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The Cubs did one thing very poorly in 2019. Fix it and they’ll likely contend in 2020

I’m pretty sure you can guess the biggest factors.

Craig Kimbrel is not the only culprit, but he’s a big part of it
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The St. Louis Cardinals won 91 games in 2019. They underperformed their run differential slightly; by the Pythagorean method their 764 runs scored and 662 runs allowed should have produced a 92-70 record.

The Milwaukee Brewers won 89 games in 2019. They overperformed their run differential significantly; by the Pythagorean method their 769 runs scored and 766 allowed would have produced, basically, a .500 team at 81-81. (In fact, going by run differential, the Brewers should have been only one game better than the Reds, who scored 701 runs and allowed 711 for a Pythagorean record of 80-82.)

The Chicago Cubs won 84 games in 2019. They significantly underperformed their run differential; their 814 runs scored and 717 allowed should have produced a 90-72 record.

Of course, run differential isn’t the be-all and end-all of baseball statistics and they do play the games on the field and not in a run differential calculator, so despite the fact that those projected records would have had the Cubs in the postseason and the Brewers staying home, real life doesn’t work that way.

It’s worth noting, though, that Bill James wrote in one of his early Baseball Abstracts that teams that underperform their Pythagorean win projection tend to bounce back the following year. A good example of that is the Nationals, who were 82-80 in 2018 despite having a projected 90-72 mark based on run differential. This year the Nats went 93-69.

So what happened to the Cubs this year?

The difference in the Cubs’ season, the real tipping point between heading to October baseball and staying home, was the eight games the Cubs lost while leading entering the ninth inning.

Eight. That’s a LOT of ninth-inning leads blown. The 2018 Cubs lost only two games they led entering the ninth. The 2016 World Series champions, just one.

This stat isn’t perfect. The Cardinals lost five games they led entering the ninth. But even some bad teams did far better than the Cubs in this category. Of the four teams that lost 100 games this year, all of them did better than the Cubs: Royals (2), Tigers (2), Marlins (3), Orioles (7).

And as I noted, the 2018 Cubs lost just twice while leading entering the ninth inning. If the Cubs had done that in 2019, they’d have been in the wild-card game — or even possibly N.L. Central champions, because two of those games were against the Cardinals.

Here are all eight games the Cubs lost in 2019 when they had a lead entering the ninth inning, and how it happened.

May 6 at Wrigley Field: Marlins 6, Cubs 5

The Cubs entered the ninth inning leading 4-3. Pedro Strop, who was at that time the designated closer, entered and walked the first two hitters he faced, then allowed a single to load the bases. Another walk tied the game and brought in Kyle Ryan. A ground ball to David Bote (on which he made a nice stop) got the first out, but the Marlins took a 5-4 lead.

Then this happened [VIDEO].

Ryan had what appeared to be an easy 1-2-3 double play to end the inning, but he froze, then threw to first as a run scored. The Cubs did eventually get the third out at third base, but the Marlins had a two-run lead.

That meant that Kris Bryant’s one-out homer in the bottom of the ninth, instead of tying the game, made it a one-run loss.

Ryan’s play was one of the mental mistakes that plagued the Cubs this year. There will be more later in this article.

If not for this game, the Cubs would have swept the Marlins and had an 11-game winning streak.

May 20: Phillies 5, Cubs 4, 10 innings

The Cubs led 4-3 going to the ninth. This time, Brad Brach was in to close. He got two outs sandwiched around a double. One out to go. Andrew McCutchen was the hitter. Brach got two strikes on him and then McCutchen appeared to go around on a swing:

Sure looks like the bat is far enough around for strike three. The game should have been over. But plate umpire Vic Carapazza and first-base umpire Hunter Wendelstedt said “no swing,” McCutchen’s at-bat continued, and Brach eventually walked him.

Jean Segura then singled in the tying run. The Phillies won the game on a J.T. Realmuto home run in the 10th off Ryan.

The fault here is Brach’s. He should have been able to retire McCutchen even after that bad call. Brach was just horrid for the Cubs this year. This one’s on the front office for signing him.

May 24: Reds 6, Cubs 5

The Cubs led 5-4 entering the ninth. Steve Cishek is closer du jour.

It took Cishek only six pitches to cough up the lead. He walked Joey Votto and then Eugenio Suarez hit Cishek’s first pitch about a billion miles (well, 445 feet, anyway) for a 6-5 lead. Raisel Iglesias retired the Cubs quietly 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth.

And so far, these are all home games, where the Cubs generally played exceptionally well this year.

Now this show goes on the road.

July 3: Pirates 6, Cubs 5

The Cubs had fashioned a 5-4 lead entering the bottom of the ninth, thanks primarily to a pair of home runs by Victor Caratini.

And now they have Craig Kimbrel! What could possibly go wrong?

Kimbrel got the first out without incident, then issued a walk and allowed a double to a guy (Jung Ho Kang) who was hitting .160 entering the game. This likely happened because Willson Contreras had been left out in right field, where he was making his first-ever MLB start. He had made a great catch earlier — but here’s where you have to have your best defensive outfield in the game, and Joe Maddon didn’t.

No runs yet, though. But then this happened [VIDEO].

