MLB: NL Wild Card Game-Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates

Joe Maddon and the Potential for a Bullpen Game in the NLDS

Joe Maddon has recalibrated our understanding, as Cubs fans, of a manager’s ability to run a baseball team. For every stroke of statistical savant, there’s the nurturing development side that Maddon facilitates. He rides his bike, keeps it loose, and keeps baseball in perspective. The fans expected Maddon to reach the .500 mark in Year One. So far, he’s delivered far more than could ever be reasonably expected when Ricketts’ Rat Pack lured the bespectacled magician from the Bay to the Lake, and Maddon’s exceptional ability to manage the team has become one of the club’s main attractions this season. So, on the eve of the NLDS, let’s dive into it a little further. My colleague Zach Moser has already extensively covered Maddon’s managerial history in the playoffs; allow me to dive even deeper and introduce another wrinkle: the Bullpen Game.

As the playoffs—and the possibility of a run deep into the fall—became a reality this week, a huge question remained: who, exactly, are the third and fourth starters? Can they be trusted in October? Following Jake Arrieta’s start in the Wild Card game, and Jon Lester’s presumptive start in Game One of the NLDS, who starts Game Two? [Ed.: In a press conference Thursday afternoon, Joe Maddon announced that Kyle Hendricks would start Game Two, with Game Four still up for discussion.] Even looking beyond that, a rested Arrieta starts Game Three, but who starts Game Four? It appears the circumstances are ripe for Maddon to utilize another Bullpen Game for the 2015 Cubs—and, so far, he hasn’t ruled it out.

Berofe we begin though: a Bullpen Game doesn’t necessarily have to happen. My colleagues have discussed Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks at various points throughout the season, and I believe a strong argument could be made for either player to take the mound in the playoffs. However, regardless of who starts Game Two or Four, I also believe that Maddon should deploy a similar strategy he used during Game Four of the 2013 ALDS while with the Tampa Bay Rays. In that game, Maddon used nine pitchers in a nine-inning game. It wasn’t a high scoring affair and no one sustained injury or illness. Maddon planned to utilize his bullpen extensively from the start, and he didn’t disappoint.

Entering an elimination game at home with top starters David Price, Alex Cobb, and Matt Moore tapped out, Maddon went to youngster Jeremy Hellickson to toe the rubber in Game Four. In a manner very similar to the 2015 versions of Hendricks and Hammel, Hellickson struggled at times during the 2013 season.

In the postgame interview after that Bullpen Game, Maddon told reporters that he’d hoped to use Hellickson for 12 batters: once through the order and then the 1-2-3 hitters before going to the ‘pen. (Basically, Hellickson wouldn’t face David Ortiz more than once.) As it turned out, Hellickson didn’t make it even once through the Boston order. He only managed to face six batters, and loaded the bases with zero outs in the second inning. Hellickson was yanked at that point, and Maddon was off to the races between the dugout and the mound.

By the time the Rays took the field with a 1-0 lead in the seventh, Maddon was on his fifth pitcher. With runners on first and third and one out, Maddon summoned his sixth pitcher, Joel Peralta. With Shane Victorino showing bunt, Maddon’s strategy backfired: wild pitch. Xander Bogaerts scored and Jacoby Ellsbury moved to third. Victorino then singled to bring Ellsbury home to give Boston a 2-1 lead. Maddon cycled through three more arms, allowing one run. Boston’s 3-1 lead held and they won the game, the series against the Rays, and eventually the World Series.

