Unofficially, Game 6 was over in the blink of an eye. Officially, it wasn’t complete for three and a half hours, but from close to the start, most fans were thinking ahead to Wednesday. Even while Game 6 was going, Game 7 was on everyone’s mind, as we prepared for the most anticipated showdown in, what, at least 15 years? You’re on this site right now to read about baseball, but you’re not looking to read about the game in the books. You want to read about the finale. Nothing is ever as important as it is in the finale.
Game 7 presents a funny situation. It’s one game, so it could turn on almost literally anything. In Game 6, after all, the biggest point according to win expectancy was Addison Russell’s routine fly ball that somehow dropped between two outfielders. Who would’ve guessed? You can’t predict any one-game scenario. At the same time, it’s never more critical to maximize the odds. Strategic calls are at their most important. Bullpen usage is at its most important. Lineup construction is at its most important. There’s nothing after Game 7 but gray clouds and winter. Half of the players will have a happier winter than the others.
As that lineup construction goes for the Cubs — look, I don’t want to deceive you. This isn’t that critical. What I’m writing about probably won’t make the biggest difference. But I see a case for starting David Ross over Willson Contreras. It has a lot to do with a guy supposedly available out of the bullpen.
In case you haven’t been reading closely, it’s going to be an all-hands-on-deck situation. That much should be obvious, and even Jake Arrieta has claimed that he’ll be available to pitch if he’s needed. Chances are, Arrieta won’t be needed. But, Jon Lester? The Cubs are a lot more likely to go with Jon Lester. He started Game 5, but he’ll be fresh enough to throw a few innings. At this point, it seems a virtual lock that Lester will appear, given how little trust Joe Maddon has shown in a lot of his bullpen.
If you know one thing about Jon Lester, it’s that he is a good pitcher. If you know…I don’t know, at least eight or nine things about Jon Lester, one of them is probably that he’s caught by David Ross. This year, Ross caught 99% of Lester’s innings. Last year, Ross caught 90% of Lester’s innings. As Lester goes, so does Ross, and therefore I assume that, if Lester comes in out of the bullpen, we know who’ll catch him. I might very well be wrong in this assumption, but it’s clear that Lester and Ross are comfortable with one another, and Game 7 would seem like a strange time to disrupt what’s been normal.
Assumptions, therefore: Lester will pitch at some point, so Ross will catch at some point. Lester will definitely not pitch first. That honor goes to Kyle Hendricks. So should Ross start the game, or should he relieve Contreras when Lester relieves who he relieves?
Some might think this is easy. I’ve seen a lot of people on Twitter saying that Contreras has looked lost, and when he recently faced Corey Kluber, he went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts. This isn’t easy, really. I doubt that Contreras is too far in the dumps. He should be expected to be a better hitter than Ross — and a better hitter by a decent margin. Contreras, as of right now, would project for a 97 wRC+. Ross, 71. They’re both right-handed. You’d rather have Contreras at the plate.
The clear downside of starting Ross is that, compared to starting Contreras, Ross bats an extra one or two times. Probably in, like, the third and the fifth. The difference between them in any given individual plate appearance is barely 0.03 runs, but it all counts. Contreras is more likely to do offensive damage. Game 7 is probably going to be pretty light on offense. Someone is going to need to score.
Yet if you start Ross, you have Contreras available on the bench. If you start Contreras and then go with Ross, your bench is lighter and you have but one catcher left. That lineup spot would come up again, at least once, and Joe Maddon would be less likely to pinch-hit if it would leave him on his final catcher. Managers don’t like being left without another catcher, especially, I’m guessing, in a Game 7. Starting with Ross, you could pinch-hit with Contreras in the later innings. It’s not guaranteed that the pinch-hit opportunity would come with a high leverage, but later plate appearances do average higher leverage indices than earlier plate appearance. So Contreras could make up for the swings he didn’t get early. When Lester is out, Ross could come out.
And it’s not just about what they can do at the plate. It’s also a matter of what they can do behind it, and, defensively speaking, Ross closes some of the offensive gap. By the eye test, Ross is the superior defensive catcher. They can both throw, and, according to the major-league statistics, they can both receive, but Contreras looks like the worse receiver, and Baseball Prospectus says he was below-average in the minors, which is relevant. Hendricks is going to start, and Hendricks is plenty familiar with pitching to Contreras, but this year he generated the third-lowest swing rate among qualified pitchers. Hendricks works around borders; he partially relies on umpire judgment. A good catcher and Kyle Hendricks can team up to steal strikes, and I have to think Ross would have some kind of advantage. It would somewhat cancel out the offensive gap as the Cubs wait to bring Lester in.
I don’t think there’s a clear answer here. I’m sure there are factors I haven’t considered, and I’m also sure that, when it comes to the probability, this decision isn’t huge. Contreras is fine, and Ross is fine, and this game will be determined by so many different things. But assuming Jon Lester is going to pitch, and assuming Lester is going to pitch to David Ross, I can see why Ross should just get the starting nod. It has nothing to do with Contreras’ recent performance, and it has nothing to do with Ross’ retirement. This is no time for nice gestures. It would of course be a nice gesture to start Ross in a Game 7. But it seems like it could also be more than that. There’s value in having that flexibility later. And there’s value in having Ross behind the plate.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.