C’mon in here for a minute. And shut the door behind you.
What’s going on?
Well, you’re getting to the point where it’s time for us to have a little talk. You see, when a manager really likes a closer — I mean really likes him, more than the other relievers — he may want to use that closer for more than just an inning. Do you get what I’m driving at?
Sure, Skip, I think so. But what about Chap-?
Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that now, just get on back out there and try to keep that arm from falling off.
Okay, so it probably didn’t go down quite like that, but Joe Maddon did say that he’s talked to Wade Davis about working more than an inning at a time. That’s something Davis hasn’t done in the regular season since early 2014, and it’s a strategy that Maddon didn’t handle very deftly with Aroldis Chapman last season.
Though Theo Epstein publicly expressed the team’s need to ride last year’s closer down the stretch and through the postseason, Chapman was very critical of Maddon’s decision-making after signing with the Yankees. Having perhaps taken something away from that, Maddon is being a little more transparent with how he’s handling the current situation
“I’ve already had the conversation with (Davis),” Maddon said Thursday. “He’s aware. He’s onboard. But I’m trying to avoid that as long as we possibly can.”
The Cubs obviously didn’t want to be in this situation at all, especially after they spent big to bring would-be high-leverage lefty Justin Wilson into the fold. But Wilson has wilted in Chicago thus far and can’t be counted on to throw strikes. Hell, he had to be pulled from his most recent outing in what should have been a walk-over win.
It still ended up being a comfortable 8-3 victory for the Cubs, but Wilson entered to close out the 9th inning and promptly allowed a single. He then earned a backwards K and proceeded to walk the next two men to load the bases. Maddon was forced to go to Pedro Strop to get the final two outs, which is pretty sad when you’re talking about what was a six-run at the time.
Mike Montgomery moving back to the pen gives the Cubs a reliable lefty who can work in long or short relief, and Brian Duensing continues to be incredibly effective. Then you’ve got Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop, and Hector Rondon working much of the back end of games. After that, though, it gets really dicey.
Koji Uehara should return soon from an infection in his knee, but he hasn’t proven that he can consistently get outs. There’s no way Justin Grimm sees action on the playoff roster — if at all from this point forward — Dillon Maples isn’t ready for the big-time quite yet, and Felix Pena can’t be leaned on.
The list of relievers Maddon can trust has gotten shorter, which is why Davis’s outings might get longer. That leads to a stated fear about the ability to properly balance usage with effectiveness as the Cubs head into a home stretch that is going to have all kinds of playoff implications.
Since he became a closer, Davis has never pitched more than one inning at a time in the regular season. In fact, he hasn’t done so outside of the postseason since May 29, 2014, when he went two innings to earn a win over the Blue Jays. That was actually his second straight two-inning outing, and his third in eight appearances, but he wouldn’t go that long again until October 10 in a playoff game against Baltimore.
Each of the last five times Davis has thrown more than one inning have come in the postseason, with two in 2014 and three in 2015. And only one of those (1.2 IP in 2015 ALCS Game 6) saw him pitch less than two innings. The results are enough to justify the usage, as Davis allowed no runs on five hits and a walk while striking out 15 in 9.2 innings of work across that handful of appearances.
The main fear with implementing this strategy too early, of course, is that it’ll wear the closer down. He’s averaged 18.1 pitches per appearance this year after averaging 16.6 per in last year’s injury-shortened campaign and 15.6 in his dominant 2015 season. For as good as he’s been, Davis has displayed a propensity for wildness that is a little worrisome when it comes to his pitch count.
As such, I’d imagine we’ll see Davis used more judiciously in four-out situations if Maddon does choose to deploy his closer early. That’ll be particularly true if the opponent has a tough lefty coming to the plate with two outs. Davis has held lefties to a .443 OPS with no homers this season and has gotten them to hit infield flies at a phenomenal 23.8 percent rate.
You want to save Davis for the playoffs, but that’s effectively where the Cubs are at this point. They’ve got a three-game lead over the Cardinals and Brewers, teams that make up 11 of their next 13 games, so the margin for error is slim. Unless you’re working with a healthy lead, now is not the time to see if Grimm or Wilson can actually figure it out.
So as the Cubs wade into deeper waters, they’ll need to lean on Davis to bail them out.