Chicago took Game 1 behind the Jon Lester-David Ross battery and Javier Baez's power.
David Ross doesn’t play all that often these days, what with Miguel Montero and Willson Contreras penciled in above him on the Cubs’ catching depth chart, but when he does—almost always every fifth day, when Jon Lester is pitching—he takes to the task with enormous seriousness of purpose. In his final big-league season, it’s his only chance to contribute to what has been a charmed season. As the league became increasingly aware that Lester—for whatever reason—doesn’t like to throw over to first, and so became increasingly enamored of taking the big lead and getting the early jump when Lester was pitching, Ross decided to take what had been a weakness and turn it into a strength.
Clayton Kershaw vs. Max Scherzer in Washington and Johnny Cueto vs. Jon Lester in Chicago.
On Wednesday night, the Giants did what they have done in every even year of Barack Obama’s presidency: win a do-or-die game in the playoffs. Now, the Giants head to Wrigley Field with the unenviable task of trying to knock off the 103-win Cubs.
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Can the best playoff team of this era beat the best team in baseball?
The thing about the playoffs is that the best teams don’t always win. That’s what makes them fun. It’s also what makes them terrible. If we were interested in crowning the best team in 2016, we could’ve wrapped this season up two months ago. The Chicago Cubs (103-58-1) aren’t just the best team in this series, they’re the best team in baseball, by a long shot. That was clear as early as August, and you could make a good case that it was clear well before that, too.
What would a replacement-level valuation system for front offices even look like?
The Cubs really like their president, Theo Epstein, and according to reports just gave him 50-ish million reasons to like them back. On top of that, they also gave his friends (general manager Jed Hoyer and senior vice president of scouting Jason McLeod) a few million reasons each to stick around the North Side as well. The thing about Epstein’s contract is that, if it truly is for five years as reported, it puts his average annual salary at $10 million. That’s impressive, and it’s starting to look like a real major-league player’s salary, despite the fact that Epstein has pitched a total of zero innings this year for the Cubs.
The Reds' relievers set a record, the Giants' blow another late lead, and two starters elsewhere don't let their teammates get anywhere near the mound.
The Monday Takeaway
The Reds came into their series opener against the Cubs having allowed 239 home runs on the season, two shy of the dubious major-league record held by the 1996 Tigers. To avoid breaking it, the team that had surrendered 1.6 long balls per game would need to keep the opposition to two, total, over the next 13.
If you’ve read any of my columns thus far, you probably could see this one coming. Tommy La Stella, erstwhile OBP machine second-base fantasy sleeper for the Atlanta Braves and current Iowa Cub, has been one of the most fascinating baseball stories this year—well, at least for someone like me who likes to think about labor and contracts and the ugly side of baseball.
The short version is that La Stella, despite putting together a pretty solid year as a utility/spot start guy, got sent down to the minors after the Cubs acquired Once, Future, Past, and Present Cub Chris Coghlan. Understandably frustrated, La Stella made the unexpected move to, well, not report. He did not show up in Des Moines and held out in his home of New Jersey. Held out might be the wrong word here, as La Stella does not have the leverage that an NFL player like Joey Bosa does in his current holdout or like a young top draft pick like Jacob Groome did in this year’s Rule 4 draft. La Stella didn’t make any dramatic demands or pleas of unfairness; he just decided to take some time to think about what he wanted from his future.
Unsurprisingly, the minds at Baseball Prospectus Wrigleyville have had some wonderful takes on the situation. Twitter pal and good writer Tom Hitchner produced a piece near and dear to my heart that tied film analysis to the La Stella situation in an effort to talk about anticlimax in baseball. And Ken Schultz put together a lovely piece explaining the ways in which La Stella’s holdout was not what it might seem, and that a young player might actually deserve time to get his head together.
And it’s times like this that I’m grateful to my colleagues for being such good people. Baseball Prospectus, despite its beep bop boop computers reputation, gets that people, who are sometimes flawed and complex, play the game. In the mainstream press, La Stella has not fared so well. Most notorious is the piece that Schultz critiques in his BP Wrigleyville essay, a fairly brutal polemic against La Stella by Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune.
I don’t want to give my editors conniptions by spending an entire article getting furious at another reporter, so let me give the very quick blow-by-blow of what I find problematic about Sullivan’s piece. First he opens with a fairly hamfisted Carlos Zambrano comparison that smacks of typical Anti-Latino sentiment in major-league baseball writing. Second, the piece refuses to believe La Stella’s own explanation of his behavior, casting not-so-subtle aspersions on his claim that his refusal to report to Iowa was not about being demoted. But third, and worst of all to this leftist’s mind, he sides with management. A longish quote:
The Cubs are a well-run organization who, relative to other buyers this summer, seemed to overpay for Aroldis Chapman. Do we need to reframe their choice?
