Second City October: Maddon’s Conservatism

Marvel at Terry Francona and Andrew Miller, at Dave Roberts and Kenley Jansen, for they are bold and innovative and damn good at what they do. Francona and Miller, in particular, have been coming in for particular praise, these days, for their unwavering commitment to using the best relief pitcher in baseball in the highest leverage situations. Stories abound saying that Tito is a genius, or that Miller is deserving of his ALCS MVP and maybe more. The zeitgeist is that of pulling cruising starters in the fifth inning, then throwing a half-dozen different pitchers in an effort to stave off starters’ third time through the order ineffectiveness and put the best available pitchers on the mound at any given time. The cottage industry of bullpen usage takes is saturating the baseball-o-sphere so thoroughly that it has birthed self-deprecating counter-takes:

Meanwhile [SWIRLING CUT TO BATCAVE], Joe Maddon has been staid in his managerial ways. Sure, Kyle Hendricks’s forearm injury in Game Two of the NLDS forced the skipper to go to his bullpen in the fourth inning, and the marathon of Game Three required the deployment of all hands, save Carl Edwards, Jr., but, overall, Maddon has stuck to his regular season guns. And why shouldn’t he? After all, the Cubs won the most games in the majors by a comfortable margin, and there are no apparent weaknesses on the club. Whereas ragtag starting rotations in Cleveland and L.A. have necessitated the use of fireman relievers and starters on short rest, Maddon enjoys the benefits of a fully stocked, well-balanced roster.

It all points toward a certain truism, perhaps even a tautology, regarding managerial “genius”: managers only manage as much as their circumstances and their personnel dictate. Maddon might be regarded as the “zany,” anything goes, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink manager who puts his relief pitchers in the outfield and his outfielders in onesies, but it doesn’t mean a lot when players are not performing to their potential. Likewise, when you have a team full of average-to-great players, the inclination is to trust them, and there aren’t many alterations in lineup or defensive alignment that are going to affect your chances to win.

For Maddon, this paid off handsomely in Game Four of the NLCS on Wednesday. With the pressure of two consecutive shutouts at the hands of Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, and Kenley Jansen, Maddon faced the difficult task of finding a way to spark the team’s offense with lineup changes. Rather than shake up the batting order and start the questionable bat of Albert Almora, the mashing-but-unpredictable bat of Jorge Soler, or the left-handed hitting Chris Coghlan, Maddon remained steadfast in his belief in his starters. Addison Russell, the primary target of Cubs’ fans ire at that point (borne of his playoff “one-fer”), got the start at shortstop, and cemented a Cubs lead, with his two-run homer, that the team would not relinquish. Anthony Rizzo added a home run and three hits of his own, a similarly refreshing performance following a playoff-long hitting drought. The bats came around, as many suspected they would, to wallop the Dodgers by eight runs, and Maddon’s patience with his regulars paid off.

Rizzo and Russell were good candidates to bounce back in this series, considering their standout seasons. Maddon’s patience becomes brazen stubbornness, however, with the continued presence of Jason Heyward in the starting lineup. Heyward started again on Thursday, looking dreadful at the plate, unable to connect with even easy fastballs, and repeatedly popping up to the infield. Four more hitless plate appearances on Tuesday bring the dejected-looking rightfielder to 1-for-16 in the series, while Willson Contreras’s red hot bat only gets opportunities to pinch-hit late. With Kershaw on the horizon for Game Six, Maddon’s insistence on Heyward might soften. The Baseball Lord may have hardened Maddon’s heart several times, but it’s time to let Heyward go.

More perpendicular to playoff trends, though, has been Maddon’s bullpen usage. There are a host of examples of this so far in the Cubs’ postseason, and they begin with the starting pitching. The only instances of Maddon going to the bullpen considerably earlier than he would have in a regular season game came in the each series’ Game Four, when Maddon yanked John Lackey from the game, both times, after four innings of work.

The Cubs emerged with victories in both of those games, but there have been some bullpen choices that occupy a grayer area than the above decisions. Chief is Maddon’s NLDS Game Three management, which might have cost the game for the Cubs. Double switching Jake Arrieta and Jorge Soler for Pedro Strop and Jason Heyward to begin the seventh was a sensible choice, amplifying the Cubs’ outfield defense and putting one of the Cubs’ best relievers in a key spot. Strop got two quick outs, but Maddon tapped Travis Wood to face Denard Span to gain a platoon advantage. The parade of relievers began: Wood ended the seventh and began the eighth; Hector Rondon pitched to one hitter and walked him; Aroldis Chapman, in a head scratching double switch, imploded; and Justin Grimm finally brought the eighth to a close.

Game One of the NLCS featured similarly constricting bullpen choices. With a 3-1 lead, Maddon went, once again, to Wood as a LOOGY, then to Edwards for two righties, then back to the lefty Montgomery for two lefties (across two innings), and then to Strop for two batters. Strop’s ineffectiveness gave way to Chapman’s ineffectiveness, and the Dodgers tied the game.

Those choices have been evaluated on their merit elsewhere, but they haven’t been properly positioned in the context of this postseason’s bullpen trends. If he were Terry Francona, he might have gone to Chapman to begin either inning: in that way, he still gets several platoon advantages, the team’s best reliever is on the mound, and subsequent relievers might not be unavailable in extra innings. Maddon tied his own hands in the way that a bolder manager might not have, preferring the slower pace and finer tuning of matchups.

One pitcher stands athwart Maddon’s tactical failings, however, shouting to the world that he won’t conform to Maddon’s vision. Mike Montgomery has, almost thanklessly, been a key cog in this Cubs’ postseason roster, pitching the third-most innings of all Cubs pitchers in the NLDS and fourth-most in the NLCS so far. His Game Three performance, which can only be described with the cliche “gutsy,” stands out in its longevity and effectiveness, keeping the Cubs in a tight game with no bench into the 13th, and bailing out Maddon for delving into his ‘pen recklessly. With his impressive showing, he offered Maddon more inventive bullpen deployment; while not nearly as world-beating as Andrew Miller, Montgomery could put up several scoreless innings in relief, regardless of his left-handedness, and allow some middle innings flexibility.

On Wednesday night, Maddon went to Montgomery in relief of Lackey, facing eight batters, and allowing two hits and no runs (two inherited runners scored on a hard-luck chopper off of Montgomery’s glove). With the lead in hand, Maddon turned the ball over to Carl Edwards, Jr., Wood, Strop, and Rondon, cementing a victory. Similarly, in Game Five, Maddon used only two relievers in the wake of seven very good innings from Jon Lester. Strop wiggled out of a self-created jam; Chapman faltered, giving up three runs. They were wholly unspectacular managerial evenings.

Maddon’s managerial conservatism has rewarded him, in the form of Game Four’s hitting breakout, and straddled him with a few tactical losses, mostly in the form of his bullpen management and Jason Heyward’s smoldering crater of a batting line. The latter haven’t proven disastrous, due to Mike Montgomery and the Cubs’ ability to come up with hits in clutch situations, but the decisions at the margins only become more magnified as the postseason marches toward the World Series. If the Cubs are to sink the Dodgers and set up the Sufferer’s Series versus Cleveland, Maddon might have to adapt the unconventional procedures of his peers. While it’s difficult to see the Cubs going to Jon Lester in relief in an elimination game (as much due to Lester’s profile as to Maddon’s inclinations), the Cubs’ bullpen sports a few arms with potential. It’s Maddon’s job, should he find himself at the crossroads of a tactical decision, to transform that potential into the best scenario to win. Maybe then we’ll see Mike Montgomery, NLCS MVP.

Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.

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