Huh, I guess the damage David Ross did to Andrew Miller with that Game 7 homer wasn’t irreparable after all. Though he’s spent more than his fair share of time convalescing over the last season-plus, the big lefty was on his game in Chicago this week. Of course, the Cubs helped him out a little.
I’ll now ask you to gird your loins appropriately, Dear Reader, as I’m preparing to light this here blowtorch in order that I might strafe the interwebs with liquid fire takes.
With the Cubs down 1-0 and down to only nine outs, Anthony Rizzo doubled against starter Adam Plutko to lead off the stretch frame Wednesday night and give the Cubs their first hit of the game. Yes, their first hit. Against Adam Plutko. That alone should have signaled the need to take whatever risks they could.
Wilson Contreras singled to put men at the corners with no outs, giving the Cubs an 85.4 percent chance of scoring at least one run. And only half of that probability included scenarios in which they score just once. Not a sure thing, particularly once Miller came on in relief, but it certainly appeared as though the Cubs were going at least tie the game. That’s when Joe Maddon’s hippie van veered hard right across three lanes of traffic to take the ramp toward the WTF Memorial Freeway.
Javy Baez laid down a bunt in a safety squeeze attempt that saw Rizzo tagged out at home and left the Cubs with one out and men on first and second. Man on third. No outs. Safety squeeze. Rizzo running. Even without the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that the strategy behind the decision was sub-optimal.
There were questions in the wake of the play about whether Javy or Maddon had made the choice to lay down the bunt, but the skipper admitted afterward that the call was indeed made from the dugout. Not only is Javy a good bunter, Maddon reasoned, but he was also a very big strikeout threat against Miller. Which…yeah.
A strikeout in that situation actually would have been significantly better, since the Cubs would still have been able to score on a sac fly. And if you’re going to bunt, particularly with a runner who’s not known for his blazing speed, why not go balls-out with a suicide squeeze? Sure, you could end up with a total failure, but at least there’s a chance to really push the envelope.
Addison Russell was up next and appeared to be putting together a pretty good at-bat against a barrage of Miller sliders. Until, that is, he saw this bad boy on a 2-2 count and waved halfheartedly at it.
Andrew Miller's Filthy 84mph Backdoor Slider gets Addison Russell "swinging"…or whatever that was. ? pic.twitter.com/ZaDC5947V1
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 24, 2018
In a span of a couple minutes, the Cubs went from a pair of leadoff hits to put men at the corners with no outs to having men at first and second with two outs. They were down one run and had a tough lefty on the mound and that 85 percent run expectancy had dropped to just under 23 percent, which is still higher than Miller’s .216 batting average against.
All told, it seemed like an ideal situation for Maddon to use his bench to cobble together whatever additional leverage he could muster. Instead, he left Jason Heyward in the game to take the at-bat against Miller. And while there’s some defense for that non-move in the fact that Heyward carried a .974 OPS this season against power pitchers (30 plate appearances) into the battle, the argument turns to poo after that.
Heyward’s career OPS vs. power pitchers is only .765, though that’s actually pretty solid. But he’s only putting up a .369 OPS (not nice) with a .181 wOBA and a wRC+ of 6 against left-handers this season. What’s more, he’s got an OPS of .606 with an sOPS+ of 69* (also not nice, and there’s an explanation of that stat below for those who aren’t familiar with it) against ground ball pitchers of Miller’s ilk.
Ed note: sOPS+ is a comparative metric that measures a player’s performance in a given split against the overall league’s performance in it, with 100 being league average. So Heyward’s 69 means that he is 31 percent worse than the average hitter against groundball pitchers.
But, Evan, you say, Miller could perhaps be considered more of a ground/fly pitcher if you look at his career numbers (which include that Grandpa Rossy jack job, something people tend to forget). Yeah, you’re probably right. But Heyward has a .553 OPS and 57 sOPS+ against those types of pitchers, so I was actually doing him a favor by correctly labeling Miller as I did.
Anywho, let’s get back to the carnage.
