Joe Maddon’s Other Relief Option Tonight

Earlier today, Nick Stellini made his FanGraphs debut with a piece about Joe Maddon’s bullpen options for tonight’s win-or-go-home Game 6. As Nick noted, Maddon has seemingly lost faith in the two guys who anchored his bullpen for most of the year: Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop. Strop, particularly, has been out of the loop, as he’s faced just four batters so far in this series. Given how dominant Strop was in the regular season, he was supposed to be a big part of their October bullpen, but given his usage and performance since coming off the disabled list at the end of September, it seems pretty likely that Maddon doesn’t think he’s at 100%.

Strop, Pre-DL and Post-DL
April – August 8% 32% 60% 2.89 2.87 2.60
September – October 12% 15% 43% 3.11 3.61 5.23

Hector Rondon’s issues are more obvious. He faced 49 batters in August and September between battling arm issues and serving time on the DL, and those 49 batters hit .422/.469/.778 against him. In the postseason, Rondon has faced 25 more batters, and they’ve gone .333/.360/.542, which only counts as improvement because he was basically the worst pitcher in baseball the last two months of the year. Given that he hasn’t gotten hitters out regularly since July, it’s pretty unlikely we’re going to see Rondon pitching in a high leverage situation tonight.

So, to Nick’s point, the bridge between Jake Arrieta and Aroldis Chapman is pretty shaky. Mike Montgomery provides a good left-handed option, but Cleveland has some guys you don’t want to send a lefty up against in the middle of their order, so what Maddon could really use is a quality right-hander to help him get the ball from his starter to his closer. And that’s why I wouldn’t be surprised to see John Lackey come out of the bullpen tonight.

I know the idea of using John Lackey for a couple of innings isn’t that exciting. He’s the Cubs fourth starter, he looks angry all the time, and there’s nothing about his stuff that looks particularly dominating. But I’d like to show you how batters did against John Lackey the first time they faced him this year.

Lackey Against First Nine Batters
1st Time Through The Order BB% K% HR/9 BABIP BA OBP SLG
Lackey, 2016 7% 27% 0.97 0.253 0.200 0.267 0.325

That line is good for just a .261 wOBA, the same mark Jake Arrieta held hitters to overall this year. And while that low wOBA is driven in large part by the .253 BABIP he posted, Lackey’s three-year wOBA against while facing hitters the first time through the order is .286, with four times as many strikeouts as walks. Even at 37, he remains a quality pitcher, especially when hitters haven’t had a look at him within the same game.

Now, of course, all those numbers come during full-rest starts, and Lackey just pitched on Saturday, so we can’t assume he’s going to be ready to go at 100% today. But this is his normal scheduled throw day, so physically, his body should be used to pitching today. And because the plan should be to get as many outs as possible from Arrieta and Chapman, you probably don’t need to ask for more than an inning or two from Lackey.

And if he doesn’t pitch today, there’s a decent chance he won’t get used at all in the Cubs last two games of the season. Kyle Hendricks starts tomorrow, and Wednesday will be Jon Lester’s normal throw-day, so the team will already have a strong right-left combination of available starters, plus their normal collection of relievers. It’s pretty reasonable to think the Cubs plan for Game 7 will be Hendricks-Lester-Chapman, with Edwards or Grimm coming in to face a righty or two between Lester and Chapman if they don’t get enough length from the two starters. Holding Lackey back until tomorrow could mean he ends up not pitching unless the game goes extra innings, so it’s probably better to use him to help reduce the need for Chapman to go as long tonight, keeping him available for work tomorrow too.

As tempting as the Arrieta-Chapman plan might be in a win-or-go-home situation, the reality is that the Cubs have to win two more games, and using Lackey tonight could improve their odds of winning both games, rather than burning Chapman tonight and not having him at full strength tomorrow.

So, if I’m Joe Maddon tonight, I’m going Arrieta for 4-5 innings, depending on how he looks; if he’s dominant, I’d give him a shot at getting through six, but I’d have Mike Montgomery warming in case a lefty comes up with a chance to tie the game. If those two can get you through six, you can have Lackey for the 7th, and depending on the score, maybe the 8th too. If it’s a one run game, maybe you go get Chapman for the six out save, but with a little cushion, I’d trust Lackey to keep runners off the bases. Then Chapman can close out the 9th, and if he only has to go one inning, that leaves him free to go as long as possible tomorrow.

Arrieta-Montgomery-Lackey-Chapman. It’s not what the Cubs had dreamed up when they built this bullpen, but it might be their best shot tonight.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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5 years ago

Lackey is more than willing to do it. In fact what many contributed to his injury in August was the fact that he was in the bullpen warming up on a few outings close to each other that went extra innings in August. He never got into those games, but he was up and ready to go on both (there may have been three as well) occasions.