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:
– 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!”
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