Joe Maddon’s Unorthodox Sunday Night Lineup Could Have Playoff Implications

The exciting grand-slam conclusion to Sunday night’s 4-3 Chicago Cubs victory likely may have obscured two things. The first of those is how excruciating it must be to be a Washington Nationals fan.

As is often my wont, I followed the opposing team’s call of the game. After a few local ads alluding to pairing wines during your next visit to Nationals Park, poor Charlie Slowes capped his radio broadcast with this final call, “This is about as demoralizing a finish to a game I have ever seen for the Nationals.”

Yes, to be a Washington Nationals fan must feel like taking the Cubs’ 1969, 1984 and 2003 seasons and compressing it into back-to-back-to-back years.

I can even imagine Slowes reading a more appropriate in-game wine ad: “During your next disappointing trip to Nationals Park, be sure to stop by our concession stands to enjoy baseball’s widest array of screw-cap bum wines. Cisco Red, Thunderbird, Night Train Express — try them all. You’ll need them.”

The second thing obscured by David Bote walk-off grand slam and the ensuing celebration was how many eyebrows Joe Maddon raised with his lineup. Specifically, many questioned his grouping Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Albert Almora Jr. – with their combined 19 homers this year – as the team’s 3-4-5 hitters.

Personally, I found it a smart move with solid statistical justification. It also contributed as much to the final victory as that mighty outbreak of yips by the Washington bullpen. First, there was Zobrist nearly tying the game in the 4th with a shot that fell just short of the right-field basket. Almora and Heyward also accounted for half of the hits and runs scored by the Cubs.

But let’s not get blinded by outcome bias, as Maddon regularly cautions. Let’s rewind this game and review the strategic foundation to Maddon’s lineup choices. For starters, coming into the game, Heyward had a .417 career average against Scherzer and Zobrist had hit three career homers against the power righty.

Almora had no previous at-bats against Scherzer and has slumped badly against righties in the last month, but there was merit to him being in the middle of the order. I still strongly preferred his quick, shorter swing against Scherzer over Ian Happ with his .188 batting average and 55 percent K-rate against power pitching.

Then there’s the reality of power pitchers regularly dominating most of the Cubs’ young sluggers. Last year’s playoffs most strongly exposed this fatal flaw as they went 2-5 in games started by an elite opposing pitcher, all of whom were power arms with the exception of the Dodgers’ Rich Hill.

Coincidentally, one of those rare playoff victories was Scherzer’s Game 3 start in the NLDS. In that game, Scherzer no-hit the Cubs for six innings until giving up a double on his 98th pitch to – wait for it – Ben Zobrist. Then, to Scherzer’s anger and Cubs fans’ immense relief, Dusty Baker let the Cubs off the ropes and replaced his ace with Sammy Solis and his 5.88 ERA.

In the end, the Cubs may have had even more reason to thank Baker for this and other gaffes that series. Those five extra playoff games offered additional statistical evidence of the Cubs’ struggles against elite power arms. After the season ended for good, Theo Epstein acknowledged this issue, but also mused that it may have been just a small-sample fluke.

But the problem merely persisted into the first part of 2018 until Zobrist, Heyward and Almora started getting more starts. In fact, the team’s average against power arms has improved from three points below league-average last year to now 14 points above the norm this year. This improvement has all come from Zobrist (.368), Heyward (.345) and Almora (.316); take them out of the equation, and the Cubs manage just a .195 average against power arms this year.

Maddon seems to have recognized this situation. For instance this year, about half of the opposing starters the Cubs have faced have featured a K/9 rate of 8.0 or higher. But in the first 50 games this season, Maddon started the aforementioned trio together just seven times (14 percent). Since then, he’s featured them 27 percent of the time. Progress.

Perhaps the high point came in early June against the Mets’ Jacob deGrom. In that game, Heyward, Zobrist, and Almora accounted for four of the team’s seven hits against deGrom. Heyward also scored the team’s only run before deGrom departed after seven innings and 116 pitches in a 1-1 tie. The Cubs then broke through with six runs against the Mets’ poor bullpen.

We saw similar efforts against the Braves’ Sean Newcombe, the Mets’ Zach Wheeler, and the Twins’ Jose Berrios. Now add Scherzer to the list.

More than regular season results, this provides the best strategic template for the Cubs to increase their playoff win chances against elite power starters. You don’t have to beat them outright. You just have to stay close, run up the pitch count, and then try beating the bullpen.

Maddon went one step further Sunday night by putting the three power-arm hitters together. It has been my personal mini-soapbox this year to recommend not just starting Heyward, Almora and Zobrist against power arms, but “clumping” them consecutively in the lineup. The goal is to string more hits and baserunners together in a single inning.

Maddon has done this only three times this year, and each time it was in the 1-2-3 slots. Sunday was the first time he put them 3-4-5. In many ways where he puts them in the first half of the order is somewhat academic. The big question was where to put Javy Baez. Against Scherzer, Baez had struck out four times in six career at-bats (including one playoff K).

Do you hit him second? Or clump him in with Contreras and Schwarber with their respective power-arm averages of .158 and .211? You can make a case either way, so basically flip a coin here. If Scherzer is on, he’s going to man-handle free swingers like Baez. And he did, striking the MVP candidate out three consecutive times. So outside of hoping for Scherzer to surrender a mistake home run, you’re left wanting.

So given his lineup pieces, credit Maddon for maximizing his options against Scherzer. I also liked hitting Addison Russell 9th ahead of Rizzo, given both hitters’ small-sample-size history of solid contact against Scherzer. As a happy coincidence, it alll happened to line Zobrist, Heyward and Almora up for the 9th inning.

Of course, none of this lineup strategy would have mattered if not for Cole Hamels’ masterful start. In my book, Sunday night was the lefty’s first truly outstanding start as a Cub. It came against a still-good Nationals lineup and the matchup against Scherzer created a razor-thin margin for error not present in previous starts against the Pirates and Royals.

So let’s hope Maddon has learned something he’ll leverage regularly come playoff time. And with that, let’s leave those poor Nationals fans to pass their brown-bag wine among themselves.

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