Chris Coghlan Is Starting in the World Series and That’s Weird

Over the last few days, we’ve written a decent amount about the Cubs potential line-ups for the World Series, with Kyle Schwarber’s return creating some options. With Schwarber set to DH when the games are in Cleveland, that left Joe Maddon with a decision to make about his outfield; stick with the struggling Jason Heyward while betting on his defense and track record, or go with the less experienced Willson Contreras, the youngster who was terrific in the second half but doesn’t have Heyward’s glove. Faced with a star player coming off a lousy season or a young maybe-star-in-the-making, Joe Maddon chose… Chris Coghlan?

It’s true, Coghlan is starting in right field in Game 1 of the World Series for the best team in baseball. With all due respect to Maddon and the Cubs — who obviously know what they’re doing when it comes to running a baseball team — this is a fairly perplexing decision.

To come to the conclusion that you don’t want to start Heyward against a right-handed pitcher, you have to put a lot of weight on his 2016 performance, believing that he’s currently unable to hit anywhere near his career levels for one reason or another. His postseason struggles (.071/.133/.179 in 30 PAs) certainly make it easier to buy into that theory, but there’s no question that benching Heyward means that you’re overweighting recent performance relative to long-term track record.

Except somehow, the Cubs are starting the only guy on their entire roster who hit worse than Heyward this year.

Heyward and Coghlan, 2016
Heyward 0.230 0.306 0.325 0.282 72
Coghlan 0.188 0.290 0.318 0.269 66

Like Heyward, Coghlan is a much better hitter than his 2016 line indicates, and was a good hitter as recently as last year. But there’s no getting around the fact that Coghlan was lousy in 2016, and while he’s only hit five times in the postseason, he’s 0-4 with a walk, so it’s not like he’s earned his way into the line-up with a strong recent performance either.

If you’re overweighting recent performance in order to talk yourself into benching Heyward, I’m not entirely sure how you ignore Coghlan’s 2016 struggles to determine that he’s the better option. To do so would require ignoring what he did in Oakland this year, and only focus on his performance after getting to Chicago, which amounts to a total of 133 plate appearances. Deciding on a World Series starter based on the most recent 133 PAs is to weight recent performance so highly that it’s essentially indefensible.

For the record, here are their forecasted performances Steamer, which take all relevant data into account.

Heyward and Coghlan, Steamer Projections
Heyward 0.262 0.339 0.402 0.323 100
Coghlan 0.229 0.317 0.372 0.300 84

This morning, I argued for Heyward to start even if the team saw his bat as a liability at the moment, based on the value of aligning his defensive value with the team’s highest likelihood of putting a ball in play. That said, there was a decent argument for starting Contreras, if you really believed Heyward’s bat is broken beyond repair right now.

But in starting Coghlan, the Cubs are getting the worst of both worlds; the guy who didn’t hit at all in 2016 along with a guy who is a significant defensive downgrade. Coghlan is essentially what you’d get if you had Heyward’s 2016 bat and Contreras’ 2016 outfield glove. When faced with a choice between offense and defense, Maddon chose neither.

Because it’s baseball, Coghlan will probably hit a couple of home runs tonight and be the hero for the series. And it’s not like this is a big enough deal to get up in arms about, since Coghlan will be pinch hit for as soon as Andrew Miller enters the game anyway. We’re likely looking at one or maybe two at-bats before he’s replaced, and a few innings of downgraded defense at one corner outfield spot; starting Coghlan isn’t some disaster that will sink the Cubs chances of winning tonight.

But based on everything we know, it’s a weird call. Contreras is probably the best hitter not in the Cubs line-up, even with the platoon disadvantage, and it’s not easy to see that Coghlan is going to hit better against Kluber than Contreras would if you’re going for an offense-first line-up. And you have to do some mental gymnastics about the value of recent performance to come to the conclusion that you want to bench Heyward but still think Coghlan is worth playing. Sticking with Heyward would have been justifiable. Starting Contreras would have been justifiable. Starting Coghlan? I don’t get it.

We hoped you liked reading Chris Coghlan Is Starting in the World Series and That’s Weird by Dave Cameron!

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Maybe the goal is to save Heyward for late defense and sub in Contreras at DH if Schwarber isn’t looking good? Or maybe save Contreras for PHing once Miller comes in? I’m just spitballing here.