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The Game Plan: How the Indians Almost Won It All

This is August Fagerstrom’s last piece here. As he announced on Tuesday, he has taken a position with a Major League team, and that organization will now benefit from the insights that we will miss. August wrote this piece before officially leaving, but we wanted to save it for after the World Series storm had calmed down, since it deserved not to get overshadowed by Chicago’s celebration.

What will be remembered about this year’s postseason, for the rest of history, is the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. It hadn’t happened in 108 years, if you didn’t hear. That’s the big takeaway here. Beyond that: Game Seven. Game Seven was crazy! We’ll be talking about Game Seven for years.

The other part of the equation is the Cleveland Indians, and the story that seems most likely to be remembered about them was how far they got with so relatively little. The team with the super-rotation at the beginning of the season that was left with scraps at the end. Despite missing two of their three best starters in Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, Cleveland held three of baseball’s most threatening lineups in Boston, Toronto, and Chicago to 42 runs in 15 games, good for a 2.69 ERA, while tossing a record-setting five shutouts. They rode Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen as far as they could, but even guys like Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt (?!) handed the ball off to the Millers and the Allens with a lead more often than not.

Throughout the postseason, every Indians pitcher was quick to mention the game plan, the approach, and the way catcher Roberto Perez attacked the hitters. Part of that is typical athlete speak, sure. Almost always, these guys are going to deflect and give credit to their teammates. But what does that really mean? What goes into a pre-series, or even pre-game scouting report? Who’s the brains behind that operation? How many brains are behind that operation? And what happens when it makes its way out onto the field?
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Ben Zobrist Will Not Be Underrated by the History Books

The nation finally got to know Ben Zobrist last year. Six years after the Rays utility-man-turned-superstar emerged as one of baseball’s best players, he got to play on the game’s biggest stage, and he became a champion. His previous three postseason appearances never made it past the first round; his World Series in 2008, he was still a part-time player. Last year, Zobrist was a key cog, a player for whom the Royals traded at the deadline, a player who they potentially might not have won the World Series without. But he wasn’t the story. The story was Eric Hosmer’s mad dash, the story was Ned Yost, the story was Wade Davis and the bullpen, the story was the Royals defense. Ben Zobrist was a secondary player, as he’s unfairly been his entire career.

This time around, Zobrist is no longer a secondary player. This time around, Zobrist is the Most Valuable Player. Zobrist finally had his moment, and baseball’s longtime most underrated player will never be underrated by the history books again. These two championships, and this MVP, are here forever.

Zobrist slashed .357/.419/.500 over 31 plate appearances in the World Series, and led the Cubs with 0.72 Win Probability Added. With the bat, context included, no Cubs hitter did more in the World Series to contribute to this championship than Zobrist. His biggest hit of all came in Game Seven.

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Cleveland’s Center Field Decision

You never want to overreact too strongly to what happened the night before. You never want to overreact too strongly to what’s happened in a postseason series, or even an entire postseason. A hallmark of a great manager is often knowing when to ride their guys out and when to take action, and players are so much more than one- or seven- or 20-game samples that it’s rare to see enough in such a short time to reasonably warrant a change.

It’s easy to forget that, per plate appearance, Tyler Naquin was actually Cleveland’s best hitter this year. That’s a real thing that happened, and that occurred over 116 games and 365 plate appearances. We know, for a fact, that Naquin possesses the ability to do great things at the plate, because he is literally the same person that just did great things at the plate. Naquin was a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate, even favorite, for much of the year, though it’s easy to forget that now, after a rough postseason was punctuated by an even worse Game Six of the World Series.

For the postseason, Naquin’s hitting .190/.227/.286. He’s struck out in over half his plate appearances, and he’s walked once. Again, that’s a nine-game, 23-plate appearance sample. It’s important to always compare that to the 365-plate appearance, 135 wRC+ sample, for context. That doesn’t change the fact that Naquin, most recently, has struggled. Less recently, but still recently, he’s struggled, too. Over the final two months of the regular season, he ran an 83 wRC+, the power he showed in the first half having almost completely disappeared. He hasn’t hit a home run since his infamous pinch-hit, walkoff, inside-the-park homer against the Blue Jays all the way back on August 19. That’s two-and-a-half months without a dinger, and even that one didn’t leave the yard.

