Cubs 2016 Playoff Retrospective – Luck and Skill: NLDS and NLCS Edition

Every World Series Champion owes some portion of its victory to chance and/or good fortune. I hesitate to use the word luck, not only because of the negative connotation that word has in sports, but also because each World Series contender has to have some sort of baseline skill that would allow them to be in the position to take advantage of any breaks they may catch along the way. For instance, the 2001 Diamondbacks had the good fortune of winning a World Series on a broken bat base hit that barely cleared the infield. Yes, that hit was the product of good fortune, but the Diamondbacks had put themselves in that position by executing against Mariano Rivera in a way that no team in the 1998-2000 playoffs had been able to accomplish.

This brings us to the Cubs, a team that prior to 2016 both did not seem to have any good fortune in the playoffs, and more importantly usually did have enough skill to take advantage of any breaks that may have fallen their way in their precious few visits to the postseason. That changed during the Cubs epic 2016 World Series run. Below I’ve put together a list of events that occurred in the NLDS and NLCS that may have at the time flown under the radar at the time (a “deep cuts” list if you will), but after further review were evidence of the Cubs being the beneficiary of fortunate break (usually in the form of the other teams mistakes). Unlike previous Cubs teams, the 2016 Cubs were deep enough and good enough to take advantage of such good fortune. Feel free to contribute your own ideas in the comments section below if there were any at the time nondescript events that either benefited the Cubs or the Cubs took advantage off during the NLDS or NLCS that aren’t included in my list below.

Buster Posey’s Base Running Adventure: Game One NLDS – Top of the Fourth – Cubs: 0 vs. Giants: 0, 2 Outs: Buster Posey was on first after singling earlier in the top of the fourth when Angel Pagan lofted a broken-bat double into left field. Ben Zobrist failed to keep it in front of him as he slid to make the catch, but Posey, with Starlin Castro-esque baseball awareness, seemingly forgot how many outs there were in the inning and came to a virtual standstill for a moment between second and third.

Obviously Posey as a catcher is not the most fleet of foot, but he should have been able to score in this instance once the ball got past Zobrist. Unfortunately for the Giants, Posey was stuck on third, and the Giant’s next hitter (Brandon Crawford) grounded out to Addison Russell to end the Giant’s threat. Had Posey scored, the Giants would have taken a 1-0 lead with Johnny Cueto dealing on the mound. That’s by no means an insurmountable lead, but it would have at least put the Giants in the driver’s seat to begin the series.

Posey more than made up for this mistake as he got on base seven times (five hits, two walks) in seventeen plate appearances during the four games of the NLDS. Even Posey’s outs seemed to be more of the product of his hard-hit balls finding gloves than the Cubs pitchers fooling him (more on this down below). Still, Posey’s base running blunder allowed the Cubs to dodge an early bullet, and Jon Lester never looked back. One final thought, a hot mic picks up a very audible “God Damnit” at the end of the video above. Those dulcet tones most likely belong belonged to either Ben Zobrist or Buster Posey, although when it comes to swearing on a baseball field John Lackey cannot be overlooked.

Cubs Pitchers Make Their Case against the DH – Games 1-3 NLDS: This one is rather obvious as the home runs of Travis Wood (after coming into the game as a reliver) and Jake Arrieta (the first home run by Madison Bumgarner to a pitcher) were memorable moments immediately after they happened. But it cannot be overstated how important the Cubs pitchers were to the team’s offense in games 1-3 of the NLDS. Here are the traditional rate stats for Cubs pitchers and for Cubs position players for games 1-3 of the NLDS:

  • Cubs Pitchers: .333/2 home runs/6 RBIs
  • Cubs Position Players: .188/2 home runs/5 RBIs

Javy Baez and Kris Bryant combined for ten of the Cubs position players’ nineteen hits during games 1-3 of the NLDS. As Cubs fans remember from the 2007 and 2008 playoff trips to the emotional guillotine, when the bats get this cold this early in the playoffs, more often than not your team goes home early. Thankfully, the Cubs pitchers designated hitters bailed them out.

