Maddon's Over-Thinking Nearly Cost Cubs

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Joe Maddon joined the Chicago Cubs in 2015 after eight successful years managing the Tampa Bay Rays, highlighted by winning the Manager of the Year Award and the American League pennant in 2008. Maddon became lauded for his open-minded, unconventional thinking and early affinity for sabermetrics.

 

He continued his modus operandi with the Cubs. For example, at times he batted his pitcher eighth in the line up, slugger Kris Bryant second, and lighter-hitting second baseman Ben Zobrist cleanup. He moved players freely around the field, even putting three pitchers in left field in one game. Off the field, his creativity manifested in Halloween costumes, zoo animals, magicians, and the team slogan “try not to suck”, all of which fostered team camaraderie and minimized the pressure of the Cubs 108-year World Series drought.

 

All the oddities seemed to work, the Cubs won and won some more, leading the Major Leagues with 103 victories this season and then winning their first World Series since 1908. You’d think the man with the Midas touch would be further venerated after the epic World Series victory; perhaps he could walk on Lake Michigan?

 

Yet the opposite happened. Due to several odd and seemingly harmful decisions Maddon made in games six and seven, his reputation took a hit. Media and fans, even in Chicago, suggested that the Cubs won the World Series despite Maddon, rather than because of him.

 

Reporter Ken Rosenthal probed the issue in a hard-hitting interview (http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/story/joe-maddon-chicago-cubs-world-series-games-6-7-strategy-wins-ken-rosenthal-120316). Maddon defended himself on every point, but weakly; he’d probably have been better off with a mea culpa.

 

First and foremost, Maddon inserted ace reliever Aroldis Chapman into game six with two outs in the seventh inning, runners on first and second, and a 7-2 lead. That made sense for that single out, but Maddon then sent Chapman out again for the eighth (with the same score) and the ninth (now leading 9-2). Chapman had thrown 42 pitches in game five and further tiring him with such a big lead, and game seven ahead, controverted conventional wisdom. That nearly cost the Cubs the World Series, as Chapman, not surprisingly, had nothing left for game seven. He gave up three consecutive hits in the eighth inning, including his first home run allowed as a Cub (to the light-hitting Rajai Davis), blowing a three-run lead, snatching a tie game from the jaws of victory.

 

Maddon defended his decision to pitch Chapman in the eighth inning of game six: “There was no game seven at that point….We couldn’t afford to lose any more games”. He emphasized that Jose Ramirez was due up (“The guy who really bothered me was Ramirez…a really good player”), turning the 11 home-run Ramirez into Babe Ruth, and acting as if one batter could overcome a five run lead. He described Davis’s home run as just a fluky thing, not attributable to Chapman’s fatigue. According to Maddon, Chapman’s velocity was fine, he just mis-located his fastball on one pitch.

 

Maddon’s interpretation of Chapman’s poor game seven performance erred in several ways. First, Chapman gave up three consecutive hits, not just one random

 

hit to Davis. Opponents batted .158 against Chapman this year; three consecutive hits could be expected on a random basis roughly once every 200+ three-at bat sequences. Second, as we heard years ago when Red Sox manager Grady Little kept pitcher Pedro Martinez in a postseason game against the Yankees longer than usual, pitcher fatigue often manifests in poor location rather than diminished velocity.

 

Further, while Maddon of course needed to win game six, the Cubs’ goal was not simply to make game seven, but to win game seven, and any decision in game six had to depend on how it affected the Cubs’ chances of winning the World Series. Here, ironically, the analytics-savvy Maddon ignored the math: according to baseball-reference, the Cubs had a 97 percent chance of winning game six when Maddon sent Chapman out to pitch the eighth inning. Even though Chapman was the Cubs best reliever (perhaps the best anywhere), in this instance, he could have added no more than two percent to the Cubs chances of winning.

 

Adding another 20 pitches and many warm-up throws in game six to the 42 pitches Chapman threw in game five reduced the Cubs chances of winning game seven far more than two percent. Maddon’s contention that there was nothing wrong with Chapman’s fastball in game seven was exposed in the ninth inning, when he threw mostly sliders; after the eighth inning debacle, Chapman gave up on his fastball! He got through the ninth without giving up any more runs, but arm fatigue had reduced the Cubs superstar to just another guy.

 

How could someone as smart as Maddon make such a blunder?

 

In part, Maddon may have succumbed to the over-influence of recent events (psychologists call this common error the “availability heuristic”.) Doctors, for example, often excessively diagnose a rare disorder after they’ve seen a recent case. In that regard, Orioles manager Buck Showalter had just received harsh criticism after losing a season-ending Wild Card game without using his ace reliever Zach Britton. Maddon, perhaps subconsciously, was not going to allow any semblance of that to befall him.

