Call it the “Terrance Gore Watch.” That’s what happens when a legion of Cubs fans invest in whether or not Gore makes the playoff roster. And can you blame them? When you go six for six in steals in 14 games for a team with just 60 stolen bases otherwise, it gets people excited.
But what are the real chances such a one-dimensional player makes a postseason roster of a team that wields its position-player flexibility so strategically? This fascinating subject goes well beyond in-game excitement. It requires deeply studying the value he brings against the value of other options and overall playoff strategy. Consider the following:
The most unrecognized factor affecting Gore’s roster chances is he’s in effect a “two-substitution player.” By that I mean he’s a specialist who usually requires a second substitution whenever he enters a game.
For example, if Gore pinch runs for Willson Contreras, Joe Maddon must then bring in Victor Caratini to catch. Thus 90 percent of the time, pinch running Gore costs you two players from your bench. That’s an expensive move and must be fully considered when constructing the playoff roster.
This cost did not phase the Royals’ two World Series teams in 2014 and ’15, but those Royals didn’t platoon or depend on a deep bench like the Cubs. In 2014 alone, eight of the Royals’ nine starting hitters got enough plate appearances (502) to qualify for the batting title. The ninth was third baseman Mike Moustakas, who fell two at-bats short due to a mid-season injury.
By relying heavily on its starting nine (including DH), the Royals’ playoff roster easily had space to burn on a specialist like Gore. In contrast, the Cubs’ deep and strategic use of their bench makes it more challenging to dedicate space unless – and this brings us to the next factor – that player is a true game-changer.
The most famous single-dimension bench player in postseason history was the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson in 1988. Hobbled by injuries, the only skill he could perform that Fall Classic was swinging the bat. But in his sole at-bat that postseason, he indeed changed the game.
Is it fair putting Gore into this same category, or is that just hopeful hyperbole? He’s managed just one hit and one walk in 19 career plate appearances over parts of five major-league seasons. However, he has also entered 53 games as a pinch runner and is 27 of 31 in stolen base attempts (87 percent). Four times, he even stole second and third in the same inning (including once with the Cubs). This contributed to his 19 career runs scored.
Most importantly for “game-changer” consideration, Gore has scored the go-ahead run seven times and the tying run four times in his career. To be fair, his speed was not pivotal in his scoring most of the time, but even when not stealing or taking an extra base, he was a constant distraction.
In a couple games, however, his speed was indeed decisive. This included in 2014 against the White Sox when he scored the winning run from second on an infield hit.
Even more impressively, Gore scored the walk-off run without benefit of any contact back in 2016. With the game tied 3-3 against the Twins, he entered at first base in the 10th as a pinch runner. The threat of his speed immediately led to a two-base error on an errant pickoff throw. Two pitches later, he scored from third base on a wild pitch that bounced not even 20 feet from home plate.
So while Gore’s speed doesn’t always change the outcome of a game, it does usually change the strategy the other team must deploy. No, Gore can’t do as many things on a baseball field as a player like David Bote. But his one superior talent has provided at least as many walk-off moments as Bote.
True game changer? I dare say, yes.
Number of relievers
During the regular season, the Cubs normally carry 12 position players and 13 pitchers. This precludes adding a specialist like Gore except when the roster expands in September. But in six of the team’s seven playoff series during the Epstein/Maddon era, they went with 14 position players and 11 pitchers. The lone exception: the 2016 NLCS against Los Angeles when the Cubs added a 13th pitcher.
Given the Cubs’ lack of a dedicated closer and setup man, odds are they will seriously consider adding an extra arm or two to their bullpen and flash mob the late innings to secure playoff wins. But each extra bullpen arm added means one less position-player spot.
Guessing how many pitchers the Cubs will go with this postseason is tricky, as it requires better understanding Maddon’s playoff strategy. This includes his use of the bullpen, whether to deploy Mike Montgomery as a mid-game long-reliever, and how he plans to rotate and deploy his position players.
Russell’s administrative leave
The probable loss of Addison Russell for the playoffs does mean an extra roster spot has opened. Once Russell’s second week of paid administrative leave ends, most expect a suspension from Major League Baseball. But even if Russell is not officially suspended, I doubt the Cubs will add him to the playoff roster due to the distractions this creates for him and the whole team.
This still doesn’t fully help Gore’s case, as Russell was one of a core of six infielders Maddon relied upon. So it could be tempting to replace Russell with another infielder. Five other playoff roster spots are also already guaranteed: Contreras and Caratini at catcher; Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, and Albert Almora in the outfield.
The Other Options
This leaves five position players to fill anywhere from two to four position player spots: Gore, Ian Happ, Tommy La Stella, Bote and Mike Freeman. We can cross off Freeman, who’s a depth option if anything happens to Baez This leaves four players. Given it’s hard to image the Cubs carrying fewer than 12 pitchers, this leaves just three bench spots, and a case can be made for and against all four remaining candidates.
A strong case even exists to drop the switch-hitting Happ given his 53 percent K rate against power arms and slightly below-average defense. However, Maddon gave him 450 plate appearances this year. This was nearly as many as Almora despite Almora delivering more than three times more WAR value. Happ is definitely a Maddon and organizational favorite, so he’s a lock.
As the best pinch hitter in baseball currently, La Stella is also an unlikely drop. In terms of Bote, his offensive value really dropped as scouting reports caught up with him. This leaves the choice being a classic one of run-prevention (Bote) versus run-creation (Gore).
I’ll predict the Cubs go with 12 pitchers and Gore over Bote. Gore is superior in the run-creation category and distracts defenses to the benefit of hitters. Bote is not a bad defender, but not in the superior run-prevention category to match Gore’s plus-plus speed.
Happ and La Stella are not as good defensively at second and third base as Bote, but they can still give Maddon his options for playing Bryant in the outfield to reduce the chances of Bryant tweaking his shoulder further on dives at the hot corner. This leaves Ben Zobrist as Daniel Murphy’s primary defensive replacement at second.
Last, given the up-and-down nature of the Cubs’ offense – especially against power arms – Gore adds a late-game pressure dimension the team lacks. The potential to score a tying or winning run without a base hit can’t be ignored. Without Gore, the team is left waiting for a mistake-pitch homer off these pitchers or stringing multiple hits together.
Both are possible, but you prefer multiplying your options in tight playoff games. Plus, consider the Royals used Gore in eight of their 31 playoff games in 2014 and 2015. Those Royals rosters, though, featured far more speed in the starting lineup, ranking first and second in AL stolen bases. So I can see the Cubs deploying Gore even more regularly than the Royals did.
Although the decision tree is not simple, the potential of Gore helping steal/preserve an extra playoff win or two is far greater than with Bote. Thus leaving Gore off the playoff roster would be a major mistake.
Postscript: In Saturday’s loss to the Cardinals, Maddon failed to deploy Gore in a key situation. In the bottom of the 6th inning, the Cubs were down 2-1 and struggling to put runners in scoring position against Miles Mikolas. But Daniel Murphy led off with a single creating a prime, pivotal situation to pinch run Gore and change the dynamics of the inning and perhaps the game.
If Gore could steal second, Zobrist was a good bet to advance him to third ahead of Rizzo and the Baez. Instead, the slow-footed Murphy stayed in, and Zobrist and Rizzo flied out with no chance to advance Murphy. Baez then popped up, and no other Cub would reach base in the final three innings.
To lose by one run with a major threat like Gore sitting on the bench is a major tactical error by Maddon. This is akin to losing a game late by failing to bring in a dominant reliever. Given this tactical blind spot by Maddon, maybe Bote does have a better chance to make the post-season roster than Maddon. We will soon see.