By In Stuff

Game 4

When you cover losing baseball for 15 years, you begin to learn the rhythms of losing. You begin to anticipate sense the various DEFCONs of the losing team.

DEFCON 5: Everything’s fine.

DEFCON 4: Everything’s fine, we’re playing well, just not getting the breaks, you gotta tip your hat to the other team sometimes, we’ll be fine.

DEFCON 3: We just need to make a few adjustments, the players are pressing, they want to win more than anybody, everybody just needs to calm down, do their job and stop trying to hit grand slams with the bases empty.

DEFCON 2: Team meeting.

DEFCON 1: We players have to take responsibility. It’s unfortunate that the manager was fired.

The Chicago Cubs right now are at DEFCON 3. In the postseason it is, admittedly, a pretty quick fall from DEFCON 3 to DEFCON 1 (like, a one-game fall at this point) but the Cubs are still in position to save themselves. But to save themselves, they need to find themselves.

Here’s what I mean: The Cubs were great this year, but perhaps not for the reasons that  have dominated the headlines here in October. You might think of this as a 103-win dynamo that overpowered teams with their awesome hitting and unbeatable starting pitching.

This is not the Cubs at all.

The Cubs did win 103 games, yes, but they won by grinding. True, Kris Bryant had an MVP season; he mashed 39 home runs. True, Anthony Rizzo matched him from the left side. True, Kyle Hendricks led the National League in ERA and Jon Lester was second.

But these are headlines to a much grittier story. The Cubs were not some Hollywood team. They weren’t the Murderer’s Row Yankees or Big Red Machine. They labored. They scraped. The Cubs prevented runs with solid pitching but, just as much, with extraordinary defense. None of their five starters finished Top 15 in the league in strikeouts per nine innings pitched. As a team, they were middle of the pack in walks. They were actually FIFTH  in Fielding Independent Pitching, which is one way to try and separate the pitchers’ contribution from the fielders’ contribution.

See, the Cubs had an OTHERWORLDLY defensive season. There are many ways to measure this, but one way using an old Bill James technique called Defensive Efficiency Rating (DER). Super simple. All it does is take all the balls hit in play and calculate what percentage of the time a defense turns those balls into outs. The 1969 Miracle Mets had the best DER in baseball history at .748 — they turned balls in play into outs 74.8% of the time.

This year’s Cubs? Their DER was .745 —  best in baseball in more than 30 years.

The Cubs pitchers didn’t just overpower teams. They pitched to spots and refused to give in and counted on an all-time great defense. It hasn’t been quite like that in the World Series. The Cubs defense has been making some mistakes. They have not been in the right place again and again like they were during the season.

But the bigger story is at the plate. If you were just tuning into baseball for the postseason, you would probably think that Javier Baez is one of the great offensive stars of baseball. He’s so fun to watch, and he’s had some big hits, and his manager Joe Maddon keeps creeping him up the lineup — now he’s seventh, now he’s sixth, now he’s fifth.

Now, listen, I love Javier Baez, love him, believe he can become an electrifying player, one of the players who makes kids want to watch baseball. But if you want to hear a dirty secret — he didn’t have all that good an offensive year. He had a 96 OPS+ this year because he NEVER walks (15 walks in 450 plate appearances) and he swings at more pitches out of the strike zone than anyone in the National League. At this point in his development, the only pitch he can really hit is a fastball. This is not to reject the possibility that Baez will get five hits tonight, and it is certainly not to in any way downplay his potential. The point is: He ain’t an offensive star yet.

And neither is Addison Russell. He had 95 RBIs which, considering the brilliant way he plays shortstop, suggests that he’s a two-way superstaar, but he hit .238 and struck out 135 times.

Kyle Schwarber’s not a star yet either.

The point isn’t offensive stardom, it never was. The Cubs scored the second-most runs in the league because they WORKED. They worked the counts, they worked the pitchers, they worked game in and game out. Cubs’ President Theo Epstein believes that the key to scoring runs in baseball is to control the strike zone and THAT is what the Cubs did. Foul off pitches. Lay off nasty sliders. Get into hitters counts. Take walks. The Cubs only led the National League in two offensive categories this year. One was walks. The other, not coincidentally, was on-base percentage.