 

Maddon also received criticism for removing starter Kyle Hendricks in game seven and inserting Jon Lester in a “dirty” inning, i.e., with a runner on first. Lester has the yips and cannot throw to first base to hold a runner. Maddon stated pre-game that he planned on using Lester in relief, but only to start a “clean” inning. Here, Maddon made a good point, noting that Carlos Santana was the runner on first, an infrequent stealer (five, for the season) who, with a four-run deficit, was not going to steal. The situation, for all practical purposes, was “clean”. (Actually, the brouhaha about Lester’s yips was over-hyped. This season, the success rate for stolen bases attempted against Lester was slightly less than the league average, and he led the league with the lowest percentage of baserunners scoring against him.)

 

Lester pitched well but Maddon still erred by removing Hendricks—the ERA champ—too early (in the fifth inning), and his explanation didn’t redeem him. Maddon envisioned a three-pitcher rotation for game seven: Hendricks, then Lester, then Chapman. That was fine, but Hendricks was the only one of the three fully rested; Lester had pitched six innings in game five, and Chapman, as noted, had pitched in both games five and six. Maddon should have prioritized his single rested pitcher, rather than cut his innings short in favor of two fatigued pitchers. It’s not like Hendricks was chopped liver; he came in third in the Cy Young voting, had an

 

ERA of 1.00 against Cleveland, and had retired seven consecutive batters before walking Santana on a pitch that should have been called strike three.

 

Maddon explained the early hook: Hendricks “kind of had a rough third inning” and Lester had warmed up several times by the fifth inning, meaning that if he didn’t insert Lester then “we would lose his ability to pitch in that game.” If so, Maddon admits to warming up Lester too soon. He should not have panicked when the ERA champ gave up two hits in the third inning-- did he expect a perfect game?-- particularly if it meant having to insert Lester by the fifth.

 

Maddon emphasized that Lester gave up only one fluky run in three innings; therefore, “it worked out very well”. But here he’s arguing “no harm, no foul”, which however true, fits the theme that the Cubs won despite Maddon.

 

Finally, with one out in the top of the ninth and a runner on third in game seven, Maddon had Javier Baez bunt on a 3-2 count. Baez fouled the ball off for a strikeout. Bunting with two strikes is frowned upon as a poor percentage play, but Maddon explained: “Javy strikes out over 80 percent of the time on a full count. He’s going to chase.” Maddon figured that Baez had a greater chance of making good contact on a bunt than “getting a ball he might actually take” (or put into play with a swing).

 

Unfortunately, Maddon got his numbers wrong. Baez actually struck out on 38 percent of 3-2 counts this year, and though Maddon suggested that 3-2 counts reduced the 2016 NLCS MVP to rubble, in fact, Baez struck out no more often on 3-2 counts than on any other two-strike count.

 

Further, Baez has only one sacrifice bunt in his career. Thus, Maddon could not quantitatively compare Baez’s ability to lay down a successful bunt with the likelihood that he’d put a ball in play by swinging, certainly not well enough to justify overriding conventional wisdom.

 

What’s the upshot of all this? Surely not that Maddon is a poor or overrated manager; he has a long track record of excellence that proves otherwise. Every general manager in baseball would be happy for Maddon to manage his team next year.

 

More likely, it means that nobody’s perfect, particularly when the stakes are the highest, the pressure the greatest, unforeseen circumstances develop, and it’s harder to refrain from over-managing. Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel won 10 pennants and seven World Series but probably blew the 1960 World Series by starting journeyman pitcher Art Ditmar in game one, rather than ace Whitey Ford, making Ford unavailable for game seven. Maddon’s opposing manager on the Indians, the esteemed Terry Francona (in a less egregious error), inserted Michael Martinez into right field in the top of the ninth inning of game seven on the off-chance that a flyball would be hit to him in a narrow area in which Martinez’s superior throwing arm (as compared with Coco Crisp’s) would prevent a go-ahead sacrifice fly. That didn’t happen and Martinez, a lifetime .197 hitter without a base hit in over six weeks, came to bat with two outs in the tenth and the tying run on first base. He grounded out feebly; the Indians ended the World Series with a whimper.

 

These sorts of things happen to the best coaches and managers in all sports. For example, San Antonio Spurs great Gregg Popovich removed center Tim Duncan

 

in the final seconds of game six in the 2013 NBA Finals, likely contributing to Ray Allen’s game-tying three-point shot and eventual Miami victory. Seattle coach Pete Carroll blew the 2015 Super Bowl with a bizarre pass play at game’s end.

 

Hopefully, as time goes by and Maddon becomes less defensive, the lesson will sink in: Overthinking can be as harmful as underthinking.

 

Sometimes the conventional wisdom is wise.

 

Sheldon Hirsch is author of the forthcoming book Hot Hands, Draft Hype, and DiMaggio’s Streak: Debunking America’s Favorite Sports Myths from the University Press of New England

Sheldon Hirsch is the co-author of "The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball."

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