With eight weeks of regular season baseball remaining, the Cubs have assumed a commanding position in the standings. Even allowing for Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals, Chicago still has a commanding twelve-game lead over St. Louis in the NL Central. With that kind of margin in mid-August, and a roster with as much talent as this one has, the Cubs are essentially guaranteed to win the division, and our playoff odds agree, giving them a 100.0 percent chance of beating the Cardinals and Pirates. I’m not sure if that’s rounded up from something greater than 99.95 percent, or if in the thousands of simulations done the Cubs literally never lost the division, but it doesn’t matter either way—the Cubs have essentially clinched the NL Central already.
As a result, the remaining 46 regular season games don’t have the same importance to the Cubs as they do to a team fighting for a postseason spot, or fighting to move up from a Wild Card slot to winning a division outright. There’s simply not that much the Cubs can get for crushing this last month-and-a-half. If they finish with the NL’s best record, they’ll have home field advantage for every playoff series they’re in, and their lead over the Nationals and Giants is admittedly smaller than their lead over the Cardinals. But it’s not small, by any means; the Cubs are currently up by four and seven and a half games, respectively, and projected to finish the season up by six and ten games. Even if it was that margin was close, home field advantage in the playoffs is not particularly important; from 2006 through 2015, the home team in the playoffs has a .555 winning percentage (which is especially unimpressive since teams with better records get home field advantage and play more playoff games at home).
In other words, there’s not much left for the Cubs to play for in August and September, which means that it’s time to start planning for October. They could approach the remaining 46 games like they approached the first 116, and try to maximize their odds of winning every single one, but there’s no difference between leading the league by eight games and leading it by three (and really, not much of a difference between winning the division with the best record in the NL and just winning the division). It’s time for their focus to shift, and for the Cubs to try to maximize their odds of winning playoff games.
(Note: Wrigleyville editor-in-chief Rian Watt wanted me to note that the Cubs “may be playing with fire” by not trying their hardest to win every single regular season game. I do so only under duress; I agree with the projections that the Cubs have a strong enough roster, and a large enough lead, that there’s almost no risk to easing up a bit.)
It’s hard to say exactly what “focusing on the playoffs” means without being part of the front office or coaching staff. There could be a dozen lingering injuries spread across the roster, or guys hiding huge holes in their game that could possibly be patched up over the next six weeks. Without knowing that, all I can do is guess, but I’m not going to let that stop me. This roster has played together for the last five months, and while they’ve mostly performed like a well-oiled machine, there have been issues and unanswered questions apparent even from the outside. Here’s what I would prioritize over winning in these remaining 46 games:
The Cubs should begin consciously and aggressively resting their starters, both pitchers and hitters, as the season winds down. Fatigue was a real issue for Jake Arrieta during last year’s playoffs, but due partly to all of the starters’ excellent health this year, each of them have pretty substantial innings totals already. If the Cubs want to make a deep run into the playoffs, making sure as many of their starters as possible are fresh and healthy is crucial. Similarly, some of the position players have been carrying a heavy load; Bryant and Rizzo have both played 113 of the Cubs’ 116 games, and Russell (110), Zobrist (107), and Heyward (105) aren’t far behind.
Earlier last week, we got word that the Cubs were already beginning to do this, to some extent; Trevor Cahill is expected to start game one of Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Brewers. On the one hand, Chicago gets a free 26th roster spot on that day, so it’s nearly costless to have Cahill start, but on the other hand, Hammel and Lester could have both started on normal rest (thanks to Monday’s off day), so this looks at least somewhat intentional. Regardless, this should be something they do regularly going forward. This could mean giving Cahill, Travis Wood, and Mike Montgomery frequent chances to start; it almost definitely should mean giving Javy Baez, Matt Szczur, and Chris Coghlan (yes, even given his recent srruggles) more starts. Giving Rizzo or Bryant a couple days off, or having Arrieta finish the year with 31 starts instead of 33, might hurt the Cubs regular season chances some, but a better-rested team will be a bigger threat in the playoffs.