When it was all over, Maddon had broken the record for pitchers used in a nine-inning playoff game. No pitcher threw more than 30 pitches. The most batters any pitcher faced was eight. Two faced a single batter. Maddon wrung every ounce of potential out of the bullpen, leaving the final pitching line for Tampa looking like this:


9 6 3 3 8 10 0 163-87

Tampa Bay pitchers threw plenty of balls, but their lack of control really only hurt in a couple of spots: Bogaerts tallied two walks that turned into runs, and Tampa pitchers also hit two batsmen (actually, only one; Victorino, twice) and threw two wild pitches—with only the first really hurting their chance at victory. And despite the ‘pen’s efforts, Maddon felt they lost the series because they couldn’t handle Boston’s pitching. For these purposes, it really doesn’t matter. Whether the result arrived because they failed to execute or simply ran out of gas—Maddon’s wizardry with the bullpen nonetheless put his team in position to win.

If the strategy worked and the Rays were victorious, and then had gone on to capture another AL pennant, I believe this game would be discussed more today. Instead, it’s a hidden gem on Maddon’s impressive managerial resume that offers great insight into his ability to execute a gameplan. It’s reasonable to believe the Bullpen Game strategy is one Maddon will at least consider during the potential NLDS against the Cardinals. How might that work? Let’s compare 2015 Hendricks and Hammel to 2013 Hellickson on their turns through the opposition’s batting order:

Pitcher OPS 1st time through OPS 2nd time through OPS 3rd time through
Kyle Hendricks 0.651 0.585 0.894
Jason Hammel 0.782 0.690 0.644
Jeremy Hellickson 0.649 0.734 0.785
Pitcher sOPS+* 1st time through sOPS+ 2nd time through sOPS+ 3rd time through
Kyle Hendricks 85 60 133
Jason Hammel 119 87 70
Jeremy Hellickson 94 134 107

*sOPS+ is OPS relative to the league average, where 100 is average. Higher is worse; lower is better.

Maddon may not have a choice about whether to use Hendricks or Hammel. He does have a choice about how he’ll use each pitcher. What’s interesting in comparing the Cubs starters to Hellickson is the fact that Hendricks and Hammel have struggled more the first time through than the second. In 2013, Maddon was confident Hellickson could make it through the order once but less confident the second time around.

Based on Hendricks’ performance this season, though, if he starts and manages to work his way once through the order unscathed, Maddon should feel good about him for the second go around, though he will most likely pull him before the Cardinals come up a third time. In Hammel’s case, his leash the first time through the lineup will be extremely tight—potentially as tight as Hellickson’s in 2013. However, should Hammel emerge triumphant once through the order, his season numbers show he improves dramatically. However, it should be noted that Hammel was getting to that third time through the order in the first half of the season when he was rather dominant; in the second half he’s struggled immensely, which has meant he hasn’t had the chance to face the order a third time through, thus artificially keeping those numbers low. But whether or not each pitcher performs similar to their 2015 performance levels, Maddon will have a gameplan.

Generally speaking, formulating a plan, a backup, and a backup to the backup, is Maddon’s modus operandi. In relation to the next month of baseball, he’s reiterated as much. Maddon said in an interview in late September that Lester and Arrieta offer him more options because the bullpen won’t be taxed on nights they pitch, allowing plenty of rest for the trusted arms of Travis Wood, Pedro Strop, and maybe even Hector Rondon. If Hendricks or Hammel find trouble, with the threat of losing the game or the series, don’t expect Maddon to hesitate to make the call to the ‘pen very early. Wood has been remarkable in short and long relief. Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard are both former starters, and depending how the rest of the ‘pen roster comes together, there may be spots for LOOGY Zac Rosscup to face a dangerous lefty (Heyward or Carpenter), Justin Grimm to bend one over against a righty (Grichuk, Piscotty, Holliday), or Carl Edwards, Jr. to emerge as the unknown entity. If worst comes to worst, I won’t be surprised if Maddon sends Lester or Arrieta out there with the season on the line.

We can imagine all sorts of situations, but we can guarantee Game Two will be managed according to the result from Game One. Game Four will be managed similarly, whether facing elimination or eliminating. Maddon’s history as a manager is a good indicator as any that he will use every resource at his disposal to put his team in the best position to win. Perhaps another nine pitchers is in store for the Cubs.

Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.

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