The 2016 Chicago Cubs were an extraordinarily talented team, but talent gets you only so far. In that respect, manager Joe Maddon had as much to do with their success as any individual.
That much is inarguable.
With that said, I don’t think all observers were on board with every decision Maddon made in the closing games of the World Series.
And although winning three straight games (including two on the road) while breaking the longest standing championship drought in sports history paved over this story almost entirely, there were still many people out there with questions, including me!
Fortunately, now that the dust has settled, the champaign has dried, and the hangovers have been cured, Maddon has broken the silence on many of his decisions from the Games 6 and 7 at Fox Sports, Cubs.com, and ESPN. There’s a lot more in those articles than we’ll discuss here, so you should check them out.
When questioned about his decision to bring Aroldis Chapman into the seventh inning of 7-2 Cubs lead in Game 6, Maddon replied with an immediate (and ominous), “I promise you, you’re happy I did.”
And before we go deeper, therein lies the crux, right? Our own lack of knowledge might make a manager’s decisions seem ridiculous, when in reality that decision was the only and/or best option available. Although you can’t always use that as an excuse, Maddon has earned at least some trust by now. And, in that particular instance, if the other available relievers were either hurting or experiencing some sort of unexpected period of ineffectiveness, we may not have known about it, because the Cubs wouldn’t want that to be public knowledge (hey, maybe Bryan Price was right).
And apparently, that was indeed the case.
The decision to bring in Chapman, who’d just thrown 42 pitches in Game 5, was not a simple one. At a high level, Game 6 was a must-win, of course, but there was a lot more to it than that. For one, Maddon wasn’t ready to risk their lead with two Indians on base and a dangerous hitter (Francisco Lindor) coming up. But, more importantly, the bullpen was indeed shaken up.
“Some of our guys had been hurt at the end of the year, Stropey (Pedro Strop) with the bad knee and (Hector) Rondon with a bad triceps,” Maddon explained, per Fox Sports. “Of course, there was C.J. (Edwards) and (Mike) Montgomery to utilize also. But we could not lose any more games. I thought by keeping the game in tow right there, if we were to add on, I could get (Chapman) out on the backside, try to do a reverse kind of thing.”
Essentially, Maddon was bringing in his best reliever at – what he considered to be – the highest leverage moment of the game. In that respect, it’s hard to argue with the decision. You might have had the guts to risk it all right there with someone like Strop or Rondon and a five-run lead, but the pressure on Maddon to deliver a Game 7 was not something he was willing to gamble with.
Plainly put, Maddon “didn’t trust anybody else.”
When asked about why Chapman started the 9th, however, his answer was less compelling, but at least conceded that he may have erred: “It happened so quickly. If it was a five-point lead, I was still considering leaving him in the game right there … The negligent part there was not having someone warm up in case we did add on.”
For most of us, getting on board with Chapman finishing out that 7th inning threat was easy enough. But it was continuing to use him thereafter with such a large lead, especially into the 9th inning after the Cubs had just tacked on, which was harder to understand. As Maddon himself admits, someone should have been warming up already to start that 9th inning.
And it’s not like this is (or was, rather) a non-issue, as evidenced by Chapman’s relative ineffectiveness (and save-blowing appearance) at the end of Game 7.
In Game 7, Maddon took heat for lifting Kyle Hendricks when he did and bringing Jon Lester into the middle of an inning with a runner on base, but he offered a fairly simple and convincing answer: Lester was warm and you can’t keep warming a guy up for too long before he loses effectiveness, and Maddon wanted a lefty on the mound for Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor.
This week at the Winter Meetings, though, Maddon was again asked about some of the decisions at the end of the World Series, and, for the first time, really left me scratching my head.
“It’s fascinating to me regarding the second-guessing because the only reality I know is that we won,” Maddon said on Day 2 of the Winter Meetings, per ESPN. “That’s the one reality that I do know. We have oftentimes talked about outcome bias. If you had done something differently, would it have turned out better? But better than winning, I don’t know what that is.”
But that’s exactly it. Outcome bias works both ways. As in, even though the outcome was favorable, it’s fair to ask whether the decisions put the Cubs in the best position to win. Joe Maddon is usually a strict believer in not allowing the results to dictate the process, so I can’t quite understand what he meant here. Maybe I’m missing something.
Later in his comments, Maddon also mentioned that Chapman allowed the game-tying home run to Rajai Davis because of poor location, not diminished velocity. The fastball was 97 MPH, which is well below Chapman’s average fastball velocity in 2016 of 100.4 MPH. But even still, it’s worth noting that fatigue can just as easily lead to a lack of command, as well as diminished velocity.
The Cubs won the games, of course, so this is all academic at this point. It’s possible that Maddon is just tired of talking about these decisions at this point, which I could understand becoming rather tedious because the Cubs did win the series, thanks in no small part to the micro decisions that take place throughout a given game and the preparation for a given game. We don’t have visibility to a lot of that.
In any case, we were given some interesting high-stakes baseball decisions to discuss and debate, free from the woe that would have accompanied those decisions preceding a World Series loss.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.