Finding a reliable lefty reliever
The Cubs have struggled to find a lefty specialist all year, and while the acquisition of Aroldis Chapman addressed that somewhat, identifying another reliever who can consistently get lefthanded hitters out should be a priority. Brian Matusz is a lefty who has been good in the past, but he was traded by the Orioles and DFA’d by the Braves earlier this year, so it’s not clear that he’s still a functional pitcher. Trevor Cahill is a righthander who has had normal splits for his career (BP’s weighted multiyear split has him allowing a .284 TAv to lefties and a .260 to righties) but has run a reverse split this year (.255 TAv to lefties and a .292 TAv to righties). And Justin Grimm has a slight reverse split over his relatively short career (.245 TAv to lefties and a .257 TAv to rightes), without a changeup or any other neat explanation for why.
Reliever performance is notably unreliable in small samples, so the Cubs should try to expand those samples as much as they possibly can. Anytime an opposing lineup has a few lefties grouped together, one of these three pitchers should take the mound, even if it means taking a starter out earlier than normal, or putting one of these relievers in a spot that would normally go to someone like Chapman or Rondon. Identifying which, if any, of these players can consistently get lefthanders out could make a big difference during the playoffs, and its worth doing even if it means dropping a regular season game or two.
This is the grab-bag category, for the speculative things that the Cubs may or may not need but should at least think about. Teams have historically done lots of weird things in the playoffs; given the Cubs’ margin, they shouldn’t wait until then. Trying some of these narrow strategies can get their players and coaching staff comfortable with them, and help the team determine when and how those strategies can best be deployed.
Those strategies could be any number of things. It could be “piggybacking,” having one starter begin the game and face the first 18 batters (or some other set number), then relieved by a second starter who comes in to face the next 18 (the Cubs might indeed do this today, in game one). It could be using Chapman less as a traditional closer and more as a fireman, putting him in to defuse a dire situation in the early innings. It could be some kind of aggressive shifting, like a five-man infield or a four-man outfield.
Finally, I’d also attempt to avoid a repeat of the 2014 AL Wild Card Game, and take at least one of Jon Lester’s remaining starts to try to mitigate or eliminate his yips and inability to throw over to first. Anytime a runner reached base, I’d instruct Lester to throw over at least once. Maybe it means a couple dozen errors and balls in the away dugout, and maybe it means a bunch of runs and even a lost game. But the Cubs shouldn’t be worrying about what runners do behind Lester in the regular season, and focusing on the playoffs. If a day or two of throw-to-first-base camp can help Lester in October, I think it would be worth it. if it means Lester can hold runners more effectively in the playoffs, I think it would be worth it.
There’s a serious hurdle to this, however, and that’s getting the players to buy in. I’d see two reasons they might object. First, players care a lot about their individual stats, and with good reason. For all of them, it’s a pride thing, and for many of them, it’s one way their future earnings are determined. When Kris Bryant has his arbitration hearing this winter, he’ll probably want to point to his counting stats in things like home runs and RBIs when asking for a raise. Asking him to take a bunch of days off and likely hurt his bottom line is tough.
Secondly, the reason these players have managed to distinguish themselves from other individuals with prodigious physical abilities is their drive and intensity. They’ve been told since a young age never to take their foot off the gas, at all—telling them that these next 46 games aren’t of the utmost importance will strike them as very odd.
But if anyone can clear that hurdle, it’s Joe Maddon and the Cubs. Maddon has a well-earned reputation as a great manager, and someone who has managed to convince his players to commit to things that might seem weird, both on the field (aggressive shifting, swapping of positions) and off (themed road trips). If anyone can convey this and convince the players that its worth doing, it’s Maddon. Plus, we know this team is aware of the possible significance of their playoff run this year. Several of the free agents that signed with the Cubs this offseason apparently agreed to below-market contracts in order to have a chance to break the World Series drought. The playoffs are presumably something they’ve been thinking about for a while, so it might be possible to convince them that anything that makes breaking that drought more likely is worthwhile.
All this depends primarily on the players’ willingness to get a little weird in the last two months of the season. But it could have significant benefits for the playoffs, and while it might keep the Cubs from winning 100 games, it almost certainly won’t disadvantage them in any meaningful way. Maybe trying the more extreme stuff is asking too much of the players, but the less ambitious things should certainly be prioritized over regular season wins for the next eight weeks.
Lead photo courtesy Kamil Krzaczynski—USA Today Sports.