If you are someone who likes to cook or bake, you’ve had that experience. When you see a really great recipe for something you really love. You look forward to it. You go to the store and you buy the best ingredients. You get excited while you are thinking about the finished product. You can almost taste how good it will be at the end. And then you get to the end and despite some really great ingredients, and dutifully following your recipe, the finished product just isn’t what you thought it would be. It’s always disappointing when that happens.
I’m sure the front office is living that nightmare today. As they go into exit interviews for the players and prepare for early organizational meetings this year, they’ll spend some time wondering what the heck went wrong. I think this one gets extra frustrating, because for a little while there you could really see some external forces lining up and making a real opportunity for this team to get to the World Series and only have to overcome one really formidable American League foe to get a second title in three years. I know that’s probably hard to remember right now, but think back. I know it’s frustrating, but bear with me. The Brewers faded coming out of the All-Star break and the Cubs lead reached five a few times. The Nationals finally petered out (David Bote had a hand in the final nail in that coffin!), the Dodgers began to fade and spent some time in third place. The Braves cooled off. The Phillies collapsed. The Cardinals stopped winning every single day. The Rockies looked pretty ordinary. This reminded me of the way the 2006 Bears reached the Super Bowl. They weren’t world beaters, but everyone else just kind of fell apart.
But slowly but surely, it became apparent that even using some very good ingredients, this recipe didn’t work right. If you are a daily reader of mine, you know that I’d write cumulative standings articles. Not only would I look at the year to date Heroes and Goats overall standings, but I’d look at hitting and pitching statistics. I’ll estimate it as two-thirds of the season, but for a good time the Cubs lead the National League in runs per game. More than that though, the team spent most of the season first or second in batting average and on base percentage. The pitching had some issues, particularly due to a small number of pitchers who issued a large number of walks. But that offense, it was among the best in baseball, hanging around with the Astros, Red Sox and Yankees who were all 100 game winners as the highest scoring offenses. I always thought that was so amazing. None of those teams have hundreds of (poor hitting) pitcher’s at bats in their numbers. To be fair, Mick and a few others pointed out early and often this year that this offense lacked consistency.
That ended up being the downfall of this team. As someone who watched the Sammy Sosa era up close, I remember he was often accused of building his season based off of feasting on poor pitching. I have two responses to that thought. One, if you believed that, you weren’t watching enough of his games. Yes, he’d celebrate a solo home run in a game where they were up or down by five runs in the ninth like it won something. But he also had a lot of big hits. Second, if you haven’t realized that all players bulk up their numbers against mediocre and bad pitching, then you haven’t paid enough attention. Intuitively you know this to be true, the best pitchers dominate. The worst pitchers get pounded. So of course, the majority of everyone’s stats pile on against bad pitching.
Well, this season’s Cubs piled a lot of runs on all at once. This offense would get momentum within a game and then just roll. But it rarely carried it game to game. Of course, we’d see it for one last gasp in the final days. The Cubs lost three of four games to close out their season. The one win? They scored 10 runs. That continues the narrative that again I’m going to first give credit to Mick for pointing out. I don’t know where it finished, but the Cubs averaged a little over six runs in their wins and a little over two runs in their losses. I do know that including last night’s wildcard game, the Cubs share the distinction with the Orioles (who lost 115 games) of having been held to one run or less in 40 games. That was three more than any other team and all of the other teams near the top of that list stopped being considered playoff contenders some time between February and April.
Before I move on to the game numbers, I wanted to take one quick look at the opening day pitching staff and their status for the wildcard game. Carl Edwards - injured, Yu Darvish - injured, Brandon Morrow - injured, Tyler Chatwood - ineffective, Kyle Hendricks, Brian Duensing - injured/ineffective, Eddie Butler - traded, Jon Lester, Justin Wilson, Mike Montgomery, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Jose Quintana. Five of the 13 opening day pitchers out with injury and one was traded. Add to that, the loss of Addison Russell and the limited capabilities of Kris Bryant in the second half of the season. That’s why even with the additions of Cole Hamels, Jesse Chavez, and Jorge De La Rosa who were all very good for the Cubs, there just wasn’t enough pitching depth to navigate these long, close games the last couple of days. Too many guys who were expected to contribute were taken away by injuries or ineffectiveness. These games were lost on the offensive side, but the lack of pitching depth was also a factor late in the season despite some very good additions.
Wildcard Game, October 2 - Cubs lose 2-1 in 13 innings as season comes to a close (0-1)
THE THREE HEROES:
- Superhero - Cole Hamels (.266). Two innings of relief, two hits, one walk, one strike out.
- Hero - Javier Baez (.256). One hit and one walk in six plate appearances. In a 13 inning game, he was one of only two Cubs to reach base more than once. He had the lone RBI.
- Sidekick - Jon Lester (.186). Sheer craziness to see two starting pitchers on the hero podiums at the same time. Jon threw six innings of four hit, one walk, one run ball. The one walk and the one run were the first batter of the game as Jon didn’t look real comfortable to start the game.
THE THREE GOATS:
- Billy Goat - Jason Heyward (-.273). That’s a massively bad WPA for a guy who came into the game late. He struck out with the bases loaded as a pinch hitter in the seventh to end what was the Cubs best chance at winning the game. He then grounded out with a runner on first in the ninth and was retired in the 11th.
- Goat - Kyle Hendricks (-.267). Three Cubs starters in all on the podiums. For the second time in as many days, Joe ran out of good options. I’m not a really great scout for pitching, but I could see throughout that Kyle was missing his spots. The first batter he faced he threw two balls basically right down the middle, the second resulting in a lazy fly to medium depth center. He missed badly on his first pitch to Parra before Parra’s single. De La Rosa probably should have been brought in to face Wolters. But this game was lost due to lack of hitting and not because of two runs in 13 innings.
- Kid - Ben Zobrist (-.201). Ben had one hit in six at bats. This one is frustrating, but mostly because as things started to grind to a halt over the last few weeks, Ben was one of the few guys who kept hitting. I suspect that Ben finally ran out of gas at the very end. Joe had judiciously monitored Ben’s playing time all year long, but Ben played more and more down the stretch because he was one of the few reliable options.
WPA Play of the Game: Troy Wolters batted with two outs and runners on first and third in the 13th inning. The third string catcher of the Rockies delivered the game winning hit. (.341)
*Cubs Play of the Game: Javier Baez batted with two outs and a runner on second in the eighth inning. He doubled, driving in the Cubs only run of the night. (.324)
Up Next: So, that’s it for this season’s Heroes and Goats game recaps, a sad, abrupt finish to the season. This season that looked like it would at minimum see a fourth straight National League Championship season and had the hope for being a team that over-achieved instead of under-achieving for once. Instead, it ends with a whimper. I’ll have a final look at the full season Heroes and Goats standings for you later this week. After that, I’ll take a couple of weeks off from writing and then return with offseason Historical Heroes and Goats.
The week of the World Series, I’ll have two short pieces, one seeking your input on this series. I’d like to know if there are things that are extraneous and don’t add value to your reading experience. Then I’ll take input on the season we will review in Historical Heroes and Goats. Last year we went old school with the 1984 Cubs. This year, we’ll go more modern and I’ll let you vote as to the one that interests you the most.