Judging the Royals

Joe Maddon, Terry Francona and the MLB’s Manager of the Year awards

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, left, and Indians skipper Terry Francona pushed their respective bullpen stoppers to the limit in the World Series in hopes of claiming a championship. The title went to Maddon’s team.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon, left, and Indians skipper Terry Francona pushed their respective bullpen stoppers to the limit in the World Series in hopes of claiming a championship. The title went to Maddon’s team.

Here’s the problem with postseason awards: There’s just no way to really watch all the people who manage or play big-league baseball. And since it’s impossible to watch everybody play, we look at numbers instead, but those numbers might not give an accurate impression of what a player or manager accomplished during a season.

You could give the Manager of the Year Award to the manager whose team outperforms expectations, but a team might be winning because of its manager or despite its manager. And unless you watch that team play a lot of baseball, you wouldn’t know it.

It’s also important to remember that all we get to see are a manager’s in-game decisions, and in-game decisions are only the tip of the managerial iceberg. Managers are also responsible for a lot of stuff we don’t think about: organizing spring training, dealing with the front office and the media, keeping players and coaches happy, deciding what extra work needs to be done during the regular season and so on. A guy could be mediocre at in-game decisions but still be a successful manager because he’s good at the other parts of his job.

OK, that’s my disclaimer ... and now we can get to what I actually want to write about.

Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs and Terry Francona of the Cleveland Indians are now up for the Manager of the Year Award in their respective leagues and because they both made it to Game 7 of the World Series we got to see them manage for an extended period of time this postseason.

Both Maddon and Francona got a lot of praise for their innovative handling of their relievers during the playoffs, but in Game 7 of the World Series the way these two managers used two of their best relievers would come back to haunt them — and that takes some explaining.

Why top-of-the-line relievers are hard to hit

The best relievers are tough to hit off, for at least three reasons: they have great stuff; hitters don’t get too many looks at them; and if a reliever is only throwing one inning, he can bear down and throw his best stuff for 15 pitches or so. He can empty the tank; he doesn’t have to pace himself.

But if you overuse those relievers, their stuff drops off. They might lose a few miles an hour, their off-speed pitches might lose some movement and their location might suffer. When a pitcher gets tired, he has a hard time finishing his pitches and those pitches will be up in the strike zone.

Big-league hitters say you can watch video and read scouting reports, but until you step in the box and face a pitcher live, you don’t really know what he has. So if hitters are getting multiple looks at the same pitcher over a short period of time, the mystery can wear off. Facing a pitcher multiple times give hitters useful information even if the early at-bats are unsuccessful; this is one of the reasons you often see hitters do better against a starting pitcher the third time through the order.

The regular season

To understand what happened in Game 7 of the World Series, and why, let’s take a look at two relievers: Cleveland’s Andrew Miller and Chicago’s Aroldis Chapman.

During the regular season, Andrew Miller was outstanding: 74  1/3 innings pitched with an ERA of 1.45. Aroldis Chapman was also a beast: 58 innings pitched with an ERA of 1.55.

But one of the reasons these guys were so good is they weren’t overexposed.

During the regular season — some with the Yankees, some with the Indians — Miller was asked for more than one inning in a single outing 11 times and did it on back-to-back days only once. During Chapman’s regular season — some with the Yankees, some with the Cubs — he was asked for more than one inning in a single outing four times, and never on back-to-back days.

If a reliever goes through an “up-down” (pitching, then sitting, then pitching again), he’ll experience more soreness the next day. So most managers try to avoid having a reliever pitch more than one inning on back-to-back days.

But the postseason is different; you’re playing must-win games and the finish line is in sight. That means asking for more from your best pitchers, and that’s what Maddon and Francona did.

But did they ask for too much?

The World Series

As good as Miller was during the regular season, he got even better early in the postseason.

Coming into the World Series, Miller had not given up an earned run in postseason play. Chapman looked a bit more human, giving up a single earned run in the NLDS and two earned runs in the NLCS.

Game 1: Corey Kluber threw six scoreless innings for the Indians and was pulled with a 3-0 lead after allowing a single in the seventh. Francona asked Miller for two innings, and they weren’t easy: Miller threw 46 pitches and faced 10 batters. That gave just about every hitter in the Cubs’ lineup a look at Miller, including David Ross. (Remember that Ross at-bat because it will turn out to be important.)

The Cubs never had a lead, so Maddon did not use Chapman and the Indians won the game 6-0.

Game 2: Despite having a four-run lead with two outs in the eighth inning, Maddon this time went to Chapman. Closers are generally used in save situations, but Maddon wanted to nail down the win.

Chapman was fully rested and brought the heat. He threw 23 pitches and 22 of them were fastballs — 13 hit 100 mph or more. Chapman threw 1  1/3 innings and faced five batters, including Rajai Davis (another at-bat to remember).

This time, it was the Indians who never had a lead so Miller got the night off and the Cubs won 5-1.

