Cubs: The Playoff Rotation — Managing Leverage the Maddon Way

We Are Regal Radio co-founder and former Los Angeles Dodger scouting personnel member Sean Terry continues his in-depth analysis of the Chicago Cubs and their playoff chances

Through the process of elimination and by virtue of regression mathematics, the Chicago Cubs officially clinched the NL Central as of last week (September 15th), back-dooring their way to an NL Central clinch party thanks in part to a little help from the San Francisco Giants knocking off St. Louis late on the west coast.

In spite of what wound up being a losing weekend series to the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cubs managed to give Chicago a small taste of what October success looks like, and in the process completing the first step of a three step process to reverse the curse.

The growing fanfare and adulation has been on a steady climb since April but to their credit, the Cubs clubhouse has remained a grounded bunch with a collective eye towards bigger and better things. For a team culture that has made celebrating victories and milestones commonplace, this year’s clinching celebration took on a slightly subdued tenor in contrast to last years’ celebration.

To each his own, but I personally am not a fan of breaking out the stogies until you’re officially the last man standing so it was good to see the partying go no further than a Hazleton, Pennsylvania-inspired shot and toast by owner Tom Ricketts along with several collective beer showers among the Cubbie brethren.

In the words of team elder David Ross, the Cubs have officially “made it to basecamp” – beating any other NL foe to the first significant milestone of the grueling campaign. The journey to October is indeed a grind across torrid pavement and uncharted waters: a journey that has led Cub nation beyond a state of High Hopes.

The ticket to October may be stamped, but reaching it to summit remains a work in progress. As a fan who remains cautiously optimistic at the present moment, I can appreciate the mountain climbing reference from Ross – a fitting metaphor for the journey that lays ahead for the Cubs.

For fans who’ve been burned by the hype machine in the past, only to see the ball drop on would-be championship runs, the humility maintained by Ross is a refreshing mentality and approach to the looming second season.

Good fortune gives way to a collective heartbeat…

To date, the 2016 Cubs Mystery Machine has harnessed opportunity and seized momentum, stacking victories along the way to gain separation from its NL Central foes. With Maddon’s deft handling at the helm, the pulse now feels like an aggressive mash on the gas in fourth gear while the needle on the tachometer climbs towards 3500 RPM.

To know a machine is to know its’ inner-most components and a peak underneath the hood of Maddon’s #Respect90 Shaggin Wagon’ reveals a finely tuned turbo diesel – the cylinder heads of which have produced a churn to the tune of the National League’s best starting staff by standard statistical metrics.

Despite the incessant lineup tinkering, Maddon’s masterful use of positional players has been wildly successful albeit underscored by the ho-hum predictability of a Cubs starting rotation that flat out deals with consistent regularity.

With the exception of a mid-season skipped start for Jason Hammel while waiting for the munchies to arrive; and a pair of late August scratch starts for John Lackey that provided some well-needed recovery from the collateral damage associated with Maddon’s bullpen skullduggery, the rest of the Cubs starting rotation has managed not to miss any starts this season – truly an exceptional feat that lends credibility to their dependability.

Timing is Everything

Over the next two weeks, Maddon’s primary goal will be to maintain a consistent handle on the rotation while strategizing its use in advance of pending high-leverage situations that come with October urgency.

That urgency, coupled with Maddon’s steel-sharpens-steel mentality, will be the key to carrying regular season momentum into the playoffs for the Cubs. Remember, in October regular season win & loss records and playoff seeding comes secondary to how & which teams are clicking at the right time.

To prepare for that bump in intensity and ready the troops for the grit, Maddon has provided a transparent lens to his lineup tweaks with the hope of making his angle crystal clear. Come October, nothing is personal – only the best 25 players will see the field.

Despite the regular season consistency from his starting staff, Maddon took advantage of a healthy division lead by getting the drop on October. In adding mid-season acquisition Mike Montgomery to the rotational fold this month, Maddon threw a wrinkle to the mix by opting to go with a six-man rotation instead of staying the course.

Maddon has afforded his starters an extra rest day of rest down the stretch while also creating opportunities for additional side work to help refine a few small details (see the later note on Jake Arrieta for more here). The move also factors well towards stretching out Montgomery in preparation for his assured rubber-arm usage out of the bullpen next month.

The Four Horsemen and a Few Necessary Evils

Like most teams, October for the Cubs will yield a squeeze on the rotation. The preferred approach to today’s managers is to reduce the rotation to four starters (instead of five), which allows them to slot the rotation in a manner that positions your best arms to take the mound for potential series clinching moments.

