Joe Maddon Has Lost Faith in His Bullpen Again

There was a point during Game 3 of the National League Division Series between the Cubs and Nationals at which I began to play out some extra-innings scenarios, wondering who would pitch for the Cubs in such a case. We discussed the possibilities a bit in the Live Blog. With Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., and Wade Davis having already appeared in the game, Mike Montgomery seemed the most likely choice. I suggested John Lackey, though someone commented that he would probably be saved in case Jake Arrieta didn’t go deep into Game 4.

The game never reached extra innings, of course, the Cubs coming back for a 2-1 win (box). The next day, though, some of our questions were answered when Arrieta failed to pitch deep into Game 4. It wasn’t John Lackey who relieved Arrieta, however, but Jon Lester. With three days of rest thanks to an earlier rain delay, Lester pitched 3.2 innings in relief to keep the game at a 1-0 deficit. Unfortunately, Carl Edwards Jr. and Wade Davis allowed the deficit to expand, and now the Cubs must win today to advance their season. And just like last year, it appears as though Joe Maddon has lost trust in his bullpen.

On the way to a World Series title, while Cleveland was supposedly revolutionizing bullpen use with Andrew Miller, Chicago tried to rely on as few pitchers as possible. It wasn’t as though pitchers weren’t getting an earlier hook than the regular season, but on average Cubs starters were still pitching into the sixth inning, nearly finishing it if you remove John Lackey’s three starts. The bullpen was being asked to get about 14 outs per playoff game, but two pitchers were tasked with getting a disproportionate amount of those outs. Here are innings from last year’s playoff run.

Chicago Cubs Playoff Bullpen Innings
Player IP
Aroldis Chapman 15.2
Mike Montgomery 14.1
Travis Wood 6.1
Carl Edwards 6.1
Hector Rondon 6.0
Pedro Strop 5.2
Justin Grimm 4.1
Jon Lester 3.0

Last season, Rondon and Strop fell out of favor due to struggles during the season while Edwards was still getting his feet wet. That meant Joe Maddon went to Mike Montgomery a lot and put Aroldis Chapman in multiple situations he was not used to in order to try and close out games. Jon Lester made a lot of sense in Game 7 of the World Series, but at that point, he was also the only realistic option to get innings in that pivotal game. As yesterday’s appearance by Lester showed, we are already to that point just four games into the Cubs postseason.

Here are the relief innings by the Cubs through four games.

Cubs Relief Innings in NLDS
Appearances IP
Jon Lester 1 3.2
Carl Edwards, Jr. 4 2.1
Pedro Strop 2 2.1
Wade Davis 3 2
Mike Montgomery 1 0.2
Brian Duensing 1 0.2
Justin Wilson 1 0.2
John Lackey 0 0

Of the players the Cubs named to the bullpen before the start of this series, Wade Davis and Carl Edwards, Jr. have 7 of the 12 appearances, with Duensing and Wilson getting their only appearances after the Cubs chances of winning Game 4 had dropped below 2%. Pedro Strop has been used as a bridge twice against mostly right-handers near the bottom of the Nationals batting order, giving up the potentially-winning hit to Ryan Zimmerman in Game 3. He was bypassed for Edwards in the eighth inning of Game 4, and then by Davis later in the game.

Choosing Edwards and Davis over Strop weren’t necessarily poor decisions on Maddon’s part. Edwards and Davis are better relievers and that eighth inning was the most important part of the game. Those are the pitchers you want to see in those situations. We could quibble about bringing in Davis for a situation he’s not used to, but Davis was brought in the eighth inning during a a late-season game against the Cardinals with runners on, and there were three other occasions where Davis was brought in with runners on base during the season. It didn’t happen a lot, as Davis was your prototypical one-inning, ninth-inning reliever, but the situation wasn’t completely foreign to Davis. It just didn’t work out.

Mike Montgomery, who was brought in to Game 2 to relieve Edwards and ended up giving up the game-winning hit, didn’t make it in to yesterday’s game, and John Lackey, despite the short outing from Arrieta, did not appear due to Lester’s availability. Montgomery might not have the manager’s confidence like he did in last year’s playoffs, but Maddon might not have a choice in today’s game, or in future series if the Cubs advance. It isn’t just the reliever choices Maddon has made that show a lack of confidence in his bullpen; there’s also the situations where he lets his pitcher bat at important points of the game.

