I also observed that while there are several relief pitchers on the staff who are not assets the Cubs do have a lights-out closer in Wade Davis, a very capable setup man in Carl Edwards, Jr. as well as acceptable ones in Koji Uehara and Brian Duensing, and a very capable long reliever (unfortunately currently pressed into emergency service as a starter) in Mike Montgomery.
Further, I said that I'm not terribly worried about the Cubs' hitting because there's just too much talent in their lineup for it not to explode at some point very soon and keep demolishing pitchers for the rest of the season, and that it's shown signs of doing just that with two ten-plus run games in the past week.
But today, as it seems to in roughly every other game even now, the Cubs batting order fizzled. Or rather, it produced, but in such a sporadic and untimely manner as to fall flat on its face. The Cubs scored only two runs and left 19 runners on base.
Tim Williams, a member of a Cubs group I run on Facebook, made an interesting observation after today's game that got me thinking about why.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon is a genius. He's one of the best there has ever been at managing his players, and that ring on his finger (or in his safety deposit box) speaks for itself. But his style is unorthodox, and he is prone to making decisions which look brilliant when they work (which they usually do) but sometimes truly bizarre when they don't. I remember sitting in a bar after Game Seven of last year's World Series debating a somewhat inebriated fellow Cub fan about Joe's use of his relief pitching that night. In retrospect, he made some mistakes. But as I told the guy in the bar, "Dude, he just won the World Series or us! The last manager to do that was Frank Chance! Cut the guy some slack!"
Maddon-managed teams tend to have bizarre batting orders. As a rule, Joe seems to believe that the better you're hitting at the moment, the higher you ought to be in the order. Rarely (especially since the Cubs have a couple of starting pitchers who are actually not that bad with a bat in their hands) does the pitcher hit last. And players like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber, who would be batting cleanup or fifth for most teams, usually hit higher in the order than that.
Last year and the year before, the Cubs' leadoff man was Derrick Fowler. He played an absolutely vital role on last year's team. You may or may not recall that he'd opted for free agency before the 2016 season and returned to the Cubs only because he was unable to get a better deal anywhere else. But as spring training opened, the lack of an adequate leadoff hitter to "set the table" for an otherwise devastating batting order might well have been the Cub's greatest problem. When he surprised his teammates by walking onto the field that day in Mesa a lot of questions were suddenly answered.
One of the reasons Fowler hadn't gotten a raise was that the Cubs had scorched the hated St. Louis Cardinals by signing star right-fielder Jason Heyward and the ace of the Cardinal pitching staff, John Lackey, away from St. Louis months before. Well, this year the Redbirds got their revenge. They signed Fowler away from the Cubs, leaving them without a leadoff man once again.
Bear in mind that my immense respect for Joe Maddon prevents me from criticizing him lightly. He knows his job much, much, better than I do, and for that reason, I'm usually inclined to back him up even when I think he's wrong. And I'm not going to employ the benefits of hindsight and argue that the Cubs should have outbid the Cards for Fowler no matter what the cost. But in my opinion, at least a large portion of the Cubs' difficulties at the plate, and maybe most of them, stem from that moment, and from what this humble amateur perceives as Joe's mishandling of the fallout.
One of the reasons why the Cubs let Fowler walk was the presence on the roster of Albert Almora, Jr., a hugely talented rookie who was Fowler's heir-apparent in center field. Defensively he was already among the elite at the position even when he was Fowler's understudy. There were some concerns about his hitting, but also a sense that he might well turn out to be a pretty darned good hitter with just the kind of high batting average and plate discipline and speed needed in a lead-off man.
Just to play it safe the Cubs signed free agent and long-time Cardinal Jon Jay, who has a .289 career batting average and a .354 career OBP. Fowler has a career .267 batting average and a .365 career OBP. Not without reason, Chicago sportswriters described him as essentially Fowler without the power
Almora has a .273 lifetime batting average. He's hitting .270 so far this year. He has played in 62 of the Cubs' 75 games in 2017. He does have a major drawback. As it turns out, the concerns about his serviceability as a leadoff man might have been justified despite his more than acceptable batting average and speed because his OBP is only .329. But then, that possibility was exactly why the Cubs signed Jon Jay.
Jay has played in 63 games He's the Cubs' obvious and natural leadoff hitter, and yesterday Joe actually made him that. The Cubs won.
But it was Kyle Schwarber, a hulk who has far more raw power than anybody else on the team- the guy who put a ball on top of the right field scoreboard during the playoffs two years ago against St. Louis and broke the "B" on the Budweiser sign on top of that scoreboard earlier in the year- who started the year as the Cubs' leadoff man! In defense of that decision, Schwarber's 2015 OBP was .355, a point higher than Jay's. He missed the entire regular season last year, of course, due to a catastrophic knee injury, only to bounce back with those clutch heroics in the World Series. He has an amazing talent for bunting, especially for a power hitter. And at the beginning of the year Almora was playing center and Heyward was playing right; there was no room for Jay in the starting lineup.
Schwarbs was a complete bust, hitting less than .200 and finally being sent to Iowa. So who ended up being the Cubs' regular leadoff man next? Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs' slugging first baseman who so far this season has combined 17 homers and 48 RBI's with a whopping .390 OBP. I can really see where Joe was going with this, and I agree that it does make sense. To a point.
But we need Rizzo's bat down the order, to help Kris Bryant clean the table once Jay has set it. I know. That's not the way Joe Maddon thinks. But there it is.
And to get back to Tim's point after today's game, there's something we need even more: a more or less stable and regular starting lineup. Injuries and slumps have been part of the problem, but I join Tim in wondering whether, ironically, part of our problem isn't that we're just too damn deep. I wonder whether there might not be such a thing as too much talent and versatility on a roster, especially when you have a manager like Joe who loves to mix things up and do something different every day.
I have never played organized baseball, and I say this with all the humility which comes with an awareness that being even a lifelong fan doesn't necessarily mean that you have the slightest idea what you're talking about when it comes to stuff like this. But maybe at least part of the problem when a team this talented has trouble with situational hitting is that you don't get much practice or mental preparation for it when you're hitting in a batting order not necessarily designed with situational hitting in mind, and which varies so much from day to day, and above all when the job you're being asked to do at the plate isn't the same today as it was yesterday or might be tomorrow.
Especially now that Schwarbs is down here at Iowa and there's a place for Jay in the lineup, I wonder whether the Cubs might hit better if Jay was leading off every day, maybe with Rizzo hitting third every day and Bryant hitting cleanup every day and Ian Happ hitting fifth every day. And while we're at it, I wonder if the Cubs might not do better if Addison Russell, whose power isn't really needed in the lineup and one of whose frequent and costly errors at short cost us another game today, wasn't made a utility infielder and Javy Baez became our regular shortstop.