I do a lot of different things in this space. It all depends on the vibe I get from the game and often things on social media. For better or for worse, I assume that social media gives some cross-section of where the collective consciousness of Cubs nation and by extent all of you sit. I suspect many of you are a little less prone to wild swings and highs and lows than the masses.
It feels too self important to say that this space attracts a deeper thinking Cubs fan. That makes it sound like I’m patting myself on the back. It’s not that. It’s that this is a pretty niche place in Cubs content. I think that I think you probably aren’t here if you aren’t pretty immersed in all things Cub. I just don’t expect a lot of casual Cubs fans to be finding themselves here. So really, I think of it backwards. I think that Heroes and Goats and by extension I wouldn’t exist in Cubs narrative if there weren’t a group of people looking for extra content to consume.
That said, I’m still going to come in here sometimes and try to tell you that things aren’t as bad as they look or that they are better than they look. We all, myself included, tend to overreact, at least occasionally, to the ups and downs of baseball. You can’t survive as a baseball fan if you are looking for a high elevation to swan dive from every time your team hits a bump in the road.
Where am I going with this? I’ve just written 250 words buttering you up. I invite you in for Tom’s Cubs therapy. I just wrote the other day and talked about the Cubs needing a certain number of “quality” starts if they are going to make it to the postseason. We all roll our eyes at the six innings, three runs quality start, particularly those of us that were baseball fans years ago when it felt a bit like failure if a starter wasn’t working into the seventh or eighth inning.
Yet I wrote the other day, lowering that bar further and accepting three runs over five innings. To be clear, that’s not a long term expectation. But I do think in the stretch run for a team that is a legitimate playoff contender, the role of the starter becomes to keep the team in the game long enough to turn it over to the bullpen. A bit by necessity and a bit by design, once you have your bullpen pretty well figured out, you just want to be in the game and then give it to the bullpen to nail it down and give the offense time to pull out a win.
None of that is to say that it isn’t an enormous bonus when a starter can get into the seventh or eighth inning in the modern game. Those are like manna from heaven. They give the bullpen a break and free them up to go aggressively at some other game. If, you can get a lengthy start or two over the course of the week, maybe add in a bludgeoning or two, then even the occasional horrendous start becomes not the end of the world. Those three “shapes” of baseball games all can lead to a lighter night for the bullpen.
All of this is a lot of buildup to me inviting you all to baseball therapy for Tom. So help me, I’m looking at Jameson Taillon as the Billy Goat in today’s game. He certainly “earned” that spot. The team built a 4-0 lead while he was pitching (yeah, he helped allow it to get there) and then he allowed all four of those runs. To be clear, that sixth inning was monumentally disappointing. No part of it was more frustrating than “baseball announcer omnipotence.”
I grew up, like many of you, listening to Steve Stone. I can’t tell you how many times I remember him specifically telling us: “This pitcher is going to try to get a slider by this hitter and if he doesn’t keep it off the plate and down in the zone, it’s going to end up in the bleachers,” followed by the exact pitch he described and the exact result he described. My love for baseball in some way derives from Steve Stone’s wisdom.
On that fateful pitch in the sixth inning, if you weren’t listening to Jim Deshaies on the broadcast, you missed one of those moments. With Kerry Carpenter batting with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, the count ran to 3-1 and JD says: “You hate to walk in a run but you’d rather do that than throw this kid a cookie and tie the ballgame. You’ve got to try to make a pitcher’s pitch here, maybe a backdoor cutter.” Taillon did throw a cutter to Carpenter, but it didn’t work, and the grand slam and the tie game followed.
Before that, Taillon had been masterful. One walk in five innings. 16 batters to get through five. The Cubs were cruising after plating four runs over the first four innings. Then three straight singles, a game effort to get out of it with a strikeout and a pop up from a red-hot Spencer Torkelson. That set up the Carpenter at bat and the grand slam that tied the game.
Heaven help me, but as a guy who tries to look at the bigger picture and not focusing too much on any one play, I’m not bothered by Taillon’s start. He was dominant for five. No person of the bullpen had any reason to even move until the sixth inning. He didn’t finish the sixth, but I got to see him dominate. The bullpen only had to cover 10 outs. I trusted the offense to win the game and believed in the bullpen to nail it down.
