When it comes his playoff bullpen, Joe Maddon has never been a grand strategist. As much as he loves playing the chess master in the regular season by throwing five and six relievers in a game, come October he far prefers protecting leads by mostly riding (like mules) just two relievers.
In 2016, this was Aroldis Chapman and Mike Montgomery. Last year, Maddon attempted the same – with less success – with Wade Davis and Carl Edwards Jr. But this year, the injuries to original closer Brandon Morrow and replacement closer Pedro Strop scuttled any possibility for this approach.
Assuming Strop returns, he will be less than 100 percent and unlikely to handle the extended multiple-inning save opportunities Maddon foisted on Chapman and Davis. Thus Maddon must develop a very different kind of bullpen strategy this time around. Here are some recommended approaches from which to pick.
1. Pitch starters longer
This is from the Captain Obvious file and long overdue for Maddon. After all, many of his worst postseason decisions involved not pitching his best pitchers – his starters – deeper into playoff games. He regularly lifted starters with low pitch counts and big leads out of an overblown analytical fear of his starters facing the same lineup a third time through.
But without a stud closer or setup man to ride for multiple innings, he now must get at least six innings from most, if not all, of his starters. The analytics should support this too. Any of the Cubs’ top four starters facing a playoff lineup a third through should be at least as effective as a second-tier reliever like Justin Wilson or Jesse Chavez coming in fresh.
The irony here is the Cubs’ rotation this year will have thrown its fewest regular-season innings of any in the Maddon era. So just when Maddon most needs to ride his starters as deep as possible, he’ll need to saddle up with his least proven herd.
2. Save Montgomery for long relief only
To win a playoff series, the Cubs will need their starters to go deep into games. However, Maddon could bake some wiggle room in by designating Mike Montgomery as a long reliever only. So if a starter needs to be lifted at three or four innings, you bring in Montgomery as sort of a second starter to throw at least 50 pitches and get the game deeper to the bullpen.
Montgomery would probably need two to three days off after any 50-pitch outing, so you probably couldn’t deploy him more than twice in a five-game series or three times in a seven-game series. But this would beat the alternative of potentially throwing all seven relievers in a short-start game.
3. Carry 12 or 13 pitchers
Like most teams, the Cubs typically scale back their pitching staff in the playoffs. In all but one playoff series under Maddon, they’ve contracted from 13 regular-season pitchers to 11 in the playoffs. This breaks down to four starters and seven relievers. But this year, Maddon could try to make up for his lack of back-end quality by going with a greater quantity of bullpen arms.
Of course, adding an extra reliever would necessitate a trade-off on the position-player side. For instance, it would rob the Cubs of perhaps the deepest playoff bench seen in decades. On the positive side, the extra arm would allow for more bullpen mixing and matching to navigate through late innings without a big-hoss reliever.
So what would adding an extra reliever look like? Let’s assume the team’s first seven playoff relievers are Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Jesse Chavez, Jorge De La Rosa and maybe Pedro Strop at 90 percent. Thus to add a Randy Rosario as a 12th pitcher, Maddon would need to leave David Bote or Terrance Gore off. And adding a Brandon Kintzler, Dillon Maples or Alex Mills as a 13th arm would mean dropping either Tommy La Stella or Ian Happ.
Evaluating the merits of any of these options will probably come down to Maddon’s overall bullpen strategy. If he designates Montgomery for the long-relief role, the Cubs almost have to have an extra reliever. If you are going to ride starters longer come hell or high water, maybe you stick with the larger 14-man group of position players.
4. Use entire bullpen
This may seem another Captain Obvious tactic, but for Maddon it means a dramatic change to postseason stripes. It means no more having relievers like Pedro Strop, Travis Wood, Hector Rondon, and Brian Duensing on a playoff roster but seldom using them when the team has a lead. This year’s bullpen must be a mob squad. If a pitcher is on the playoff roster, Maddon has to be open to using him in any game.
And if your rotation needs to go longer in their respective starts, this means less chance of bringing them in for emergency relief appearances over other better-rested bullpen options.
In addition, Maddon must spread the workload smartly. This goes beyond just being aware of each pitcher’s splits and comfort zones. Maddon must also avoid having any of them throw to the same hitters too many times in the same series. For instance last year, Maddon trotted Edwards out to face Anthony Rendon four games in a row, and Trea Turner and Bryce Harper three times. The predictable result? A 23.14 ERA.
5. Rest Steve Cishek
Fortunately, this appears to be finally happening as Cishek has not thrown in the last four games. Long overdue, he has been on a ridiculous 80-game pace for most of the year. His stretchy submariner arm held up well for most of the year, dropping to a 1.68 ERA last month. But in the 11 appearances since, that rubber band snapped and he’s posted a 7.71 ERA.
The concern over Cishek should have only deepened after Maddon admitted in an ESPN article Thursday that Brandon Morrow first reported pain in his elbow after Maddon dumbly pitched him three days in a row in early June. Maddon did the same with Cishek in August – one week before Cishek’s currently slump began. In addition, Maddon thew Cishek in both ends of a doubleheader on three separate occasions this season.
So for the rest of the regular season, I’d just throw Cishek two or three more times for maintenance purposes. Otherwise, let him refill his holster and save as many bullets as possible for the playoffs.