If anyone is looking for a takeaway from Monday’s loss of the division title, it’s that we can firmly say Joe Maddon is in full postseason form. Unfortunately, that’s not completely good for Cubs fans.
Several things beyond Maddon’s control certainly went wrong in the Game 163 defeat to the Milwaukee Brewers. The offense was again predictably weak against Joulys Chacin. The Brewers’ big bullpen arms took advantage of the Cubs’ power-arm Achilles heel. And the Cubs have too few good bullpen arms.
Of course, you should never blame a manager for the fault of the pieces he had left on the board, but Maddon made more than a few characteristic mistakes that did nothing to counter Cubs deficiencies and blunt Milwaukee’s advantages. Here they are:
1. Lifting Quintana early
It’s a broken record to say Maddon removes starters way too early in playoff games without a sensible plan for getting remaining outs. Prominent on this list were Games 6 and 7 in the 2016 World Series and Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS against the Nationals. Now add Game 163, with Maddon lifting Jose Quintana in a 1-1 tie after a mere 64 pitches.
One can argue Quintana gave up consistent hard contact and pitched only one clean inning. Yes, he gave up six hits, but he had no walks and pitched out of all but one situation. Plus, given the thinness of the bullpen and 12 outs left to get, getting more out of Quintana seemed imperative. Especially considering how well Chacin was pitching and the three-headed Knebel-Hader-Jeffress monster looming.
Maddon is wont to point to the sabermetrics about starters facing a lineup a third time through. However, this rationale doesn’t apply here. Maddon let Quintana face the Brewers’ two best hitters (Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich) three times, but not the rest of the lineup that featured just one hitter with better than a .240 career average against Quintana (Mike Moustakas – .261). If you are going to use the third-time-through rationale, you ought to be a purist and avoid the top two hitters – including Yelich who was already 2 for 2 against him.
I love that Jesse Chavez relieved Quintana and pitched two perfect innings. In fact, he needed only 16 pitches to do so, which somewhat recommended keeping him in for at least one more inning. He now has a 0.00 ERA in his last 10 appearances dating back to September 5, allowing only one inherited runner to score.
But knowing how sketchy and thin the rest of the bullpen is, the Cubs really needed the two innings Chavez did throw to come later than the 6th and 7th. This would be only possible by sticking with Quintana longer and hope the Cubs hitters break the 1-1 tie in regulation.
2. Pitching Steve Cishek three days in a row.
This is not a knock on Cishek. The dude’s arm has been clearly exhausted since the end of August. So no surprise his command was not sharp in his 80th appearance of the year. Throw in that he had pitched in back-to-back games, it was triply stunning Maddon went into Game 163 planning (according to his post-game comments) to pitch Cishek a third day in a row.
Ten days ago, I wrote that a key to Maddon managing his current bullpen resources in the playoffs required largely shutting Cishek down. I recommended pitching Cishek just a couple more times for maintenance purposes, and otherwise let his arm recharge and find a few more bullets for playoff appearances. Instead, Maddon pitched Cishek in seven of the Cubs’ last 10 games with very predictable results. Although no runs were charged to his ERA, Cishek allowed five of seven inherited runners to score, including one Monday.
A review of Cishek’s most recent appearances included Maddon using him to pitch the final inning of a 5-run Cubs win over the White Sox, with a four-run lead against the Pirates and – most unforgivably Sunday – with the Cubs up six on the Cardinals with Game 163 staring you in the face.
Worst of all, Maddon suggested in his post-game remarks that Cishek will be available for the Wild Card game – a fourth day in a row. His reasoning is they’ve “limited” their use of Cishek to just “jab with him [in short bursts] rather than pitch him a whole inning.”
But of course, the reason you can only use Cishek for an ineffective one- to two-hitter “burst” is because Maddon overused a premium set-up reliever and turned him into a mid-game Justin Wilson-style matchup pitcher.
3. Whither Terrance Gore?
For the second time in three games, the Cubs got their leadoff hitter on base in the 6th inning. Daniel Murphy got a hit Saturday down 2-1 to the Cardinals. Monday, it was Ian Happ with a walk in a 1-1 tie. Given that runs were hard to come by, both situations seemed prime for pinch-running Terrance Gore to change the lethargic offensive dynamic.
Murphy’s hit came ahead of Ben Zobrist and his excellent bat-control skills with no outs. Get a steal (never guaranteed) and perhaps Zobrist scores him or at least advances him to third for one chance at a sacrifice fly with Anthony Rizzo following Zobrist.
In Game 163, a Gore steal could have prevented the double play that Willson Contreras grounded into ahead of the top of the order. As it turned out, Murphy and Zobrist mounted a two-out rally with a single and a walk ahead of a Javy Baez whiff.
And even if Gore doesn’t attempt a steal, his mere presence is distracting and moves fielders out of their preferred positioning to guard against him running. It should be a managerial sin to ever end a close game with Gore on the bench – akin to Buck Showalter not pitching Zach Britton in a close 2016 Wild Card game.
One must always guard against “outcome bias.” All three alternate moves recommended above are based not on outcomes, but on pretty clear chances to increase win probability. The bad taste in the mouth left by the Game 163 defeat just makes Maddon’s poor moves all the more clear.
Of course, we’ve seen this poor playoff style from Maddon many times before. It nearly cost the Cubs the World Series title. One just hopes the front office can intervene and marshal all of its analytics force to encourage Maddon to correct his ways.
I’ll certainly be crossing my fingers, but not holding my breath.