: Gonzalez isn't the only major league manager, probably, who wouldn't have used Kimbrel for six outs. But history is replete with skippers stretching their players and asking them to do a little more in the playoffs — especially in an elimination situation. Reporter Dave O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution made a good point on Twitter, saying:
@not_johnson I woulda tried him in a couple of 6-out appearances in 2nd half, to get accustomed to it. Don't see harm in him going 6 outs.
— David O'Brien (@ajcbraves) October 8, 2013
Then, at least, Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell would have more data on the effects a long outing would have on Kimbrel. Their way looks like a shot-in-the-dark guess. If they were concerned about fatigue for Game 5, consider the teams had a day off after Game 4. If they were concerned about Kimbrel having reduced effectiveness in a second inning, that's valid — except 80 percent of Kimbrel (to throw out a number) is still better than most other relievers. If they were concerned about using (or not using) players in their predetermined roles, give us a break.
And to say they were willing to use Kimbrel four four outs and not six, well, why are two more batters a bridge too far? There's no guarantee that Kimbrel would have locked down the game had the Braves used him instead of Carpenter, but to have your best player locked in the bullpen with the game in the balance does not make a whole lot of sense.
Gonzalez made a mistake. He should have used Kimbrel.