As the movie “The Princess Bride” reminds us, the most famous classic blunder is to “never get involved in a land war in Asia.”
The Los Angeles Dodgers could be on their way to proving that with an only slightly less well-known blunder — using an opener in Game 5 of the National League Division Series instead of just starting left-hander Julio Urías.
On Thursday afternoon, the Dodgers made the stunning announcement that right-handed reliever Corey Knebel would open the NLDS' deciding game instead of Urías, about eight hours before the first pitch against the San Francisco Giants at Oracle Park. It was either the most shocking or the second-most shocking announcement of the day, depending on your feelings about the Cardinals firing manager Mike Shildt.
Urías was the starter in Game 2 on Saturday, allowing a run and striking out five in a 9-2 victory for the Dodgers. His strong postseason performance continued his trend from the regular season, when Urías posted a 2.96 ERA with 195 strikeouts in 185 2/3 innings. He’s one of the top starting pitchers in the league, and so-called “openers” tend to be used when a team has a weaker starting pitcher.
So why are the Dodgers doing this?
The first answer definitely might be: “To try and mess with the Giants.”
No matter the analytical evidence they might use to support this move, the Dodgers know the Giants have resisted their advances all season and have home-field advantage for a win-or-go-home Game 5. Announcing Knebel is a desperate attempt to at least bother the Giants by making them devote a lot of pregame time to figuring out what to do with their lineup. Not necessarily “desperate” in a derogatory sense — everyone plays with desperation in October — but the Dodgers are taking a risk. And while it is not unprecedented by any means, it certainly has interesting timing. It could all backfire.
The Dodgers probably expect the Giants to continue with a right-handed heavy lineup, considering Urías will probably take over in the second inning. Maybe they’ll pivot and oppose Knebel with lefties including LaMonte Wade, Mike Yastrzemski, Steven Duggar, Alex Dickerson, but just making the Giants think about it and take time considering related countermeasures might be worth the tactic of opening with Knebel.
This is where things start to get like “The Princess Bride,” when the Dread Pirate (Dave) Roberts tricks the trickster, Vizzini, into taking his own poison. So what are the probabilities in a real-life version of the fairytale?
Looking at Knebel’s platoon splits, the Giants will see that he’s not been vulnerable to left-handed batters this season. Looking at the career results of Giants batters against Knebel won’t help much because the Giants have only made 54 plate appearances against him. No matter, their career numbers against Knebel are 209/.352/.349 with a home run (by Brandon Belt, who is injured and not playing), three doubles and 10 walks. The walks are an interesting thing, but this season, Knebel has dominated in 11 plate appearances, allowing no walks and just two singles against the Giants, including the playoffs.
The Giants collectively were more effective against right-handed starters during the season, but that’s not as relevant because Knebel probably will pitch just one inning Thursday, certainly no more than two. Only four times in 27 appearances was he asked to get more than three outs.
Even with a minuscule sample like 11 plate appearances, this move is more about maximizing the value of Knebel, one of the Dodgers’ better relievers, at the start of a game when starting pitchers can be vulnerable. The Dodgers are asking themselves: What gives a team its best shot to be scoreless or ahead after the first inning?
It’s common for even great starting pitchers to have trouble in the first inning, or at least more trouble than they have during Innings 2, 3, 4 and 5. Urías has allowed five home runs and 12 walks in the first inning this season. It’s not a lot, but it’s more than any other inning for him. Going by inning, the next best shot for the Dodgers to score would be the sixth, which is usually Urías’ last inning anyway.
Look at the Giants collectively in the first inning: It’s their best — .265/.347/.516 with 40 home runs, 77 walks and 116 runs scored. This is what the Dodgers are trying to guard against. Urías handled the Giants in the first inning of Game 2 without allowing them to score, although he did allow a two-out double to Austin Slater.
What about the downside?
The key to this move is Urías being on board with it. In previous seasons, he’s already shown an ability to enter a game at any time and be excellent. But starting pitchers have a certain routine, and he hasn’t made a relief appearance all season. The Dodgers probably wouldn’t use right-handers Walker Buehler or Max Scherzer like this, as a “bulk guy” following an opener. Egos get involved. MLB isn’t so progressive with the opener concept that it should be automatic that feelings won’t be bruised, even with Urías.
If you were playing the game on a computer, it makes sense to do what the Dodgers are doing. Unless, of course, the Giants were ready for it all along!