Jason Hammel

Jason Hammel

With that said, come October fans can expect to see the playoff rotation shift to the Cubs’ best four arms this season: Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey (in that order).

For the rotation’s mercurial odd man out, Hammel, the writing on the wall is once again crystal clear – thank you for your regular season services but your five and two-thirds will not be needed next month. But don’t feel bad for Hammel… he will most certainly have the best seat in the house (or, the bullpen) for the playoff push while getting to indulge in as many potato chips as he desires.

The Cubs are now a lock for the National League Divisional Series, but the outlook beyond a seat at the table remains murky thanks to a wild card race that will seemingly come down to the final days of the season. At present date, the Cubs’ first round foe remains a toss-up between three clubs — their NL Central rival St. Louis Cardinals, 2015 playoff nemesis the New York Mets and the rugged and October-tested San Francisco Giants.

Game 1: Money in the Bank

Don’t let the regular season dominance fool you, a jump to the NLCS or the World Series for that matter is not a guarantee for the Cubs – hence the imposing austerity displayed during the clinch party celebrations by 2016 staff ace, Jon Lester.

While the vast majority of the squad, especially the younger players, celebrated during the clinch party Lester took a yeoman’s approach to the festivities, another good look for the presumptive Game 1 starter.

For what it’s worth, Lester performed admirably in 2015 during his first season as a Cub; however, his role and impact on the club was largely overshadowed by the surprisingly dominant Cy Young season produced by Jake Arrieta. This year, Lester has tapped deeply into his inner bulldog to live up to his contract and the hype of a season full of expectations.

Along the way Lester has managed to assume the reins as staff ace, racking up a sick 17-4 record to go along with a couple complete game performances – while managing to gain a little more confidence in limiting the run game.

Yips aside, Lester has been the lead dog for the rotation this year and has earned the right to jump start the trek up to summit. While MVP’s are earned during the regular season, the Cy Young stamp is usually sealed by performance in the NLDS.

The Cubs justifiably have a couple Cy Young prospects to match a few of the other National League’s usual suspects, and while no one particular NL pitcher has quite taken the reigns for the Cy Young hardware, my money’s on Lester to come away with the hardware. Let’s see if he cashes out come October.

Game 2: There’s No Place Like Home

See our previous Cubs post to better understand my views on Kyle Hendricks’ 2016 emergence.

By now, the entire baseball world has come to recognize the real to Hendricks’ game: I myself, have gone on record stating he is on a Greg Maddux like trajectory based on his artillery. That said, nothing spells high leverage like October baseball. For the 26-year old Hendricks, a pitcher who is just now beginning to come into his own, the proof is in the pudding – he’s more effective pitching in front of the home crowd at Clark & Addison than on the road.

Home versus road splits reinforce this assertion about the slim ace. Hendricks’ matching batting average allowed (.201) for home and road starts is a solid baseline to his 2016 campaign, but the disparities become much more apparent with deeper analysis.

Hendricks’ ERA doubles on the road (2.92) vs. home (1.32); the command slips ever so slightly as evidence by the strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.36 at home) vs. (2.48 on the road); and the ball travels over the fence with stark contrast, as Hendricks has allowed a miniscule number of home runs at home (4) as compared to his yield allowed on the road (11).

The evolution to Hendricks’ game is real, but best utilization of a staff wizard in the making means building upon his strengths while minimizing weaknesses. For Maddon, starting Hendricks in Game 2 at home where he’s most comfortable is a no-brainer.

Game 3: What’s Ailing Ain’t Arrieta

Once again, search engine optimization reveals all.

Google Ailing + Arrieta and you will see pages of so-called experts who’ve tried to articulate Arrieta’s so-called dilemma since late July. For what it’s worth, I will put on my baseball analyst cap to add my two cents but let me preface it first by saying Jake Arrieta has been great this year.

To ask what’s ailing Arrieta is tangential to admitting a lack of understanding of baseball, as a 17-7 record with a 2.96 ERA to match is nothing to frown upon. There are exactly 29 other teams in baseball who would love to have a Jake Arrieta dilemma on their hands. That said, fans have to accept this year’s eye test as reality despite our recent recollections of a sensational 2015 season for Arrieta.

The devastation of yesteryear hasn’t been quite as cyborg-like for Arrieta this season. His mound presence and performance has still been solid, with velocity and electric movement to match, but the dominant stretches have occurred less regularly this season; while the loss of command, walk totals, and home runs allowed have led to some head scratching moments at times for Cubs nation.

