Joe Maddon’s 5 Best and 5 Worst Cubs Playoff Moves

Two things are universally acknowledged about Joe Maddon. The first: He’s a great regular-season manager. Look no further than his six winning seasons and one pennant with cash-strapped Tampa and three consecutive NLCS appearances (and perhaps counting) with the rebuilt Cubs.

Second, he’s also less than a great postseason manager. Exactly how short of postseason greatness is all eye of the beholder, but suffice to say Maddon is a very “active” playoff manager. Thus he’s had his share of genius moves to go along with some head-scratching moments.

So as the Cubs start their fourth consecutive playoff run under his command, here’s a look-back list of Maddon’s five best and five worst playoff moves as Cubs skipper.

5 Best Playoff moves

1. 2016 NLDS vs. Giants, Game 1, David Ross first-base pickoff

Ross’s Game 1 pickoff of Giants third baseman Conor Gillaspie ranks as probably the finest and most consequential defensive play in Cubs playoff history. Following Gillaspie’s 3rd-inning leadoff single, Anthony Rizzo moved in extremely close to home plate to thwart Johnny Cueto’s sacrifice bunt attempt. With Javier Baez holding the runner on first, Jon Lester deliberately threw his first pitch wide and Ross rocketed a throw to pick Gillaspie off.

The play was part of a defensive arsenal installed by Maddon and team. Ahead of the series, they practiced it knowing the Giants could try to be super-aggressive on the bases against Lester. The pickoff was so deflating for the Giants, it sapped the aggressiveness out of their game plan, helping the Cubs prevail in a classic 1-0 pitchers’ duel.

2. Starting Schwarber at DH in 2016 World Series

Kyle Schwarber and his surgically repaired knee had not faced live major league pitching in six months, but Maddon eschewed the option to slowly acclimate Schwarber to World Series pressure. Instead, he boldly inserted the 23-year-old into the middle of the Cubs lineup as DH in Game 1.

The move paid off immensely. Schwarber’s return injected great excitement for the team, and he hit .417 in four DH starts and one at-bat as a pinch-hitter during the series. Just as impressive, he walked three times against just four strikeouts. This encouraged Maddon to move Schwarber up to the No. 2 slot for the final two wins in Cleveland.

3. Clinching 2015 NLDS with seven relievers

Not known for trusting many bullpen arms in the playoffs, Maddon managed his first playoff series with the Cubs very differently from what we’ve seen more recently. With the underdog Cubs up 2-1 in the series against the Cardinals, Jason Hammel started Game 4. Though leading 4-2 after three innings, Maddon lifted the shaky righty and used all seven relievers on his playoff roster to finish the game.

They responded by registering 13 of the final 18 outs by strikeout. They would yield two runs in the 6th, but the Cubs offense got both runs back en route to securing their second-ever NLCS appearance. You can relive this game – and the nostalgia of relievers warming up in foul territory – at this link.

4. Letting Arrieta go distance in 2015 Wild Card game

With the third-youngest set of position players in baseball, the front office desperately wished to advance to the NLDS to acquire valuable postseason experience. So for the 2015 Wild Card game against the Pirates, Maddon damned all data about third and fourth times through lineups and rode Jake Arrieta to a 113-pitch shutout.

Only one other time with the Cubs would Maddon start a playoff inning with a pitcher at or past 100 pitches (Jon Lester in the team’s next playoff game that year). Maddon would later become extremely reluctant to ride other hot starting pitchers with far lower pitch counts, but even with a four-run lead that night, he correctly stayed with his horse.

5. Using Strop as set-up man in 2015 Playoffs

This is sort of a back-handed compliment. Pedro Strop earned holds by pitching two perfect 8th innings in the Games 3 and 4 wins against the Cardinals. But don’t blink because this was the last time Maddon entrusted a key late playoff lead to Strop.

In the next two postseasons, Strop would post a 2.45 ERA and 0.91 WHIP, but Maddon never again used him with a playoff lead of less than seven runs after the 7th inning. Failing to use Strop resulted in huge workloads for Aroldis Chapman and Wade Davis, as well as forcing starting pitchers like Lester and Jose Quintana into unfamiliar emergency relief roles.

Which brings us to Maddon’s…

5 Worst Playoff moves

1. Failing to warm up a reliever in Game 6 of 2016 World Series

After filling out a lineup card, a manager’s dugout responsibilities largely involve looking ahead. This means anticipating pinch-hitting matchups, calling pitch-outs, making defensive replacements, and warming up relievers. But in Game 6, Maddon pulled a rookie mistake by failing to warm up a reliever in a key situation.

The Cubs were up five runs late in the 7th inning of Game 6 and Chapman, who had delivered 42 pitches in a nearly three-inning appearance in Game 5, was called upon. Many criticized Maddon for bringing in a weary Chapman with such a large lead and Game 7 looming the next night. But he compounded this by forgetting to warm up another pitcher after the Cubs extended their lead to seven in the top of the 9th. Thus he had to trot Chapman pointlessly to start the 9th.