If Addison Russell had taken the sure out he had at first, the run would have scored, tying the game anyway. But there then would have been one out and a runner at third base instead of nobody out and runners on first and third. Maybe Corey Dickerson gets walked and the Cubs pitch to Starling Marte instead. This isn’t all on Russell’s bad judgment. It’s also on Joe for leaving an inexperienced fielder in right field. Kang’s double likely is caught by Jason Heyward and then Kimbrel posts a save.

The Cubs gave away two outs in this ninth inning by poor defensive choices, one by a fielder, the other by the manager.

August 15: Phillies 7, Cubs 5

Now they start to really hurt.

The Cubs had a FOUR-run lead entering the ninth inning, 5-1. This should have been a no-brainer. Yu Darvish had been utterly dominant, throwing seven shutout innings and striking out 10. Ryan and Rowan Wick were touched up for a run in the eighth, but still, things looked good.

Wick had thrown only eight pitches in the eighth, so Joe let him start the ninth. Kimbrel was on the injured list with right knee inflammation and thus not available.

With one out, Bote at shortstop committed an error on what should have been a routine out. Javier Baez missed this game with an illness and he surely would have made that play. Russell was not on the big-league roster for this game. That’s why the Cubs had to stick with Bote at short.

The error seemed to unnerve Wick. He followed it by giving up two singles. Strop relieved him, allowed another hit, and it was 5-3. Then Strop hit Rhys Hoskins to load the bases.

And then Derek Holland, whose place on this team existed almost exclusively because he was good against lefthanded hitters, entered to face Bryce Harper. It wasn’t necessarily a bad choice, and Holland did get two strikes on Harper. Then Harper hit a Holland offering into orbit — and it wasn’t that bad a pitch, either:

You probably don’t need me to say anything more about this game.

August 16: Pirates 3, Cubs 2

It happened two days in a row.

With two on and one out in the top of the eighth, the much-maligned Tony Kemp gave the Cubs the lead [VIDEO].

So they entered the ninth leading 2-1. Hendricks had thrown seven solid innings, allowing one run, and David Phelps threw a scoreless eighth.

Ryan allowed a one-out single and made way for Brandon Kintzler (remember, Kimbrel is still not available), who got the second out on a comebacker. Josh Bell was given a Manfred and thus the Pirates had the winning run on base, but Kintzler needed just one more out. And he’s a ground-ball pitcher. Just one ground ball...

He walked Colin Moran. This put the winning run in scoring position. Again, just one ground ball...

Cole Tucker was the next hitter. This was Tucker’s first game back in the big leagues after spending almost three months in Triple-A.

Kintzler walked him, too, then Kevin Newman singled in the winning run.

That was just awful, and Kintzler knew it:

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

September 21: Cardinals 9, Cubs 8

Of this game, I will at least say it was highly entertaining and fascinating baseball. The lead changed hands five times. The Cubs took the lead in the bottom of the seventh when Much Maligned Tony Kemp batted with a runner on base [VIDEO].

Kemp appeared to have struck out, but a balk had been called. Kemp hit Giovanny Gallegos’ next pitch into the bleachers for an 8-7 Cubs lead.

That could have been legendary. It was his only home run for the Cubs this season. Brad Wieck allowed a couple of baserunners in the eighth, but struck out Marcell Ozuna to end the inning and yes, Wieck was pumped up about that! [VIDEO]

But Kimbrel served up what Joe Maddon called “two shots to the jaw,” back-to-back homers by Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong on consecutive pitches, and the Cubs could not score in the bottom of the ninth.

September 22: Cardinals 3, Cubs 2

For the second time in 2019, the Cubs blew a ninth-inning lead two days in a row.

Darvish had dominated eight innings so well that Joe let him start the ninth. I thought it was the right call, given the bullpen failures so often this season.

Jose Martinez led off the inning for St. Louis [VIDEO].

The one time having Albert Almora Jr.’s defense in center field was critical to a win, he failed. Martinez wound up with a triple.

Darvish then allowed a sacrifice fly, tying the game. At this point he probably should have been lifted. But Joe let him stay in, and Tommy Edman singled, stole second and scored on a double by Paul Goldschmidt.

Again, the Cubs could not score in the last of the ninth.

They had solid chances to win all eight of these games, and again, if they had won six of the eight — which would have matched last year’s two losses after leading entering the ninth — they’re in the postseason, and if two of those wins were the games against the Cardinals, the Cubs are likely division champions.

You know, I think if the Cubs had won those two September games against the Cardinals they might still have made a run at the second wild card. That would have ended the losing streak at four, instead of the nine it became, and they would have headed to Pittsburgh two games back of the Brewers instead of four. Maybe they play differently against the Pirates if that’s the case.

But they didn’t, and here we are. In these eight games you can see all the various failures that led to Maddon’s departure: Bad choices by Theo of players he placed on the roster, bad choices by Joe in some of these games, mental and physical errors, bad defense and utter failure in key situations by pitchers entrusted with leads that most teams, even bad teams, can wrap up in the ninth.

These things are fixable, and possibly as soon as 2020. This team has talent; it simply has to close out games with ninth-inning leads. Kimbrel could be the guy to do that, if he reports healthy and has a normal spring training routine. Theo’s going to have to put other better relievers on the roster. And the defense will have to be tightened up.

They’ve got 175 days to fix it.