Sometimes predictable sucks. As the Cubs were winning five of seven last week against the red hot and then first place Reds and the powerhouse Braves, you could see this coming. Those games were games seven through 13 of 16 games in a row. Those games had a bit of a playoff feel to them. Then this week these games in New York were games 14 to 16. These games, ahead of three more against the Blue Jays in Toronto after Thursday’s off day, felt like a trap waiting to be sprung. The Mets appear to be a collapsing former contender. But there are a lot of guys still there from a team put together to challenge for a championship.
Among those players are Francisco Lindor and Pete Alonso. Those two remain among the biggest stars in MLB and they wore the Cubs out over these three games. Lindor had five hits over three games, all singles. But he scored four runs. Alonso had five hits across the three games. Four of those were homers. He drove in 10 runs. The Mets had 26 hits across three games and two men accounted for 10 of them, just shy of 40 percent. The Mets scored 17 runs, the two scored eight of them and drove 10 of them. Star players doing star things.
The good news is the Cubs did get something in this series that they haven’t been getting a ton of. In the Tuesday and Wednesday games, they got seven innings of two-run ball and five innings of two-run ball. This team needs its starting pitching to bounce back. And it looks like they’re getting a little bounce.
Of course, as is so often the case, when you start to get one thing right, something else seems to get out of whack. The bullpen (excluding Tucker Barnhart) worked seven innings in the series and allowed five runs. Curiously, Michael Fulmer didn’t throw in the series. The Cubs had been using him pretty heavily and in some of the biggest mid-game situations. Hopefully, this is a spot where that’s caused more by situational factors and not anything else holding him out.
If Fulmer was totally healthy, I’m not sure about his staying glued to the bench in this one. Have we not seen Fulmer, Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr. and Adbert Alzolay work the final four innings in some mix and match way before? Merryweather and Alzolay both worked Tuesday, but Fulmer and Leiter hadn’t worked in the series. Ahead of an off day and with three days off in the next eight days, you can manage a little more aggressively.
Instead, the Cubs went to Hayden Wesneski. This feels to me a lot like you went into the game with a plan of piggybacking the two if things didn’t go well for Hendricks. But the two runs over five wasn’t bad and the game was tied at that point. Wesneski was put into the game in a spot where he was going to see five left handers (two of them switch hitters) in the first six batters he’d face. I haven’t given up on him yet, but that doesn’t mean I’m not seeing that he is getting demolished by left-handed hitters. Through Wednesday night’s game, he now has allowed a .308/.352/.675 line against lefty hitters this year. So basically, he turns lefty hitters into MVP candidates.
They used Merryweather and Leiter anyway. Merryweather does worse against lefty hitters than righty, but it is nowhere near as pronounced. He holds lefties to a .725 OPS as opposed to .620 against righties. Leiter, of course, is the Cubs answer to left handed hitters with his reverse splits. Fulmer is quieter about it because of good selection, but Fulmer too has gotten beat up by lefty hitters (.872 OPS). I think you had to go Leiter or Merryweather in that sixth inning.
“Had to” is a controversial concept in modern baseball. When we talk about games or series, we’ve adapted a mentality that one game or another isn’t a big one. That’s fine. I’m not going to lose sleep if this team wins 80-85 games and misses the playoffs. That will be more than I had expected out of the team. But these players certainly feel they are better than that and can crash the postseason. And then when they showed you that, you went out and added a couple of players to help down the stretch.
A team can’t go full-out for 162 games obviously. If you always use the best hitter or pitcher on paper in every situation, your nine best hitters and eight or nine best pitchers are going to be completely gassed by the end of the season from overuse. And as a byproduct, in those spots where someone is injured or you need an extra sub, you’re going to be asking someone who rarely plays to go into the game and be effective.
When I went back did a Heroes and Goats deep dive on the 1969 Cubs, that was a thing I saw. Starting pitchers so routinely threw seven, eight or even nine innings. Only a small handful of pitchers threw with any regularity at all. Then when something happened, you were turning to someone who is healthy and rested, but hasn’t been used in days or, in some cases, weeks. That’s a big ask. If that team had mixed in some depth, maybe it wouldn’t have wilted down the stretch.