The Cubs won that game, but Chapman’s fastball clocked no higher than 97 mph the following game and he lost a 9th inning lead.

2. Yanking Hendricks early in Game 7 of 2016 World Series

Any Game 7 is tense, but with the Cubs up 4-1 in the 5th, Maddon let the pressure completely exceed the pleasure. NL ERA leader Kyle Hendricks had thrown only 63 pitches and had just retired seven in a row. But a blown strikeout call led to a two-out walk. With that, Maddon shocked 38,000 in the stands and 40 million TV viewers by lifting Hendricks from what was shaping up to possibly be his second brilliant series-clinching start of the postseason.

Adding to everyone’s bewilderment, Maddon relieved the still-fresh Hendricks with Lester, who had thrown 90 pitches three nights before. Maddon had also previously proclaimed he would only bring Lester into a clean inning given his unfamiliarity with relieving and challenges holding runners on base.

Maddon also replaced Willson Contreras with Ross at catcher. With both members of the Cubs battery in unfamiliar roles, the moves couldn’t have gone worse. Ross immediately threw a dribbler into the stands and Lester uncorked a 58-foot wild pitch that cleared the bases and cut the Cubs’ lead to one.

Lester would settle down and pitch three innings, but Chapman – exhausted from his Game 5 and 6 overuse –relieved in the 8th with a much-diminished fastball. This helped Rajai Davis pull a three-run game-typing homer that just nearly dashed the Cubs’ title hopes.

3. Edwards’ usage against Nats in 2017

One of the big advantages hard-throwing relievers have is seldom facing the same exact hitters twice in a game and rarely in back-to-back games. But allow quality professional hitters the chance to face the same two-pitch reliever in back-to-back games and the pitcher’s advantage declines significantly.

Maddon forgot all this in his use of Carl Edwards Jr. against the Washington Nationals. Despite Edwards being an inexperienced, newly minted set-up man, Maddon forced him to face Trea Turner and Bryce Harper in each of the first three games of the series, and Anthony Rendon in four consecutive games.

The results were painfully easy to predict: Edwards threw a perfect 8th inning against this trio in Game 1, but ended up surrendering six runs on a homer and four walks for a 23.14 series ERA. This could have been avoided by alternating with Strop or Davis against Turner/Harper/Rendon to give them a different look.

4. Pitching to Daniel Murphy in 2015 NLCS

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Maddon again stepped into this trap with his team’s game plan for the Mets’ red-hot Daniel Murphy in the 2015 playoffs.

Murphy had homered three times against the Dodgers in the NLDS, including shots in back-to-back games against Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, who would finish second and third in that year’s Cy Young voting (behind Jake Arrieta). The man was hot.

Murphy’s run continued with homers in Games 1 and 2 against the Cubs, but did this convince Maddon to start pitching around Murphy? No. Murphy ultimately posted a .539 average, had a postseason homer streak of six games, and accounted for as many runs in the series as the whole Cubs team (8).

The eventual champion Royals would not be so foolish in the World Series. They largely pitched around Murphy, walking him five times and allowing him just three singles.

5. Pitching Quintana in relief Game 5 2017 NLDS

Critics have many choices to pick from for this last spot. Some point to John Lackey’s relieving in the 2017 NLCS, or Maddon failing to substitute in left field for Ben Zobrist in Game 2 against the Nationals. I went with a less-noted decision in the 2017 NLDS against Washington that wound up putting the Cubs in the hole in the next playoff series.

Hendricks was again on the mound for a do-or-die game. The bullpen was thin from the night before with few good options. The Cubs needed as many innings as possible from Hendricks. He started shaky, giving up four runs in the second, but then settled in the next two innings. So when his spot in the lineup came up in the 5th inning with a 6-4 lead and a pitch count of 81, Maddon would stick with Hendricks, right?

Wrong. Maddon instead pinch-hit for Hendricks with no strong plan for how to get the final 15 outs. He ultimately pitched six relievers, who allowed four runs. This included a 44-pitch, 2.1 inning outing by Davis. Worst of all, Maddon called on Jose Quintana – his scheduled Game 1 starter for the NLCS – to get two outs in the 7th. The Cubs held on for a crazy 9-8 victory, but with Quintana and Davis not expected to be in top form for Game 1 against the Dodgers, the Cubs basically gave away the first game of that series.

Before Game 5, I actually prayed the front office would fly Quintana to L.A. ahead of the team to remove him as a relief option. In odd hindsight, this also would have prevented the lefty’s sick relative from forcing an emergency landing on the team’s cross-country flight that left the rest of the team as tired as Quintana and Davis.

Any manager is going to make his share of good and bad moves, and Maddon’s are certainly placed under more of a microscope due to the Cubs’ success. Now let’s hope Tuesday’s Wild Card game offers us some more options for the Top 5 section.

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