You saw those Cubs in Game 2 of this series. They made seven Cleveland pitchers throw 196 pitches. It was numbing baseball to watch but brutally effective baseball to play. This is how the Cubs win. They walk eight times. They dig deep into your bullpen. They grind you into dust.

The three loses? The Cubs didn’t do any of that. They have walked four times in those three games COMBINED. In Game 3, they went down quietly in a mere 124 pitches. In Game 4, they succumbed in 123.

Yes, of course, you can’t just skip by DEFCON 4 and ignore what Cleveland has done this whole postseason, not just to the Cubs but to three of the best hitting teams in baseball. Give Cleveland all the credit. The Tribe pitchers — Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen in particular — have just come at hitters again and again. But this Cubs team does not display the fight that so marked their 2016 season. They look tight. They seem to be pressing.

“They’re all trying to hit a grand slam with nobody on,” Chicago’s Miguel Montero says.

Yes, there it is. The DEFCON 3 line.

And I would argue that Joe Maddon, a great manager, has been managing a little bit tight too. Maddon is the essence of cool, but you can see a little something in the way he’s handled Jason Heyward all series. By now everyone knows the Heyward story. The Cubs signed him to a gigantic deal coming into this year because he had proven in his first few seasons to be a very good baseball player who helps a team win in many ways.

Then, Heyward had a disastrous offensive season. His 70 OPS+ was almost unprecedented for an outfielder, and in the playoffs he looked even more lost. Joe Maddon finally felt he had no choice: He benched Heyward for the first three games of the series, once putting in Chris Coghlan for some reason and then putting in Jorge Soler.

You could certainly understand the reasoning — but it felt like panic to me. The Cubs won 103 games with Heyward in their lineup. They won their two playoff series with Jason Heyward in the lineup. At one point, it seems, Maddon talked about how he was putting Soler in the game because “he might run into one.” Maybe … but that is EXACTLY what the Cubs were not about in 2016. They didn’t score runs by just running into balls now and again. They scored runs by stretching out at-bats and drawing walks and frustrating pitchers and getting enough 3-2 and 2-0 counts to do damage.

And they WON in large part because of defense, and there aren’t many people in the world who play defense as well as Jason Heyward.

It just seemed to me that Maddon was sending the wrong message to everybody, a message that suggested the Cubs needed something EXTRA to beat Cleveland and finally win that first Cubs World Series in 108 years. I think, in general, Cubs players have fed off that message. Thus: Grand slam swings with the bases empty.

Even down 3-1, the Cubs, surely, have a path to victory. By Vegas odds, they should probably be favored in all three games individually.

Tonight: Lester vs. Trevor Bauer. In Wrigley. Nothing more needs to be said.

Game 6: Jake Arrieta vs. Josh Tomlin on three days rest for first time in his life.

Game 7: Kyle Hendricks vs. Corey Kluber, pitching for the third time in nine days.

But to win all three, they have to first win one, and at the moment the Cubs don’t look much like that team. Cleveland plays loose and confidently. Meanwhile, there was real despondency at the end of Game 4 —  bat-slamming, umpire-griping, wasted at-bats, seven-pitch-inning despondency. Then, as an expert of losing cliches, there’s another one that comes to mind and it goes like this: “A team never looks worse than when it isn’t hitting.”

In other words: One big Chicago Cubs inning can change the whole thing.

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23 Responses to Game 4

  1. Cliff Blau says:

    It’s Defensive Efficiency Record, not Rating.

  2. Dale says:

    Well done, Joe. You have successfully joined the national media circus in making this WS all about the Cubs. Never mind That Other Team.

      • Dale says:

        Yeah, I get that, Joe. Unfortunately, the slant of this article was essentially, “Well, the Cubs are losing.because they’re just not playing like the Cubs.” I think the Tribe has had more than a little to do with that. But hey, Bill Murray, am I right?

        • ResumeMan says:

          Well, yes, this article was focused on the Cubs because…it was an article about the Cubs. Joe also writes articles about the Indians, and about the WS that don’t focus on either team specifically.