Believe me, I know you can’t run pedal to the metal all of the time. But this was probably a game you could have treated that way. This was a unique situation where a number of leverage relievers had been used a little less recently and you have those three off days over the next eight including Thursday off.
A traffic jam has developed in the National League standings. That was great because it allowed the Cubs to make up a ton of ground in a short amount of time. But that also means there’s a fair chance that a losing streak could cause a team to back up a few spots. The defending NL champion Phillies certainly seem pretty set for the top wild card spot. The Giants have banked a lot of wins and look relatively safe for the second. But among the Brewers, Marlins, Cubs, Reds, Diamondbacks, and Padres, two are going to make the playoffs with one of those teams being the Central champion.
It certainly looks like one or two games is probably going to separate three or more teams. Every game matters. You can’t play every day like it’s a playoff game. Again, that will bake a team, no question. When your best players are available ahead of an off day, use your best players in the biggest situations.
That kind of managing doesn’t apply only to pitchers. The Cubs lineup is atrocious and it has been for a long time. I love Ian Happ. He’s done so much work as a player and even when he was handled roughly, he put his head down, worked hard and made improvements. Happ should not be batting third on this team. Certainly, a guy with Happ’s blend of speed, power and plate discipline, you don’t want to move him down in the lineup. And you shouldn’t, you should move him up. If your purported biggest skill as a manager is managing the clubhouse, if Happ hasn’t moved up because he isn’t comfortable up there, don’t you need to convince him that it is what is best for the team?
In my ideal lineup, Happ would bat first and Cody Bellinger second. But even second and third would be better. I want Bellinger’s bat at the plate in the first inning of every game. You optimize your lineup by squeezing out as many plate appearances for your best players as possible. I don’t think it is super controversial that Happ, Bellinger, Dansby Swanson and Jeimer Candelario are the four best hitters on this team. Christopher Morel is over there staring menacingly at me and Mike Tauchman says hi.
When the number crunchers do their thing, we learn that lineup construction is wholly overrated, at least in the minutiae. However, it doesn’t take a PHD in mathematics to see that if you used the same order every day for a whole season, the first spot gets the most plate appearances, the second spot the next most, etc. So you maximize your best hitters by putting them as high up in the lineup as makes any sense.
It makes no sense for Cody Bellinger to bat anywhere outside of the top three. He is the best hitter on the Cubs by a pretty fair margin. After Cody, the five guys I’ve mentioned are close enough that you could make some arguments about maximizing matchups and moving around and mixing and matching them. The byproduct of poor lineup construction is that where that one less plate appearance comes up is at the end of the game. For the second time in recent weeks, the Cubs lost a close game in a ninth inning where Bellinger did not get one more time at the plate.
It’s a strained comparison, but can you imagine Barry Bonds batting in the lower half of the lineup? Bellinger wasn’t there yesterday, but you know he has been. Certainly he’s not Bonds and I wouldn’t suggest otherwise. I could have used Mike Trout. Whatever. The point is, when it is clear who the best player is, you get them up in the lineup. Cody is that best player. Maybe at times early in the season it wasn’t always fully apparent. But it has been for some time. He belongs in the top three spots, A) out of respect for his production and B) so you don’t lose a game by one run where lesser guys get one more plate appearance than he does.
Last note, Mike Tauchman should be a default starter. I don’t like two of the default starters getting a day off on the same day. With Suzuki in there, I’d have started Tauchman and batted him down at the bottom of the order. In a small sample, he’s done fine against lefties. He could have played center and Bellinger first with Wisdom on the bench. Wisdom hasn’t hit lefties terribly well.
Enough rant for one day. You all certainly get the point. Let’s find three stars in this frustrating loss.
- Seiya Suzuki. Getting him some plate appearances was important and this felt like a good game to drop him in there. Regardless of the point above about urgency, this is in that category of you may really need his bat at some point, getting him back right is important. Not the least of which is because he is in that group of best players when he is right. So I’d have defended the decision to get him in there even if he’d gone hitless. But he didn’t. A triple to help the early scoring, a single and then a clutch homer in the ninth inning. Nice game.
