Looking at the top 20 largest WPA games of the 2017 Cubs season gives us a pretty good cross section of players. Nine different Cubs registered one of the largest positive games of the year. As we’ve already seen, Willson Contreras was the lone Cub who registered two of them. None of those nine Cubs had any of the 10 largest negative games. It was less spread around on the negative side with six Cubs accounting for the 10 largest games. We’ve already seen Jon Lester, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. each twice. Unfortunately today, we’ll see Carl for a third time. After that, the final three positive games we look at and the final two negative games will be from people we haven’t talked about yet.
Today’s game comes from August 6. It was a Sunday afternoon game at Wrigley Field. Just as in our last column, the foe is the Washington Nationals who the Cubs would of course later defeat in the National League Division Series. The Cubs split four games in Washington in June. The two teams had split the first two games in Wrigley as well to start this series. It looked like there would be some chance the two teams could finish with an identical record and so the winner of this game would get home field advantage in that NLDS that looked inevitable by early August (though the Brewers and Cardinals were unwilling to go away quietly). And really, by inevitable, the Cubs were in first place heading into this game with a half-game lead in the division. So only inevitable to the extent that they went on to win the division after having been heavy favorites to do so.
Both teams were scoreless in the first and then the Nationals also were scoreless in the second despite a walk and a single in the inning. Jon Lester was helped along by a double play grounder. It looked like the Cubs would also remain scoreless through two as the first two Cubs struck out. But the next three Cubs followed with singles, the last of which was by Javier Baez (.104) and gave the Cubs a 1-0 lead. Erick Fedde who started for the Nationals recorded his third strike out to end the inning, but the damage was done.
The Nationals got the run right back in the third inning when Wilmer Difo tripled and one out later scored on a Brian Goodwin sacrifice fly. Oddly, the play is listed on Fangraphs as a sacrifice fly and an error. I’m not sure how it could be both, but alas the run scored. The Cubs were held scoreless in their half of the third and the Nationals went quietly again in the fourth. In the bottom of the fourth, it was Willson Contreras extending the Cubs lead as he belted a lead off home run in the bottom of the fourth (.124). The Cubs had a walk, a stolen base and another walk in the inning, but could not add any more runs.
Both teams were scoreless in the fifth and the Nationals again in the sixth. The Cubs opened their half of the sixth with back to back home runs by Willson Contreras (.105) and Kyle Schwarber (.066). They’d add a double and an intentional walk in the inning, but a caught stealing contributed to the end of the inning and no more runs scoring.
Jon Lester went back out for the seventh with a 4-1 lead. He immediately allowed back to back doubles to Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon to cut the lead to 4-2. Rendon advanced to third on an error by Kris Bryant and Matt Weiters followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 4-3. Lester retired the next hitter but a two out single chased him. On the day, he threw 6.2 innings allowing six hits, one walk and three runs while striking out seven. He had a WPA of (.109) that ended up being good enough for the Hero podium behind his catcher Willson Contreras who was the deserving Superhero for his two homer game (.183).
Mike Montgomery was able to get out of the seventh with no further damage and then the Cubs failed to score in their half of the seventh. Montgomery went back out for the eighth and struck out Howie Kendrick to start the inning. Bryce Harper followed with a single and that was it for Mike. Carl Edwards Jr. then came into the game with a 4-3 lead, a runner on first and one out. The Cubs were registering a 73.6% chance of winning at this time.
Ryan Zimmerman greeted Carl with a double (-.204) and then Daniel Murphy was intentionally walked (-.014). Anthony Rendon was hit by a pitch (-.196), and Matt Weiters then hit a grand slam (-.281). In just four hitters, the Cubs chances of winning plummeted from 73.6% chance to just 4.1%. Carl did get a strike out and a ground out, but the damage was done and the Cubs were trailing 8-4. Edwards’ 2⁄3 of an inning of work resulted in the Billy Goat and the third largest negative game of the year (.690).
Brian Goodwin would add a home run off of Koji Uehara in the ninth to close out the scoring and the Cubs lost 9-4. The Cubs never caught the Nationals for home field advantage. For what it’s worth, the Nationals ended up winning the division by five games and so this one game wasn’t the difference.
There isn’t a lot more to say about Carl Edwards. He’s a key piece of the Cubs bullpen. We have to hope he’ll take a step forward in 2018 and continue to grow into an elite reliever. More days than not, he already was in 2017. Steamer projects his strike outs per nine to drop to 11.90 (down from 13.0 in 2016 and 12/75 in 2015) and his walk rate to moderate a bit at 5.01 (above his 2016 mark of 3.50 but below his 2017 mark of 5.16). They show his BABIP normalizing at .287 (way up from .162 in 2016 and .192) in 2017. Carl has always had what most would consider a high walk rate, though obviously the 2016 number wasn’t bad at all. But he’s been successful in large part due to that microscopic BABIP. Can he continue that? Carl sported a 78.3% strand rate in 2017 or the damage against him would have been even worse. But, that is actually fairly intuitive. He didn’t allow a lot of hits, he allowed a ton of walks. There aren’t a lot of ways for walks to become runs without hits mixed in somewhere.
It will be interesting to see how Carl responds to new coaching in 2018. As I said previously, hopefully he can take a step forward and have more consistency. If he were to put everything together, he gives Joe Maddon two choices. One, he could slide into the closer role. Or two, he could be that guy that a manager loves to have. The one that you deploy not necessarily for the ninth inning to close out a game, but for that spot previously in the game where it appears the game may be decided. Even as early as the sixth or seventh innings facing the other team’s best hitters.