And so after last night, a game in which Naquin struck out in both his plate appearances, including Cleveland’s highest-leverage plate appearance of the game, and perhaps more notably was involved in, and possibly was the culprit of the first-inning fly ball mishap that kept the inning alive for the Cubs and led to two runs, plenty of Cleveland fans have called for Naquin to sit Game Seven in favor of Rajai Davis, despite right-hander Kyle Hendricks being on the mound for the Cubs.

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August Fagerstrom FanGraphs Chat — 11/1/16

11:56
august fagerstrom: November baseball chat!

11:56
august fagerstrom: cool thing

11:57
august fagerstrom: chat soundtrack is Anthony Rizzo’s walkup music, which isn’t the kind of thing I’d typically listen to but has been stuck in my head since Game 3 and is awesome when played loud in Wrigley

11:57
august fagerstrom: same with this, which they sometimes play between innings

12:06
august fagerstrom: ok, let’s do it

12:06
Daniel: Lester available out of the bullpen. True or False: He can only enter the game at the start of an inning or when nobody is on base.

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Javier Baez Has Muted His Own Hype

It’s never enjoyable to be the one who rains on a parade. To spoil someone’s hype, to kill someone’s vibe. Hype is an extension of excitement, of enjoyment, and enjoyment is a shared interest among us all. At the same time, it can be important not to let the hype get out of control. When the hype gets out of control, it begins to exceed reality, and disappointment is born out of unmet expectations. Just as the desire for enjoyment is a shared interest among us all, so, too, is the avoidance of disappointment.

Luckily, I’m not about to break any news here when I tell you that Javier Baez has looked a mess at the plate during the World Series, so I can’t take all the credit for raining on the parade and spoiling the hype. The hype is being spoiled right there, on the field, for all to see. I’ve had nothing to do with that. I’m just here to take note, because the 180 from Baez’s fantastic NLDS and NLCS is nearly as remarkable as what happened in those series themselves, and it serves as a necessary reminder not to let the hype get out of control and exceed reality.

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The Cubs Got Back to Being the Cubs

When a team makes it to the World Series, it’s probably best that they– hold on. Let me re-start that. When a team has one of the best regular seasons in major league history and then goes on to make it to the World Series, it’s probably best that that team continues playing in a similar fashion to the way they played up until that point. That is, if they’re interested in capitalizing on that regular season by winning the World Series. The Cubs are very interested in that proposition.

All along, of course, these Cubs have been interested, but through the first four games of this World Series, we didn’t see as much of the regular season Cubs as we expected. The world-beating Cubs. We certainly didn’t see those Cubs in Games Three and Four at Wrigley, when Cleveland pushed Chicago’s backs to the wall by outscoring them 8-3 in two games on their home turf to take a 3-1 series lead. But in Game Five’s potential Cleveland clincher, Chicago’s last home game of the year, they gave their fans one last taste of what their historical season looked like, whether that history is rewarded with a World Series victory or not.

These Cubs all year played defense. That defense, along with their pitching staff, turned balls in play into outs as well as most any team in baseball history. Saturday’s Game Four loss featured two errors, and they led to early runs. The night before, the game’s only run came on a ball that dropped feet in front of Jorge Soler and was preceded by a wild pitch that put the go-ahead run 90 feet away from home. The Cubs looked sloppy in their losses, and the Cubs haven’t looked sloppy all year.

The Cubs went back to not being sloppy in Sunday’s 3-2 win. Let’s take a trip around the diamond.

For as much that gets made about Jon Lester and holding baserunners, it’s actually pretty tough to steal off him and battery-mate David Ross. Ask Francisco Lindor, who’s learned that the hard way not once, but twice this series.

This is all just so Cubsy. You see Lester staring down a runner who’s practically standing over second base already, and he doesn’t do a dang thing about it. Except for deliver the ball home in about 1.2 seconds to David Ross, who gets it to second in a remarkable 1.7 seconds. And then there’s Javier Baez, who’s probably responsible for shaving two-tenths of a second off Ross’ already elite pop time by doing Baez things: positioning himself in front of the bag — whereas most second baseman would wait on top of it — to get the ball into his glove faster, and then letting the ball travel into his glove, as his glove travels into Lindor.

