Anyone who’s been following the Cubs since at least early October is well aware of the calls for greater urgency and a pledge that production would be valued over talent. Those same people probably also know that there hasn’t been a great deal of follow-through on the calls to action put forth in Theo Epstein’s impassioned speech following a disappointed end to the 2018 season.
It’s possible we all simply misheard Epstein prior to the start of the season when he said “October begins in March.” Maybe in our collective Freudian desire to hear something with more punch, we edited his actual claim that “October begins with a somnambulant march through the first four months of the season.” Those expectations certainly would have been more accurate.
Seriously, though, the idea of letting guys figure it out at the big league level was supposed to have been a thing of the past. Contribute in a meaningful way or they’d find someone else who could, budget restrictions and emotional attachments be damned. Or so it seemed.
Speaking to the media ahead of the Cubs’ wet fart of an effort Thursday night in St. Louis, Joe Maddon proclaimed that the time to play guys for developmental purposes was gone. Of course, he’d backtrack on that in gloriously disastrous fashion just a few hours later, but we’ll get to that soon enough.
“It’s big boy time,” Maddon said, indicating that the team would wake from their season-long slumber.
I’m not sure that one’s going to end up on a t-shirt anytime soon, mainly because the Cubs as a unit just rolled over and hit snooze yet again Thursday night. They mustered just three baserunners all evening on one hit and two walks, with new guy Nicholas Castellanos recording the knock and one of the free passes.
Thus the Cubs’ road woes continue, though no one in the organization can explain how such a good team on paper and at home can be 0-9-1 in their last 10 series as the visitors. Part of it is simple bad luck, since there’s a flukey factor to just how the record has shaken out.
It’s also about being comfortable and having your body in the best possible condition to perform. That can be difficult enough to do that under the best conditions, but traveling to different cities and crossing various time zones (I can find some men on Twitter to explain those if anyone is unaware of how they work) makes it difficult. But it’s almost impossible if you end up in a place where the sun don’t shine.
“He pretty much shoved it right up our asses,” Jon Lester said of Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty after the loss.
With the way Flaherty was dealing, no individual move was going to make a difference in whether the Cubs won or lost the game. As such, Maddon’s otherwise unconscionable decision to tab lefty Derek Holland to relieve Lester with no outs and men on the corners wasn’t the reason the Cubs lost.
It was, however, an act of hubris that encapsulated everything Maddon is mad at fans for being mad at him about. Wait, did I say that right? Whatever, the decision backfired in predictable fashion and put what was already an ugly game out of reach.
“Fans, again, they have this really ridiculous concept about bullpens and bullpen management,” Maddon told 670 The Score recently. “They have no idea really what all goes into it. At the end of the day, you can make a decision that may be the absolute proper and right thing to do [emphasis mine], but it doesn’t work out and then it’s perceived as being wrong.”
While it’s absolutely true that too many people base their criticism on outcome bias, the decision to pitch Holland in that spot was an act of hubris even a Greek playwright would have been embarrassed to conjure up. Maddon was either openly thumbing his nose at fans and the front office by trying to prove how smart he was or he had simply overthought the matchup.
As Maddon explained after the game, he wanted to bring Holland in to force the switch-hitting Matt Wieters to bat on his weaker side. He also said the southpaw was working on some mechanical or strategic changes to improve against righties and needed game experience to test them out. That’s a fine strategy in a vacuum, but it was incredibly foolish when exposed to any measure of analysis and common sense.
Wieters’ .735 OPS and 87 wRC+ against lefties heading into Thursday were hardly different from his .767 and 96 against righties. What’s more, his 3 homers in 36 plate appearances from the right side have come at a higher rate than his 6 in 102 from the left.
But none of that really matters because Holland was acquired for the express purpose of serving as a lefty specialist. His numbers against right-handed hitters were absolutely abysmal — 1.011 OPS and .410 wOBA prior to the homer — and Epstein stated very specifically that his role was going to remain limited in order to take advantage of his strengths.
“Obviously, he started the year starting for them and then went into more of a long role,” Epstein said when the Cubs acquired Holland. “But, I feel like we have a chance to maybe, initially at least, target his role where he’s matching up against lefties. Put him in a position to succeed.”
That “initially at least” lasted all of one appearance, since Holland’s second trip to the mound as a Cub saw him facing two righties to close out a blowout win in Milwaukee. Hard to quibble with that given the situation, but Maddon getting cute and pitching a guy for developmental purposes was highly hypocritical in light of his pregame comments.
Which is to say his big boy pants fell off and he ended up showing his ass.
But enough going after Maddon, whose curious decisions were only ancillary contributing factors to the loss and not the main cause of it. The Cubs as a team have to be better than what they showed Thursday night. It doesn’t matter who’s on the mound or where they’re playing, gutless efforts like that have been all too common this season.
We know October didn’t really start in March, and it doesn’t even appear as though the Cubs are in any hurry to start their march to the postseason now that the calendar has turned to August. Maybe they’ll finally yield to the alarm and start playing consistently excellent baseball over the final two months, but for now it’s just alarming.