Last night, the Cubs lost Game 2 of the NLCS to the Dodgers and now head back to Chicago down 2-0 in the series. They lost on a Justin Turner walk-off home run, but the big story after the game was who threw the pitch that Turner drove over the center-field fence. John Lackey, a career starter who had never pitched on back-to-back days, was brought in to face Chris Taylor with a man on in the ninth inning. Wade Davis, the team’s best reliever, did not pitch.
Last year, Buck Showalter was excoriated for leaving Zach Britton in the bullpen to watch Ubaldo Jimenez end the team’s season, and given the drastic shift we saw in postseason reliever usage after that happened, it seemed like no one was in any hurry to be the next guy to lose a road game while holding his closer for a save situation that would never come. After a few weeks of pretty aggressive reliever usage — Maddon called on Davis in the seventh inning of Game 5 on Thursday, after all — this was a pretty surprising decision, and Maddon is taking a lot of heat for going to Lackey to face the middle of the Dodgers order in a situation where a run ends the game.
But of all the decisions he made last night, I actually think that one is one of the more defensible.
As he noted after the game, Davis’s 44-pitch outing on Thursday meant that he wasn’t available for a multi-inning appearance last night, and he would be asked to get no more than three outs in Game 2.
Within that context, bringing Davis into a mid-inning situation meant that he wouldn’t go back out to start another inning. Bringing him in to bail someone else out of a jam meant that Maddon might be trading three outs for only one or two. If Maddon had brought Davis in to get out of Brian Duensing’s ninth-inning jam but then relieved him after just securing the final out of the ninth inning, he would then be asking John Lackey to get three outs in the 10th, versus just getting that one out in the ninth and hoping Davis could protect a lead in the 10th by himself.
With Davis available as only a one-inning pitcher last night, it’s not entirely crazy to hold him for a save situation. What Maddon was clearly trying to avoid was using Davis in a game the Cubs would lose anyway, putting them in a situation where they were still down 2-0 in the series but had to then continue to manage Davis’s workload during the three games in Chicago. In this situation, Davis will now have had four days off after his seven-out stint in Washington, and you can bet he’ll be used heavily in the next three games against the Dodgers.
Maddon’s decision to hold Davis last night would have been more problematic if it were an elimination game, like Showalter faced last year. Going down 2-0 is obviously not ideal, but you can’t manage every playoff game as if it’s winner-take-all, and Maddon at least kept his team in a decent position to win games back in Chicago by avoiding using Davis in a game the team might not have won anyway. While I’m never going to advocate holding a closer for the save situation because of some rigid mindset of who can get saves, if you can only use your best reliever for one inning and you’d really prefer not to use him at all, holding him for a protect-the-lead scenario to end the game isn’t a terrible plan.
So if I don’t hate Maddon’s decision to not use Davis as much as many others, why did Maddon have a bad night? Let’s go through some of his other weird choices.
With a lefty on the mound in Rich Hill, Maddon mostly went with his anti-left-hander lineup, starting the right-handed Albert Almora in center and using Jon Jay (and his very small career platoon split) in left field over Kyle Schwarber. But in right field, Maddon went with Jason Heyward over the switch-hitting Ben Zobrist. I’m a long-time defender of Heyward, believing his glove makes up for a lot of his offensive shortcomings, but he’s still a guy with a career 82 wRC+ against left-handers, and he was even worse than that (71 wRC+) this year.
Zobrist was awful against lefties this year, too, but that looks like a small-sample fluke: he’s recorded a career 122 wRC+ against LHPs. Despite the significant gap in defensive ability between them, I think the Cubs could have used Zobrist’s bat a bit more tonight. Jay and Almora are roughly average hitters, so throwing Heyward into the mix with mediocre bats like Russell and Baez, plus the pitcher’s spot, meant that this particular Cubs lineup could be shut down if Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo didn’t carry the load. And unsurprisingly, the Cubs managed just one run in the loss.
Did you know the Cubs, who started the game with Zobrist, Schwarber, and Ian Happ on the bench, didn’t pinch-hit one single time last night? Jon Lester batted for himself twice and Zobrist was double-switched into the ninth spot in the order when he replaced Heyward in right field in the seventh inning, after Heyward was allowed to make the final out of the sixth inning against a right-handed pitcher.
