This morning, Cubs fans are celebrating a World Championship, and a well-earned one. They were the best team all year. They didn’t ride a late-season hot streak to a title; they were the class of baseball from April through October. It doesn’t always happen in baseball, but this year, the best team won it all.
But it almost didn’t happen. For a few minutes, it seemed like the story this morning was going to be Aroldis Chapman. Well, Aroldis Chapman and Joe Maddon. Maddon’s risk-averse decision to use Chapman in Game 6 was one of the big stories coming out of Tuesday’s game, and while Maddon said he didn’t think that outing would have any adverse effects on Chapman’s effectiveness in Game 7, that quickly proved to not be the case.
We all saw the eighth inning. Chapman came in with two outs, looking to convert a four-out save, and he just didn’t have his normal stuff. He threw 19 fastballs in that inning, averaging 98 mph, and topping out at 101. For most pitchers, that’s electric; for Chapman, that’s worrisome. And while Chapman’s normal top-end fastball is enough to put hitters away even without command, this diminished fastball was not.
Brandon Guyer fought off some fastballs away, took some pitches that weren’t close, and worked the count 3-2. And then Chapman threw this pitch.
In terms of horizontal location, it’s actually not bad; outer corner, maybe in the zone. But it’s also a belt-high 98 mph fastball to a right-hander, and Guyer lined it into the gap for an RBI double. That at-bat was the first sign of trouble, because Chapman threw seven fastballs to Guyer, and he didn’t get a single swing and miss.
Chapman would throw 12 more fastballs in the 8th inning, getting just one swinging strike, and of course, he would give up a game-tying home run to Rajai Davis on a 98 mph fastball down and in. It took him 21 pitches to get one out a night after throwing 20 pitches to get five outs, and in that inning, it seemed pretty clear that Chapman was just gassed. The workload had caught up to him, and he just wasn’t able to throw the fastball by anyone the way he was used to.
Which is why I, and a lot of other people, were shocked when Chapman trotted back out to the mound to pitch the ninth inning, with the game still tied at six.
The glorious symmetry of this postseason starting with a manager not using a closer and maybe ending with a manager using a closer too much
— Ben Lindbergh (@BenLindbergh) November 3, 2016
It was clear that Maddon didn’t trust any of his other relievers, but Chapman had now thrown 87 pitches in the last three games, not including the warm-ups he tossed while getting ready to pitch in seven different innings. The bottom of the ninth was the eighth inning in which Chapman had pitched in four days. And Chapman knew he couldn’t just do what he normally does. He just lost a three run lead by trying to throw fastballs by Cleveland’s hitters, and he wasn’t going to do that again.
So instead, Chapman decided to abandon the pitch that made him famous. Here’s how he pitched Carlos Santana leading off the ninth.
That’s an 86 mph hanging slider in the middle of the plate, which he used to steal strike one. The location of the pitch, in pitch chart form.
Everyone expects fastballs from Chapman, so hey, smart pitching by starting Santana off with a slider. He got a free strike, since that’s clearly not what he was looking for on the first pitch of the at-bat. Except, then, the next pitch.
Another slider, this one not close to the zone. Chapman had gotten Yan Gomes to chase a couple of breaking balls out of the zone for the one out he got in the 8th inning, but Carlos Santana isn’t Yan Gomes. Now, the count is 1-1 to Cleveland’s best hitter.
Hey, look, another slider. This one actually had some break to it, but the location was so far from the zone that Santana was able to hold up. 2-1.
From there, Chapman decided to try a fastball. But it was 97 and way outside, so now he was behind Santana 3-1. This was trouble, as a leadoff walk could easily turn into a walkoff hit with the middle of the line-up coming up, so Chapman had to challenge Santana the best he could. He decided to go with another fastball. This is where it ended up.
That’s a centered and elevated 97 mph fastball. Santana was probably looking for something a little lower, knowing Chapman didn’t have his out-pitch fastball, so he didn’t want to chase up out of the zone, but this is a pitch that could have been crushed. Just like the first strike, Chapman got away with a poorly located hittable pitch, but at least now it was 3-2. Now he could try and put Santana away.
But then he threw this.
This might be the worst pitch Arodlis Chapman has ever thrown. That’s an 86 mph slider down the heart of the plate, diving into a right-hander’s bat, in exactly the area where breaking balls get hit to the moon. Again, the pitch location chart, with this particular slider circled.
This was the pitch Carlos Santana dreamed about as a little kid. World Series Game 7, bottom of the 9th, tie game, and a home run immortalizes your swing in baseball history. Except Santana missed it. Go back and watch his hop after he makes contact. He so badly wants that pitch back. He wants another chance to hit that ball 500 feet, because that’s what that pitch deserved.
So that was the first out of the ninth inning. A middle-middle slider for strike one when Santana was probably looking fastball, a borderline 97 mph fastball that was called for strike two but could have been ball four, and then a horrendous hanging breaking ball in the middle of the zone that Santana just missed hitting to the moon.
And yet, Aroldis Chapman kept pitching. With Jason Kipnis up, at least Chapman had the platoon advantage. And after hanging a couple of sliders, maybe he’d go back to his fastball?
85 mph belt high slider. Again, borderline strike that goes his way. 0-1, but he still hasn’t thrown a good pitch for a strike the whole inning. What’s next?
Hey, look, another 85 mph slider. This one missed away, which was probably for the best, because that was another loopy breaking ball at the belt. At this point, Kipnis has probably figured out what everyone watching had figured out; Chapman had abandoned his fastball. It was time to look for a slider.
Oh man. This is the same exact pitch he threw Santana. Same spot, same movement, same chance for heroism. This is a disastrous location for an 85 mph slider, but just like Santana got under it a little bit, Kipnis was just out in front. If he waits back a fraction of a second longer, that’s an extra base hit, and maybe a walk-off home run. Chapman narrowly avoided disaster again.
From there, he threw an 87 mph slider into the right-handed batter’s box for ball two, then an 84 mph slider at Kipnis’ eyes for ball three. For the second straight batter, the count was full, and Chapman had to avoid walking the winning run on base. At this point, he had thrown six straight sliders, and everyone in the world knew what was coming next, Kipnis included.
Yeah. Let’s just go to the chart.
85 mph belt-high slider, down the middle. Kipnis spins away in disgust with his version of Santana’s little hop. Another one missed. Another pitch that deserved to end up in the seats. These are terrible pitches, thrown from an exhausted pitcher, in predictable fashion. But Cleveland just kept barely missing.
Finally, perhaps realizing that calling for another one of these sliders is just tempting fate, Miguel Montero sets up for a low and away fastball.
Here’s where the pitch actually ends up.
98 mph fastball, middle of the plate, but up out of the zone. Kipnis went after ball four, and Chapman got his first whiff of the inning. On a pitch that wasn’t anywhere near where his catcher wanted it.
And that was mostly that for Cleveland’s chance to walk it off against an exhausted pitcher who shouldn’t have been on the mound. Francisco Lindor popped up a first pitch 98 mph fastball on the inside corner, a pretty well located pitch, for out number three, and the Cubs went on to win the game in the 10th inning.
But I don’t know if there’s any way to tell the story of Game 7 without talking about how that game was almost lost in the bottom of the ninth on multiple occasions. An overworked pitcher with nothing left, throwing meatballs to Cleveland’s best hitters, and it somehow resulted in a 1-2-3 inning. That’s baseball for you.
The Cubs absolutely deserve to be champions today. They were the best team of 2016, and this time, the postseason rewarded season-long excellence. But man, that bottom of the ninth. That could have so easily gone differently. That probably should have gone differently. And we’d have an entirely different story to tell today.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.