Last week, I made some predictions about how Joe Maddon might manage his bench and bullpen in the Wild Card Game and Division Series, drawing upon his history in Tampa Bay and the composition of the Cubs’ roster in order to do so. With the Cubs now moving on to the NLCS for the first time in 12 years, I thought it would be appropriate to review Maddon’s management in his five playoff games with the Cubs so far, examining some specific victories and blunders, and comparing those moves to how we might have expected him to manage going into the postseason.
Perhaps the easiest change in strategy to predict, going into the NLDS, was Maddon’s reliance on his top two starters to pitch well and deep into games. This was a stark deviation from his playoff management with the Rays; there, he showed a strong reluctance to let his starters pitch even into the sixth and seventh innings. Gifted with playoff veteran Jon Lester and world-devouring Jake Arrieta, Maddon did an about face during the NLDS.
Due to the (Bob) Gibsonian efforts of one Mr. Jake Arrieta, Maddon was able to sit his entire bullpen during the Wild Card Game, so they were prepared for anything that might come in Game One of the NLDS against the Cardinals. Starter Lester looked shaky early, allowing an RBI single to Matt Holliday and chucking a wild pitch, but he settled down immediately thereafterafter, at one point sending 12 consecutive Cardinals hitters back to the dugout dejected. Lester is one of the few Cubs with playoff experience, and Maddon rode him as long as he could, a move intelligent not only for its run prevention utility, but also for its psychological solidity in a game where young Cubs hitters scuffled against John Lackey. Faced with a different situation than he had been in in Tampa Bay, Maddon changed his strategy.
But the Cubs still lost Game One. After falling in that game in St. Louis, Maddon faced the difficult task of simultaneously calming a young club behind in a playoff series against a strong opponent, constructing a successful lineup against a tough lefty in Game Two starter Jaime Garcia (the Cubs featured a .691 team OPS versus southpaws on the year), and also prospectively managing five or six innings of bullpen use with Kyle Hendricks on the moun for Chicagod. It wouldn’t be easy for the 61-year-old Pennsylvanian.
And yet he made it work. If you had told me one week ago that Jorge Soler would be a top contributor to the Cubs in the playoffs, it would have given me serious pause. But Maddon inserted the rookie slugger into the two-hole, starting in right field, to face lefty Garcia in Game Two. The move paid unexpected dividends, as Soler homered, doubled, and walked twice, a catalytic performance in what turned out to be a 6-3 Cubs victory. It was a rare case of a matchup advantage being exploited to its fullest, and Maddon looked like a lineup card genius.
Maddon also deftly maneuvered the bullpen after a fine 4 2/3 inning start from Kyle Hendricks; here, he stuck to a few preferred relievers, thereby duplicating a strategy he’d gone to often in Tampa Bay. Travis Wood, the Cubs’ best kept secret this year, allowed only a single to Yadier Molina in 2 1/3 innings of relief, a huge turnaround performance by a pitcher whose status on a potential playoff roster was very much in doubt in April and May. Then, Trevor Cahill and Rondon shut the door on the Cards in the eighth and ninth innings, ensuring at least two home playoff games at Wrigley Field this season. Whereas the Wild Card game and Game One were exhibitions of a new Maddon playoff style, the Cubs emerged victorious in Game Two in part because of the strategies Maddon had plied over nearly a decade in Florida.
With the series even, the Cubs turned to their rock, Arrieta, in a pivotal game three. The big story in that game turned out to be the record-setting six home runs hit by the young Cubs. Importantly, though, as the well-conditioned Texan on the mound struggled to make it to the sixth inning, Maddon was presented with his first opportunity to creatively pull the levers on the Cubs’ depth machine. This, too, was a strategy he’d exploited before in Tampa Bay.
After a Jason Heyward homer and Brandon Moss hit by pitch, Arrieta found himself turning the ball over to his manager with two outs in the sixth. The parade of pitchers had begun: Maddon signaled that he wanted lefty Clayton Richard to face Kolten Wong, hardly a dangerous hitter, but a key at-bat with the Cubs leading by just one run. Richard successfully put away Wong, and then Maddon went to Trevor Cahill for the seventh, for his second postseason relief appearance in as many days—something the erstwhile starter probably could not have imagined just a month ago.
Cahill and Wood (again) collaborated to escape a minor jam, preserving a still-precarious 7-4 lead. Maddon later explained his thought process regarding his use of Richard, Cahill, and Wood in those tense middle innings: “Cahill is throwing the ball there great,” he said. “What had happened if we did not make the error [by Baez], that would have been the third out, Cahill would have been out of the inning, and you would have never seen Heyward.”
As it turned out, he went to the lefty Wood to get the hitter who took the Cubs’ best pitcher deep earlier in the game. “I know Heyward is a really good baseball player,” Maddon explained, “but he’s definitely a better hitter versus righties as opposed to lefties, so I did not want to mess with it there… If we’re going to do what we want to do, the rest of this bullpen has got to play. Strop has got to pitch like he can, we’ve got to get Fernando out there, Grimmer, they’ll have to play and they’ll have to pitch up to their capability so you can’t run away from that moment.”
Maddon was talking as much about himself as he was about his bullpen when he said “you can’t run away from that moment.” He was not shy in going to his ‘pen, and he trusted two pitchers in Richard and Cahill who not only threw few high leverage innings in the regular season, but few innings at all. The flexibility of those three pitchers even allowed Maddon to make defensive substitutions late in the game, with Austin Jackson, Chris Coghlan, and Chris Denorfia all getting time at the corner outfield spots.
Once again, Maddon went into detail about how he used his relievers: “The fact [is] when you have Travis Wood and then Trevor Cahill showing up, even [Richard], although I did not use him in a more elongated role, is capable of two-plus innings, so we have those kind of guys that kind of match up to the other team, especially Cahill and Clayton, and essentially put the ball on the ground. Travis Wood doesn’t know a right-handed hitter from a left-handed hitter. He’s kind of neutral.” Maddon clearly loves their flexibility, and he praised the front office and scouting department for finding forgotten arms like Richard, Cahill, and Fernando Rodney.
What’s the takeaway here for the Cubs in the NLCS? In short, it’s probably this: Maddon will play to his team’s strengths, using the lessons he learned in Tampa Bay. Last week, I ended my discussion of Maddon’s prospective bullpen use with a simple question: In the sixth inning of a tie game, with the starter out, who will Maddon choose to bring into the game? Now, we have an answer. Cahill, Richard, and Rodney are no longer part of the “hazy” third tier of Cubs’ relievers; they are integral to Maddon’s game plan, and therefore to the Cubs’ success going forward. Any one of them could take the ball from Maddon’s hand with the game on the line, and I suspect we’ll see one of them very soon staring down Yoenis Cespedes in a pivotal NLCS moment.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.