Albert Almora (Temporarily) Saves the Day – Game 3 NLDS – Bottom of the Ninth – Cubs: 5 vs. Giants: 5, 1 Out: Given the dramatic comeback the Cubs mounted in the top of ninth the next night in game four of the NLDS, most Cub fans overlook what happened the previous night in game 3 of the NLDS. That’s a shame because in my opinion besides game seven of the World Series, this was the best game the Cubs played in the 2016 postseason. Here’s a quick recap of the game: Jake Arrieta hit a three-run home run off of Madison Bumgarner in the top of the second inning and chased Bumgarner after five innings and 101 pitches. However, the Cubs failed to capitalize on the Giants bullpen as they went hitless in innings six through eight. Arrieta pitched solidly, going six innings and giving up two runs.

Heading to the bottom of the eighth the Giants still trailed 3-2, but Brandon Belt singled off of Travis Wood and Buster Posey drew a walk off of Hector Rondon to give the Giants runners on first and second with no outs. At this point Joe Maddon had seen enough and brought in Aroldis Chapman to put out the fire. In a sign of depressing and frustrating events to come, bringing in Chapman with runners on in the eighth inning did not go well, as Conor Gillespie delivered the big blow and the Giants took a 5-3 lead into the ninth.

The Cubs then shocked everyone by tying the game up at 5-5 in the top of ninth, courtesy of Kris Bryant’s first home run of the 2016 postseason. Mike Montgomery was the sixth Cubs’ reliever summoned from the bullpen that night, and he faced Buster Posey with a Brandon Belt on first and one out. Posey continued his hot streak at the plate by lining a Montgomery fastball into the right field corner that Almora miraculously ran down, diving to snare the ball as it tailed away from him. With Belt running on contact, Almora easily doubled him off of first base to end the inning and send the game into extra innings.

Now we know now that Cubs lost this game in extra innings so you could say that this catch wasn’t vital towards the quest for a World Series championship, but one has to remember that these games don’t happen in vacuum. What happens in one game can have an overlapping effect on the next one, especially in a five-game series. As a result of Almora’s game saving catch, Sergio Romo (who gave up Bryant’s home run) was forced to work an extra inning. After Romo departed Bruce Bochy called upon Will Smith to shut down the Cubs in the eleventh, and Ty Blach pitched both the twelfth and thirteenth innings to secure a Giants victory. The Cubs would go on score three runs off of Sergio Romo and Will Smith the next night in game four. Blach meanwhile was effectively unavailable after pitching the two extra innings the night before, and an inning and third in game two, and his absence left Bruce Bochy with one fewer option in his troubled bullpen.

Perhaps most importantly, Almora’s catch in the ninth inning of game three allowed Mike Montgomery to rebound and pitch another three innings of shutout baseball in the highest of high leverage situation before finally running out of gas in the bottom of the thirteenth. It’s may have been clear to his manager before, but Montogmery’s game three performance proved to Maddon that, without a doubt, Montgomery could handle these types of situations.

Dave Roberts Suffers from Recency Bias, Intentionally Walks Jason Heyward – Game 1 NLCS – Bottom of the Eighth – Cubs: 3 vs. Dodgers: 3, 1 Out: Jason Heyward had a .237 tAV in the 2016 season. Only a handful of major league regulars were worse, and none of these players played on teams that appeared in the 2016 playoffs. Over the course of the 2016 season a cottage industry (of which I took part in at this website) rose up around Jason Heyward’s fall from grace at the plate, and gradually developed among sabermetric bloggers, beat writers, national columnists, and everyone on Twitter who made a Jason Heyward grounding out to second joke.

And yet, with a runner on second and one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, Dave Roberts instructed Joe Blanton to intentionally walk Jason Heyward. Yes, Heyward had hit a triple in his first at-bat earlier in the game, but up until that point Heyward had been 1-for-12 in the playoffs with three strikeouts. What made it weirder is that Heyward was intentionally walked in order for Joe Blanton to face an (at the time) scorching Javier Baez who had already doubled twice in that game (Baez would pop out on the first pitch).

