About That 4th Inning

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About That 4th Inning

Chicago Cubs

The balance I have to strike this morning is that I don’t want to go way over-the-top in my criticism of David Ross just because he has generally not given me many opportunities to criticize in his managerial career so far. I don’t want it to feel like – or me to give into – a sense of, “OH MAN I HAVE A SHOT NOW!” Because I want to just talk about the situation, as it stands, and evaluate.

On the flip side, I don’t want to hold back too much on a particular situation just because Ross has, almost across the board, been an excellent rookie-ish manager so far in my view. It would be easy to wave my hand at last night as a one-off, and say that Ross is usually spot on, he has more information than I do, so let’s move on.

I remember running into this balance early on in the Joe Maddon years, because I knew Maddon was an exceptional manager, and I knew that there were things informing his decisions that I wasn’t going to have access to. So, for a long while, I would beg off of harsh criticism and say that Maddon knows what he’s doing, he knows more than I do, there was probably a good reason, etc., etc. And to be sure, Maddon didn’t really do a lot of stuff that ticked me off or that I thought was flat wrong. Eventually, it wasn’t an appeal to authority, it was just, well, he usually did the right stuff.

In time, though, there were enough Maddon decisions made where I felt like I did have a good sense of what was informing his moves like that or like this, and I could more confidently assert where I think he’d flubbed.

With David Ross, we don’t quite have that same track record yet – both for his managerial career, and also for our close exposure to him in charge of the Cubs, specifically. So I’ll freely admit there could be idiosyncrasies in his managerial style that I’ll pick up in the coming years, and which will shape any of my criticisms (or make me back off certain kinds of criticisms). And, like with Maddon, as I said at the top, Ross simply hasn’t provided a lot of opportunities for me to even start to think about whether I’m missing something or whether Ross just really screwed up. It’s a compliment!

But I’m writing this morning for a reason. Obviously.

It sure felt like Ross screwed up last night in the 4th inning of the Cubs’ loss to the Mets. Significantly, and with several opportunities to correct course. I was really, really hot in the moment. I’ve cooled quite a bit since then – hey, we’re all fanatics here, so you know how we are – but I still feel like the screw-up lingers.

Here’s the game situation as best we know it, observing from the outside:

1.) Down a couple starting pitchers, the Cubs had to lean on Triple-A reliever Robert Stock to come up and start last night. He’d posted back-to-back four-inning “starts” at Iowa recently, so it was absolutely reasonable to hope he could give you four innings, but it was more realistic – given the way big leaguers grind a guy differently and the way a guy hypes himself differently – to expect three innings, tops.

2.) The Cubs aren’t just down starting pitchers. They’ve also received so many of the shortest starting outings in baseball, which has left their bullpen *heavily* used in general, particularly among their best and most reliable relievers.

3.) Stock was wild all night, lacking competitive pitches for most of his outing, and had already allowed three runs through his first three innings. He had thrown 53 high-stress pitches at that point.

4.) Jacob deGrom, who’d been perfect through three innings, left the game. Anthony Rizzo homered against his replacement to make it a 3-1 game heading into the bottom of the 4th.

5.) Stock came back out for the 4th and threw four straight balls to the leadoff hitter, not remotely close to the zone, and the last of which was a 91.9 mph fastball (from a guy who sits 98+).

6.) Stock was then permitted to give up a five-pitch single, a five-pitch walk (to the opposing pitcher who was trying to bunt), a rocket lineout, and then another four-pitch walk – all wild – to score a run. Only then did the Cubs get Cory Abbott up in the bullpen, far too late to actually do anything about the disaster that had unfolded.

7.) Stock got a groundout to score another run, and then got a generous strike three call solidly off the plate to end the inning. The Cubs trailed 5-1 at that point, Stock was at 79 pitches, and it could’ve been much, much worse.

OK. So, to me – and seemingly everyone watching – it was MAYBE defensible to let Stock start that inning, but a four-pitch, completely-wild, velocity-decimated walk to open the inning set off all the alarm bells. Stock was done, and needed to be pulled. But no one was even up in the bullpen, and didn’t even get up until FOUR BATTERS LATER. None of that was defensible.

Still, I wanted to hear David Ross’s explanation after the game to at least put some context on it. Not that I expected there to be a great explanation – I was pretty sure I knew what he’d say – but I was still disappointed.

