MLB: World Series-Chicago Cubs at Cleveland Indians

Understanding Maddon’s Use of Lester in Game 7

With the Winter Meetings underway, it appears to finally be time to turn the page on the greatest night of our baseball lives and focus instead on the coming season ahe—

You know what? Screw that. The thing about the greatest night of our baseball lives is that there’s no such thing as spending too much time reliving it. Anyone who tells you otherwise probably celebrates major life events thusly:

WIFE: Happy Anniversary, honey!

HUSBAND: The past is for cowards and losers.

Over a month later, I still can’t help looking back to Game 7 of the World Series. Mostly because I like having joy in my life. Joy unabated even though one questionable managerial issue still lingers from that game: when Joe Maddon appeared to suddenly go insane and manage like he wanted to hurt us. And while many of the moves he made will be debated for years to come, I’d like to focus on the time he made all of us say “Huh?” when he lifted Kyle Hendricks in the fifth inning in favor of Jon Lester.

Because while it appeared to be impulsive and even a bit reckless at the time, a deeper dive reveals that it actually makes quite a bit more sense when viewed in the context of all the circumstances that led up to it. In other words: while it’s not necessarily sound baseball strategy, there is actually a lot more logic to it than first glance.

The biggest reason why Maddon chose to lift Hendricks after only 4.2 innings is found mostly in Game 7‘s third inning. For the most part during the 2016 postseason up until that fateful frame, Hendricks had been giving up only two types of balls in play:

– Outs

– Line drives that hit him on the forearm

Basically, until that night, the only way to get Hendricks taken out of a game was to physically injure him. And fortunately for the Cubs, none of the Indians had spent their formative years training at the Cobra Kai Baseball Academy.

(“They taught me everything I know about sliding technique!”

–Matt Holliday)

Unfortunately, the third inning of Game 7 showed us a Kyle Hendricks we hadn’t seen in a long time. It started with Coco Crisp making solid contact on an outside pitch and lacing it down the left field line for a leadoff double. With one away, Carlos Santana tied the game with a ringing RBI single to right on a breaking pitch that hung invitingly over the center of the plate.

Thus began the pattern that would bedevil Hendricks for the entire inning: line drives and pitches that didn’t do what he wanted them to. That is, unless it’s discovered that before the game Hendricks was telling teammates, “Hey, LeBron James isn’t smiling on TV enough. I’m going to fix that.”

During the next at bat, Jason Kipnis fouled another hanger straight back and visibly puffed out his cheeks and exhaled. When he became a manager, one of the first lessons Maddon had to learn was that it’s not a good sign when hitters respond to his starter’s pitches the way cartoon wolves react to Bugs Bunny in drag.

And at that point, the sheer number of bad pitches in that inning combined with the hard hit balls in play were enough to make Maddon make a call to his bullpen. In a winner take all game, he saw that Hendricks’s pitches were suddenly not looking anything like what he intended and realized that he might have to get him out of there in another batter or two if The Professor didn’t get it back together immediately.

By the time Javy Baez’s error brought Francisco Lindor up to the plate with two runners on, Jon Lester had begun cranking it up. At that point, Maddon couldn’t afford to ponder if Hendricks could settle down and right the ship. He had to find a way to get out of that jam and then figure out how to get the Cubs through the middle innings. This was why Lester was warming up much earlier than anticipated.

Even though Hendricks eventually escaped, the third out of the inning was yet another hanger that Mike Napoli crushed directly into Kris Bryant’s glove. Not exactly confidence building. While we may not know much about the world of the divine, one thing we can definitely conclude from this escape is:

Jobu <<<<< BABIP Gods.

In discussing this sequence of events, Maddon told Ken Rosenthal, “Kyle had kind of a tough third inning, kind of an awkward third inning. I didn’t know where he was, quite frankly, in the game that night. Kyle was so valuable for us. But he’s the kind of guy–it goes very quickly. You have to be prepared. Again, there is no Game 8.”

So in other words, the third inning was so shaky that it combined with the pressure of the winner take all game to convince Joe Maddon that he might have been watching the 2015 version of Kyle Hendricks. And you can’t blame him at that point. Considering the way Hendricks’s pitches looked and the results they generated, the only way you could tell that it wasn’t 2015 was the lack of Brian Schlitter warming in the bullpen.

