This week, Joe Maddon confirmed that a “bullpen day” in the playoffs was not off the table for the Chicago Cubs.
Given the questions that persist after the Cubs’ top two starters, that was refreshing to hear, even if nothing’s been decided, and it doesn’t mean that righties Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel might not still be the Cubs’ best options. But let’s break that all down just a little bit more, as it’s likely that none of this is quite as simple as “start the starters” or “go with a bullpen day.”
After his good outing this week against the Brewers, Kyle Hendricks came in for praise from Maddon, who added this with respect to Hendricks and Hammel (ESPN): “We’ve seen how good they both can be. We’ve seen that from them and we know how good they are. I don’t think either one’s hurt and neither one is overextended in innings or number of pitches this year, so they should be in pretty good shape. Right now, it’s just about executing pitches in a game plan, which they both are capable of doing.”
That’s certainly something shy of a confirmation that either of those guys would get a start in the playoffs, but it does confirm that they are physically in a position to be the right arms for the Cubs to use when Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester aren’t on the mound.
The idea of a “bullpen day” is attractive, given that the last two games anchored by Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill – that’s really what we mean by “bullpen day” at this point, and possibly Clayton Richard in there, too – have gone so well. If you can get six effective innings out of a Wood/Cahill combo, then why not go for that rather than crossing your fingers for six effective innings out of one of Hendricks or Hammel?
Then again, you have to keep in mind: part of the reason Wood and Cahill have been so successful in that role is because they know they’ll be expected to go only about three innings, facing the order only about one and a half times, and can really go after guys from thing one. Perhaps if the same were true, in a playoff start, for Hendricks and/or Hammel, they could pull off the same feat.
Indeed, perhaps the better way to look at the possible two games that would have to be started by Not Arrieta and Not Lester is to simply decide that you’ll need about 12 innings total from Hendricks, Hammel, Wood, Cahill, and Richard, and then let Maddon do his thing about optimizing when each guy is used. Call it a “bullpen day” if you want – it’s really just about putting the best arms in the best positions to succeed for the first inning through the fifth-ish inning.
From there, and into the middle and late innings, it’s all going to be match-up based using the best late-inning arms the Cubs have anyway. The off-days and the end-of-season nature of the playoffs means that very little should be off the table for the Cubs in these games, and Joe Maddon certainly isn’t the type to simply go with a traditional starter-then-bullpen approach because that’s what everyone else does.