So who wants to be a playoff closer for the Cubs under Joe Maddon?
Pedro Strop had been auditioning until Thursday’s calamity reminded him just how grueling the job requirements can be. They include throwing upwards of 35 to 40 pitches over multiple innings, taxing your arm and – we now know – hamstrings, and most probably not returning to the team the following season.
Aroldis Chapman put up with a partial season and the World Series run after being acquired in 2016. Wade Davis did survive a full season and one exhausting postseason before opting out for Colorado. Placed under Maddon’s playoff-like pressure, Strop could manage only 21 pitches and barely half of a 2.1-inning save before going on the DL.
Strop was in that position because Brandon Morrow made it through barely a third of the 2018 season before his first of two DL visits. Though Morrow has a history of injuries, Maddon still threw him three consecutive days once and three times in four days thrice. No surprise, a few days after Morrow’s three-consecutive-game stretch, he landed on the DL.
Basically, Maddon goes through relievers like James Bond does lead actresses. Or Spinal Tap through drummers. Or Donald Trump through Directors of Communications. For all the talk this year about the up-and-down offense and disappointing starting rotation, Thursday’s game underscored how Maddon’s bullpen management will be just as much of a challenge come the playoffs.
The Cubs manager called on a whopping nine pitchers to cover 10 innings Thursday, including five who threw partial innings. This came a day after he threw eight pitchers in a nine-inning loss. And that followed not too far behind Saturday’s double-defeat doubleheader that required (more understandably) 11 pitchers.
This stretch of bullpen overuse has actually come in a period of fine starting pitching performances. Thursday, however, Mike Montgomery was pulled after just four innings and 62 pitches of two-run baseball. The day before, Maddon handled Kyle Hendricks as if it were Game 7 of the 2016 World Series all over again, allowing him just 77 pitches over five innings of two-run baseball.
Watching Maddon pilot through the final 12 outs of a must-win game is like watching winter construction of a mountain highway. Both require slow, circuitous work that sees personnel changed out at quick, regular intervals.
Maddon’s one recent nod to bullpen conservation involved not forcing Steve Cishek to pitch both ends of Saturday’s doubleheader. This was, in fact, the first time in four doubleheaders this season Cishek has not pitched in both games.
And yet, Cishek remains on pace to log 80 appearances this year, 11 more than his career high set as a 27-year-old. And if Maddon hadn’t noticed, he’s just about pulled his 32-year-old Stretch Armstrong past his snapping point. Cishek has posted a 5.40 ERA over his last 13 appearances and has surrendered a run in half of his last 10 appearances.
I half want Cishek to fake a hamstring strain just to get 10 days off and give his arm a chance to rebound for the playoffs.
For all of his strong regular-season managerial qualities, the sad truth is Maddon seldom has a plan for how to hold leads in the short run without robbing from the long. Take Thursday’s game, in which he burned through five relievers to bridge to Pedro Strop for a multi-inning save attempt. The strategy/hope here apparently was for the offense to score to avoid a long extra-inning game.
It’s like Maddon thought the team still had Eddie Butler in the bullpen to bail them out of similar jam created just two games into the 2018 season.
I once predicted the relief corps’ early success would dip in the second half. The cause would be Maddon’s scorched-pen approach and partly due to the starting rotation’s inability to go deep into games. That this didn’t happen until this month is due largely to the surprising success of the Iowa Shuttle of minor league arms.
As I noted last month, those nine minor leaguers handled more than a quarter of the bullpen innings with an ERA in the 3.60’s. That’s not good enough for playoff ball, but to get that from a platoon of essentially 4A relievers was a major godsend for the rest of the bullpen. It also hid a raft of poor bullpen management decisions that has finally washed up in a quite battered form.
And Maddon’s tactical bullpen challenges only deepen in the playoffs when he shrinks the number of trusted relievers he’ll use to just two, shortens his leash on starting pitchers, and over-relies on long relief appearances – like the one attempted Thursday with Strop.
He got away with this in 2016, partly because he didn’t have to go into gonzo over-use mode with Chapman until the World Series. But he wasn’t so fortunate in 2017, needing to deploy Davis this way in the first round. In fact, if not for numerous bonehead decisions by Nationals manager Dusty Baker, Maddon’s Cubs don’t even get out of the first round.
This year the NL Central may not be decided until the final week or games of the season. So it’s possible Maddon will be forced to move his pyromaniac bullpen approach forward into the stretch run. This could leave the bullpen as sapped in the first round as it was last year in the second round against the Dodgers.
I imagine this has the front office pulling its hair out. You can understandably hear them saying, “Joe, we keep finding you new bullpen resources. Would you please slow down how quickly you destroy them?”
To be sure, Maddon wasn’t handed the ideal bullpen to begin this season. The team merely swapped out Morrow for Davis and Cishek for Hector Rondon. The rest of the unit featured the same cast Maddon either didn’t trust with a playoff lead last year (Strop, Justin Wilson, Brian Duensing) or who weren’t ready for prime time when pressed for duty (Carl Edwards Jr.)
This postseason, Maddon’s late-inning challenges should only increase. In 2016, his rotation averaged 5½ innings per start in the first two rounds. Last year, this dipped to 5.0 exactly. And this year, with a rotation not as strong as the past two years, the workload on the bullpen may increase further. Unless, that is, Maddon alters his strategy for how quickly he pulls starters and how he uses so many relievers in very brief stints.
With 16 games left in the regular season, perhaps we will get an indication as to whether Maddon is an old dog capable of learning a new trick. Morrow will soon come off the DL but will be limited early on, as will Strop after a couple weeks of hamstring rest. Who knows, maybe these constraints will finally force Maddon to adjust his bullpen strategy.