Arrieta’s 2015 domination may have simply been a career year – not the norm. To understand a statistical anomaly is to realize a regression to the mean is a real possibility. The scary part of the so-called Arrieta dilemma is that a regression to the mean represents a major leap backwards for a starting pitcher who was just a hair above .500 for his career (39 – 37) prior to last season.

Perhaps the move here is to temper expectations, acknowledge the facts, and realize we may never see the same 2015 level of domination from Arrieta this season, or next year for that matter. Despite the chiseled frame and the kale smoothies, Arrieta is not a cyborg.

I have my thoughts on Arrieta’s lack of command at times – many of which point to the ESPN Body Magazine photoshoot that saw Arrieta go buff in the desert to throw pitches off a de facto mound. Fifty some odd pitches for a photo shoot may not seem like much, but listen to any Arrieta interview and one thing becomes very clear – dude is a process-oriented thinker and borderline compulsive executioner in all things baseball related.

And for a pitcher with a slightly abnormal delivery, fluidity in release and muscle memory is everything. While my baseball knowledge is far from that of a pitching coach, I do understand the mechanics of the angles and inches to the game a little bit, so riddle me this…

Was the mound in the middle of the Sonoran Desert MLB regulated? Can simulating a delivery while pitching bare-footed alter off one’s release point?

Hmmm…I’ll let you deduce further conclusions based on the above but the fact remains Maddon has ultimate confidence in his reigning ace and Cy Young pitcher, so much so, that he’s the perfect man to hand the ball in a Game 3 start on hostile territory.

In last year’s playoff push, an admittedly fatigued Arrieta bossed up in Pittsburgh to lead the charge in a one and done play-in game, giving Maddon a baseline for future performance on the road. The win-loss trend at home vs. the road for Arrieta this year qualifies him for the title: road warrior number #1.

His command struggles at times have been comparable between home and road, but the splits tell a different tale. Arrieta is measly 6-5 at home this season – far from dominant, while his road record is 11-2 with a complete game, no-hitter to boast.

In this case, we’ll see Maddon lean to muscle memory by putting Arrieta in the best position to gain an edge and be successful. For Arrieta, that means doning the road warrior mask and packing that pilates machine for a Game 3 start on the road.

Game 4: Give It to a Good Ole’ Boy

John Lackey clearly didn’t come to Chicago for a haircut, and he definitely didn’t come here for spades and fried chicken. At this stage of Lackey’s career the process is all about obtaining the hardware and embracing the burn that comes with every lasting moment – check how dude was the only player in the locker room clinch party to not don goggles.

Chicago Tribune John Lackey in action in the Cubs' 9-2 victory Wednesday night against Cincinnati at Wrigley Field.

Chicago Tribune
John Lackey in action in the Cubs’ 9-2 victory Wednesday night against Cincinnati at Wrigley Field.

In Lackey’s world, “you gotta feel the burn, baby!”

As the elder statesman to the rotation Lackey understands the importance of making opposing lineups feel his presence, a symbolic trait that has helped Lacked to become a stabilizing force for the rotation this season – a fact that Maddon has alluded to time and time again this year.

Lackey, close friends with former Boston teammates Jon Lester and David Ross, was recruited here for a reason. Lester and Ross were both were around to witness Lackey deal in series clinching games in Boston.

In spite of his age, Lackey has not disappointed this season amassing a solid 3.42 ERA to match a quality start streak that has quietly flown under the radar (Lackey has only gone less than 5 innings once this entire season).

Displaying his rarely seen gentler side during post-game clinch party, fans saw Lackey celebrate the Cubs post-season berth while holding his daughter interviews. But the rarity of that moment couldn’t completely disguise the fire that burns inside.

Lackey is a surly as they get on the mound and you can best believe that attitude will be on full display come October. Whether staring down umpires, or mouthing off to opposing hitters, Lackey’s baseball chops are tailor made for October drama.

And while earlier games set the course, no other NLDS series game will prove to be must see TV quite like Game 4. Expect to see a well-rested and completely dialed in Lackey grab a brass set to take the bump in the villain role as more than capable #4 starter juiced up to close out a series.

With the playoff rotation now in focus, the stat guys will be working overtime to get the Inside Edge materials and stat books in order for the probable NLDS opponent. Once determined, tune into next week to get a few juicy nuggets to watch for when Maddon’s chess game will plays out in the first round.

Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under Regal Radio; Sean Terry is a co-founder of We Are Regal Radio

One response to “Cubs: The Playoff Rotation — Managing Leverage the Maddon Way

  1. Pingback: Cubs: Divisional Series Preview — Time For Redemption For ’89 | WARR - We Are Regal Radio·

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