Dodgers manager Dave Roberts left Clayton Kershaw in to pitch the 8th inning of a decisive playoff game the other night against the Nationals, and it didn’t work out. Kershaw, one of the best pitchers in the history of baseball, but having lost significant velocity over the last couple of years, gave up home runs on back to back pitches to tie the game. The Dodgers ended up losing in extra innings, ending their season.
This reminded me of a difficult challenge for coaches in all sports – how do you trust what you see versus what you expect? Basketball coaches face it all of the time. The senior starter who has had a great career and is one of your best players isn’t having a very good game. You expect him to produce for you, but what you are seeing on the floor is that he isn’t being very productive. It’s very hard to leave that guy on the bench to try and win the game, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do.
Don’t coach your team based on what you expect your players to do, coach them based on what you see. Past performance isn’t an indicator of future success – future performance is. So how do you judge that? Welcome to coaching. It’s not easy, not at all. But the feel you have for your team and your players is crucial.
Most coaches are insecure, so we tend to go with the easy way out. What is the easy way out? Leave your best players on the floor and see if they can win the game for you, regardless of how they are producing in the moment. That allows coaches to cover themselves from criticism. If you have your best players out there and they don’t perform it’s on them, not on you.
You have to fight this approach as a coach. And I’m the first to tell you it’s not easy. I’ve left the wrong guys on the floor in the last 5 minutes of a game plenty of times, and then looked at the box score afterwards kicking myself. You trust the guys who have done it before, and there is a lot of value in that. But it shouldn’t be automatic. Keeping a pulse on your entire team throughout a 40 minute game is essential. And there is no more important decision a basketball coach will make in a close game than who he has on the floor in crunch time.
I have no idea what Dave Roberts was thinking. He’s had a ton of success as the manager of the Dodgers. But my sense is that he didn’t have his best pitchers in the game in the 8th inning because he has Clayton Kershaw, one of the greatest pitchers of all-time, even though Kershaw doesn’t have the stuff he used to. Clayton Kershaw 2019 probably shouldn’t have been on the mound in that spot. And it cost him big time.