Bada bing, bada boom. Game, set and match.
Can I be okay with that performance? Circle to all of the words above. Of course I’m still looking for the white whale that is six or seven lockdown innings. But what about five innings of lights out pitching and one bad inning? What do we do with that? In bizarro modern pitching world, I have adapted to recognizing starting pitching as a form of damage control, designed to just keep you in the game long enough for your offense and bullpen to win.
I know I’ve repeated that point a bunch here. Watch Craig Counsell manage a baseball game when Corbin Burnes isn’t dominating into the eighth inning. I remember watching a Yankees playoff game several years ago. The pitcher got in trouble early? They got him out of there and turned it to the bullpen. The games the Cubs lost in Houston earlier this year? The Astros just brought in dynamic pitcher after dynamic pitcher.
We don’t have to love it, but we do have to recognize that increasingly baseball is about strong relief pitching. The change isn’t like a light switch flipping. It’s gradual. Teams still value the starting pitcher. They are paid a lot of money. They are sought after in free agency. They are sought after at the trade deadline. Teams deploy all kinds of resources to develop starting pitchers. Teams use pitch labs. Pitching coordinators.
All of those resources. And yet. In 2022, eight pitchers threw 200 innings. In 2021 there were four. In 2019, it was 15. In 2018 it was 12. In 2009, it was 34. In 1999, it was 44. In 1989, it was 52. In 1979, it was 54. In 1969, it was 59. In 1959, it was only 36. So this is cyclical? Well, no. In 1979 and 1989 there were 26 teams. In 1969, there were 24 teams. In 1959, there were only 16 teams. So when I say that in 1959, there were 36 such pitchers, that’s an average of more than two per team. Twenty years later, in 1979, the 54 was split among 26 teams, still more than two per team. Fast forward 20 more years, it was 44 among 30 teams. Just about 1.5 per team. In 2019, it was 15 among 30 teams. That was down to .5 per team.
Go further than that. In 1979, 86 pitchers threw 162 innings, thus qualifying for the ERA title. Leading the way was Phil Niekro with 342 innings. I assure that only a handful of pitchers threw 342 innings in 2021 and 2022 combined. In 1999, it was 89 qualifying pitchers, led by Randy Johnson with 271⅔ innings. In 2019, it was 60 pitchers, led by Justin Verlander at 223 innings.
None of this is revolutionary. Baseball is less and less about starting pitching with each passing year. There is part of me that envies the days of Fergie Jenkins throwing 325 innings, completing 30 of his 39 starts in the year he won the Cy Young Award. Fergie had 267 complete games in his career. There have been 27 complete games in all of baseball this year. The Cubs have one (Marcus Stroman’s one-hitter against the Rays).
It does make one wonder if someone like me is going to be looking in 2039 and talking about the 35 guys who qualified for the ERA title. Or in 2059 talking about the ERA title going to one of three guys who qualified. I kid, mostly. The game has changed. I’m not sure that any of this has actually decreased the number of injured pitchers. So I’m not sure that the injuries have a massive correlation with the number of innings or even pitchers.
But there are pitch labs now where teams can teach you to make all of your pitches look the same. There are people who can take a talented young pitcher and how to balance health and nutrition, strength and mechanics and teach you how to add miles per hour onto your pitches. And so, when we go to a bullpen, there is a parade of guys who can throw pitches approaching or exceeding 100 miles per hour.
So that’s a rabbit hole to head down. But what does it all add up to? Is it okay to be okay with Jameson Taillon’s start? Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not suggesting that it was a strong start. I’m not suggesting he get an award. But do we grow to be okay with such starts? I don’t know the answer to the question. Again, I grew up with that goal of pitching into the seventh, pitching into the eighth. I grew up mocking “six innings, three runs.”
