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November 3, 2016

Playoff Prospectus

Assessing the Managers' Moves in Game 7

by Matthew Trueblood

There’s real freedom in a Game 7. A manager has just one imperative: win this game. Even in a Game 6, a skipper will draw criticism (and perhaps do genuine damage) if he makes a poor decision with regard to some future contest. Just ask Joe Maddon. He entered Wednesday night’s winner-take-all contest with the strange usage of Aroldis Chapman in Game 6 hanging around his neck, and the daunting task of getting 27 outs with a bullpen he largely didn’t trust. Since it was Game 7, though, he had a path to that destination.

Meanwhile, Terry Francona had managed Game 6 almost flawlessly—despite being blown out. He didn’t use Andrew Miller or Cody Allen, keeping them available for as much work as they could possibly handle in Game 7. Heading into Wednesday night, though, the onus to turn the tide rested with Francona.

There weren’t many difficult pregame decisions for either manager. Maddon chose Willson Contreras as his starting catcher. He might have chosen David Ross right off the bat, knowing there was some chance he would want to bring Ross in to work with Jon Lester in the middle innings, but he clearly felt that Contreras had a better chance against Corey Kluber. He also chose Jason Heyward as his starting right fielder, over Chris Coghlan, Jorge Soler, and Albert Almora.

That sentence is not meant to suggest that any of those guys were better options than Heyward. Unfortunately for the Cubs, none of those four players had a good postseason at the plate, so there was no reason for Maddon to play a hot hand instead of his struggling right fielder, and there was every reason to believe Heyward might make a defensive play, or a play on the bases, that none of the other three would. The only notable thing about that choice is that Maddon faced it.

Francona decided to take a little bit more of a chance. He slotted Rajai Davis into the seventh slot in the batting order and sent him into center field, rather than sticking with struggling rookie Tyler Naquin. Kyle Hendricks has a fairly straightforward platoon split, so that wasn’t a matchup play. Rather, it was an expression of faith in a veteran at the expense of a rookie, in a batter whose swing still seemed quick over one who seemed to be wearing down—and perhaps, in a player with a better defensive reputation. Funny thing about that. We’ll get there later.

Literally right off the bat, it was clear that this game would not go the way Kluber’s previous starts in this series had gone. Dexter Fowler’s home run made clear what would only get more clear as the game went on: Kluber was finally wearing down, and the Cubs had seen him enough to get to him. Kluber did make it through the first three innings with just one run on the board, and the game tied 1-1. In the fourth, though, the Cubs got to him. It was the second time he was facing the middle of the Chicago order, and it turned into a two-run mess.

Kluber couldn’t miss bats, and there was an argument for lifting him sometime during that sequence, although that case was hardly airtight. Peculiarly, though, had Francona gone with Naquin as his starting center fielder, it’s possible neither run would have scored. Davis’ weak throwing arm allowed Kris Bryant to score on a shallow sacrifice fly with one out, and the next batter (Contreras) then hit a deep fly ball to right-center field. Davis broke in, and wasn’t able to make up the ground. The ball landed on the warning track for an RBI double, widening the lead.

Naquin is a poor center fielder who had a mess of a Game 6, but he does have a stronger arm than Davis, and who knows, maybe he makes the right read on that Contreras drive. The choice between those two players was a close one, and Francona shouldn’t come in for criticism for choosing Davis. Still, it might have cost him in the fourth inning.

The first truly eyebrow-raising moment of the game, managerially, came in the fifth inning, in which Francona allowed Kluber to continue. He had Miller up and ready in the bullpen, but elected to try to get an extra out or two from his ace. Kluber was facing Javier Baez for the second time, and then would turn over the lineup card and have to face Fowler again. We’ll never know whether Francona would have even allowed him to go that far. It’s fairly clear that, if nothing else, Miller was going to come in when Kyle Schwarber stepped in as the third batter of the inning.

But Baez drove a fastball over the outer half of the plate out of the park, widening the lead and making Francona look too slow to action. I don’t think he was. I think Francona was right to try to get an extra out or two from Kluber. His objective, clearly, was to get through Game 7 using only his three elite options. The difference between 12, 13, and 14 outs from Kluber, in terms of the viability of that plan, was large enough to make at least Baez’s plate appearance worth the risk. It’s just that the gambit backfired.

It was a small thing, and as much about the player as his manager, but Joe Maddon struck the first solid blow in the battle of wits in Game 7. He put the green light on for Bryant in a two-strike, two-out situation, allowing the likely NL MVP (and, there’s a better argument all the time, the best non-Trout player in MLB) to score from first on a longish single by Anthony Rizzo. In the bottom of the fifth, though, Maddon got a little panicky again, as he has done too often when the Cubs have held leads during middle innings throughout the season, and as he has particularly done during these playoffs.

It’s possible to manage a bit too much like it’s Game 7, and that’s what happened. Hendricks walked Carlos Santana with two outs in the fifth, setting up a potentially dangerous situation. The meat of the Cleveland order was due for a third time, and although the tying run was only in the hole, any runs there were going to make a somewhat comfortable Cubs lead a much more tenuous one. Lifting Hendricks, as Maddon chose to do, was not a bad decision, especially with the left-handed Jason Kipnis coming up. Lifting him (and Contreras) in favor of Lester and Ross, though, was evidence of undue urgency.

