Joe Maddon Might Have to Trust One Other Reliever

Last night, we all saw Joe Maddon’s level of trust in his bullpen, as he brought Aroldis Chapman in to protect a five run lead with seven outs to go. That decision told you everything you needed to know about how confident he is in the right-handers in his pen.

Tonight, I’m sure, Maddon would like to avoid using any of his relievers besides Chapman once again. With Jon Lester essentially guaranteed to pitch, the ideal Cubs plan is likely to have Hendricks hand the ball to Lester, who hands the ball to Chapman, who closes out the game. Two good starters and their best reliever, combining for nine innings in some fashion, with a big party at the end. It works on paper if everyone pitches well.

But it comes with one big question mark; who relieves Kyle Hendricks if he needs to be bailed out of a jam?

Lester is an excellent pitcher, but you probably don’t want to use him to put out a fire. As a starter, he’s not used to getting warm quickly, so he’d have to be throwing before any rally started in order to be ready to help Hendricks get out of a jam. He’s also not used to entering a game with men on base; if given a choice, I’m sure Maddon would prefer to let him start a new inning from scratch, similar to how Lester has entered every other inning this year.

And, of course, there’s the throwing issue. If you’re taking Hendricks out in a mid-inning situation, it’s probably because there’s at least one guy on base in a tight game. If you put Lester in that situation, and the guys on base have any kind of speed, the odds of a stolen base attempt go up. Yes, David Ross has thrown out a few guys attempting to steal off Lester this postsason, but even with him behind the plate, you’re going to be less comfortable with Lester keeping those runners where they are than any other pitcher.

So, Maddon’s biggest decision before Game 7 might be which one non-Chapman reliever he’s going to trust tonight. Lester can be the bridge to Chapman, but who is going to be the bridge to Lester, if Hendricks needs to be removed mid-inning?

If I had to bet, I’d probably guess it will be Carl Edwards Jr. He was the right-hander that Maddon went with to go after Mike Napoli in Game 5, and while he gave up a base hit, he’s at least been recently picked from the group to pitch in a high-leverage situation. He was also insanely good in the regular season, holding opposing batters to a .203 wOBA, lower even than Andrew Miller’s .210. He hasn’t been nearly as good in the postseason, but he also didn’t have the late-season injury and performance issues that Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon suffered.

The other option is probably Justin Grimm, whose jump in ERA this year hides the fact that he was still a good reliever, and his track record of success is a lot longer than Edwards. For his career, he’s thrown 188 innings in relief, and has allowed just a .279 wOBA in that role; his .297 mark this year wasn’t a big spike up from the .259 he allowed last year, when he was one of the team’s most trusted relief arms. The one downside with picking Grimm is that most of his struggles this year came against left-handers, and so you probably wouldn’t call on him if the Indians were sending LHBs up to the plate with a rally going. But if they’re sending RHBs up, maybe you just trust Hendricks enough to leave him in.

Mike Montgomery could also be an option, having thrown just 17 pitches last night, if Maddon wanted a lefty against a lefty but didn’t want to bring Lester in mid-inning. But given his last three appearances in this series, he’s faced 12 batters without racking up a single strikeout, the recent performance issue might cause Maddon to shy away from Montgomery.

This is where the Rondon/Strop health questions could really present an issue for the Cubs. With Chapman being saved for the end of the game, and Lester as the middle guy, the Cubs might not have a guy they want to put on the mound if the Tribe rally against Hendricks. How they handle that situation could end up deciding the game, and to win the championship, Maddon might have to get an out or two from the relievers he didn’t want to trust with a five out lead last night.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

I may be using the stat wrong, but doesn’t Lester’s 84.9% LOB% in 2016 (89.2% in the playoffs, 75.3% in his career) compared to a league wide average of 72.9% make this whole ‘Lester can’t come in with guys on’ thing a bit overblown? We know everyone in America (especially John Smoltz) is screaming at every baserunner to steal as soon as they get on, but they either A. don’t, or B. eventually do, and their results this postseason have been average at best.

I get it would be out of his routine to start from the stretch, but it’s not like any part of his outing tonight is going to be very ‘routine’.

7 years ago
Reply to  javybaez

I also think the running game against Lester is a bit overblown too. Sure, he can’t throw to first. But he has a quick move to the plate and Ross has shown a pretty good ability to still throw guys out.

7 years ago
Reply to  asreitz

Maybe this is all an epic long con for Lester to unveil his pickoff move.

Dave T
7 years ago
Reply to  javybaez

My understanding from various posts here is that single-season LOB% is a noisy stat that’s not predictive and should be expected to regress toward league average, so it’s actually often a sign that a pitcher’s observed ERA is unsustainably high or low. See , for example.

That said, I generally agree with you that Lester’s problems with the running game can be overstated, and I view that point to be a secondary one at most. I believe the key point from this post is that starters are accustomed to having longer to warm up before coming into a game, which makes it difficult to get them prepared and into a game in the middle of an inning. The normal practice when using starting pitchers as relievers is to try to get them into the game at the start of an inning for just that reason, though there are exceptions (Kershaw entered with 1 out in the 9th and runners on 1st and 2nd in Game 5 of the NLDS this year, for example).

In the particular case of Lester, the last time that he appeared in a game (regular or postseason) as a reliever was in 2007. It’s about putting Lester in the best position to succeed and how sure the Cubs can be that Lester in an uncomfortable and unusual situation (forced to warm up quickly, entering a game in the middle of an inning with runners on base) is actually better than Edwards for the first batter or two that one of them is facing.