All three parties here deserve credit for their remarkable parts in this caught stealing, which was huge, by the way. Lindor represented the tying run in Jon Lester’s final inning with Cleveland’s best hitter against left-handed pitching at the plate, with formidable bats in Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez waiting after him. Two-tenths of a second more by anyone involved — Lester in his delivery, Ross in his exchange, Baez with his positioning and application — and the tying run is scoring on a single. Instead, Napoli led off the next inning with the bases empty against a hard-throwing righty.

That’s three Cubs players who contributed defensively. Let’s keep moving around the infield.

That’s Jose Ramirez busting ass down the line on a ball that’s an infield hit more often than it’s not, runners on the corners with no outs down two more often than not, that instead turned into runner-on-third-one-out-and-this-inning-ended-up-being-scoreless because Addison Russell improvised with his arm slot and showed David Ross that he’s not the only one with an elite pop time. And with all that Russell did, we’re back to runners on the corners with no outs down two, and probably worse, if not for Rizzo’s pick, one of the little things he does consistently that make him an elite defensive first baseman even without the flashy diving plays and catches made while climbing over the tarp.

Speaking of which, let’s move on over to third.

That ball came off Brandon Guyer’s bat at 95 mph, right down the line. That ball went right into Kris Bryant’s glove, as he dove into foul territory. That ball went right into Rizzo’s glove, as he stretched and scooped. The scoops, man. The scoops.

Hey, Jason Heyward played.

Yeah, turns out he didn’t have to climb the wall. Under normal circumstances, this could’ve been a routine catch. Not normal circumstances, though. It was another windy night in Chicago. If any right fielder knows how to read a ball off a bat, it’s Jason Heyward, and the read off this bat was one row foul, within reach. The wind brought it back three row’s lengths toward the field, and Heyward adjusted in a way that few other right fielders would.

Even Ben Zobrist was making sneaky good plays in left:

That’s the kind of play that usually doesn’t get appreciated in real time by viewers, but goes a long way within a dugout and within a clubhouse.

“Don’t understatement how important that play was that Zobrist made keeping that a single,” manager Joe Maddon said. “A lot of times that would have turned into a double. That was a great play by Zo. Eventually we kept them from scoring.”

That’s every player but the center fielder contributing something “plus” in a one-run World Series win. I’m a big fan of the term “run prevention unit,” because as much as a Gold Glove Award insinuates the pinnacle of defensive achievement as being an individual task, defense is often played on the team-level, which isn’t always apparent in the game of baseball. On Sunday night, the Cubs played team defense. Three men played crucial roles in a crucial caught stealing. A first baseman helped ensure two fantastic plays actually turn into outs. How often do you see the diving play that should’ve been out, if only? For the Cubs, the should’ve been outs become outs. The Cubs played team defense.

Hell, they even used two guys to catch a pop fly:

The return to status quo didn’t just occur in the field. It occurred at the plate. The Cubs chased, uncharacteristically, throughout the first four games of this series. During the regular season, they ran one of baseball’s lowest team chase rates. According to BaseballSavant, they offered at 31% of pitches outside the strike zone. In the first four games, that rate spiked by 30%, helping lead to their lowest four-game stretch of run production all season.

And, while Javier Baez has reminded us all that he’s still very much an incomplete package with his plate discipline in this series, Kris Bryant got back to laying off the low-and-away breaking pitch and had himself a game:

chart4

Ben Zobrist was flawless:

chart5

The Cubs chased just 28% of Cleveland’s offerings outside of the zone, getting back under their elite season total.

And then they pitched, too. Lester Lester’d, and the back-end of the bullpen shut the door with three dominant innings the way they did for much of the regular season, except this time, it was just all Aroldis Chapman. That’s the one way the Cubs didn’t look like themselves on Sunday night, but for Cubs fans, that was a deviation from the norm that was finally welcome.

The Cubs now head back to Cleveland, fresh off a reminder of why they were the best team in baseball. Are the best team in baseball. The deficit is still very real, and the Indians are still very much favorites in the series. The Cubs remain the team most likely to play the closest thing to a perfect game of baseball. And perfect isn’t even required to win two more games.


