Maddon’s Explanation for Baffling Bullpen Management Doesn’t Hold Water

When the Cubs traded for Justin Wilson, my initial reaction was that it increased Joe Maddon’s margin for error when it comes to deciding which reliever to use late in games. I am usually loathe to go after Maddon’s managerial decisions, and it’s possible that this could go down as a regrettable take, but there’s just no excuse for the way the bullpen was used in Sunday’s loss.

While it may sound like revisionist history in light of the way events unfolded, the choice to go with Carl Edwards Jr. in a very high-leverage situation felt doomed from the start. Of course, had the gangly reliever come in and struck out two batters to preserve the lead, I’d probably be lauding the move. Or, and this is more likely, I wouldn’t have written anything because it wouldn’t have been a big deal.

With the Cubs leading 4-3 and Jon Lester hanging on by a thread in the 7th, Maddon went to Mike Montgomery to get the final out of the inning. It was the right call and it worked out. The manager’s next trip to the mound, however, was nothing short of unconscionable.

Montgomery had struck out Howie Kendrick to open the 8th inning, then gave up a chopped single to Bryce Harper. Mind you, this is the same lefty pitcher who was only recently moved back to the pen after a decent job in the rotation. So he’s not a LOOGY and there’s no reason he can’t give you at least one inning at a time. But with Ryan Zimmerman — a right-handed batter with a .985 OPS against lefties — due up, Maddon signaled for Edwards.

This was a predetermined move, though things didn’t quite go according to the skipper’s ideal scenario.

“I was trying to shorten it up a little bit for [Edwards]” Maddon said in his postgame debriefing. “I was hoping, if had we gotten Harper out too, just to bring him in to get Zimmerman and maybe just get one out right there and then walk off the field feeling really good about himself. I’ve done that with Strop in the past, I’ve done that with Rondon in the past.

“Normally what I try to do with a bullpen guy who’s struggling is put him in a shorter spot. Get him in, get him out. It just did not play out today.”

And that all makes sense if you throw context and recent performance out the window. Though he’s better against lefties, Zimmerman still carries a .908 OPS against right-handed pitchers. And Edwards hasn’t necessarily been great against hitters from either side of the plate lately.

Over his previous 15 appearances (12.2 IP), Edwards had allowed nine runs and had walked 15 men. He’d missed a lot of bats, too, and you can’t deny that striking out 19 men in that span is an excellent total. But it’s almost as if the K’s have come because no one knows where the ball is going to go. He looks at times like a blindfolded kid swinging at a piñata and hitting it by accident now and then.

“[He’s] kinda like maybe just not letting the ball go, kind of guiding it a little bit,” Maddon said of Edwards’ lack of accuracy. “You see a lot of…over his last 10 appearances before today, I think he only gave up two hits. So it’s been primarily the walk that has hurt him more than anything.”

The sample Maddon’s talking about was actually the 10 games prior to Friday’s start, when Edwards allowed two more hits, but he’s right about the walks. Even if he misses a lot of bats, though, I’ll take a reliever who gives up hits over one who hands out free passes every day of the week. At least a ball in play gives the defense a chance to do something. And with a 10.12 BB/9 (we’re not counting today’s intentional walk) over his last 16 appearances, Edwards is pitching himself into precarious spots nearly every time out.

Sunday’s disastrous effort started with a fastball that was left right over the heart of the plate for Zimmerman to launch to the wall in center. An intentional walk to Daniel Murphy brought Anthony Rendon to the plate with the bases loaded and still only one out. Perhaps not trusting his fastball, Edwards started Rendon with a curve that stayed way too far in and clipped the batter to tie the game.

For all of his issues with control, that was only the second batter Edwards has hit this season (6/9 vs. Rockies). Perhaps that’s why he still felt good about bending a first-pitch breaking ball to Matt Wieters. It was a sound strategy, all things considered. Wieters has a paltry .388 OPS against curves this season and has only three career homers against Uncle Charlie, none since 2014 four career homers against Uncle Carlie after Sunday’s grand slam.

“CJ, right there, I liked him on those two guys,” Maddon said. “We just gotta get him back to being normal because he’s a really big part of our success.”

No doubt about that, but I’m not sure rolling the guy out there with a man on against the heart of a very potent lineup is the way to get him back to being normal. There’s a measure of stubborn hubris here in that the skipper had his mind made up that Edwards was coming in to face Zimmerman no matter what. So he can talk about hoping Montgomery had gotten Harper, but of course you’d love to see that.

So rather than being all-in on Edwards in the ideal one-out-only situation, Maddon should have been ready to pivot had the situation not gone exactly according to plan. It didn’t and he wasn’t and now I’m rambling about it.

The problem here is that rather than boosting a flailing pitcher’s confidence with a one-out quickie, he may have torpedoed it by putting him in to blow the game. Who knows, maybe Strop or Rondon or Uehara would have done the same thing. Perhaps karma or fate or whatever would have dealt them the same crappy hand. And maybe leaving Montgomery in would have raised even more questions.

But none of those guys has been navigating nearly as rough a patch as Edwards and none has the feel of being at what could be a psychological turning point, Ron. Although, to be fair, Uehara has been pretty bad lately as well.

I’m not sure exactly what the solution is here, though I’m absolutely certain it doesn’t involve a cessation of the bullpen dance parties that follow home runs. If given my druthers, I’d like to see Edwards used in shorter stints and in situations with as little pressure as possible. Relievers’ performances can be very fickle because of the short nature of their appearances, which is why it’s best to build back confidence through even shorter outings that mean little.

When he’s on, Carl Edwards Jr. is a fantastic pitcher. His fastball/curve combo can be devastating and I absolutely agree with Maddon that the young man has the potential to be a closer in the near future. In the present, however, he’s a guy who doesn’t look confident enough in his stuff to be throwing in big situations. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, nor am I telling Maddon anything he doesn’t know.

What I am telling you is that I believe it was irresponsible of Maddon to put Edwards into the situation he did Sunday afternoon. It cost the Cubs the game and may well have cost the pitcher a little confidence. I really hope I’m just being overly reactionary on that latter point and that we see Edwards go on a tear from here on out, I really do.

So here’s to hoping that the next time he’s out there, it’s after the Cubs have danced enough to signify a lead more secure than one run.

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