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October 30, 2016

Playoff Prospectus

Wrigley Goes Silent as Indians See the Finish Line

by Aaron Gleeman


Game 4 was anything but a managerial chess match at Wrigley Field, as the Indians jumped out to an early lead and broke things open for good in the seventh inning on the way to a 7-2 win that puts the Cubs on the brink of elimination. However, there were no shortage of interesting pregame and midgame decisions on which to chew, including some that could have an impact in Game 5 and, if the Cubs win Sunday, beyond.

First and foremost is Terry Francona’s decision to start Corey Kluber on short rest, a plan that became apparent when the manager pulled his ace from Game 1 after just 88 pitches and six shutout innings. It lined up Kluber to start Game 4 and Game 7, both on three days' rest, but also put him at risk of being less sharp than usual. That was the worry, at least. Kluber was outstanding in Game 4, whiffing six and walking one in six innings of one-run ball. Better yet, he used just 81 pitches to record 18 outs, at which point Francona pulled him in preparation for a potential Game 7 assignment.

Andrew Miller was warming up throughout the sixth inning, but Kluber recovered from Anthony Rizzo’s leadoff double to set down the next three hitters without incident, making rookie Willson Contreras look particularly overmatched in the process. Cleveland was up 4-1 and Miller was ready to go, but when the Indians scored three runs in the next half-inning Francona had the opportunity to turn things over to lesser relievers and avoid adding to Miller’s heavy October workload. Instead no one else even warmed up and Miller came in for two innings and 27 pitches.

Miller will obviously be available for Game 5 and may even be available for multiple innings, but the question is whether having him throw 27 pitches in a second straight day of work makes him less likely to be at maximum effectiveness for a potential third straight day. By using Dan Otero instead of Cody Allen for the ninth frame Francona seemingly bought into the value of saving those bullets, so it’s likely that a big part of the decision with Miller came from not wanting to warm him up and then not use him, the not-so-technical term for which is, charmingly, a dry hump.

Cubs starter John Lackey was working on plenty of rest, but gave up three runs in the first three innings. Lackey leading off the bottom of the third inning provided Joe Maddon with a chance to pinch-hit for him to jump-start the offense and bring in a fresh pitcher, as Mike Montgomery was warmed up. Instead the manager struck with Lackey and it worked, in that he went on to throw scoreless fourth and fifth innings, but the Cubs also failed to score in the third inning despite two runners reaching base. Lackey not making a leadoff out could have changed that story.

Maddon’s pregame move to turn back to Jason Heyward in right field worked, as he went 2-for-4 to match Game 3 fill-in Jorge Soler’s hit total. His second-inning intentional walk of Tyler Naquin with a runner on second base and two outs to face Kluber was sound, but broke bad thanks to a swinging bunt and Kris Bryant’s misplay. Maddon finally did pinch-hit for Lackey leading off the fifth and using Chris Coghlan there made sense, but in the sixth he had a spot to unleash Kyle Schwarber with a runner on and stuck with Contreras and Addison Russell.

In the next half-inning, with the Indians up 4-1, the Cubs used Justin Grimm and Travis Wood as the game slipped away on Jason Kipnis’ three-run homer. Grimm and Wood are solid relievers, to be sure, but Aroldis Chapman, Hector Rondon, and Pedro Strop are the high-leverage trio--or the Cubs’ version of Miller, Allen, and Bryan Shaw, if you prefer--and any of them would have made more sense. If nothing else, Francona using his best, most-trusted reliever in a six-run game and Maddon not using one of his three best relievers in a three-run game provided an interesting contrast in bullpen usage. Rondon finished the game with two mop-up innings.

There's always a danger of confusing process with results. When a team is winning, the manager's moves tend to be working out--for instance, starting Carlos Santana over Mike Napoli at first base Saturday night--and tend to be viewed as smart decisions. When a team is losing, many of those same moves, made via the same thought process, can seem like bad decisions. In the Indians' case they've played so well throughout the postseason and beaten good teams so many times in convincing fashion that it's easy to see every string Francona pulls as the right one.

Or, put another way, lots of managers would look good with three pitchers dominating as much as Kluber, Miller, and Allen have all postseason. Those three have combined for an incredible 0.63 ERA in 57.1 innings, which is a recipe for managerial genius. But, as we've seen from several teams in several series this month, not nearly as many managers would have had the willingness and creativity to rely so heavily on that dominant trio, who've accounted for 54 percent of the Indians' postseason innings compared to 21 percent in the regular season.

Francona looked at his injury-wrecked rotation and decided that he wanted to start Kluber three times in seven games, so he smartly made plans to limit his workload in each start to best prepare for him that added workload. Francona also looked at his talented bullpen, bolstered at midseason by the acquisition of Miller, and decided that he wanted to ignore traditional late-inning usage patterns to put out fires in the middle innings, so he worked backward and without any interest whatsoever in the "save" statistic.

Not every Francona move has been right and some of them have even been wrong, but in nearly every case he's been the aggressor, the puncher rather than the counter-puncher. Good or bad--and make no mistake, there's been a whole lot more good--Francona has come across as a manager with a clear plan of action and the open-mindedness and tactical awareness--and perhaps most importantly, the talented players--to execute that plan more often than his opponent.

Cleveland is up 3-1 and one win from their first championship since 1948 with two of the remaining three games at home and Kluber available for Game 7. And suddenly the Cubs, viewed as heavy World Series favorites following the best regular season in baseball, must win Game 5 at Wrigley Field just to keep their season alive and avoid one of the most expensive, well-attended funerals in Chicago history.

Aaron Gleeman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Aaron's other articles. You can contact Aaron by clicking here

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