People remember Dave Roberts walking Chris Coghlan to load the bases to get Chapman out of the game, and then leaving Blanton in the game to face Miguel Montero. I’m not sure I would have done that, but I get the logic of removing Chapman from the game and taking your chances against the weaker portion of the Cubs bullpen. What I don’t get is actively trying to avoid one of the year’s worst hitters just because of the outcome of one plate appearance earlier in the night. All that said, having been in the Wrigley Field seats that night, I’m glad Dave Roberts did what he did because it paved the way for an all time great Cubs moment.

Wilson Contreras Escapes John Lackey’s Wrath, Picks Off Justin Turner at Second Base – Game 4 NLCS – Bottom of the First – Cubs: 0 vs. Dodger: 0, 2 Outs: After winning game one of the NLCS, the Cubs got shutout in both games two and three, and the Dodgers took a 2-1 series lead. By not scoring a run in the last eighteen innings, the Cubs opened the door for national columnists to rehash their favorite topics regarding the North Siders. More pertinently, if the Cubs failed to win game four, they would be forced to win out in order to advance to the World Series, including games six and seven which would be started by the same two starters (Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill) who had shut them down in games two and three. So it’s safe to say a lot was riding on this game.

With Corey Seager on first and one out in the top of the first inning, John Lackey induced Justin Turner into hitting a groundball to short. Unfortunately, the ball wasn’t hit hard enough to be routine, and the Cubs failed to turn what would have been a tough 6-4-3 double play, with Javy Baez’s throw on the turn bouncing past a helpless looking Anthony Rizzo as he tried to hold the bag. As a result of the errant throw, Turner advanced to second.

At this point, I was concerned that after this subpar defensive play, Rizzo, who at this point was 2-for-26 in the postseason, looked like he was on the verge of a mental breakdown (What would you say you do here Anthony?). The fact that Fox caught John Lackey chewing out his infielders like the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket didn’t help either. With Turner at second base, Adrian Gonzalez worked the count to 2-0 on Lackey, who was clearly still steamed about the missed double play delivered ball three. Luckily for Lackey, after ball three Wilson Contreras saw Justin Turner wandering off second base and delivered a strike to Addison Russell who simultaneously slid towards the ball, caught the ball, prevented Turner from sliding back into second, and tagged Justin Turner out.

While the Cubs had an all-time great defense in 2016, in the playoffs one of their greatest strengths was turning baserunners into outs once they had reached base. In their seventeen playoff games the Cubs either pick offed or caught a baserunner stealing nine times. Arguably, none were more crucial then Contreras’ pick off of Justin Turner. Maybe John Lackey battles back from 3-0 against Adrian Gonzalez and gets out of the inning, but it’s entirely possible that Lackey walks Gonzalez and the series takes an unfortunate turn for the Cubs. After all for all of John Lackey’s postseason heroics, as Cub fans know from the 2015 playoffs he does have a history of getting burned once he loses his temper.

Adrian Gonzalez is Thrown Out, Ben Zobrist Sneaks By  Game 4 NLCS:

The importance of game four was also clearly evident in how aggressively each team’s third base coach treated their baserunners. Let’s start with the Dodgers. With two outs and runners on first and second in the bottom of the second inning, Andrew Toles lined a 1-0 John Lackey fastball into right field for a base hit. Again, there were two outs, so all runners should be running on contact, but Adrian Gonzalez was the lead runner so given Jason Heyward’s arm and how quickly Heyward got to the ball it was still a risky send. Below is a picture of roughly where Heyward was when he made the throw home.

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Heyward’s throw beat Gonzalez with plenty of time to spare, but because it was up the first base line Wilson Contreras had to dive back to plate to tag Gonzalez just as the Dodgers first baseman dove headfirst into home. It was a close play and probably could have gone either way, but the home plate umpire originally ruled Gonzalez out, and there wasn’t enough evidence in the review process to overturn him. As you can imagine Gonzalez disagreed, so much so that he personally commented on the play after the game.