- Mark Leiter Jr. just keeps getting the job done. I understand the machinations that had him off of the roster last offseason, but I was worried about losing him then and I think sometimes of how bad this year might have been without arguably the team’s most consistently effective pitcher (Adbert Alzolay also says hi). Another perfect inning.
- Jeimer Candelario had two hits, including being on base and eventually stranded in the ninth inning representing the tying run. There’s a fairly strong argument that the top three hitters in some order should be Happ, Candelario and Bellinger. That also creates a situation where if that is where that part of the order is up in a key situation, you are splitting hairs as to what you bring in. Two switch hitters and a lefty who has been crushing left handed pitching.
With all of the ranting, I’ll drop a couple of honorable mentions: Christopher Morel for the homer leading off the game, he was only not listed above because of the devastating strikeout looking in the ninth. Jose Cuas, only not listed above because the two walks. But he did get five outs and in many games, this would have landed him above.
Game 115, August 9: Mets 4, Cubs 3 (59-56)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Seiya Suzuki (.183). 3-4, HR, 3B, RBI, 2 R
- Hero: Jeimer Candelario (.172). 2-4
- Sidekick: Mike Tauchman (.119). 2 BB
- Billy Goat: Ian Happ (-.363). 0-5, 2 K, DP
- Goat: Hayden Wesneski (-.334). 4 batters, three hits, two runs
- Kid: Christopher Morel (-.212). 1-4, HR, RBI, R, 2 K
WPA Play of the Game: Christopher Morel batted with runners on second and third with one out in the ninth inning. The run expectancy after that situation is 1.33. For those of you who wonder about the math, the run expectancy after first and second with no outs is 1.40. I understand why you bunt with Madrigal, you don’t give away a ton of run expectancy. You know, unless they turn a double play or he pops it up. That’s why the bunt has gone the way of the dodo bird. In virtually every situation it includes risk and reduces your run expectancy even when it works. Morel struck out, leaving the Cubs down to their final out. (.246) No, I would not have pinch hit for Morel with Yan Gomes or whatever some were conceiving on Cubs social media.
*Cubs Play of the Game: Jeimer Candelario’s single with no outs in the ninth inning. (.115)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Jose Cuas (1 2⁄3 IP, 7 batters, 2 BB, 2 K)
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Yesterday’s Winner: Jameson Taillon (Superhero 75-39)
Rizzo Award Cumulative Standings: (Top 5/Bottom 5)
- Cody Bellinger +32
- Mike Tauchman +15
- Adbert Alzolay +13
- Ian Happ +12.5
- Marcus Stroman +12
- Dansby Swanson/Julian Merryweather -8.5
- Jameson Taillon -12
- Patrick Wisdom/Drew Smyly -15
- Trey Mancini -20.5
Up Next: An off day Thursday. The Cubs start the day with a 2½ game deficit in the N.L. Central. They are half a game out in the wild card, tied with the Reds but a nominal percentage ahead. The only team of remote relevance to the Cubs that is playing Thursday is the Phillies and the possibility of the Cubs running them down is nominal at best. So this is even a day off from scoreboard watching.
The Cubs have announced Javier Assad as their starter Friday. Javier is 1-2 with a 3.35 ERA in 53⅔ innings. He’s made two starts, but has been extremely effective out of the pen. His start against the Braves last week saw him pitch 3⅔ innings and allow two runs on five hits and two walks. He should have a longer leash in this one.
The Blue Jays will start Jose Berrios (9-7, 3.38 ERA, 136 IP). The 29-year-old righty was a 2012 pick of the Twins with the 32nd pick in the draft. He’s been very good over his last seven (1-2, 2.85, 41 IP) and is coming off of a win against the Red Sox in Boston. He went 5⅔ innings in that one and allowed six hits, three runs. He didn’t walk anyone and struck out six.
The Cubs flew to Toronto after Wednesday’s game and so will be there before the Blue Jays, who have an afternoon game Thursday in Cleveland. This is a tough matchup with the veteran righty against Assad with only a handful of major league starts under his belt. But he rose to challenges when he had the opportunity in the World Baseball Classic.