A series that ended in a nail-biter, was made more difficult thanks to poor decision making along the way. Dave McCullough explains how Cubs manager Joe Maddon nearly became Chicago’s Grady Little after a near collapse in Game Seven of the World Series.
Winning washes away many sins. Because the Chicago Cubs secured their first World Series title in 108 years, Cubs fans are liable to forgive, and quickly forget, Joe Maddon’s consistently inconsistent moves throughout the seven-game series. But if the Cubs had lost, Maddon may have been run out of town on a rail. Let’s not ignore that in the midst of Game Seven people were legitimately asking: “does this remind anyone else of Grady Little and Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS?” which is the pinnacle of all managerial meltdowns. Maddon will not be stuck with that moniker – but should he be?
Maddon’s influence on the series started before it even began, with one of his best maneuvers: activating Kyle Schwarber from the disabled list and installing him as the team’s designated hitter for Games One and Two. The burly DH missed most of the regular season after a catastrophic knee injury and hadn’t faced live MLB pitching in since April 7. He was not cleared to play in the field and was limited to pinch hitting while the series was in Chicago, but was healthy enough to start all four games in Cleveland. He had 20 plate appearances in the series with seven hits and three walks, including a double, two runs driven in, two runs scored, and a stolen base. Despite having one plate appearance in Games Three-Five, Schwarber’s impact on the World Series was undeniable and one of Maddon’s best maneuvers.
Maddon’s pre-series moves also included announcing his rotation. Despite boasting three Cy Young candidates – Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jake Arrieta – Maddon chose to include veteran John Lackey as his fourth starter instead of rolling with his top starters in a three-man rotation. Meanwhile, Cleveland skipper Terry Francona felt forced to use just three starters because of injury and because he had only one ace quality starter, Corey Kluber (who started in games 1, 4 and 7). Maddon had three aces – and chose to give the ball to Lackey in Game 4, despite the veteran’s performance this season being clearly inferior to the Cubs other starters, as well as his overstated postseason reputation.
After Lackey’s Game 4 performance the Cubs were in a 3-1 hole, needing to win three consecutive games to avoid being unceremoniously dumped out of the World Series after posting MLB’s best regular season record and being the World Series favorites. Chicago rallied behind Lester in Game Five to win easily, and then took a 7-2 lead into the late innings of Game Six. Despite the big lead, however, Maddon showed his lack of faith in all of his relievers save one, when he summoned closer Aroldis Chapman to pitch (again) in a blow out. The flamethrowing lefty worked in Game Two (23 pitches), Game Three (17 pitches), Game Five (42 pitches), Game Six (20 pitches), and again in Game Seven (35 pitches).
An impending free agent, Chapman was used in save situations, close-and-late situations, and – in Game Six – situations that showed Maddon trusted no one else in his bullpen. Granted, the Cubs and Maddon have no responsibility to keep Chapman healthy for the long term – as of now, he is a pending free agent and he almost certainly will not return be back in Chicago. If only because closers who are ridden this hard, with this many pitches in so few days have trouble staying healthy: Boston’s Keith Foulke in 2004 is an excellent example.
Still, none of Maddon’s curious decisions on how to deploy his starters and relievers was particularly worrisome until Game Seven. After Hendricks efficiently and effectively worked the first 4 ⅔ innings, Maddon did something he vowed he would not do prior to the game: He brought in Lester with men on base. Even this move is not indefensible – it is Game Seven, “there is no tomorrow”, Lester is the Cubs best pitcher, and he is playoff-tested. But his defensive struggles have become a massive liability in games he starts: any base runner at first is allowed a huge lead and get good jumps on balls in play when Lester in on the mound. Plus, he will not field a ball hit in front of him because he refuses to throw the ball to first.
Bringing Lester into a game with a runner on first base made no sense when looked at critically. First, the catcher’s spot in the batting order – because Lester only throws to his personal catcher, David Ross – was due up in the next inning. So Maddon could have used any reliever to close out the fifth and then brought out Lester for the sixth with a clean slate thereby avoiding Lester with men on base. Any number of relievers would have been a more appropriate choice: they are used to coming into games with runners on. But Lester has made just three relief appearances in his entire career – the last in the 2007 World Series when he was still basically a rookie. Nine seasons later, he has no experience coming into a game in the middle of an inning, nor with runners on base. And his defensive issues make putting him into a game as a reliever with a runner at first borders on managerial incompetence.