Letting Lester bat twice is somewhat defensible, given Maddon’s lack of trust in his bullpen right now and Davis’s limited availability last night. He batted having thrown 79 pitches. Hoping to get another four to six outs out of him wasn’t so improbable and would justify letting the pitcher bat for himself, especially since he came up with the bases empty and two outs.
But Maddon had plenty of other chances to use some of his bench bats. For instance, if Heyward was going to be swapped out in the seventh inning double-switch anyway, why not let Schwarber bat there instead, where a home run could give you the lead? Or send either Schwarber or Happ up to hit for Almora in the seventh or ninth innings, when he was sent up to try and get hits off tough right-handers Brandon Morrow and Kenley Jansen. Starting Almora because you want better defense and another right-handed bat is reasonable enough, but letting him make outs against elite right-handed bullpen arms in a tie game isn’t great, especially when two clearly better hitters sat and watched the entire game from the bench.
In reality, the entire end-of-game situation occurred because Justin Wilson, the team’s big deadline acquisition, was left off the NLCS roster based on his lousy 18 innings since getting to Chicago. And make no mistake, he’s been pretty terrible since getting traded, running a 21% walk rate and allowing a .346 wOBA to opposing hitters as a member of the Cubs.
But Maddon’s decision to judge Wilson on his 18 recent bad innings and not on the 300 excellent innings that came before them, has left the team a bit shy in quality left-handed relief. So here we are in October, and the Cubs are now leaning heavily on a 34-year-old who spent most of last year in the minors. And not just as a match-up lefty.
Tonight, Maddon went to Duensing to start the eighth inning, a perfectly reasonable decision given that lefties Cody Bellinger and Joc Pederson were the first two batters due up for the Dodgers. Bellinger hit a weak grounder to first base, but reached when Duensing couldn’t handle the throw from Rizzo, which allowed Pederson to sacrifice himself and get a runner into scoring position for the right-handers to come. Hector Rondon, who had been warming behind Duensing, could have been called in to face Logan Forsythe and Austin Barnes. Instead, Maddon walked Forsythe and left Duensing in to face Austin Barnes.
With Kenley Jansen ready to come in, this was a potential game-deciding scenario, and Maddon stuck with his nondescript left-handed reliever to face a right-handed batter — one who has crushed lefties in his short career — with the go-ahead run in scoring position.
It worked: Barnes grounded into an inning-ending double play, but that was a pretty classic example of bad process and good results. If you don’t think Rondon (who ran a 30% strikeout rate against right-handed batters this year) is a better option to get right-handers out in a very high-leverage situation than Brian Duensing, then the team might as well have carried literally anyone else on their NLCS roster. I know he gave up a home run yesterday, but if you’re going to have him warming in that situation and then not use him when it’s left-vs-right with the go-ahead run on second base, then he doesn’t serve a legitimate function in your bullpen.
And the ground ball from Barnes only served to embolden Maddon, who sent Duensing back out to start the ninth, despite Yasiel Puig leading off the inning for the Dodgers. He walked Puig on four pitches, putting the winning run on base to lead off the inning. Maddon then stuck with him against two more right-handed batters — to be fair, Charlie Culberson and Kyle Farmer, so not exactly the ’27 Yankees — before going to Lackey to go after Chris Taylor.
Again, Rondon should have been the obvious choice there, with two right-handers coming up and then the pitcher’s spot. Yeah, the third batter due up would likely have been Andre Ethier, meaning Rondon would have had to face a left-hander, but compared to letting Duensing face a bunch of righties, the Cubs would have been better off with Rondon against those guys and a 35-year-old pinch-hitter who missed most of the season and has had one plate appearance in the last two weeks. Or, if you were going to have Lackey pitch that inning in the hopes that Davis could pitch the 10th with the lead, just let Lackey start the inning against Puig.
The Cubs traded for Justin Wilson so they’d have him for situations exactly like last night, but the team’s decision to leave him off the roster means that Maddon is giving important work to Duensing. Last night, he asked a generic lefty reliever to pitch two innings of some of the highest-leverage baseball of the season. That’s just not a great plan for success.
So while Maddon probably is taking too much heat this morning for not using Wade Davis, he did enough other weird things to deserve to have his moves questioned today. The Cubs offense hasn’t hit enough to put the team in positions to win games in this series, so the losses can’t be solely laid at Maddon’s feet, but with some pretty odd decisions, he’s brought some of this criticism on himself.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.