The Chicago Cubs are Champions, which means, among other things, as Mark Knudson surmises, there wll be Cubs Copycats. Other managers will follow the leads of Joe Maddon and Terry Francona in stradegizing. Other franchises will figure out how to be just like the Cubs in drafting, signing free agents. But, is copying the Cubs the right way to play? By MARK KNUDSON
The series was memorable for dozens of reasons, many of them off the field. On the field, it had drama worthy of an Oscar. But there was also an odd shift in strategy that very few saw coming.
Like most sports, MLB is full of copycats. When a team stumbles onto a winning formula, others try to emulate it. Of course you have to have the personnel on hand, but normally there isn’t much of a talent gap between teams that reach the pinnacle of their respective post seasons. For example, last season the upstart Kansas City Royals employed a simple yet sound strategy throughout the post season: Try to get six good innings out of their starting pitcher that night, and then go to a pre-arranged bullpen set up that included Ryan Madsen, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland (before he got hurt) and Wade Davis. The bullpen was all set and ready to close it out over the final three innings. Most nights, they did just that.
So, even though the Royals starters (outside of Johnny Cueto) were relative unknowns outside of die hard baseball fans, Manager Ned Yost’s strategy worked magnificently and the Royals won their first series in three decades.
Unleash the copycats.
That’s what made this World Series unusual on the field. While it will long be remembered as the year the Cubs finally broke the curse and won a championship for the first time in more than a century, analysts are left scratching their heads about the way they accomplished it. While KC’s winning formula appears to fit right in line with today’s baseball mantra of limiting pitchers innings and abiding by strict pitch counts, the World Series champs eschewed it. A formula that produced a world championship for a small market team (and that’s what “Moneyball” is all about, right?) is most certainly something that can be easily copied…but Chicago was having none of that. Starters outings were shortened; middle relievers all but ignored, and the closer was asked to pitch two or three innings several times.
It would be pretty easy for a team with the resources of the Cubs to take the Royals blueprint and improve on it. The Cubs had a far better starting rotation than KC. They won more than 100 games during the regular season behind those excellent starters and could regularly count on getting not just the standard six-inning quality start, but a lot more. Then they acquired All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman in mid season, and it appeared that all they needed was to settle on a couple quality set up men like the Royals had in place in 2015, and they’d be all but a lock
Meanwhile, on the American League side, Cleveland Manager Terry Francona was left to patch together a starting rotation that was hit hard by injuries late in the season. All he was hoping for in October (and November) was a decent five innings out of his starters, because he did have those three standout arms in his bullpen, and they would be capable of giving him multiple innings each. A Royals-style “bullpen” game is exactly what Francona wanted every night.
Back over on the north side of Chicago, they never really found those two additional stalwart set up men for their bullpen. They continued to lean heavily on their starters, asking them to do it the old fashioned way most of the season: Pitch the team deep into games so they could turn the ball over directly to Chapman for the ninth most nights. Not exactly the Royals winning formula, but it worked in the regular season.
Then, oddly, when the biggest games of the season rolled around, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon went away from his formula when it mattered most. The old saying goes “Dance with who brung ya.” Maddon left his date at the door on the way in.
For whatever reason, Maddon elected to try to beat Cleveland at Francona’s game, even though the pitching staff was not constructed that way. He bailed out on his starting pitchers far earlier than normal in several games, including epic Game Seven, when starter (and projected Cy Young winner) Kyle Hendricks was handcuffing the Indians through 4 2/3 innings and didn’t need to be pulled. Sparky Anderson thought Maddon had a quick hook.
Francona didn’t have a lot of options, so he continued to go to his bullpen early and often. The result was that for the first time in World Series history, neither team had a starting pitcher record an out after the sixth inning. If someone had guaranteed you before the series started that it would go down like that, you’d have bet your mortgage on Cleveland.
Yet, even though he bailed on his starters far too early and ended up riding Chapman until the big lefty – who threw almost 100 pitches over a three day span – had nothing left in his tank, Maddon’s team prevailed. Go figure.
So what does this mean for the copycats out there? Will there be ANY?
The short answer is no. Maddon’s strategy worked, but it won’t be copied. In fact, it won’t be copied by next year’s Chicago Cubs.
The off-season starts immediately. Free agency is around the corner. Normally teams look for a difference making starting pitcher (like when the Cubs signed Jon Lester in December, 2014) or a big bat for the middle of the lineup. This winter, don’t be shocked if there’s a run on middle relievers. Baseball is going in that direction anyway and has been for some time. This World Series just added emphasis to that.
Because young pitchers are now arriving in the big leagues with a lot more miles already on their arms from excessive youth league seasons, and because teams are being ultra-careful with their large investments in young flamethrowers like Noah Syndergaard of the Mets and Jon Gray of the Rockies, the statistic that’s going to start getting more attention is the “quality start” stat. Clubs have been and will increasingly continue to ask for only six good innings out of their starters in the hopes of avoiding fatigue and injuries. That puts the onus back on bullpen, especially the middle relievers. Closers like Chapman (now a free agent himself) only want to throw one inning per night.
When they get the healthy return of young starters like Danny Salazar, the Indians will be in good shape for 2017. Their bullpen looks good moving forward. The Cubs? Not so much. Hopes for the first repeat World Series title in 108 years on the north side will hinge on finding two or three power arms that Maddon trusts (clearly those guys were not on his post season roster) to fill the middle inning roles and then being able to re-sign Chapman. The closer will probably need to be convinced that Maddon doesn’t plan on bringing him in during the 7th inning EVER again.