Comeback Win Obscures Continued Pattern of Questionable Tactical Decisions by David Ross

You don’t need to be a baker to understand the importance of following a recipe carefully and not just randomly substituting one item for another. Even if it’s only a pinch of this or a pat of that, you risk having the entire thing fall apart or just taste awful. Then there less obvious mistakes, like paying extra for the name-brand flour or sugar when the generic store brand works exactly the same and will actually save you money.

David Ross gets a little bit of a pass in the kitchen because he’s still learning his way around the place, but his team’s comeback win on Thursday night at Wrigley obscured some very curious decisions. More specifically, there was one decision that continued a pattern of highly questionable tactical choices involving pinch runners. I’d even go so far as to call it egregious, though this has admittedly been chapping my ass for a while now.

It began with Kyle Schwarber being lifted for Albert Almora Jr. on more than one occasion, a move that makes no sense because the latter isn’t faster than the former. That one play during Game 7 of the World Series aside, Almora is a net negative baserunner who has cost the Cubs 5.5 runs on the bases over the course of his career. Schwarber, on the other hand, has gained them 0.8 runs.

That’s really pretty negligible in the end, but the whole point of using a pinch runner is to gain a distinct advantage when it comes to scoring an extra run. It should be almost like pulling the goalie in hockey, since you’re likely removing a key hitter in order to score late in a key situation. A case could be made that Almora also provided better defense in center, but that edge is at least partially mitigated by his inferior skill on the basepaths. It vexed me to no end, but Thursday’s move was even more curious.

With the Cubs leading 7-3 in the 7th inning, Nico Hoerner singled and was pulled from the game in favor of new acquisition Billy Hamilton. That might make sense in a vacuum because Hamilton has a reputation as a blazing speedster and he was claimed off waivers for the sole purpose of serving as a pinch runner and defensive wizard in center. But just like Ross seems to be influenced by that play from Almora four years ago, he is apparently blinded by Hamilton’s past performance.

I’ll reiterate here that the whole point of using a pinch runner — or hitter, for that matter — is that they provide a discernible advantage in that moment over the person they’re replacing. Almora for Schwarber was a push at best, but subbing Hamilton for Hoerner may have actually put the Cubs at a disadvantage, both on the bases and in the field. According to Statcast, Hoerner is the Cubs’ fastest runner by a fairly wide margin over Javy Báez.

Hoerner’s sprint speed of 28.7 feet per second bests Javy by a whole foot, which might not seem like a lot until you consider that you’ve got to get all the way down to Jason Heyward at 26.9 ft/sec to get that same separation from Javy’s speed. This amounts to just a few feet at most, but that makes a huge difference when you’re talking about stolen bases or scoring from first on a double or from second on a single.

These charts from Baseball Savant show how much faster Hoerner is than his teammates.

To wit, Hoerner came around from second to score the go-ahead run in the 4th on an infield single. Let me repeat that: Hoerner scored from second on an infield single. He also had a stolen base, the Cubs’ only swipe of the game, after driving in a run with a forceout. So he’s fast, and not just compared to his own team. Hoerner’s sprint speed is tied for 32nd in MLB among players who’ve had at least 10 opportunities.

Yeah, but Hamilton is like crazy fast, right? Actually, not so much. While he is certainly still among the top sprinters in the game, the 30-year-old outfielder has lost a step or two over the last few seasons. With allowance for small samples, his sprint speed this year is down to 28.5 ft/sec after sitting at 29.5 ft/sec last season and just over 30 in the three previous seasons. That means he’s actually slower than Hoerner, not to mention he was coming into the game cold and has played sparingly in general this season.

As if the baseball gods felt the need to smite Ross in real-time, Hamilton was thrown out trying to steal second against his old team. Then the vindictive deities poured a little salt in the wound as Hoerner’s defensive replacement, Ildemaro Vargas, was involved in a botched double play that might have changed the tenor of an eventual two-run inning for the Reds. Even though the error was on Javy, Vargas isn’t as good a second baseman as Hoerner and obviously isn’t as familiar with his double-play partner.

This is all very easy to see in hindsight, of course, as the decision(s) Ross made had immediate negative results that led to at least one meatball blogger getting pissed off. But the thing I keep coming back to is how unnecessary it all was with a four-run lead. I’m not getting all Jayce Tingler and asking my star player to apologize for swinging on 3-0 with a big lead, I’m saying removing a starter for what would have been a minuscule advantage at best should be reserved for a situation in which you really need that run.

And in this particular case, there’s nothing about the situation or the parties involved that pointed to the swap being worthwhile at all. You want to run for Schwarber or Victor Caratini if they reach late? Hell yeah, Hamilton can literally run circles around those guys. But this felt like Ross was simply itching to play with his new toy, kind of like the front office making personnel moves seemingly for the hell of it.

That’s why I want to be clear that this isn’t about just Thursday’s game, it’s about Ross’s propensity for making knee-jerk moves that seem to be based more on whims or desperation than actual data or logic. What I’m really driving at is that I’m concerned about how these choices might play out in the postseason if the Cubs really need to gain an advantage in a close game. Or, and this is perhaps even bigger, when they don’t need any anxious tinkering with the lineup.

But hey, let’s just hope I’m nitpicking needlessly about something that makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. Choosing to stick with Dan Winkler in the 8th inning, however…

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