“I’m thinking we’ve got to get some more innings out of the starters,” said David Ross of his thinking in the fourth inning, per NBCSC. “I can’t in a down game run to the guys that are going to be the back end when we’re winning. When we’re tied or ahead it’s a little easier to go to the guys that have had success. We’ve ridden them pretty hard when we’ve had the lead. Putting extra miles on them in a 162-game season when we’ve already ridden them pretty hard, doesn’t make a lot of sense …. Some days you’ve got to just let some guys try to figure it out and hope for the best, to be honest with you.”

Ross seems to be saying that, at 3-1, and with the Mets having to go to their bullpen in the 4th inning, the game was already over, barring some miracle. So, no sense in using someone else for the 4th inning, and instead the better strategy was to “hope for the best” from Stock, a guy who threw four straight extremely wild pitches to open the inning, and had seen his velocity crater. In a two-run game that deGrom had just left after three innings.

Let me offer some agreement: it wouldn’t have made sense to go to, say, Ryan Tepera there in the 4th inning. Agreed. That’s definitely a “long haul” consideration. But there’s a huge gap between “go to their setup men in the 4th inning” and “let a minor league reliever who has zero control and has lost velocity just eat it.”

So let’s talk about that. What was actually available to Ross in that moment? I know the bullpen has been heavily used this year, but I’m not sure I would say they were overly taxed recently. Here are your reliever situations as of last night:

⇒ Cory Abbott had thrown 6.0 innings three days earlier, but was called up to back-fill and ultimately threw two innings.

⇒ Andrew Chafin hadn’t pitched in four days, and just once in the past week.

⇒ Ryan Tepera hadn’t pitched in three days, and just twice in the past week.

⇒ Tommy Nance hadn’t pitched the night before, and was ultimately able to throw two innings.

⇒ Dan Winkler had pitched the night before, but that was his first appearance in three days.

⇒ Keegan Thompson had pitched two innings the night before and was probably down, but that appearance was his first in five days.

⇒ Rex Brothers had pitched two nights in a row, and was down, ideally.

⇒ Craig Kimbrel hadn’t pitched in three days, but had pitched every game in that Cardinals series. Him being down until a late-game situation, tied or ahead, is fine by me.

Do I understand why you’d want to stay away from most of those guys when trailing? Absolutely. But do I see in that group a reason to punt a 3-1 game, and risk injury to a guy like Stock, who had *nothing* in the 4th? Do I see a reason not to even get a guy *up* after the first batter in the 4th when it was clear Stock was gassed? No and no. I mean, the Cubs wound up getting Abbott warm late in the inning anyway!

If you’re trailing on the road, you might have to cover only 8.0 innings total. And if it becomes 9.0 innings, hey, good news! That means you tied the game or took the lead! So the approach really should’ve been getting three innings out of Stock, and when he gave you those three innings and you were suddenly in the game with deGrom leaving? The approach should’ve been, OK, let’s try to keep this thing close for another couple innings and see what happens against this Mets bullpen. To me, that meant bringing in Abbott for the 4th and 5th innings, because then, if the game is out of reach, you can TRULY punt it without hurting your bullpen. But if the game tightened up further? You’re gonna WANT to use those late-inning relievers!

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

There really was no reason for Stock to pitch that 4th inning. It risked injury, it risked completely giving the game away, and there was no reasonable expectation that he could give you a strong inning at that point. Just because you may have predetermined that you wanted four innings out of him does not justify how that 4th inning actually played out. What would the cost have been in going to Abbott at that point, and seeing where things stood two innings later? Zero. The cost would’ve been zero. And the Cubs might’ve had a much better chance to come back (to say nothing of making the Mets use THEIR better relievers throughout the rest of the game).

I do have an appreciation for (1) how hard these decisions are to make in the moment, (2) how many factors go into the decision beyond “how do I best get the next out?”, and (3) how much more information Ross has about his pitchers. I will grant that it is possible, if I knew absolutely everything Ross does about his team and the situation, I would’ve proceeded exactly as he did.

But, since I don’t get to know everything he knows, and since I’m here to provide my thoughts on what we’re able to see and hear on the outside, that’s what I’ve done. Last night felt like a big, unnecessary whiff in a game that seemed unwinnable before it began, became winnable, and then was artificially made unwinnable again.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.