Esteemed colleague and possessor of a terrific first name, Jeff Long, recently wrote about why teams in contention might pay a lot for relievers, even though, as Long writes, “It’s a formula that the sabermetric community sometimes finds difficult to rationalize. Relievers pitch so few innings and are so volatile that their value is almost certainly lower than that of the prospects dealt for them.” As to why teams in contention do this anyway, Long concludes that when the playoffs come teams cannot simply accumulate WARP; they need to actually win individual games, and really good relievers help teams do so. That makes sense to me. It makes sense to me why teams add relievers to improve their chances of winning right now even if they are going to end up accumulating less WARP from a given trade. But what does still does not quite make sense to me is why Aroldis Chapman was so expensive compared to other relievers or other players traded at the deadline.
How expensive was it? Please find an email from me to Chris Crawford, and Crawford’s responding email below:
The long-term deals signed last winter have turned into one of the ugliest in recent memory, from the teams' perspectives.
If you look back at the biggest multi-year contracts signed by free agents every offseason, the rate of teams at some point wishing they could get out of the deal tends to be high. On the most basic level, there’s simply a lot of room for a nine-figure investment in a baseball player to go wrong, particularly when the player is usually on the wrong side of 30 years old and coming off a stretch of good performance that makes for a natural regression candidate. Beyond that, the notion of a “winner’s curse” is at work, in that any team bidding enough to secure a high-end free agent likely did so by paying a premium. And, of course, players sign deals when they're in their prime. They end them when they're old, but still getting paid like they're not.
None of which is to suggest that handing out $100 million-plus deals to free agents is always a bad idea, but rather that for the contract to be a good idea the team has to get tremendous value in the early years. There’s a tacit understanding that, for instance, a six-year, $150 million signing will not provide the team with as much value in Year 5 and Year 6 as it does in Year 1 and Year 2, but the team lives with the later years of the contract in order to get the early years. Another way of looking at it is that, if things don’t go well in those early years of a big long-term contract, the whole signing may turn very, very ugly.
Does the jump from "good" to "great" make all the difference when it comes to acquiring a closer?
For a number of reasons, the move from this trade deadline that seemed to occupy the biggest portion of our collective consciousness was the Aroldis Chapman trade. He was sent from the Yankees to the Cubs in exchange for Gleyber Torres, Adam Warren, Billy McKinney, and Rashad Crawford. Chapman was suspended earlier this season for violating the league's domestic violence policy, firing a handgun during an argument with his girlfriend and allegedly choking her as well, which meant this trade was accompanied by numerous thorny moral issues. It also happened before the real madness of the 48 hours leading up to the deadline, which meant it had less attention competition for our attention than some of the later trades.
But most relevant to this article, the return seemed huge. Yes, the Cubs are almost definitely going to make the playoffs, and they'll appreciate having a lights-out closer if/when they do, and yes, Torres was almost certainly blocked by other Chicago players, but this still seemed like a high price to pay. Andrew Miller, one of the other elite Yankees relievers, was also traded, and his DRA this season is almost a full run lower than Chapman's. Miller brought back a package of Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, Ben Heller, and J.P. Feyereisen, and while I'm not a prospect expert, my sense is the Chapman return is more desirable. It's at least close, which is amazing, because Miller has not only been better than Chapman this year, he's also signed for two years after 2016, at $9 million annually, while Chapman will be a free agent and will probably cost a lot more than Miller over those two years.
What do we do with this? What are we supposed to make of a team like the Cubs, which by all indications is run by very intelligent people, making a decision that looks indefensible? A common reaction (and I think reasonable reaction) is to try to find the assumption that makes the decision look that way, and wonder whether the team might know a reason it's wrong, After the Chapman trade, the most common such argument I saw looked generally like this:
Danny Salazar is losing heat, and Max Kepler takes advantage. Meanwhile, Danny Duffy and Kyle Hendricks turn in signature starts.
The Monday Takeaway
The Indians had themselves a mighty fine trade deadline, even after Jonathan Lucroy nixed his ticket to Cleveland. Andrew Miller should fortify the bullpen and Brandon Guyer figures to provide a nice boost to the outfield. With a relatively stable and healthy rotation, general manager Mike Chernoff was able to use his myriad trade chits to patch other roster holes while steering clear of the extreme sellers’ market for starting pitchers.
Then the deadline passed, and game time came around for the Tribe’s August opener against the Twins, and… uh oh.