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Imagine you are Field Marshal Terry Francona, lined up for battle with your 50 divisions behind you. You and your troops have fought well, having just defeated skilled armies from Boston and Toronto. But your nemesis now is Generalissimo Joe Maddon, who has 70 divisions to throw at you. Picture these two armies fighting over seven separate battlefields—first to seize four fields wins. What’s an underdog to do?

Suppose Maddon puts 10 divisions into position for each battle. Francona could mirror his opponent and evenly spread his forces, but he would be outnumbered all along his front. Or, he could do what outnumbered commanders have done for a long time: concentrate his forces selectively.

In Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle, Stephen Biddle explains how this concept works in land warfare, where creating a local preponderance of force can offset an overall disadvantage (emphasis added):

By using the initiative to concentrate forces at a point while accepting risks elsewhere, attackers can amass a large local numerical advantage at that point while yielding a much smaller disadvantage elsewhere. For example, by accepting a modest 2:3 disadvantage over 550 kilometers of a 600-kilometer frontier, an invader who concentrates on a 50-kilometer breakthrough sector can obtain more than a 4:1 advantage at that key point, even if the defender’s forces are numerically equal to the invader’s overall.

In fact, even outnumbered invaders can create a large local advantage on a chosen frontage if that frontage is narrow: an invader at an 8:10 theaterwide disadvantage can still obtain almost a 4:1 local superiority by concentrating against a 25-kilometer front while defending at a 2:3 disadvantage over the remaining 575 kilometers of frontier.

To translate this into baseball terms, a manager of an overmatched club can win a series if he has the pieces to dominate his opponent in just enough games while conceding some others. Those best players won’t be available all the time, but just enough to carry the series. This is the story of a very good 93-win team facing baseball’s consensus best club in the final series of the season.

The Cubs and Indians were a mismatch on-paper. FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model estimated the Cubs as 63 percent favorites to win the series, while CBS’ simulations gave them 59 percent and Vegas set the line at -175 in their favor. Chicago, after all, beats Cleveland in almost all aspects of the game—starting rotation depth, defense, bench options, power hitting, and 100-year curses to banish.

But Cleveland had two extremely effective relievers, in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, and one of the league’s best starting pitchers in Corey Kluber. Francona’s challenge was to combine his strengths into a winning formula even as his opponent had many potential advantages. If he could get three wins out of Kluber and one from anybody else, the series was his. The trade-off came in knowing that his best players would become unavailable even in close games the Indians fell behind.

The logic behind this selective usage is easy. Let’s say, in a simple example, that every inning Miller pitches increases the odds of Cleveland winning by 10 percent. Over the course of two games, Francona could use him in three basic ways: primarily to help when behind, primarily to help when ahead, or without any regard for how the team is playing. In addition, he could choose to give Miller a larger number of one-inning outings or a smaller number of two-inning outings.

A strategy that concentrates Francona’s best players in winning efforts might require a certain prior chance of winning to pull the trigger on using the big lefty. For example, using him for two innings in a game to get the team’s chances from 10 percent to 30 percent would probably not be as useful to Francona, under this formula, as getting the team from a 60 percent to an 80 percent chance of winning one game. Francona went to Miller largely along this line of thought in Cleveland’s wins—Games 1, 3, and 4.

In Game 1, Miller entered in the seventh up three runs and got six outs (+.146 Win Probability Added). In Game 3, he entered in the fifth in a scoreless game and got four outs (+.120 WPA). Allen was also called upon for four outs of work (+.263 WPA). In Game 4, Miller entered in the seventh up six and got six outs (+.014 WPA). Although the decision to use Miller in the seventh was reasonable given that the Indians were only up three runs heading into the top half of the inning, when he started warming, perhaps Francona could have saved an inning of work by having someone else pitch the eighth.

In contrast, Cleveland’s losses provoked a different approach. Games 2, 5, and 6 forced Tito to concede relatively early on that he would have a tough time winning and that he might be better off conserving his most precious resources. Francona knew he had long odds in Game 2 with Trevor Bauer facing Jake Arrieta. With the Tribe down 2-0 and Bauer laboring in the top of the fourth with two outs, Zach McAllister came in to stop the bleeding instead of Miller. Francona passed on Miller again in Game 5 when he took Bauer out early, even though the Indians were only down two runs again. Game 6, meanwhile, was such a blowout early on that Cleveland’s management decisions became pretty straightforward.

