Joe Maddon is a proven and innovative baseball manager. He is open to new thinking and showcases an impressive level of daily emotional intelligence managing personalities. He is a thinking man’s skipper and widely recognized as one of the best in the game. Because of this, he is graded on a curve, often getting a pass when others would be raked over the coals. Perhaps it’s time the kid gloves come off and an uncomfortable question is addressed head-on.
Do the Chicago Cubs have a Joe Maddon problem?
Maddon’s decision to use starter John Lackey in the ninth inning last night instead of Wade Davis ended in predictable disaster as Justin Turner blasted a walk-off three-run homer. Turning to a 38-year-old, end-of-the-rotation guy in the biggest moment while leaving the best available arm in the bullpen was as big a blunder by Maddon as the one made by Baltimore’s Buck Showalter in last year’s playoffs.
Showalter was rightly criticized for his indefensible move. Maddon should be as well.
A sea of John Olivers kill-stroy-ing the decision will be doing it in good faith. It won’t be second-guessing. It will be first-guessing. That’s how obvious a misstep Maddon’s call to the bullpen was in real-time. Davis, a shutdown closer with a 2.30 ERA, was ready to go. Maddon chose Lackey, and his 4.59 ERA instead.
“I really just needed him for the save tonight,” Maddon said of Davis. “He had limited pitches. It was one inning only, and in these circumstances you don’t get him up and then don’t get him in. So if we had caught the lead, he would have pitched. That’s it.”
Sound familiar? That’s what Showalter said about Zach Britton, the O’s unhittable weapon, after he remained sheathed in an elimination game. Maddon is suggesting Davis’ inning couldn’t have come in the ninth because the game was tied. Davis’ inning never came at all. And that’s an indictment of Maddon’s strategy.
In the playoffs, the best option must be used in the highest-leverage situations. Then and only then, can the next-best option be explored. In what world is Lackey, who before Saturday’s Game 1 loss, hadn’t pitched since Oct. 1, the viable option. In what world would it be prudent to put the man who allowed an NL-high 36 homers this year out on the bump? In what world would one expect anything but trouble in sending Lackey out for the first back-to-back outings of his long career?
Maddon’s been making a habit of these head-scratching and blatant moves and has been repeatedly burned. He turned to Davis in the middle of an at-bat during Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. Michael Taylor struck for a grand slam to force a deciding game. The Cubs’ overuse of Aroldis Chapman during last year’s World Series caught up to them at the worst time when Rajai Davis hit a game-tying home run in Game 7.
Chapman bailed Maddon out of a lifetime of criticism by working a scoreless ninth to set the stage for the Cubs’ two-run tenth. But consider for a moment what would have happened had the Indians won Game 7. Maddon would be synonymous with the goat, or the black cat, or even Steve Bartman in Chicago.
Maddon made a glaring mistake and never really paid for it during the Cubs’ miracle 2016 run. He keeps making glaring mistakes in this year’s postseason. One doesn’t want to go overboard in the criticism, but the routine nature of these gaffes are dumbfounding.
It’s truly alarming to consider what his legacy would be if Game 7 in Cleveland had broke the other way. This year’s Cubs are certainly not dead and buried yet, but one can envision a situation where this current window fails to yield another World Series crown. Maddon’s bullpen blunders will be a part of that discussion — and it will be fair.