Few managerial moves unite fans from the disparate allegiances of the baseball internet, but you’d face a tall task finding someone who was pleased with how Joe Maddon handled the latter innings of the Cubs’ blowout Game Six victory on Tuesday night. Jake Arrieta had pitched well for 5 ⅔ innings and 102 pitches, and Mike Montgomery had escaped the sixth swiftly before running into trouble with two outs in the seventh. With a commanding 7-2 lead and Cleveland’s best relievers unlikely to enter the game, Maddon found himself managing a nearly sure win for the first time in a week. He had options in his fully stocked bullpen. He didn’t have to worry about the pitcher’s spot in the order in an American League park. And he had a presumptive Game Seven for which he could possibly save his best pitchers.
Even with the seemingly infinite permutations of relievers who could close out the game, Maddon decided to signal to bring in the tall lefty: Aroldis Chapman. It was a bold move that quickly drew the ire of most watching. Wasn’t bringing your best reliever into a five-run game in the seventh with the last game of the season on the horizon not just overkill, but, willfully… kind of stupid? Chapman had thrown over 40 pitches in his eight-out save on Sunday night, and he was near-sure to be necessary in Game Seven. A perfunctory appearance on Tuesday jeopardized his ability to close out the World Series with a few innings. How could Maddon be so daft?
Through it all, one fan stood in brave defiance of the scores of twittering second guessers who flocked to the moment like pigeons to popcorn beneath the L tracks.
my hot counter take: i kinda love going to the best reliever to face their best hitter with two on there if he comes out now.
— cubs in seven (@BeersNTrumpets) November 2, 2016
What courage. Really, though, the multiple decisions to bring in and leave in Chapman deserve some reflection and analysis, and while Maddon might have been right at one point in the game, he quickly managed himself into an unenviable spot behind the eight-ball.
The situation in which Maddon called on Chapman initially is, I think, the best argument for his appearance in the game at all. Montgomery induced a quick ground ball to end the sixth, but ran into trouble in the seventh after walking Roberto Perez (the nine hitter) and allowing Jason Kipnis to reach on a single. Montgomery was ill-suited to face Cleveland’s best hitter, Francisco Lindor, who has already had an immaculate postseason, so Maddon needed to bring in one of his warmed relievers. Chapman and Justin Grimm had warmed in tandem in the right-field bullpen, and the switch-hitting Lindor neutralized any platoon advantage.
So, Maddon went with Chapman, even though the scenario was, by the numbers, fairly low stakes, and likely to breed more low stakes as the game continued. The thing about win probability, however, is that it only relies on historical precedent; it does not account for the strength of the pitcher or hitter. So, while the win expectancy for Cleveland was in the small single digits, having Lindor at the plate multiplied the situation’s stress and importance. Even while a three-run homer from Lindor would leave a two-run margin with seven outs remaining, it felt imperative to stop the threat cold, in its infancy. Chapman induced a grounder to Anthony Rizzo and, sprinting to cover first, beat Lindor by a hair. The “safe” call on the field was, correctly, reversed upon review.
Six outs remained, and the Cubs appeared locked in versus Cleveland pitching. Between Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Carl Edwards, Jr., and Travis Wood (sorry Hector Rondon), Maddon could cobble together any configuration of arms to get the win. It was to my surprise and my chagrin that Maddon sent out Chapman for the eighth, and my tweets shifted tone more drastically than the second half of Boogie Nights. With more profanity, too. The pressure-raddled situation had passed, and Chapman had escaped with only a few pitches thrown. Why bring him out again, with his value relative to the situation getting smaller with every out?
For his part, Chapman pitched well, despite the unusual expectations. In the eighth, he struck out Mike Napoli and got a groundball resulting in a slick double play turn from Javier Baez, but his pitch count began to encroach upon the upper limits of comfort. With every pitch, I expected to see a reliever up in the Cubs’ ‘pen, to no avail. Recall your own consternation, then, when Maddon sent out Chapman to begin another inning in the ninth. What had begun as a defensible, maybe even sly, move had turned into a potentially disastrous one, with the probability of Chapman’s diminishing effectiveness for Game Seven becoming more tangible.
Maddon has been pilloried by a number of writers in the past week or two for his slow-to-change bullpen management, and most of those critiques have their merits. With Game Seven this evening, and Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Jake Arrieta all reportedly available in relief of Kyle Hendricks, Maddon has the benefit of great resources on his side, despite his use of Chapman. When searching for a theme in Maddon’s decisions, and how they’ve affected the Cubs’ chances, a familiar refrain crops up: the performances and decisions that live at the very edges of a baseball game—the kind of interstitial tissue of pitching changes, small adjustments, and split-second choices that separates the best from the very good—have an outsized impact on the World Series, especially in a pair of elimination games away from home. The sequence of events in the final half of Game Six, like the sequence that resulted in the removal of Jon Lester and David Ross in Game Five, changed the character of the entire series.
Lead photo courtesy David Richard—USA Today Sports.