And then came Game 7. Oh, man. Everything was set for the Indians to use only their three best arms in a triumphant series conclusion at home. Francona had meticulously monitored Kluber's workload in the series, keeping him to 88 and 81 pitches in Games 1 and 4, respectively. Miller and Allen were each ready to do extra duty. But the magic wasn’t there for Kluber, whose stuff was lifeless and hittable. He failed to strike out a batter for the first time in his entire career.

Worse, the invincible Miller was human for the first time all postseason, too, surrendering four hits in a relief appearance for the first time in five years. The game plan fell apart. Most ironic of all, the effect of Francona’s management approach was that he prompted a drastic change in Maddon’s own strategy in the second half of the series. Maddon, with his club on the brink of losing everything, threw Aroldis Chapman in for an eight-out save in Game 5. Chapman had that same workload in Games 1 through 4, combined.

Maddon followed it up with a Game 6 that had his closer working in the seventh inning with a 7-2 lead. Chapman worked into the ninth inning of that game, by which point the Cubs had a seven-run lead and essentially a 100 percent win probability. In back-to-back elimination games, Maddon panicked at the first sign of trouble and called on his stopper. Chapman’s heavy burden in those games no doubt adds scrutiny to Maddon’s continued aggressive use in Game 7. It cost Chicago a lead and a smooth close to the historic series. So, instead, Mike Montgomery got the final out in the 10th vs. Mike Martinez with the tying run on base.

In the end, a game of maneuver became a grueling attrition battle. Still, Francona left a blueprint for underdog teams in future World Series. Even if your club is missing key players due to injury, even if your starting rotation isn’t very deep, and even if your opponent is stacked with exciting talent, there might still be a way to combine your assets in a best-of-seven clash. All it takes is a well-rested Andrew Miller and, like Chicago had for once in its franchise history, a bit of luck.

Thank you for reading

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I would disagree with your opinion about Maddon panicking in game 6. The situation was, if I remember correct, 2 on and the Indians best hitter up with two outs. That was the pivotal part of the game. You bring in your best to defeat their best. If you bring in your almost best and Lindor hits a home run, your lead is down to two with 2 innings to play. You need to win that game for a game 7 so the decision is not a bad choice. If you use your closer in the 7th, than you keep him in for the 8th. If you change and your not elite pitchers give up runs, who is there to close it down. Maddon did get Chapman out in the 9th after Rizzo's home run to save some pitches, but to classify as Maddon panicked, might be hyperbole.
I think you defeat yourself in your own case here. The entire point of not bringing in Chapman in a five-run game is that 1) if the worst happens you have both a two-run lead *and* Chapman to shut them down, and 2) if you bring Chapman in against Lindor and he gives up a homer (or a few hits) you now have no one to turn to, and you've burned your best arm for the next game too. Especially since you *also* need to win tomorrow, which means you've substantively robbed yourself of a potential 3-inning out tomorrow or weakened his aptitude for the next game (which clearly bore itself out in reality).
But if Lindor does hit that home run then you will have to bring in Chapman anyway to preserve your 2 run lead in the 7th inning and so you are going to use him either way. I always believe you bring in your closer when he is most needed. Why wait until thing go bad? And if Chapman gives up the homer to Lindor, he is still in the game to finish it off.

I just don't see it as a dumb decision on Maddon's part. It fits with who he is in that situation. I would have done the same. Now, I have never been a major league manager in that situation, but neither are most of the people who are criticizing him.
Using your closer to get out of a jam, even with a large lead, is defensible. But the point of this analysis is that you have to use your best pitchers selectively for maximum impact. I don't think you could argue Maddon used Chapman very efficiently. Lots of outs other pitchers should have been able to get. And it nearly cost him the series.
Except those other pitchers have not proven so far to be able to get outs consistently throughout the post season and especially the WS. If Strop or Rondon had been healthy, then ok. They aren't and the others are not as trustworthy. Remember those other pitchers almost gave the game back in the 10th. you go with your best for as long as you can. I don't criticize Francona for using Kluber 3 times in 9 days. He was maximizing his best weapon to win the series even though the Cubs have hit pitchers they have seen multiple times in a short time. It backfired on him. Also, his using Miller so much during the post season hindered his effectiveness in the end. Don't blame either manager for their decisions.

Why is it so hard to admit that the decision wasn't as terrible as you might think? Have any other major league managers criticized his decision so far?