(Let that reference remind you that there are worse moves Maddon could have made…)

Once he emerged from the third, Hendricks immediately remembered what year it was and reverted back to the dominant control artist we all know and love. On any other day, this would have been enough to stick with him and see how many innings he could take care of himself.

But as Maddon admitted afterward, he had mapped the game out to go Hendricks–Lester–Chapman. And because Lester was a starter, Maddon couldn’t afford to burn him out by warming him up and sitting him down. Once Lester began warming up, he was coming into the game. And because he started throwing in that third inning, it meant that by the time he was ready, he would have to come in much sooner than originally planned.

It’s also worth remembering that Lester was throwing on two days’ rest. So he only had a finite number of quality pitches in his arm to use in Game 7. Once he was warmed up, Maddon most likely didn’t want to waste any of those bullets in the bullpen. Which meant that if Hendricks showed any further signs of trouble, Lester was coming in the game so that the Cubs could get as many dominant innings out of him as possible.

The only problem was that Hendricks was screwing up the plan by refusing to get in trouble. He set down the side in order in the fourth and got the first two batters in the fifth with no difficulty. Unfortunately, on a 2-2 count to Carlos Santana, Sam Holbrook chose Game 7 of the World Series to call pitch number five a ball:


The only possible explanation for that kind of umpiring is that Holbrook was trying to stall the game to keep Jason Heyward from killing the Queen.

Santana walked on the next pitch and with Jason Kipnis coming to the plate, Maddon found a match-up that he thought favored Lester. As he explained to Rosenthal,

“I wanted Lester on Kipnis. And I wanted Lindor hitting right handed. If you watch Lindor play, you would much prefer him hitting right handed over left handed…

“I said I didn’t want to bring him into a dirty inning. What happened was we had a four run lead and Santana was on first base. To me, that’s as clean as it gets. There is no threat for him to run.”

Maddon had a fully warmed up Lester ready to give him multiple innings and the match-ups he wanted. He decided that if there was a time to gain an advantage by using Lester, this was it. And while many of us (myself included) still don’t agree with his decision given how well Hendricks had settled in, we can still acknowledge that it makes more sense given all the factors that led up to it.

Game 7 of the 2016 World Series will be a joy to watch for generations to come. And while Joe Maddon’s confounding pitching moves probably took years off our lives, we can at least spend those years resting easily knowing that the events of the game dictated them. And not Bruce Kimm rummaging behind his filing cabinet to discover a portal into Maddon’s brain.

Lead photo courtesy of David Richard—USA Today Sports

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6 comments on “Understanding Maddon’s Use of Lester in Game 7”

The CHI Sports Fan (@TheCHISportsFan)

Great article. I think the REAL accusation might be pointed at why Maddon didn’t have contingency for a stop gap between Kyle and Jon (ie, Monty) and why he started Lester warming up so early.

Baseball’s not perfect but I feel Maddon really downgraded his “magician” moniker he rightfully earned throughout the year and even in the NLCS.

We won, but I sure as hell hope Maddon revisits his own planning/forethought for the future.


First of all, a great read, as always. Long-time reader, first time caller.

Secondly, I agree with the above comment by thechisportsfan — the Cubs won, so it’s all wonderful. But I think Maddon’s work in the last few games of the Series really tarnished the halo he’d had. I’ll even give you Chapman going 2 2/3 in Game 5, although I still don’t love it.

But throwing Chapman WITH A FRIGGIN’ FIVE-RUN LEAD in Game 6 was absolute insanity (and not the good kind, like Linsanity or Vinsanity). And while I see your points above re: Game 7, I think you can make the argument that Hendricks had earned enough trust to think he might right the proverbial ship. Your point that Maddon had to use Lester once he started him makes sense, though.

Two other thoughts:
1) I’m wondering if the reason Maddon brought in Lester with two on in the fifth, rather than waiting to start him fresh the next inning, was because he felt he had a finite number of pitches in his arm and he needed to get him in sooner, rather than later?

2) What are your thoughts on bringing Chapman back in for the 9th? An article on, uhhh, a site that rhymes with shmanshraphs detailed Chapman’s 9th inning work and said he was incredibly lucky not to give up a run because he clearly had nothing. (See Maddon’s aforementioned bull-headed use of him in Game 6.) The article said two guys, Santana and Kipnis, had two awful pitches they could/should have crushed and just missed.

