I cannot overstate how critical Mark Leiter Jr. was to the Cubs’ success through mid-August, and how incredible it is that he turned himself into a highly valuable reliever after being kind of a journeyman quad-A starter. The guy deserves as much praise as you can give for the full year.
But I also cannot overstate how frustrated I was to see Mark Leiter Jr. given the 9th inning last night.
It was the kind of thing that made me sufficiently angry in the moment that, even as it did not impact the end of the game, I could not let it pass without comment. And although I’ve softened since last night upon reviewing David Ross’s other options, I still think that this has been an issue for long enough, spanning more than just one appearance, it’s worth noting.
In the 9th inning last night, with the Cubs having just tied the game 3-3, David Ross summoned Mark Leiter Jr. to get the Cubs to extras. If you’ve followed the story at all, you already know where this is going: Leiter hasn’t been himself for a long time, specifically because he has not been able to throw his signature split-finger changeup effectively. If he doesn’t have the pitch, he cannot be used in a spot like that. And for well over a month now, he has not had the pitch.
As expected, Leiter still did not have his splitter available last night – he threw it just three times out of 14 pitches, and none were close – yet David Ross chose Leiter to pitch one of the most important innings of the year against a trio of lefties. I was aggravated the moment the camera showed who was warming for the 9th, and I was apoplectic by the time I saw his first attempted splitter.
The reason Leiter was always used against lefties was BECAUSE of the splitter – it’s an incredible weapon against lefties. Without it for the last month+, Leiter is simply a run-of-the-mill righty reliever with no discernible advantage against lefties. You’re GIVING THE BREWERS the match-up advantage by bringing this version of Leiter in to face lefties!
Also, it’s not like there’s trickiness or subterfuge to be had. Teams have all the data, and they are not stupid. They know Leiter hasn’t been able to throw his splitter for a very long time, so you’re not fooling anyone.
Sure enough, against his three lefties, Leiter gave up a line drive single, a 101.8 mph rocket (that thankfully was right at Dansby Swanson), and then walked Christian Yelich before he was pulled.
Going to Leiter in that moment, despite all available information, felt like a stubborn call from Ross, who has continued treating Leiter like he was a sure-fire late-inning reliever long after that was true. I get that Ross’s bullpen options have become limited of late, but almost anyone would’ve been a better choice in that particular situation at this particular point in time, especially if you’re trying to save the season (and thus guys have to stretch a bit). Jose Cuas was obviously available. Daniel Palencia should have been available. Maybe Luke Little on a back-to-back. Maybe Jameson Taillon, who is otherwise done for the year. Maybe let Drew Smyly go more than an inning if you already know things are going to be so desperate that you feel you have to use Leiter.
You’re choosing from among poor match-up options and really tired guys. I know. That’s why I’m softening my criticism here of Ross, at least as far as last night goes. But you also have to know just how unpitchable Leiter has been against lefties over the past six weeks.
Leiter, who was so good for the Cubs for so long – and used SO heavily – has posted a 7.36 ERA over his last 14 appearances, with a 14.8% K rate and a 13.0% BB rate. Lefties during that time have hit a whopping .356/.453/.600 against him(!), with equal 13.9% strikeout and walk rates. What are you doing still using him as a lefty match-up guy?
Look, maybe there’s some hope that Leiter will just magically figure out the pitch one of these times, even though he’s barely using it, the metrics for it have clearly shifted, and it does not LOOK right. Ignoring that reality (it’s not just about last night) is not a winning strategy.
By the way, until the splitter went away, Leiter had a 2.70 ERA, a 32.1% strikeout rate, and a 7.9% walk rate. The guy was a STUD. I don’t want to lose sight of that, because none of this is me taking shots at Leiter. He simply got used a ton, lost the feel of his key pitch, and now he’s being asked to be something he’s clearly not. The blame there does NOT rest with Leiter. My deep frustrations last night – and, frankly, over his last several appearances – are entirely about usage. His manager is not putting him or his team in a position to succeed by continuing to use Leiter in this way.
Going forward and into the offseason, I’m not so sure what happens here. Leiter is just not a guy without the splitter. If it’s a finger issue or something, you hope for his sake that the offseason can help him recover and get it right, because it was pretty cool that he’d finally been able to stick in the big leagues after a long journey of being so close. He’s arbitration-eligible and does not have any options remaining, and I do wonder how the Cubs will approach that 40-man decision. It all really comes down to that one pitch, and their confidence that he can get it back.