Now, contrast this with the first scoring chance for the Cubs. In the top of the fourth, Ben Zobrist and Javy Baez both singled. Wilson Contreras then followed up with a soft liner to left field; Andrew Toles, the Dodgers left fielder got to the ball relatively quickly and came up throwing. Below is a picture of roughly where Toles was at when he made the throw home:

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Ben Zobrist hadn’t even reached third base by the time Andrew Toles fielded the ball in short left field. No matter, the Cubs hadn’t scored in 21 innings, and it looks like Gary Jones was going to send Zobrist no matter what. Fortunately for the Cubs, unlike Heyward, Toles’ throw home was so bad that it not only allowed Zobrist to score standing up, it also allowed both Baez and Contreras to advance to second and third, respectively. You know the rest: Russell homered later in the inning, Rizzo homered the next inning and finished the NLCS on a tear, and the Dodgers never led at any point in the NLCS after the fourth inning of game four.

Dave Roberts pulls Kenta Maeda in the top of the fourth inning in Game 5 of the NLCS: This is probably the moment that is the biggest stretch to include on this list, but I included it anyway because it was another instance of Dave Roberts clearly overestimating the powers of his non-Kenley Jansen relievers in the postseason.

When Roberts made the move pull him, Maeda had pitched only three and two-thirds innings in game five, with six strikeouts and two walks allowed. Save a couple of breaking pitches that he hung to Rizzo and Baez that ended up as doubles, I thought Maeda was pitching reasonably well (especially after a very mediocre game one performance earlier in the NLCS). What makes this decision even weirder was that Maeda looked like he was about to work his way out of a two men on, no out jam after he struck out Addison Russell and got David Ross to fly out. All Maeda needed to do to complete the fourth inning was retire Jon Lester. Apparently, Dave Roberts didn’t think Maeda was up for the challenge of retiring a slugger like Jon Lester, so he pulled Maeda (who had only thrown 76 pitches) and brought in Josh Fields to retire Lester.

I’m not the world’s biggest Maeda fan, and I know the third time around the order stats, but after Julio Urias only pitched three and two-thirds innings the night before in game four, the Dodgers needed Maeda to go reasonably deep in the game. Instead, Roberts prevented Maeda from doing this and consequently choose to throw Joe Blanton (who gave up the go-ahead home run to Addison Russell and had an abysmal series), Pedro Baez, Ross Stripling, and Luis Avalon (among others) out there, all of whom (save Blanton) had thrown at least twenty pitches the night before in game four. The Cubs went on to score five runs against a beleaguered Dodgers bullpen in the eighth inning of game five and subsequently turned what had been a close game into a blowout.

Andrew Toles Drops the Ball – Game 6 NLCS – Bottom of the First – Cubs 1, Dodgers 0, 0 OutsLet me be very clear: given Kyle Hendricks’ now legendary performance in game six of the NLCS, I’m not sure the Cubs needed more than one run to clinch the pennant. Still, this was the play to me that signified both that the baseball gods were on our side, and it was the Dodgers (and not the Cubs for once) that seemed to be intimidated by the atmosphere and began shrinking away from the challenge.

Kris Bryant had just singled in Dexter Fowler when Anthony Rizzo reached out and lofted a 2-2 pitch into left centerfield. Judging by the reaction of the crowd (never a good idea), and the reaction of Joe Buck it seemed like the ball was destined to split the gap and roll to the wall. However, Andrew Toles got there with plenty of time, and it looked like he would make a routine catch. Fortunately for the Cubs, Kris Bryant made a rare misread on the base paths and was almost at second base when Toles, who was camped under Rizzo’s drive, caught a glimpse of Bryant out of the corner of his eye. The split second that Toles took his eye off the ball to check on Bryant caused it to ricochet off the heel of his glove and allowed Bryant and Rizzo to advance to third and second with no outs. That set up the Cubs’ second run of the game, and with it came an air of inevitability that the Cubs were finally going to World Series.

Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports

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