When you cover losing baseball for 15 years, you begin to learn the rhythms of losing. You begin to anticipate sense the various DEFCONs of the losing team.
DEFCON 5: Everything’s fine.
DEFCON 4: Everything’s fine, we’re playing well, just not getting the breaks, you gotta tip your hat to the other team sometimes, we’ll be fine.
DEFCON 3: We just need to make a few adjustments, the players are pressing, they want to win more than anybody, everybody just needs to calm down, do their job and stop trying to hit grand slams with the bases empty.
DEFCON 2: Team meeting.
DEFCON 1: We players have to take responsibility. It’s unfortunate that the manager was fired.
The Chicago Cubs right now are at DEFCON 3. In the postseason it is, admittedly, a pretty quick fall from DEFCON 3 to DEFCON 1 (like, a one-game fall at this point) but the Cubs are still in position to save themselves. But to save themselves, they need to find themselves.
Here’s what I mean: The Cubs were great this year, but perhaps not for the reasons that have dominated the headlines here in October. You might think of this as a 103-win dynamo that overpowered teams with their awesome hitting and unbeatable starting pitching.
This is not the Cubs at all.
The Cubs did win 103 games, yes, but they won by grinding. True, Kris Bryant had an MVP season; he mashed 39 home runs. True, Anthony Rizzo matched him from the left side. True, Kyle Hendricks led the National League in ERA and Jon Lester was second.
But these are headlines to a much grittier story. The Cubs were not some Hollywood team. They weren’t the Murderer’s Row Yankees or Big Red Machine. They labored. They scraped. The Cubs prevented runs with solid pitching but, just as much, with extraordinary defense. None of their five starters finished Top 15 in the league in strikeouts per nine innings pitched. As a team, they were middle of the pack in walks. They were actually FIFTH in Fielding Independent Pitching, which is one way to try and separate the pitchers’ contribution from the fielders’ contribution.
See, the Cubs had an OTHERWORLDLY defensive season. There are many ways to measure this, but one way using an old Bill James technique called Defensive Efficiency Rating (DER). Super simple. All it does is take all the balls hit in play and calculate what percentage of the time a defense turns those balls into outs. The 1969 Miracle Mets had the best DER in baseball history at .748 — they turned balls in play into outs 74.8% of the time.
This year’s Cubs? Their DER was .745 — best in baseball in more than 30 years.
The Cubs pitchers didn’t just overpower teams. They pitched to spots and refused to give in and counted on an all-time great defense. It hasn’t been quite like that in the World Series. The Cubs defense has been making some mistakes. They have not been in the right place again and again like they were during the season.
But the bigger story is at the plate. If you were just tuning into baseball for the postseason, you would probably think that Javier Baez is one of the great offensive stars of baseball. He’s so fun to watch, and he’s had some big hits, and his manager Joe Maddon keeps creeping him up the lineup — now he’s seventh, now he’s sixth, now he’s fifth.
Now, listen, I love Javier Baez, love him, believe he can become an electrifying player, one of the players who makes kids want to watch baseball. But if you want to hear a dirty secret — he didn’t have all that good an offensive year. He had a 96 OPS+ this year because he NEVER walks (15 walks in 450 plate appearances) and he swings at more pitches out of the strike zone than anyone in the National League. At this point in his development, the only pitch he can really hit is a fastball. This is not to reject the possibility that Baez will get five hits tonight, and it is certainly not to in any way downplay his potential. The point is: He ain’t an offensive star yet.
And neither is Addison Russell. He had 95 RBIs which, considering the brilliant way he plays shortstop, suggests that he’s a two-way superstaar, but he hit .238 and struck out 135 times.
Kyle Schwarber’s not a star yet either.
The point isn’t offensive stardom, it never was. The Cubs scored the second-most runs in the league because they WORKED. They worked the counts, they worked the pitchers, they worked game in and game out. Cubs’ President Theo Epstein believes that the key to scoring runs in baseball is to control the strike zone and THAT is what the Cubs did. Foul off pitches. Lay off nasty sliders. Get into hitters counts. Take walks. The Cubs only led the National League in two offensive categories this year. One was walks. The other, not coincidentally, was on-base percentage.
You saw those Cubs in Game 2 of this series. They made seven Cleveland pitchers throw 196 pitches. It was numbing baseball to watch but brutally effective baseball to play. This is how the Cubs win. They walk eight times. They dig deep into your bullpen. They grind you into dust.
The three loses? The Cubs didn’t do any of that. They have walked four times in those three games COMBINED. In Game 3, they went down quietly in a mere 124 pitches. In Game 4, they succumbed in 123.
Yes, of course, you can’t just skip by DEFCON 4 and ignore what Cleveland has done this whole postseason, not just to the Cubs but to three of the best hitting teams in baseball. Give Cleveland all the credit. The Tribe pitchers — Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen in particular — have just come at hitters again and again. But this Cubs team does not display the fight that so marked their 2016 season. They look tight. They seem to be pressing.
“They’re all trying to hit a grand slam with nobody on,” Chicago’s Miguel Montero says.
Yes, there it is. The DEFCON 3 line.
And I would argue that Joe Maddon, a great manager, has been managing a little bit tight too. Maddon is the essence of cool, but you can see a little something in the way he’s handled Jason Heyward all series. By now everyone knows the Heyward story. The Cubs signed him to a gigantic deal coming into this year because he had proven in his first few seasons to be a very good baseball player who helps a team win in many ways.
Then, Heyward had a disastrous offensive season. His 70 OPS+ was almost unprecedented for an outfielder, and in the playoffs he looked even more lost. Joe Maddon finally felt he had no choice: He benched Heyward for the first three games of the series, once putting in Chris Coghlan for some reason and then putting in Jorge Soler.
You could certainly understand the reasoning — but it felt like panic to me. The Cubs won 103 games with Heyward in their lineup. They won their two playoff series with Jason Heyward in the lineup. At one point, it seems, Maddon talked about how he was putting Soler in the game because “he might run into one.” Maybe … but that is EXACTLY what the Cubs were not about in 2016. They didn’t score runs by just running into balls now and again. They scored runs by stretching out at-bats and drawing walks and frustrating pitchers and getting enough 3-2 and 2-0 counts to do damage.
And they WON in large part because of defense, and there aren’t many people in the world who play defense as well as Jason Heyward.
It just seemed to me that Maddon was sending the wrong message to everybody, a message that suggested the Cubs needed something EXTRA to beat Cleveland and finally win that first Cubs World Series in 108 years. I think, in general, Cubs players have fed off that message. Thus: Grand slam swings with the bases empty.
Even down 3-1, the Cubs, surely, have a path to victory. By Vegas odds, they should probably be favored in all three games individually.
Tonight: Lester vs. Trevor Bauer. In Wrigley. Nothing more needs to be said.
Game 6: Jake Arrieta vs. Josh Tomlin on three days rest for first time in his life.
Game 7: Kyle Hendricks vs. Corey Kluber, pitching for the third time in nine days.
But to win all three, they have to first win one, and at the moment the Cubs don’t look much like that team. Cleveland plays loose and confidently. Meanwhile, there was real despondency at the end of Game 4 — bat-slamming, umpire-griping, wasted at-bats, seven-pitch-inning despondency. Then, as an expert of losing cliches, there’s another one that comes to mind and it goes like this: “A team never looks worse than when it isn’t hitting.”
In other words: One big Chicago Cubs inning can change the whole thing.