In Defense of Joe Maddon’s Pitching Decisions
Rarely is there an unequivocal, slam-dunk decision in baseball. And in big-game moments, particularly ones that don’t work out, a manager will be criticized endlessly. Game 2 serves as a perfect example of just that. Joe Maddon went with Carl Edwards Jr. to face one of the game’s generational talents, Bryce Harper, only for the former MVP to smash a hanging curve and turn a 3-1 game into a 3-3 tie.
As I see it, Maddon had three clear choices against Harper: 1) Carl Edwards Jr.; 2) Mike Montgomery; 3) Wade Davis.
Some agreed with Maddon’s decision to keep Edwards Jr. on the mound. Others were frustrated Montgomery didn’t face Harper in a lefty-lefty matchup that usually favors the pitcher. And then there were others who were disappointed Davis wasn’t called upon to face the Nationals’ best hitter. Solid arguments can be made by each camp.
Follow along and I’ll present separate arguments for each one of the aforementioned decisions. But by the time you finish this post, don’t be surprised if your takeaway is that there was no real correct decision.
Carl Edwards Jr.
Lefties can’t touch Edwards’ stuff. Against the lanky righty, opposing left-handed hitters generated only a .204 wOBA and batted .117 with a putrid .193 slugging percentage.
Plus, that stuff might actually play better against Harper. No other Cubs reliever had a better whiff percentage than CJ’s 32.7 percent, though Wade Davis was mere decimal points behind. Still, against one of the game’s best hitters, even the most minimal advantage could make the difference.
From a psychological perspective, Edwards is more primed for the 8th inning, not the higher-stress 9th. Even if you don’t agree with the idea that the 8th and 9th are different in terms of stress, each pitcher perceives situations differently. It’s quite possible that Edwards reacts betting in the earlier frame solely due to the fact that he is able to call upon the previous experience of shutting down 8th innings.
Sure, Montgomery’s .276 wOBA against lefties is inferior to Carl’s stellar .204 mark, but Harper is less effective against southpaw pitchers. The bearded, hair-whipping hitter crushes righty pitchers to the tune of a .442 wOBA, in contrast to the .345 wOBA he recorded against lefty pitchers in 2017.
Theo Epstein traded former top prospect, the cost-controlled Jorge Soler, in order to ensure that moments like Saturday wouldn’t happen. If the Cubs were going to lose, it should have been with their prized closer engaged in battle. Maddon could’ve inserted Davis to face Harper and get the remaining five outs, too.
I don’t discount the sentiment to pitch Davis. He has ice in his veins and seemingly doesn’t get perturbed by stressful situations. Whereas Edwards might’ve been intimidated, Davis would’ve handled that plate appearance with the same emotion as a spring training moment.
Davis destroys lefties, who only had a .227 wOBA against the Cubs closer in 2017. All in all, Davis has the mental fortitude, numbers, and matchup in his favor against Harper.
So what should’ve happened?
In my opinion, the decision comes down to whether Maddon should’ve called upon Davis to face Harper and have him go the distance. But the main question I think we need to all ask ourselves is whether Davis going five outs gives the Cubs the best chance to win. I’ll present my view here.
First, we can’t discount just how good Edwards is. Both he and Davis are so similar in terms of stuff and value that hitters might actually struggle more against the skinny right-hander than against the grizzled Davis.
Second, the benefit of having someone like Edwards is that Maddon doesn’t need to exclusively rely on Wade Davis to throw nearly 40 pitches to secure two innings. By the time the last out or two needed to be made, Davis’s stuff could’ve been dwindling.
The fact of the matter is that six outs were needed to secure a win. If the defending champs get through the 8th, Davis obviously would’ve needed to do it all over again, perhaps with a degree of fatigue, during the 9th.
What’s the best way to get six outs? Utilizing full-strength versions of Edwards Jr. and Davis. They are essentially twins, except one has the experience to handle the stresses of the 9th inning, while the other is still learning and gaining the valuable experience of failing.
The opposing views make sense, too, I get it. These decisions aren’t that easy. But the more I dwell on this decision, the more I understand Maddon’s logic, and the more comfortable I become with the outcome.