The Difference Between Cleveland and Chicago’s Bullpen

When it became very clear that the 2016 Chicago Cubs, the 103-win Chicago Cubs, were potentially one game away from their historical season coming to a disappointing finish, the pitcher standing on the mound was Travis Wood. Wood had just been brought in to face the left-handed Jason Kipnis, and Wood had just thrown three balls in four pitches to Jason Kipnis, and then an 87-mph cutter breaking right toward the heart of the plate. Kipnis hit the very hittable cutter 10 rows deep into the right field bleachers at Wrigley Field, on a windy night in Chicago when would-be home runs were becoming warning track fly outs all evening long. Not this one.

Nothing was stopping this ball, off the bat at 105 mph, from landing in the bleachers (and then immediately being thrown back onto the field), from giving the Indians a 7-1 lead in the game, and from getting the Indians one step closer to the 3-1 lead in the World Series which they now possess. And when that ball was on its way out of the playing field, Aroldis Chapman, Hector Rondon, and Pedro Strop, the three most important Cubs relievers during the regular season, looked on from the third-base bullpen, none of them having thrown a single pitch in the game.

Rondon eventually mopped up Wood’s mess — and Justin Grimm’s and Mike Montgomery’s mess, too — throwing two scoreless innings, striking out two of the eight batters he faced while pumping fastballs that touched 99 mph. And the fact that it was Rondon who mopped up the mess caused by lesser relievers, while Chapman and Strop contributed nothing, highlights the key difference between the bullpens of the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians in this World Series.
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The Unlikely Kyle Schwarber Defense

Rather than Andrew Miller, it was Bryan Shaw who was stretched past his typical workload in Cleveland’s 1-0 World Series Game Three win on Friday, throwing 31 pitches in a rare multi-inning appearance. Rather than Andrew Miller, it was Bryan Shaw who wound up throwing the high-leverage middle relief innings, handling four of Cleveland’s five highest-leverage at-bats before Cody Allen’s ninth inning. And, rather than Andrew Miller, it was Bryan Shaw who faced lefty Kyle Schwarber when he came off Chicago’s bench.

Everyone in the stadium was waiting to see when Schwarber would get his at-bat. Cody Allen was warm in the bullpen when Schwarber entered the game at at a time when one swing of the bat would have tied things up, but manager Terry Francona stuck with Shaw. Dave Cameron had written hours earlier about this very tango, suggesting that Francona flip-flop the accustomed usage of deploying Miller first, instead saving him for the later innings to make life tougher on Schwarber and Joe Maddon. What Cameron didn’t consider — and why would he have? — is that it wouldn’t be Miller or Allen facing Schwarber at all.

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The Argument for Carlos Santana, Starting Left Fielder

In 2014, the Cleveland Indians conducted a little experiment. Lonnie Chisenhall was still struggling as a third baseman, both offensively and defensively, and the club had had enough of Santana’s miscues behind the plate. In an attempt to maximize both the amount of offense in their lineup and Santana’s versatility, they began working him out at the hot corner in spring training, and an Opening Day, he was their third baseman. At first, things were OK — he’d field a bunt barehanded or make a diving play on a sharply hit grounder, but as soon as the Indians became comfortable enough putting Santana there everyday, things became a disaster. The experiment lasted just 26 games and 225.2 innings. Santana accrued -5 Defensive Runs Saved and a -6 UZR, good for a -39.5 UZR/150. He’s been a first baseman/designated hitter since.

Until tonight, apparently. Tonight, in a swing Game Three of the World Series, we’re apparently going to see the debut of Carlos Santana, Starting Left Fielder.

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Fact-Checking Jake Arrieta

Potential rooting interests notwithstanding, last night’s World Series Game Two was pretty brutal, as far as World Series games go. It was a cold, wet, dreary night in Cleveland. One team’s win expectancy was greater than 90% by the fifth inning. It lasted more than four hours. The Indians made six pitching changes. The Cubs made more mound visits than pitches. Trevor Bauer started for Cleveland, and of his 87 pitches, just 53 were strikes. Jake Arrieta started for Chicago, and of his 98 pitches, just 55 were strikes.

Tough game to watch, all around. So, rather than dissect the game, let’s dissect Jake Arrieta’s postgame press conference. These things aren’t always very revealing, but in the spirit of the current political season, maybe some fact-checking can reveal some truths.

* * *

Q. You started off a little rocky and then you got it back. How did you turn it around?
JAKE ARRIETA: “Well, I think really controlling my effort is when I was able to get locked in. I kind of had my foot on the gas a little too much at the start, trying to do more than I needed to.”