But again… it’s all moot because the Cubs won the WS (last I heard).

Ken Schultz

Thanks, guys! I also wish Maddon hadn’t lost confidence in so many of his bullpen guys. I know Rondon and Strop struggled coming back from their respective injuries. But Grimm got one of the biggest DPs of the Series and I can’t help but think he would’ve been effective, despite his efforts in Game 4.

Definitely not a fan of Chapman throwing as much as he did in Game 6. I can at least understand bringing him in when he did–with Lindor due up and two runners on, if you snuff that rally out as he did, Cleveland has to go back to square run down five runs in the 8th. But at that point, Maddon has to figure he can get six outs with other arms. And sending him out for the 9th was unconscionable.

To Joel’s points:
1) Totally agree. Maddon told Rosenthal that Ross was raving about how good Lester’s stuff was and I think he wanted to use it to its fullest advantage. And in spite of the wild pitch, Lester was brilliant.

2) Hated hated hated it. But at that point, I was already dead inside from the Davis home run and thought Maddon had blown it by his bullpen usage to that point so one more bad move just felt like piling on a horrifying turn of events. I thought Kipnis’s long foul ball was a Series winning homer off the bat. They’re really fortunate they got through the 9th. Grimm or Edwards would have been a much better choice at that point.

BUT I think we have to give Maddon credit for managing the 10th very well. Edwards was dominant in retiring Napoli and Ramirez. But then when he gave up the walk to Guyer and the single to Davis, Maddon correctly realized that the moment was getting to him. And Montgomery was the perfect guy to face Martinez, as we saw.

Because as it turns out, the Cubs WON THE WORLD SERIES. I’m going to agree–that should probably be the lede.


To me, the bottom line was that Maddon’s managing in games 6 & 7 seemed like a guy who was panicking. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for Chapman’s 2 2/3-inning save of Game 5, but I still think it was unnecessary.

But bringing Chapman out at all in Game 6 seemed completely ridiculous. Sure, teams have come back from 7-2 deficits before, but the likelihood is absurdly minimal. And I know it was do-or-die, but these games didn’t happen in a vacuum. There were repercussions to using Chapman so much — i.e., Rajai Davis.

Similarly, Maddon said he had Game 7 completely mapped out. To me, that speaks to a rigidity that, again, implies panic. Rather than going with the flow (maaaaaaan) like you’d think he would do, Maddon went with the etched-in-stone game plan he’d already drawn up. I get your article’s point that Hendricks had shown his command wasn’t completely flawless, but that’s an awfully short leash Maddon had for starting Lester.

ALSO, Maddon had already taxed Soler the previous two games, so he brings him in with one man on? He didn’t think Lester could get one more guy out? (Similarly, he brought in Lester with a guy on and two outs — couldn’t trust Kyle for one more guy?)

I know I’m ranting like the guy in front of Old Navy on State Street (Chicago native inside joke!), but to my mind, the Cubs won Game 7 despite Maddon, not because of him. Clearly he gets a pass because he’d gotten the team this far, but if Zobrist’s single is four inches further to the right and they end up losing that game, Maddon would’ve been completely — and rightly — excoriated as the guy who effed-up a completely winnable World Series.


Guh — two bad errors (that’s what I get for typing whilst sitting next to my boss at work):

1) “bringing in Lester,” not “starting Lester”
2) “taxed Chapman,” not “taxed Soler”

Ken Schultz

I agree that it felt like Maddon was managing scared in the last few games of the Series. Which is what happens when he refuses to go to so many good relief pitchers who had come through in big spots all season. It was disconcerting and certainly went against his principle of “Don’t ever let the pressure exceed the pleasure.”

And until the greatest 10th inning ever, my first thought was that Maddon had Dustied himself with his use of Chapman. (And Lester was one Addison Russell dive away from getting through a flawless 8th. He probably could have gone through Brandon Guyer–although Guyer was this Series’s Conor Gillespie/Andrew Toles/Why-the-hell-can’t-they-get-this-guy-out guy so who knows?) This was Maddon’s 2003 Game 6–only worse. But the team rescued him and he recovered just in time to manage a great 10th. I like arguing managerial strategy in the wake of a game like this a lot better.

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