Game 3: Miller was asked for an inning and a third, threw 17 pitches and saw four batters. Down 1-0 in the top of the ninth, Maddon called on Chapman to hold the score right there. Chapman saw three batters, but his velocity was down a tick. This time only two of his 12 fastballs topped 100 mph and he was having trouble keeping his slider down in the zone.

Chapman threw a scoreless inning, but it didn’t help; the Indians won 1-0.

Game 4: Francona asked Miller for more than one inning for the second night in a row despite being up 7-1. In Miller’s second inning of work, Chicago’s Dexter Fowler saw eight pitches and then homered on a hung slider pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the zone. It was Miller’s first run allowed in the 2016 postseason.

After pitching multiple innings on back-to-back days, Miller’s pitches were noticeably up in the zone and finding too much of the plate. To make matters worse, Miller wasn’t accustomed to pitching with a big lead — a lead a lesser pitcher could protect.

The Cubs were down early and Maddon avoided using Chapman; the Indians won 7-2.

Game 5: Because he pitched in a game where he wasn’t needed, Miller was not available to pitch the next night in a game where he might’ve made a difference. After pitching more than one inning two nights in a row, Miller got the night off.

Chapman pitched 2 and  2/3 innings; he saw 10 batters and threw 42 pitches. Davis got another look at Chapman and singled. After a day off, Chapman had his good fastball back and was topping 100 mph on a regular basis, but the Cleveland hitters got multiple looks at him.

The Cubs won 3-2.

Game 6: In the seventh inning, the Indians had two runners on and two outs. The Cubs were up 7-2. Despite having a five-run lead, Maddon once again turned to Chapman.

Chapman got the final out of the seventh, pitched the eighth inning and was then sent back out to pitch the ninth — after the Cubs had tacked on two more runs for a 9-2 lead. Chapman walked the first batter he faced in the ninth and was pulled from the game.

When the game’s on the line, using your best reliever makes sense. But using your best reliever with a five-run lead, and then again with a seven-run lead, risks overexposure when you could be saving that pitcher for a more important situation.

Maddon and Francona were leaning heavily on Chapman and Miller — sometimes when they didn’t have to — and having them throw extra pitches and face extra batters would affect the final game of the Series.

Game 7: In the top of the fifth, Javier Baez homered off Indians starter Corey Kluber. With the score 4-1, Francona went to Miller to stop the bleeding.

Again, Miller was up in the zone. He gave up a single, got a double play, walked a batter and then gave up another single and a run to make it 5-1. Miller only escaped the inning when Ben Zobrist hit a line drive at someone.

The Cubs’ hitters were squaring up on Miller. He was up in the zone and it was clear he didn’t have it.

Nevertheless, Francona sent Miller back out for the sixth, and Ross (remember him?) homered on a 1-2 fastball near the heart of the zone. It appeared Miller’s heavy postseason workload finally caught up with him. If Miller did not give up a home run to Ross, and everything else stayed the same (always a big if), the Indians would have won the World Series.

Next it was Maddon’s turn to rely on a reliever he’d overexposed. Maddon called on Chapman in the eighth with two outs, a runner on first and a 6-3 lead. It appeared Maddon was going to ask his closer for a four-out save, but Chapman also had problems.

Chapman tried to blow the ball past the Indians — he threw 14 fastballs in a row — but didn’t have enough gas in the tank to get it done. Only one of those 14 fastballs topped 100 mph, and it wasn’t a strike. The difference between 102 and 98 might not seem like much, but hitters and pitcher will tell you 3 or 4 miles an hour can be the difference between fouling a pitch back and making solid contact.

Brandon Guyer doubled to make it 6-4 and Davis homered to tie the game.

Two more fastballs to Coco Crisp resulted in a single and a visit to the mound to remind Chapman that he had a slider. Sure enough, once the Cubs closer started using his off-speed pitch, he struck out Yan Gomes to end the inning. Indians reliever Bryan Shaw gave up a couple runs in the top of the 10th and the Cubs held on to win the clincher 8-7 in extra innings.

Summary

I focused on Miller and Chapman for two reasons:

1.) This piece was already longer then War and Peace, so there wasn’t time or space to talk about every reliever, and …

2.) Early in the playoffs, Maddon and Francona were being roundly praised for their use of Chapman and Miller.

But by Game 7 of the World Series, overuse and overexposure helped these two pitchers fail when it counted most. During the regular season, Miller had a 1.45 ERA; in the World Series, it was 3.52. Chapman’s 1.55 regular-season ERA ballooned to the same size as Miller’s in the Series: 3.52.

It might seem smart to call on your best relievers whenever you get in a jam, but there’s a price to be paid for doing so. Overexpose your best relievers and their results will drop off.

Maddon got away with overexposing Chapman; Francona did not get away with overexposing Miller. Both of them might be named Managers of the Year.

Just one more reason you shouldn’t get too worked up over postseason awards.

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