Through the first two-thirds of the season, the Cubs were pretty predictable. That is, get a quality start, win the game. Don’t get a quality start, probably not going to happen. There hadn’t really been many come from behind games and they hadn’t really blown any leads. For a guy writing a series based around WPA, that made for some boring games to look at through the lens of WPA and Heroes and Goats.
This last week has been different. On Tuesday, Yu Darvish made just one mistake, but the Cubs offense was shut out for the first time and that quality start was a loss. On Thursday, the Cubs fell behind 3-0, but the offense rallied back and the Cubs went on to win 8-5. That was one of the more dramatic swings of the season. Then on Friday, Jon Lester was terrific, but he was out-dueled and the Cubs were shutout for the second time in three games.
Last night’s game looked at all of the preceding games and said: “Hold my beer!” Kyle Hendricks was the one throwing a strong game, marred by a single mistake. The offense, which had until the a few days ago, consistently put at least some runs on the board, looked headed for going from not being shut out for 43 consecutive games to getting shut out three times in four games. They were down 2-0 heading to the ninth.
In order to make WPA an approachable stat, the numbers are normalized. WPA doesn’t differentiate talent level of individual players when it is calculated. So what I’ll tell you is that WPA doesn’t adequately express the probability of what happened last night. But, it is the tool we use and so we’ll use it here to explain last night’s game. Kyle Schwarber struck out against Josh Hader to start the ninth inning. That’s not a real surprise, that was lefthanded batter number 13 on the season for Hader and it was the sixth strikeout he had recorded. WPA tells us that at that point, the Brewers had a 96.2 percent chance of winning.
I will tell you that it was greater than that. I’m no mathematician, but even recognizing that Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward are very talented players, Josh Hader to this point in his career is one of the very best left-handed relievers of all time. A slumping team, a dominant closer, bases empty, one out, down two. That’s not going to end well more than 96 percent of the time.
Then Baez singled. Nothing outlandish there. Javy picked up his second hit of the game. Maybe, just maybe if you squint a little, you can see signs of Javy getting started. The Cubs then sent Rizzo to the plate. We all remember that Rizzo was the first lefty to homer off Hader. Maybe, just maybe he could do it again? Nah. Single. Rizzo has basically made his career off of just getting a ball in play in big situations. So not shocking for him. But, that was the first hit that Hader allowed to a lefty this season.
The Brewers chance of winning dropped to 91 percent after the Baez single and then 81.9 percent after the Rizzo one. That brought Heyward to the plate. My son isn’t a baseball fan. But my son saw the largest portion of baseball in his life during the time period where it seemed like Heyward hit into a double play every single time he batted. You and I know that Jason has put in a ton of work and in 2019 he returned to decent offensively and was above average when not batting first. But Heyward is lefthanded too. That was one tall mountain Jason was looking at. Again, I’m going to say that there was less than an 82 percent chance of a happy ending for the Cubs with that matchup.
Jason Heyward doesn’t read my script, though. For all of his struggles, Jason has some of the biggest WPA plays and games I’ve tracked. On June 6, 2018, there was his walk-off grand slam (.821 WPA). On September 10 of last year, he posted a .536 WPA score. That one was a two-homer game against the Padres that the Cubs ultimately lost 9-8. But Heyward drew two walks, drove in three, scored three. He’s had some big games the last two years.
This is going to sit right there with those games. Jason Heyward launched a two-strike pitch deep into the night and he knew pretty much immediately what he had done. He broke into his home run trot. Because this is on the road, WPA doesn’t register it quite as high as that grand slam. But, this one registered as a .630 WPA play. It also produced a .531 WPA game that is the third largest game score of the year.
Amazingly, Ildemaro Vargas followed with a homer. The inning produced the first two hits for lefthanded batters off Hader in 2020. It produced both the first homer he allowed to a left-handed batter and also the first to a right-handed batter. To consecutive batters. He allowed four runs, increasing his season total to seven. He allowed four hits, increasing his season total to six.
When you bake the whole cake and take note of the ingredients, this is the most improbable single inning Cubs come from behind victory I have ever seen. Again, not to denigrate some of the best players in Cubs history, but if you specifically calculated history and probability of the exact batters and situations, the Cubs pulled off the equivalent of going to the dollar store for ingredients to bake a cake and produced the greatest cake ever made. Sure, it’s possible I guess. But I wouldn’t have give the Cubs a 1 percent chance of even tying the game in that spot. Scoring a run? Sure. Any one of those first three hitters to face Hader is capable of taking him deep.
No way would I have ever bought that they could not only tie the game, but win the game in that very inning against Hader. Baseball produces some amazing results.
And with that, we turn our attention to yesterday’s game as we look at what WPA had to say about Heroes and Goats. As always the Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA (Win Probability Added) and are not in any way subjective. Many days WPA will not tell the story of what happened, but often it can give at least a glimpse to who rose to the occasion in a high leverage moment or who didn’t get the job done in that moment. With that, let’s get to the results.
Game 47, September 12: Cubs 4, Brewers 2 (27-20)
- Superhero: Jason Heyward (.531). Jason had just one hit, but boy was it an enormous one.
- Hero: Craig Kimbrel (.099). I’m not ready to say that he’s all the way back. This inning wasn’t pretty, but he worked around two hits to record a scoreless ninth for the save. I applaud that the Cubs don’t give up on players easily. Both Kimbrel and Heyward are guys who have worked hard to overcome struggles and could be key contributors going forward.
- Sidekick: Anthony Rizzo (.092). He came off the bench for a key single to extend the rally and set the table for Heyward.
- Billy Goat: Kris Bryant (-.125). I really hope he is the next Cub to find his form. He continued to struggle, striking out twice in four at bats. I would expect Kris to be back with a vengeance in 2021. This season is not going to sit well with him.
- Goat: David Bote (-.091). David was hitless in two at bats and struck out once.
- Kid: Willson Contreras (-.090). Hitless in four at bats, one strikeout.
WPA Play of the Game: Heyward at .630, as noted above
*Brewers Play of the Game: Ryan Braun batted with a runner on first and two outs and took Kyle Hendricks deep. (.225)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
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Heroes and Goats Cumulative Standings: (Top 3/Bottom 3)
- Yu Darvish and Ian Happ 16
- Kyle Hendricks 12
- Kris Bryant and Javier Baez -12
- Anthony Rizzo -12.5
Honorable mention: Jason Heyward is at 10.5, good for fifth place. Jason Heyward has the all-time record for lowest season total at -48.5 in 2016. He’s finished last twice overall, and has never had a season long positive H&G total. This year he sits fifth at 10.5 and has at least a chance of winning. What a remarkable turnaround for him. Couldn’t happen to a better guy. And he’d tell you he’s just trying to pick his buddies up, given that three of the guys who usually appear at the top of this list are residing at the bottom.
Up Next: The final game of the three game set and the final game between these two teams in the 2020 regular season. Alec Mills goes for the Cubs and Adrian Houser for the Brewers. The odds-makers are seeing this one go the Brewers way. But Mills is coming off of a great start. Both of these teams that have been the cream of the NL Central crop for a few years have struggled mightily offensively in 2020.