Much of your argument seems predicated on Lindor hitting a home run. What are the increased odds of that happening if Maddon brings in a non-Chapman reliever? I think we all agree that using your best pitcher in the highest leverage spot is ideal, but I think we disagree that that moment was it. The Cubs had to win two games and the advantages of not using Chapman in game 6 if at all possible outweighed the potential for losing that game not using him in that moment.
no, he panicked. same thing in game 7. taking out hendricks was just plain stupid. maddon had a game plan. don't put lester or chapman in unless they are starting an inning. then he went and broke it with both which was when the indians scored 5 of their 6 runs in regulation. if the cubs had lost, maddon would have been an all time idiot and I'm saying this as someone who loves the guy.
Sorry cubsker, but I disagree with your point. You have Hendricks who has given up some hard hit balls over the game. He has a runner on first with one of their best and hottest LEFT-handed hitter coming to the plate. You have one of the top Left-handed pitchers ready to come in. Again, based on the information available to Maddon at the time, do I want my right-handed soft tosser facing a hot left-handed bat or my top lefty facing him. I choose Lester in that scenario every time.

Again, just my opinion, but what would people say if Kipnis hits a home run off of Hendricks when you have an excellent lefty in the pen who gives the Cubs better odds? No panic just an adjustment of the program to fit the needs of the game.

So much revisionist history.

Why not talk about Lindor's horrible AB in the 9th?

Why not talk about Francona's shitty call of walking Rizzo to face...BP darling child...Zobrist? Why not talk about the Martinez "defensive" substitute?

Yes...Francona took a dilapidated ship into battle and they almost won...but, we don't assign participation ribbons this time of year. He burned out his staff. He didn't have a bench. He allowed Michael Martinez to play a role.

Fault Maddon all you want, but he had an arsenal. And this was the deciding factor. Maddon had room for error. And he won.

I will buy a WS Championship sweatshirt tomorrow. I will re-up my Cub season tickets for much more than I expected in 2 weeks.

Because the Cleveland Indian franchise didn't have the depth to handle the organizational weight of the Cubs. Thems are apples.
Putting Martinez in was one the weirdest decisions to me. Obviously he would have to hit if Cleveland got any kind of rally going in the 10th. And what was gained for that? A superior arm that might make a difference on some very small percentage of plays? 100% he would hit vs. <1% he would make an important fielding play.
With Bauer's ineffectiveness, and the fact that hitters seeing a pitcher frequently can home in, I wonder whether pitching Ryan Merritt, who hadn't been seen before, in game 4 with Kluber rested in game 5 and Tomlin in game 6 might have been a better strategy. At any rate, the Indians was pretty bad through the whole post season, and a strategy of shutting out the opponent and scoring 1 or 2 runs is not a recipe for success. As an Indians fan I am thrilled with their awesome season when I expected a 500 team, and they played (and especially pitched) better than some of the best in Baseball In the playoffs with paper talent on the field that was inferior to all their opponents.
I don't know Tribefan.

Cleveland was the best team in AL Central. They deserved that..and then some.

Honestly? A healthy Salazar changes everything. After 2 innings of Game 6 I wondered if he wasn't a better choice over Tomlin...a perfect tire fire. I mean...did you see that meatball he served Bryant? That was, like, the biggest baseball boner ever.

These are all fine points, but managers can only do so much. In the end, it's execution. As a Met fan, I knew Zobrist was dangerous. And when Zobrist swung defensively and fouled one off--way late--on the fastball away, that should've tipped Shaw to go to that well again. But Shaw made it easy for him, leaving a fastball on the outer half, which clever Zobrist slapped the other way, against the defensive alignment--if you watch the replay, you'll see the ball went right where the typical 3rd baseman stands--but Shaw didn't make that pitch to his defense. If he had tied Zobrist up, maybe there's no parade in Chicago today. Maybe they get our of that jam. And that's why baseball is fun to watch. When the Indians won 1-0, Allen set up Baez with his curve and then went up the ladder, where the young hitter couldn't resist and swung for strike 3. We can talk managers all we like, but it still comes down to execution.
Very good article, with many good comments, and of course, perspectives.

Francona did have his pitching "ducks all in a row" for the crucial seventh game. The Cubs won with superior talent, in spite of Maddon's moves. Francona impressed me as the better manager overall, but talent favored Chicago. Whatever, it was a great World Series and game 7. Perhaps it will dissuade some managers from calling on their bullpen so early and unnecessarily......or pay a price when two of the best just don't have it in the deciding game because of overuse. Thank you, Ned Yost......or not.
Cleveland's roster construction was part of the problem. They had 12 pitchers and only 13 hitters so Martinez had to hit in the 10th. I would have used 10 pitchers, but can see 11 as defensible. But 12?