It was 5-1 when Lester entered the game. So of course it was 5-3 at the end of the inning, as Lester’s defensive deficiencies immediately made themselves known. From SoSH Baseball’s Game Seven recap:
All season long – and going back several years – Lester has had a problem fielding his position, and throwing to first base. Would-be base stealers take big leads and Lester relies upon his personal catcher – The Blue Wolf, David Ross – to control the running game. Of course this immediately came into play, as Jason Kipnis dribbled a ball in front of the plate that any other pitcher would have made a play on. Instead, Ross was forced to pounce on it, and then this happened:
Lester ended up logging three innings for Maddon, allowing just one run (the other run was charged to Hendricks) and steering the Cubs through the middle innings with the lead intact. But Maddon’s curious maneuvers weren’t done. He went from Lester directly to Chapman, asking his closer for at least four outs in a 6-3 game. Again, from the game recap:
The flamethrowing lefty had to get Brandon Guyer to end the inning but the Indians outfielder had other plans. He doubled into the right-center field gap. Ramirez was off on contact and scored easily, with Guyer at second with two down and Rajai Davis coming to the plate. Chapman had been overpowering this postseason, but he threw 20 (meaningless) pitches in Game Six the night before – would fatigue become an issue?
Davis lined a 2-2 meatball over the fence in left to tie the game at 6-6. This is why we love baseball:
Chapman had nothing – he was clearly out of gas. Twitter was filled with analysts noting that the fireballer’s usual 100+ mph velocity was “way down.” And Cleveland wasted no time jumping on the fatigued reliever. The game was tied and Maddon’s management was largely to blame. His overuse of Chapman – especially the 20-pitch appearance in Game Six, while leading by five to seven runs – loomed large as the game went to the ninth inning tied, instead of with the Cubs leading.
The most egregious thing to happen in Game 7 is not something we can definitively pin on Maddon – but either he or Javier Baez executed one of the dumbest plays in recent memory. With one down and two strikes, Baez attempted a bunt and fouled it off – which results in an out. Ross led off the inning with a walk and he was pinch run for by Chris Coghlan. Jason Heyward then stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error by the catcher.
Did Baez try to lay down a bunt on his own? He had bunted just two times in his professional career – so the element of surprise was there. However, Maddon has demonstrated a penchant for making bold calls and trying unconventional strategies. A successful suicide or safety squeeze in the ninth inning of a tied Game Seven would have become the stuff of managerial legend. It would have reinforced Maddon’s reputation as a “genius” and captured the World Series title for Chicago. A bold move that worked would have made Maddon an even bigger star than he had already made himself.
But a two-strike squeeze attempt in the ninth inning of a tie in Game Seven of the World Series is precisely the kind of “look at me!” showboating that has so endeared Maddon to baseball fans over the years. That Baez – who homered earlier in the game – decided that the ninth was the perfect time for him to bunt for the third time in his pro career is… unbelievable. Maddon had to have called for it. And it predictably failed, miserably:
That Chicago ultimately won lets Maddon off the hook for his erratic, and curious, management throughout the series. His moves made winning the series – and Game 7 – harder than it needed to be. First, he did what he said he would not: he brought Lester into a game where his defensive problems could hurt the club. When the flamethrower finally ran out of gas, Maddon rolled him right back out there until he coughed up the lead. And finally – desperate to show off his brilliance – Maddon likely ordered a two strike bunt from a player with no experience bunting. Any one of these maneuvers would have earned Maddon an offseason of grief had the Cubs lost. But since they won, all will be forgotten – and forgiven.
But let’s not forget that Joe Maddon tried to bungle away a World Series win when blessed with the best team in baseball (based on regular season and postseason results). In the end, the Cubs were able to overcome the “brilliant” management of their skipper and to win despite his multiple mistakes. Starting Lackey in Game Four was a mistake; not being aggressive enough in using his aces, Maddon allowed the Indians to take a 3-1 lead and would not have been looked upon kindly had the series turned out differently. Calling upon Lester with runners on base, mid-inning, was also a mistake that cost the Cubs runs and would be seen very differently had the Cubs lost. Using Chapman like a rental car – and pitching him more than 20 pitches every day for like a week – was also a terrible mistake that resulted in the closer blowing the lead and almost the World Series.
And finally, calling for Baez to bunt in the ninth – with two strikes – was the ultimate act of hubris from Joe Maddon. In the end, he tried to reinforce his reputation with a “brilliant” move and almost – again – cost his team a chance at a win. That the Cubs overcame Maddon’s repeated failures of leadership and management will be forgiven, and forgotten. Next spring, Maddon will be the unquestioned “best manager in baseball” largely because of his supremely talented roster. It sure won’t be based on his brilliant in-game or in-series management.