On Monday in the fifth inning with a runner on first base, Maddon let Jose Quintana bat in a tie game. The leverage index, at 1.11, wasn’t that high due to having two outs in the inning, but the WPA dropped from 53.1% to 50% during that PA, though letting Quintana bat was pretty close to simply giving away those three percentage points. Quintana got those points back by striking out Bryce Harper to start the inning, but after Daniel Murphy got on base with two outs, Quintana was pulled. Instead of trying to score a run in the fifth and use the lefty Montgomery to face two of three lefties before potentially giving way to the righty Strop, Maddon opted to give away the scoring opportunity to let Quintana keep pitching and removed him despite only letting on a runner due to an error.

Yesterday’s case of letting a pitcher bat in a big spot was less costly, but potentially more egregious. After Jake Arrieta had pitched four innings, Jon Lester came in to relieve him with Lester’s spot due up third the next inning. Maddon opted not to double-switch, essentially committing to Lester’s spot batting. He could have switched out Ben Zobrist or Addison Russell for Ian Happ, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, or Albert Almora, and delayed Lester’s spot in the order.

He also could have used another reliever for the fifth inning against Harper, Zimmerman, and Murphy, pinch hit in the bottom of the fifth and used Lester to start the sixth.

Today, perhaps it is Jose Quintana playing the Lester role, and perhaps the Cubs can keep scraping by without using much of the back end of the bullpen. But they don’t have the innings-eaters to trust in the bullpen like Maddon did with Montgomery and Chapman last season. Davis probably won’t go for more than inning often if at all and that seems unlikely for Edwards as well. The team can’t keep using starters in the bullpen with a longer series, and if Quintana pitches today and the Cubs win, they are going to have a problem for a potential Saturday starter in the NLCS.

The Cubs are a talented team, but if they’re going to advance deep in the postseason again, Maddon might have to trust some of the relievers he doesn’t currently trust, and those guys will have to get him some outs.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

As a Dodger fan my rooting interest the last two days has been for confusion and many starters pitching, and I was amazed to see Lester in the game yesterday. The prospect of the Cubs having to start Montgomery vs Kershaw if they win today is real.

The Nationals are not actually any better off; they’re likely to throw Scherzer today in addition to Gonzales and Roark, and they could really be in an awkward position if they advance. Both teams will have the option of starting yesterday’s pitchers (Strasburg, Lester, Arietta) on Sunday on short rest, which is a bit better but still difficult.

It seems like these two games promise to be just about the best possible scenario available for the Dodgers; its hard to imagine the Nationals don’t call Scherzer’s number with their season on the line. Quintana managing to not pitch seems a bit more likely just because he isn’t that much better than Hendricks, so maybe the Cubs can avoid using him.

Dave T
5 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

I don’t think it’s that likely that all three of Gonzalez, Roark, and Scherzer pitch today for the Nationals (unless there’s a long extra inning game). It might well be the best strategy for the Nationals to win this game, but I could see Baker sticking with his starter for what’s probably a bit too long (5-6 innings) and then using his other relievers if Baker’s planned combo of something like “Gonzales plus a couple innings of Scherzer” doesn’t get the Nationals to Madson and Doolittle.

5 years ago
Reply to  Dave T

If anything, Dusty should consider starting the righty Roark to push Maddon to go lefty-heavy (and thus defense-deficient) early, and then pull one of Schwarber/Jay/maybe TLS early when Gio enters.

Forcing Schwarber from the game early not only removes his power, but also neutralizes Avila’s bat (and eye) off the bench, since the emergency catcher would then be Baez.

They have to get 27 outs. And going Roark > Gio > Scherzer > Doolittle makes it hard for Maddon to play matchups. The alternative would be to tell Doolittle and Scherzer to prep as if 7th – 9th are theirs depending on the batting order handedness.

Dave T
5 years ago
Reply to  dannm

I agree that a plan like what you’re proposing makes a lot of sense, but I don’t see Baker doing it.

5 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

Unlike Maddon, Baker does trust a few in his bullpen. I really don’t think we’ll see Scherzer.