Just a Bit Outside with Sam Stockton '19

by Sam Stockton | 10/31/16 12:03am

How Cleveland Took Control (and how Chicago lost it)

Game 1 can be summed up pretty much in two words: Corey Kluber. The Cleveland Indians’ right-hander was tremendous, hitting his spots, never missing up in the strike zone and never giving drivable pitches to the Chicago Cubs.

In his two World Series starts, Kluber has pitched 12 innings, given up just one run on nine hits for a 0.75 ERA, struck out 15 and walked just one. In both of his starts, he kept the Cubs consistently uncomfortable in the batter’s box with a barrage of off-speed pitches, which hitters have struggled mightily to put into play.

In Game 2, the Cubs showed signs of being the same 103-win team we have been watching all season. Jake Arrieta turned in a performance similar to those he made in 2015 and early 2016. After tearing his ACL and LCL just six months ago, Kyle Schwarber seemingly came back from the dead just to play in this World Series. He looked good in Game 1, and then he drove in a pair of runs in Game 2. With the series tied at 1, the Cubs looked to be in great shape heading back home for three games at Wrigley Field.

Game 3 was a classic postseason baseball game: unpredictable, dramatic and inconclusive until the bitter end. On a night when the wind was blowing heavily out of Wrigley, it was the pitching that the stole the show to give Cleveland a 1-0 win.

More significant than the score was what became apparent late in Game 3 and obvious in Game 4. Once the Cubs fell behind in Game 4, baseball fans realized the Cubs were doing something for the first time all year ­— pressing. It was Kris Bryant throwing away two balls from third base in the same inning. Granted, neither was an easy play, but both were mistakes Bryant does not typically make. It was John Lackey trying so hard to make a perfect pitch that he missed the strike zone entirely.

Most notably, what seemed wrong was the Cubs’ approach at the plate. Since Theo Epstein took over in Chicago, he has preached a philosophy of “selective aggressiveness.” What this means in practice is twofold. First, the Cubs want to be patient at the dish. They want to make pitchers work until they make a mistake. Secondly, when pitchers do make a mistake, the Cubs want to pull the trigger, regardless of the count.

Against Cleveland, especially as Game 4 dragged on, the Cubs seemed progressively to move further and further from this approach. They started chasing pitches they hadn’t chased all season. It was most obvious in their young players, specifically Willson Contreras and Javier Baez, who have thrived on always playing at 1,000 miles-per-hour and always being aggressive, before seemingly running into a wall now. Both of them were waving at pitches well outside the strike zone in a desperate attempt to make something happen. They want to hit so badly they just cannot contain themselves.

While some Cubs’ hitters seem to have lost the “selective” component of Epstein’s philosophy, others have lost the “aggressive” component, causing even more trouble for the Cubs. Contreras and Baez have played an aggressive but borderline reckless style throughout the season. It is that style of play that earned the two players spots in Joe Maddon’s lineup. However, the unwillingness of other Cubs’ batters to pull the trigger remains extremely problematic.

What has become clear over the course of the postseason is that the only way teams have been able to find any success against the Cubs is to feed them a steady diet of off-speed pitches while mixing in the occasional fastball to keep them on their toes. If that fastball is the first pitch of an at-bat, that hitter may not see another. What that means for the Cubs is that they must swing at fastballs over the plate, whether they are the first pitch, a 0-2 pitch or a 3-0. Against Kluber in Game 4, the Cubs appeared reluctant to pull the trigger on these pitches, even their veteran hiters like Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist looked shaky.

As I write this on Sunday morning, the Cubs find themselves down 3-1 in the World Series, in a deep but hardly insurmountable hole. In Game 5, Jon Lester, their best starting pitcher, will face Trevor Bauer, Cleveland’s worst. They will be playing for pride and looking to avoid ending the season with three straight home losses.

If the team is able to pull out any kind of win in Game 5, the Cubs will plant a seed of doubt in Cleveland’s mind as they return to Progressive Field. The fact is that Chicago must win three games in a row or its championship drought will continue. The good news, though, is that those three games will be started by its ace Lester, Arrieta, the reigning National League Cy Young winner, and Kyle Hendricks ’12, the pitcher who finished 2016 with the best ERA in the MLB. If you’re the Cubs, you can’t hate those odds.