Left-hander Mike Montgomery had warmed up in the bullpen during the third inning, when Hendricks gave up his first run and looked a bit wobbly. He could easily have come in to retire Kipnis and escape the inning. Maddon clearly prefers to have Montgomery as a long relief option, a safety valve in case he needs outs he didn’t expect to need. But in a Game 7, with Jake Arrieta and John Lackey waiting in the bullpen with spikes on, Maddon had more fallback options than he would have in a typical game. He should have used Montgomery to get that (relatively) high-leverage out, and allowed Lester and Ross to start with a clean slate in the sixth.

Obviously, and it would loom large later, that would also have reduced the chance of the team needing more than three outs from Chapman. Of course, the Lester-Ross combo allowed both Santana and Kipnis to score before the inning was over, so the folly of bringing them in looks even worse in hindsight than it actually was. On the other hand, that choice led to Ross batting against Miller in the top of the sixth, and his home run re-established the Cubs’ control of the game (however briefly). On both process and outcome, that wouldn’t turn out to be Maddon’s worst decision of the night.

The bottom of the seventh marked Francona’s turn to make a gaffe. Roberto Perez drew a one-out walk in a three-run game. Perhaps hoping to put pressure on Lester (Yips! Can’t throw to bases! Surely crippled! Or not.), Francona pinch-ran for his catcher with Naquin. A groundout and a strikeout later, though, the inning was over, the tying run had never even come to the plate, and Francona was left with a much worse catcher for the rest of the game. Yan Gomes batted with the go-ahead run on base in the bottom of the eighth, and struck out. That was a glaringly bad, unnecessary move, and might have stood as the worst of the game, if not for the 10th inning.

Before we could get to the 10th, though, there had to be the eighth. Again, with a three-run lead, Maddon got jittery at the first sign of trouble, lifting Lester after a harmless two-out single, and bringing on Chapman to face two batters with big, real platoon splits. Again, he was too much mired in the mentality his counterpart had adopted. Francona had Kluber, Miller, Allen, and to a lesser extent, Bryan Shaw. He trusted none of his other pitchers in anything resembling a high-leverage situation, and he made sure to use them in descending order of quality, getting as many outs from each as possible. The game would be won or lost in the hands of his trusted arms, and that was easy for him to pull off, too, because of the way the game unfolded.

Maddon should not have been in the same mindset. He should have been more open to using both Montgomery (early) and Carl Edwards Jr. (late), in addition to Arrieta and Lackey, even if he felt he couldn’t trust the damaged, worn bodies of Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, and Travis Wood. There, with two outs in the eighth inning of a three-run game, he was right to decide to lift Lester—who had already thrown three innings on two days’ rest. He was wrong to think it was the time for Chapman, whom everyone knew was a bit tired, with two great right-handed batters due.

That was the time for Edwards, or Arrieta. Instead, Chapman came on, and pitched better than will be remembered. His stuff was clearly diminished, but he got to two strikes and stayed around the strike zone against both Brandon Guyer and Davis. They just put together great at bats, had the much-needed platoon edge, and beat Chapman. So, the game carried into the ninth. Ross got on base, and Maddon pinch-ran for him—an iffy but reasonable move, and one made possible by the luxury of carrying three catchers. Sometimes, a manager needs so many good options that he simply can’t screw things up, and the Cubs essentially did that for Maddon this season.

The Cubs couldn't score, though. Maddon stuck with Chapman in the bottom of the ninth, to the shock of a great many, but Chapman steadied himself and got through it. That was, however unconventional after the previous inning, a fine choice by Maddon. A strong case might have been made for going to Arrieta there, but it was, at worst, a 60/40 kind of call.

In the 10th inning, at last, the game just got away from Francona. He'd waded through his three great options, and Bryan Shaw wasn't enough to hold the heart of Chicago’s order at bay. Maddon’s choice to pinch-run for Schwarber was an automatic but correct one, and paid immediate dividends when Albert Almora took second against Davis and that weak center field arm. That taken base really changed the inning. Rizzo isn't prone to double plays most of the time, but if the double play is in order, it's at least possible. More pressingly, though, that Almora took second induced a mistake from Francona.

Intentionally walking Rizzo opened the door wide to a multi-run rally. Ben Zobrist is way too good a hitter to bring to the plate by putting a runner on base voluntarily. He proved that immediately, and the rout was (almost) on. Another inexplicable intentional walk led to another RBI (from Montero), and Francona was probably lucky to escape the inning with just two Cubs runs. That was it. The rain delay before the 10th ensured that Maddon wouldn't stretch Chapman any further, and set up the Edwards-Montgomery combination to finish off the game.

Throughout the series, Francona out-managed Maddon. That wasn't true Wednesday night. The Cubs won because of their talent, their resilience, and their depth, but also because, in a game where each manager threw a bunch of levers, Maddon had better options in front of him, and Francona made the last mistake. Neither skipper put on a clinic, but neither derailed the game, either. They were just one of many fascinating elements of an incredible World Series game. It was a joy to watch.

Matthew Trueblood is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

Related Content:  Chicago Cubs,  Cleveland Indians

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