          In this very same article, Joe ALSO wrote “Yes, of course, you can’t just skip by DEFCON 4 and ignore what Cleveland has done this whole postseason, not just to the Cubs but to three of the best hitting teams in baseball. Give Cleveland all the credit.” So he clearly acknowledges the Indians’ role in the Cubs’ struggles.

          But it was an article about the Cubs. That’s why he wrote the article, to talk about the Cubs. If ALL Joe’s articles on this WS were about the Cubs, you would have a fully justified complaint. But since that isn’t the case (as documented by Joe’s list above), what’s the problem?

          • Rob Smith says:

            I think the point is, that to an Indian fan, this series (to this point) is about the Indians. Or at least it should be to him. Long suffering fan bases are used to negative articles or no articles at all being written about their teams. So, when they make the World Series, they want to luxuriate in the positive articles. To your point, Joe not only wrote many Indians articles, he’s also an avowed Indian homer. So, the fan’s frustration is misplaced. He’s really mad at ESPN and Fox who are constantly making it about the Cubs.

  3. Tom says:

    Losing is a disease is contagious as bubonic plague.

    This is not a dig at Theo who is great, but is anybody talking about putting Tito into the Hall of Fame immediately, with no wait, if the Indians win?

    • Rob Smith says:

      Look, I love the bold managing on both sides. But it really has to do with the players. I think Tito mangled the Double Switch in Game 3 removing Tomlin (at less than 60 pitches and looking dominant) for Miller, and yet only gaining one spot in the batting order for Miller…. his spot therefore came up in the order forcing his (possibly early) removal from the game…. and it worked out OK because the rest of his bullpen pitched great.

      Had the backend of his bullpen imploded, Tito would have been massacred for bungling this move.

      On the other end, Madden is facing a team that’s not hitting & maybe is grasping at straws with some of his moves, like removing Heyward. But he doesn’t need to make any questionable moves if the team hadn’t gone stone cold offensively.

      It’s fun to watch managers who are willing to make out of the box, bold moves & especially when they are mostly succeeding. It might transform the league & remove the “paint by numbers” managing of the last 20 years. But lets not pretend these managers are winning the games. The games are won when you make a bold move & put Aroldis Chapman in to pitch the final 2+ innings, and he’s still hitting 102 in his 3rd inning. Chapman looked a little wobbly at times with his control (though still unhittable). It could have gone the other way. Then Madden would have been viewed as panicking instead of sticking to a winning script.

    • Dan says:

      Why yes, yes they are talking about putting Tito in the HOF.

      “The Indians are going to the World Series; Terry Francona is going to Cooperstown”:

      “Terry Francona is managing his way to a spot in Cooperstown”:

      Or, you know, just generally adulating him but mercifully not yet invoking his HOF credentials:

    • SDG says:

      Is it? I know that’s the baseball media narrative, that winning teams do it because they have character and brotherhood and losing teams are weak, selfish chokers who don’t have what it takes. Couldn’t the winning teams just . . . be better? Ty Cobb, Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson sucked in the postseason. What does that prove?

      The thing with Theo is that everyone loves a story. Being GM of the two “curse” teams and getting them both WS wins? That’s a narrative. That’s something to write about. I mean, yeah, Epstein probably is going in eventually because eventually the Murray Chasses of the world will die and someone from the sabermetrics revolution will go in the Hall and Epstein seems like a logical choice.

  4. Gary Mehok says:

    As a Cub fan, I thought that was one of the most astute articles I’ve read this week…it kind of nails it. Obviously Joe is rooting for Cleveland; he’s been an Indians fan since the day you came out of the womb. But watching the Cubs colapse in Games 3 and 4 was so shocking that it seemed worth commenting on.

    • Dale says:

      I’m older than Joe. FWIW. I know he’s probably rooting for the Tribe, but the pro-Cubs coverage nationally has been tough to take.

      • SDG says:

        It’s going to happen. Baseball in very narrative-driven and how often do we get to write about 100+ year-old history? That’s exciting. I get it’s annoying as a Tribe fan, but it’s no different than Ripken breaking an unbreakable record and all anyone wants to talk about is Lou Gehrig. Or all the millions of pro-Yankee media in the Core Four era about how they kept winning because they have more character than anyone else. People want to talk about the Cubs. It’s nothing against the Indians – if they were playing the Dodgers, all the media would focus on Believeland and two championships in one year and it would annoy the hell out of every baseball fan in LA.