The bunt was one thing and it was it’s own kind of bad, but at least there was some semblance of strategy and an attempt to force the issue. Not nearly enough, at least from my vantage point, but it was something. Leaving Heyward in there to take that AB when he had far more suitable alternatives on the bench, however, struck me as a pretty unforgivable blunder by Maddon.
Albert Almora Jr. has an .898 OPS and a 142 wRC+ against lefties this season (.756 and 112 vs. RHP, for what it’s worth) and he’s got a .923 OPS with a 178 sOPS+ against power pitchers. His .858 OPS and 141 sOPS+ against ground ball pitchers are also well above league average. Oh, and his elite glove means the Cubs aren’t making a huge defensive sacrifice by swapping him for Heyward.
Or, hey, what about Ben Zobrist and his 1.094 OPS and 232 sOPS+ vs. power pitchers and his .757 OPS and 113 sOPS+ against guys who keep it on the ground? He’s not killing lefties by any stretch, but his .648 OPS and 81 wRC+ clearly surpass Heyward’s performance.
“Miller is Miller,” Maddon said of his decision to stick with Heyward (subscription required, you can get one here). “You saw the at-bat Schwarber had against him also. I don’t necessarily believe that putting a righty in there you got a better shot. And also there’s a chance to walk there, because Jason will accept [it]. He got 2-0 and he came back on him.”
Wait, so because another lefty hitter singled against Miller — mind you, that was an inning after the at-bat in question — it makes sense to stick with Heyward? I don’t…I mean…wut? Schwarber and Heyward could not be more different and now I’m struggling even more with this decision.
It’s easy for some pompous blogger to sit at his computer and play keyboard manager, but I can find no excuse for the rationale behind letting Heyward take that at-bat. Even if a pinch hitter results in an intentional walk — which is unlikely since Miller has only 12 times to his credit over his entire career — the Cubs have bases loaded and have increased their run expectancy by 10 percentage points.
That means another pinch hitter and perhaps even a pitching change, though we can probably assume Miller stays in given that he came back out and threw to a pair of righties in the 8th inning. Either way, you go with Zobrist against Miller or Tommy La Stella in the event that Tito Francona goes to Cody Allen earlier than he chose to in reality Wednesday night.
As it is, Almora pinch-hit for Carl Edwards Jr. and flied out to lead off the 8th inning. Some could apply flawed logic and say that said result would have been just as fruitless as Heyward’s effort, but you can’t simply swap those situations and assume that the same thing would have happened. In a game that saw only one run scored, Maddon failed to leverage the talent on his team to produce optimal results.
And therein lies the inherent issue with this team that could be exacerbated by the strong stretch runs they’ve made over the past three seasons. While it’s true that anyone would be foolish to doubt the Cubs after what we’ve seen from them time and again since 2015, there’s a growing sense that they’re playing or being managed under the assumption that said breakout is inevitable.
It’s as though Maddon and the Cubs are waddling around, pregnant with hope and just waiting for their late July due date to give birth to their full potential. But what if that thing comes out like Rosemary’s Baby or like the lizard baby from V: The Final Battle?
We’ll have to wait and see on that one, I guess, though the more immediate concern is this tendency to manage conservatively in tight situations. While the lineup tinkering and moving players around the diamond seems like it’s kind of wacky and avant garde, Maddon doesn’t appear willing to really go for it when the game is on the line.
What’s the worst that happens if Javy is allowed to swing away? Maybe he strikes out and they’ve still got a man on third. Maybe he hits into a double play, which would actually score a run. The bunt was just not great. The Heyward thing rankles me even more, though, since I can’t find any excuse for it. Despite glimpses of hope to the contrary, we’re past the point of knowing who he is as a hitter. And who he is as a hitter is a defensive replacement.
But that’s an issue for another time and this was just one inning in one game. Even so, there’s a fear that the events of that failed frame may too closely mimic the Cubs’ overall sense of playing it a little too safe here in the early going. And though they do boast a .656 winning percentage over the final 74 games of each of the last three seasons, it’d sure be nice to see them do a little more about the .543 they’ve got through 46 games of this one.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve grown tired of shaking my fist at this cloud while yelling at those damn kids to get off my lawn.