Then I wrote just a few days ago about how many times the Cubs could get through five innings and allowing three runs. Is four over six significantly worse? Does it matter how you get there? What about a guy who throws five innings and allows one run? Does it matter if he allowed 10 or 11 or 12 runners over those five innings? Does it matter that Taillon only allowed five baserunners in 5⅔ innings? Convince me that one side or the other of that discussion is definitively right.
In the meantime, let’s find three stars.
- For my money, Julian Merryweather was the player of the game. I’m always going to love four batters faced, four batters retired. I’m going to be ecstatic about three strikeouts. In an age where pitchers often don’t like to pitch across an inning break, Julian inherited two on with two outs in the seventh. He got a grounder that he fielded and got out of the inning. Then he came back and blew away three hitters. The game might have been won over those four outs.
- Yan Gomes was the only Cub with two hits. The second of those was an RBI single — and not just any RBI, but the go ahead run during the eighth inning. He also scored a run earlier in the game.
- Jeimer Candelario had an RBI-double and also scored a run. He drew a walk as well.
Game 126, August 23: Cubs 6, at Tigers 4 (66-60)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Julian Merryweather (.211). 1⅓ IP, 4 batters, 3 K (W 5-1)
- Hero: Yan Gomes (.203). 2-4, RBI, R
- Sidekick: Jeimer Candelario (.108). 1-3, 2B, BB, RBI, R, 2 K
- Billy Goat: Jameson Taillon (-.206). 5⅔ IP, 22 batters, 4 H, BB, 4 R, 6 K
- Goat: Dansby Swanson (-.048). 0-4, BB, R, 2 K, SB
- Kid: Patrick Wisdom (-.040). 0-2, K
WPA Play of the Game: Kerry Carpenter’s sixth inning grand slam with two outs in the sixth tied the game. (.398)
*Cubs Play of the Game: Yan Gomes batted with two outs and runners on first and second with the game tied in the eighth. He singled and put the Cubs back into the lead. (.220)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Yesterday’s Winner: Dansby Swanson (Superhero is 85-40)
Rizzo Award Cumulative Standings: (Top 5/Bottom 5)
The award is named for Anthony Rizzo, who finished first in this category three of the first four years it was in existence and four times overall. He also recorded the highest season total ever at +65.5. The point scale is three points for a Superhero down to negative three points for a Billy Goat.
- Cody Bellinger +39
- Adbert Alzolay +15
- Justin Steele +13
- Ian Happ +12.5
- Marcus Stroman +12
- Michael Fulmer -9
- Patrick Wisdom -16
- Drew Smyly -18
- Jameson Taillon -20
- Trey Mancini -20.5
Scoreboard watching: The Brewers won, the Reds won twice. The Brewers and their five-game winning streak stand 3½ games ahead of the Cubs. With the Reds doubleheader sweep, they are back essentially tied with the Cubs, though the Cubs lead by a percentage point.
In the Wild Card race, the Giants beat the Phillies and the Marlins lost. The Cubs are in the second Wild Card position, 2½ behind the Phillies. The Reds slide back into the third playoff spot as it looks increasingly like the Central could send three teams to the playoffs. The Diamondbacks and the Giants are half a game behind the Cubs and Reds. The Marlins, with six losses in their last 10 games, are fading.
Thursday, the Phillies, Giants and Marlins have the day off while the Diamondbacks and Reds start a key series in Arizona.
Up Next: The Cubs are facing a very different team than they faced last time they traveled to Pittsburgh when a surprising Pirates team was hanging around in the race in the Central division. The Pirates are now 57-70.
Justin Steele starts the opener of a four game series for the Cubs. Justin is 14-3 with a 2.80 ERA (132 IP) on the season and is 5-1 in his last seven starts with a 3.32 ERA (40⅔ IP). He won his last start, allowing two runs in six innings against the Royals. He allowed six hits and no walks, striking out seven.
The Pirates don’t have a starter officially listed yet, but if they stay on their current rotation, it’ll be Andre Jackson starting. Jackson is 0-1 with a 5.28 ERA (30⅔ IP). He’s pitched in 11 games, starting two. His last two appearances were starts. He allowed five runs over eight innings. He allowed nine hits and five walks over the two starts.