        I feel bad for the White Sox, personally. The Res Sox and Cubs get their “cursebreaking” (ugh) year and it’s a big Cinderella story and it even makes it to the non-baseball media. In 2005? Nothing.

      • JustBob says:

        Been there. As a lifelong Kansas City resident and Royals fan, it seemed like all I heard about last year was the Mets. May or may not have been real, but perception is reality, right?

  5. Rick Rodstrom says:

    For a playoff team with a deep lock-down bullpen, likes this year’s Indians or last year’s or Royal’s or Mariano’s Yankees, one of the hidden advantages is the pressure you put on your opponent to score once you mount an early lead, because the game is so shortened. If you’re not ahead by the 6th inning you lose. That may be why the Cubs looked so tight in games in which they trailed early.

    That’s why the Cubs deserve some props for coming from behind in an elimination game. They were at death’s door, down 1-0 with the Indians bullpen looming, but thanks to some Indian pitching mistakes and big-time Cub at-bats, they climbed into the lead and then held on for dear life behind their own fireman, Aroldis Chapman.

    • SDG says:

      I’ve always wondered about that. These are professional ballplayers. Does the presence of a great bullpen really mean hitters put pressure on themselves to score early and choke? I can’t imagine that’s the case. I think it’s far more likely a great bullpen is an advantage because the opposing team has fewer opportunities to score on a great pitcher – not that they panic and psych themselves out in the first inning.

      • Rick Rodstrom says:

        They are professional ballplayers, but they are also human, and they feel pressure. And every run a team with a deep, lights out bullpen scores feels like 2 to the opposing team. You not only have to tie the score, you have to have the lead going into the late innings.

  6. Marc Schneider says:

    No doubt the Cubs are pressing and they obviously have some hitters with weaknesses that can be exploited (Baez and, when playing, Heyward). But the Indians’ pitching has been amazing. As a Braves fan, this seems akin to what the Braves pitching did to the Indians in 1995, but this has been far beyond that throughout the playoffs. But you do wonder about Trevor Bauer, who might end up being the only Cleveland pitcher to lose a game in the playoffs.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I think that, with all the injuries the Indians have faced to their rotation, and especially now with them pitching their starters on three days rest, one would reasonable expect that Trevor Bauer’s performances might be closer to the norm for the rest of the staff. I mean the Cubs only scored three runs last night.

      So, the amazing thing, so far, is that Kluber has been great on short rest (you do expect a few chinks to show when not pitching on his normal schedule) and Tomlin was dominating in his first outing. The big question is whether the pitching can still be this dominant with Tomlin and Kluber again pitching on short rest & with Miller probably expected to throw more extended outings. Historically, that doesn’t always work out as planned. As you know, short rest didn’t always work out for the Braves when Bobby Cox tried it.

      • Mr Fresh says:

        On the bright side (as a Tribe fan) Tomlin only threw 58 pitches the other night and Kluber threw less than 90 pitches in both games.

        You criticized Tito’s strategy in removing Tomlin quickly and “mangling the double switch”.. but Francona is crazy like a fox. His move worked out AND he saved Tomlin some wear and tear for a possible game 6 start.

        In Tito We Trust.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        True, but the Braves typically faced teams that would grind out at bats, especially in the World Series, e.g., the Yankees. That wore down Glavine and Maddux especially. The Cubs aren’t doing that. But I agree that the short rest might well catch up to the Indians. On the other hand, as long as Baez is willing to swing at any breaking ball that stays within the stadium, they might be ok.

  7. Dale says:

    As several of you have pointed out, my reaction to this article was misplaced, upon reflection. As Rob opined, it was my frustration with Fox and ESPN bubbling over. I know that Joe is a longtime Tribe fan, and my criticism was indeed unwarranted. For that, my apologies to Mr. Posnanski – you’re still the best damn sportswriter around. But don’t get me started on Joe Buck….

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