So, Kyle Schwarber is apparently not rusty. His first two games in Cleveland were so impressive that the Cubs even explored whether he was healthy enough to play the field in Chicago, before doctors put the kibosh on that idea. But with Schwarber torching Cleveland pitching the first two games of the series, the team now has a pinch-hitter they can’t wait to use in the three games in Wrigley this weekend. And having Schwarber ready to come off the bench should make for some fun cat-and-mouse strategy between Joe Maddon and Terry Francona.
The Tribe have two left-handed pitchers on their World Series roster, and one of them is Ryan Merritt, the soft-tossing rookie that they’re likely hoping they don’t have to use. For all intents and purposes, Andrew Miller is the only lefty in Cleveland’s bullpen, so the right-handedness of the Tribe’s relievers should make it fairly easy for Maddon to find a spot for Schwarber to hit. Because, despite his impressive walk against Miller in Game 1, you really don’t want to waste Schwarber’s one at-bat by having him face a left-handed pitcher.
Those numbers are all very small sample size, and especially the versus left-handed pitching numbers, which represent just 61 plate appearances. Schwarber’s true talent level against lefties is almost certainly much better than those numbers show, and the fact that he’s crushed right-handed pitching should give the Cubs hope that he’s not totally useless against lefties. But as a pull-power lefty with contact issues, he’s exactly the kind of hitter who runs larger-than-average splits, and the Cubs will get significantly more value from his one at-bat if they can send him up against a right-handed pitcher.
If you’re Francona, you don’t necessarily want to change your entire plan based around when Maddon might put Schwarber into the game, but I think he can adjust his bullpen usage to make it more difficult for the Cubs to get Schwarber in against a righty in a high leverage situation. And that probably starts with flipping the way Andrew Miller and Cody Allen have been used up to this point.
So far this postseason, with only one exception, Miller has been the first guy out of the bullpen, and Allen has been the guy used to get the final outs of the game. But if Francona sticks with that plan, then it’s not that hard for the Cubs to optimally deploy Schwarber as a pinch-hitter. You just wait for Miller to run out of steam and get replaced in the 7th or 8th inning, depending on when he enters, then pinch-hit with Schwarber against Allen with no fear of having him face a lefty.
If you flip the roles, though, Francona can make life a little more challenging for Maddon. Let’s say Josh Tomlin has given you four good-enough innings and the game is still close; at this point, unless he’s dominated to get the first twelve outs, the Cubs bottom of the order is probably hitting for the second time, with the big scary bats due up if a rally starts. This has been where Miller has started getting loose, and has come in to keep the starter from having to face the Dexter Fowler/Kris Bryant/Anthony Rizzo part of the order a third time.
But realistically, it’s unlikely that Maddon is going to use Schwarber at that point in the game. He’s probably not going to want to lift Kyle Hendricks early, so assuming Hendricks is throwing well, that’s probably a spot where he’ll let his pitcher hit for himself. And Schwarber isn’t going to pinch-hit for any of the first four batters in the Cubs line-up, and probably not for Javier Baez either, assuming he’s hitting 5th like he has been most of the series. When the line-up is getting ready to flip over for the third time, Francona can be reasonably sure that Schwarber won’t be making an appearance for five or six hitters, at least, no matter who is on the mound.
Deploying Miller for those batters, then, is a bit of a waste. If you go with Allen as the guy to face the third-time-through-the-order hitters, you can probably get three to six outs from your other relief ace without letting Schwarber face him, simply because Maddon won’t use him to pinch-hit for any of his best hitters. By the time Allen gets towards the bottom of the order, you can have Miller standing there ready to enter, ready for Maddon to announce Schwarber as a pinch-hitter for whomever he chooses. If you’re Francona, you’re hopeful Miller would be entering after Allen had already pitched you through the fifth and sixth innings, and then you could potentially ask Miller to get the final nine outs.
That leaves Maddon with a tougher choice; pinch-hit Schwarber for one of the team’s weaker hitters knowing that Miller will come trotting out of the bullpen as soon as he his name rings through the public announce system, or save him for a potential at-bat later if Miller isn’t able to finish the game. On the one hand, Maddon would definitely prefer Schwarber against a righty, or at least against a tiring Miller, but if the game is close in the 6th or 7th, there’s no guarantee it will still be close in the 9th, and Schwarber could end up hitting in a spot where the game has already been decided, instead of potentially changing the score earlier on.
For Cleveland, flipping Allen and Miller’s role not only raises the probability of Schwarber having to face Miller in his one at-bat, but it also creates a situation where you might not have to face Schwarber at all in a meaningful situation.
Of course, it comes with some risk as well; if Allen or Miller struggle, and the team has to use their other relievers to finish out the game, the Cubs could get Schwarber against Bryan Shaw or Dan Otero in the 8th or 9th inning. So while the chance of forcing Schwarber to face Miller is higher, the risk of him getting to bat against one of your non-elite relievers is also higher, making this cost/benefit trade-off more extreme in both directions.
But I think the value of potentially forcing Schwarber to face Miller is worth the downside. So here’s how I’d try to set things up in a perfect world.
Josh Tomlin faces 18 batters, and you hope for between 12-15 outs.
Cody Allen faces 6-9 batters, and you hope for ~6 outs.
Andrew Miller faces 9-12 batters, and you hope for 6-9 outs.
In an ideal world where Tomlin gives you five good innings, Allen gets to start the sixth against the Cubs best hitters, and he and Miller can split the final 12 outs between them, depending on when Schwarber is announced as a pinch-hitter. That’s probably not going to happen, and Allen would probably have to come in to face the top of the line-up in the 5th, leaving it a little more questionable whether those two can finish the game themselves, but it’s worth taking the shot, especially with Corey Kluber hopefully giving you six innings in Game Four tomorrow.
We’ll see what Francona does tonight. The easy path is to just stick with what’s working, and have Miller be the first one out of the bullpen. But if they want to make life more difficult for the Cubs, don’t be too surprised if Cody Allen is the one who starts warming up first.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.