The first pitch Arrieta threw was his hardest of the night! As easy as it can be to write off something like “I had to get locked in” as a ballplayer cliche, these are human beings who are prone to unintentional rushes of adrenaline, and this is, after all, the freaking World Series. Arrieta hit 95 on the first pitch of the night to Carlos Santana, and then never hit 95 again. He was all over the place in the first, throwing just 43% strikes, his lowest strike rate of any inning, and walking Francisco Lindor on four consecutive pitches with two outs. The adrenaline effect is real. It looks like it was real for Arrieta last night, and it may help explain part of his early-game troubles to command his pitches.

speed-php

Q. You started off a little rocky and then you got it back. How did you turn it around?
JAKE ARRIETA (cont.): “Then I really got back to just executing good pitches towards the bottom of the strike zone. With the cutter going one way and the sinker going the other way, trying to be as aggressive as I could, and allow those guys to put the ball in play and let the defense work.”

In the first inning, 57% of Arrieta’s pitches were in the lower half of the zone or beyond. After that, it was 56%. The first-inning issue wasn’t necessarily leaving the ball up, but there’s a different between “pitches toward the bottom of the strike zone” and “good pitches toward the bottom of the strike zone.”

Lower-half pitches in the first:

jake-arrieta

After the first:

jake-arrieta1

It’s tough to compare one inning to 4.2, but I think I’ll allow it. That really bad slider off the plate in the first didn’t come back. Those three middle-middle pitches didn’t come back. It seems like there’s a higher percentage of pitches catching the bottom edge of the zone.

Q. You started off a little rocky and then you got it back. How did you turn it around?
JAKE ARRIETA (cont.): “Then in the sixth, I think that maintaining a consistent feel and on a night like this with the weather the way it was can be tough. So I tried to keep the body warm and ready to go the best I could.”

Nope.

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-2-05-49-am

It was rainy, windy, and in the low-40s by a lake in Ohio. Wearing short sleeves is not how one tries to keep the body warm, you absolute madman.

Q. You mentioned the conditions, how did they affect your choices? And how would you compare tonight to that Game 2 you started in Citi Field last year?
JAKE ARRIETA: “Pretty similar, I would say. I think the temperature was probably close to what it was at Citi Field.”

Last night’s first-pitch temperature: 43 degrees, cloudy.

Last year’s first-pitch temperature: 45 degrees, partly cloudy.

Q. You mentioned the conditions, how did they affect your choices? And how would you compare tonight to that Game 2 you started in Citi Field last year?
JAKE ARRIETA (cont.): “I think keeping my hand as warm as I could in between innings to not lose feel in the fingertips, because for, not even just a starting pitcher, but for a pitcher, you want to have that consistent feel off your fingertips, especially on your breaking ball, to maintain consistency with how you execute those pitches.”

Arrieta may not have made the best life choice for keeping the body warm, but as far as keeping the hand warm, it seems like he did a fine job, because last night’s success had plenty to do with his breaking pitches. As our own Jeff Sullivan detailed back in late-August, a big part of Arrieta’s midseason skid had to do with his struggles against left-handed batters. This, coming on the heels of his excellent slider disappearing. Against lefties in 2015, Arrieta was able to paint the outer edge of the zone, back-dooring his breaking pitches in at the last second. During much of 2016, rather than starting his breaking pitches outside the zone and back-dooring them to the edge, he was too often starting them on the edge and moving them to the middle of the plate.

Last night, Arrieta threw 36 breaking balls to lefties out of 71 pitches — 51%, almost double his season rate. And here’s the location of those pitches to lefties:

chart2

Arrieta absolutely lived on the outer half of the plate, and you see all the purple in the bottom-left quadrant of the zone, indicating well executed back-door sliders, and enough light blue in the area, too, indicating those big, looping curves that catch the zone at the last second.

He was wild, but he managed to keep the walk total down, and he was wild out of the zone, rather than being wild with hittable mistake pitches. When Arrieta was able to find the zone, it was with pitches that stuck to the game plan, and with his movement, pitches that stick to the game plan are tough to square up.

And the press conference? Good. More insightful than most. Mostly truthful and supported by the evidence. I give it an 8/10. But, my God man, put on some sleeves.