The Philadelphia Phillies stormed into Atlanta with an unconventional plan ahead. They used seven different pitchers to find some way to squeeze out a shutout against one of the greatest offenses baseball has ever seen.
There’s a lot to dive into with each and every decision Rob Thomson made. Managing a baseball game is sort of like playing a game of chess, except that each piece has a human component to it.
No one is going to agree with every decision but the point of this is to explain the thinking because this was a carefully managed game by one of the best in the sport.
Starting Ranger Suárez
This may sound strange but this wasn’t some automatic decision at first. Not only are they the best first-inning offense in baseball, but they’re also the best against left-handed pitching.
This is where we see the human side of Thomson. He didn’t tell Suárez anything would be different about this start. Topper wanted his guy to feel as comfortable as possible.
Rob Thomson gives an interesting answer when asked about telling Ranger he would pull him early vs. not telling Ranger.— Pat Gallen (@PatGallenCBS3) October 8, 2023
He opted not to, obviously -- here's his reasoning. pic.twitter.com/7Pduy4rRZc
It worked for Suárez, who gave them 3.2 innings of work before Thomson got him with two runners on.
The controversy started early when Thomson pulled off a move most managers wouldn’t dare. He gave Jeff Hoffman a spot in the fourth inning against Marcell Ozuna with two outs.
There’s a lot of criticism with the decision because of how well Suárez was throwing. He didn’t allow a batted ball of more than 93 mph.
However, you can’t wait for Suárez to allow hard contact, the goal is to prevent the Braves offense from gaining any ground.
Ozuna has killed lefties all year with an OPS of .980. Against righties, he’s still really good at .881 but you’re putting in one of your best arms in the entire staff.
Hoffman had him struck out if not for a blatant miss call by the home plate umpire but the Braves still couldn’t gain life after that.
Michael Harris II has a chase rate of 38.1% so Hoffman was able to work in nasty splitters for the punch out.
Seranthony Domínguez for the fifth
There’s a good argument for Jeff Hoffman to come back out but he did get an important out in the fourth.
Wherever you stand on that, this was the place to use Domínguez if you were ever going to use him.
The bottom three hitters in the Braves lineup were due up. Orlando Arcia has a .674 OPS against right-handed pitching, Sean Murphy was moved down to eighth after a .669 OPS the final two months of the season, and you get the Eddie Rosario/Kevin Pillar platoon out of the way.
Things didn’t go well early for Domínguez with a single by Arcia but he got the struggling Murphy on a fastball.
There was a questionable 0-2 fastball when Rosario has the third-worst chase rate in the sport which put runners on first and third.
The plan went south with Domínguez facing Ronald Acuña Jr. and Austin Riley at the top of the order.
This is where you have to credit Domínguez for being able to battle when he’s not had the most successful season of his career. He didn’t trust his slider at all, throwing it just two times in 22 pitches.
He battled through Acuña and Riley to keep the Braves scoreless.
José Alvarado for the sixth
Not everything goes to plan for a manager but this is where we see Thomson’s unique way of managing a bullpen.
With Matt Olson, Ozzie Albies, and Marcell Ozuna due up in the sixth, they ask José Alvarado to take the ball.
Harper added a homer in the top half of the inning to give them a two-nothing lead but the thinking is still the same. Thomson pushed his top arms earlier in the game to give his offense as much time as possible to score runs.
With four innings needing to be covered no matter what, it’s smart to use Alvarado against the middle of their order and when the game is close.
Instead of picking Matt Strahm, Gregory Soto, or Orion Kerkering now, you give the offense time to increase their lead.
Orion Kerkering for the seventh
Rob Thomson seems to have some sort of trend with trusting young players in key spots. His first game ever as manager included Nick Maton, Bryson Stott (before he got everyday playing time), and Mickey Moniak all in the lineup.
He would later hit Darick Hall cleanup in his major league debut and hand Bryson Stott the everyday role at shortstop.
This year, he has Johan Rojas in center field every day and he’s asking Orion Kerkering to pitch a key seventh inning in the playoffs.
The logic is similar to Domínguez in the fifth inning. The bottom three of the Braves’ order were due up so Kerkering would have the platoon advantage for two of the three hitters.
His sweeper was also a good matchup for Rosario with how much he swings out of the strike zone.
It worked to perfection with a one-two-three inning. Kerkering looked like a ten-year veteran with his composure and the Braves didn’t know what to do with his sweeper.
The eighth inning
After a long sequence between innings that included a catcher interference to give the Phillies a three-nothing lead, Kerkering came back out for Acuña.
The bullpen at this point is down to Strahm, Soto, and Kimbrel as potential back-end options and Thomson probably didn’t want to use Kimbrel for the top of their order.
An advantage Kerkering will have the rest of this series is that the Braves haven’t really seen him before and it is probably why he came back out for the eighth.
The layoff might’ve been too long as he walked Acuña on four pitches and they gave the ball to Matt Strahm.
It doesn’t make a ton of sense on the surface to bring a lefty in for Austin Riley but when you dive deeper into the numbers, it’s logical.
Riley struggles against four-seam fastballs with a slugging percentage under .500 and a strikeout rate close to 30%. Opposing hitters have just a .187 batting average against Strahm’s four-seam fastball.
He just didn’t have the velocity today and Riley pulled a single to left field.
Matt Olson is as good as any hitter on the planet but does have at least one slight weakness. He’s had far less success against lefties this year with an OPS under 800. Strahm won the battle after Olson barely missed a fastball and flew out to center.
They were able to get out of the inning with a fantastic double play by Trea Turner that would give the Phillies at least a three-run lead for Craig Kimbrel in the ninth.
The players are always the ones who execute so you can’t fully credit a manager for winning or losing a game but last night is why you employ Rob Thomson.
They went into this game with their number three starter, facing one of the greatest offenses in baseball history, with Spencer Strider on the mound, and walked away with a shutout victory. A potential series-shifting game with Zack Wheeler set up to start game two.
The difference between the Blue Jays pulling José Berríos and the Phillies pulling Ranger Suárez is about the fundamental understanding of what high leverage is. One team went to a different starting pitcher and the other team went to one of the best right-handed relievers in the National League.
Rob Thomson might not only be the best manager in the National League but he’s the best in the entire sport.