Sports Nut

Aroldis Chapman and the Cost of Risk Aversion

How Joe Maddon’s fear of losing Game 6 could cost the Cubs in Game 7.

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon leaves the field after relieving Jake Arrieta during the sixth inning in Game 6 of the 2016 World Series on Tuesday.

Elsa/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in FanGraphs.

In order to keep their season alive, the Chicago Cubs had to win Game 6. They won Game 6. On Wednesday night, they play for all the marbles, with one more win bringing the franchise their first championship in 108 years. From that perspective, Tuesday’s game was a success. Full stop.

But that perspective is a particularly binary view of the world, with only good and bad outcomes, and no room for the shades of gray that make up real life. In this world, things can be somewhat good, or very good, or painfully awful, or just kind of not great. In this world, we have not two possible outcomes but thousands of them, with differing levels of magnitude. And from a perspective that accounts for the different magnitudes of outcomes, this Cubs win isn’t quite as great as it could have been. This win came with a cost, and probably unnecessarily so.

Entering the bottom of the seventh inning, the Cubs led 7–2, giving them nine outs to keep the Cleveland Indians from scoring more than four runs. History tells us that teams in this situation go on to win 96.7 percent of the time. But that 3.3 percent is not a comfortable 3.3 percent when that 1-in-30 chance means your season ends. Joe Maddon wanted to drive that number down to zero percent, so he had Aroldis Chapman getting loose in case Cleveland started to rally.

Mike Montgomery got Rajai Davis out to lead off the inning. Eight outs to go, win expectancy up to 97.6 percent. But then he walked Roberto Perez, putting it back to 96.5 percent, and Chapman started to throw. Carlos Santana flied out. Seven outs to go, win expectancy at 97.8 percent. Jason Kipnis singled: 96.9 percent. With Francisco Lindor and Mike Napoli due up next, Maddon didn’t want to entrust his second-best lefty with the responsibility of getting out the team’s two middle-of-the-order righties. So in came Chapman, with seven outs to go, protecting a five-run lead.

For Maddon, and all the other new-school managers this postseason, this has been the decision. Dave Roberts called on Kenley Jansen for a four-out save in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, despite his team leading 4–0, and left Jansen in to pitch the ninth even after the team pushed its lead to 6–0. Cody Allen pitched the ninth inning of Game 1 of the World Series even with his team up 6–0. Bullpens have been managed in a radically different way this postseason, but the strategy of doing whatever it takes to protect a lead, no matter how large, has survived the revolution.

The justification for these decisions is pretty simple: Managers are erring on the side of risk aversion, not wanting to see their inferior relievers allow a rally that forces their best relievers into tough situations when they could just use the dominating guy first and avoid the potential stress altogether. If you put Pedro Strop or Carl Edwards or Justin Grimm on the mound in the seventh inning, and Lindor and Napoli keep the inning going, you’re going to have to use Chapman anyway, and now the game will be wildly different. Slam the door, win today, and figure out tomorrow tomorrow.

But that’s the binary worldview again. That doesn’t allow for there to be different levels of useful wins, or for what happens today to have a real impact on what happens tomorrow. In the world we’re actually in, where shades exist, this was about as great of a loss as Cleveland could hope for, because the Cubs gave up their best kind of win in order to secure a slightly more certain lesser win.

For the Tribe, they lost, but they lost without throwing Andrew Miller or Cody Allen. They didn’t even throw Bryan Shaw. By getting down big early, Terry Francona was able to lose with his JV pitchers. And now, in the real winner-takes-all game, he’ll have his three best relief arms completely fresh and ready to go.

Joe Maddon could have had that, too. Had he resisted the urge to use Chapman to protect a five-run lead, he could have had the only reliever he really trusts right now completely rested for Game 7. Instead, Chapman threw 20 pitches on Tuesday night, and warmed up three times—once to come in, and twice between innings—while recording five outs. Chapman will still definitely pitch in Game 7, but now, his outing will come with real uncertainty.

To be clear, we don’t know what pitching in Game 6 will do to Chapman’s effectiveness or endurance in Game 7. No one does. It might not do anything. Perhaps the adrenaline provided from pitching in Game 7 of the World Series will overcome any kind of fatigue that might set in after throwing 62 pitches in the previous three days. Maybe Chapman, who has struggled with his command at times this postseason, will locate better at 99 than he would have at 102. Maybe the Cubs will crush Corey Kluber in the first inning and Chapman’s ability to work multiple innings will have no impact on the outcome whatsoever.

To pretend that this is an area where we can definitely show the precise cost being paid would be folly. But uncertainty in and of itself is a cost, and it’s one the Cubs will now pay because they also don’t know what pitching tonight will do to Chapman’s performance tomorrow. They can hope the impact is zero. They can believe that Chapman will still be Chapman, throwing gas for as long as he’s asked to throw gas. But the ability to plan on Chapman entering the game in the seventh inning, and pitching you all the way through the ninth? You can’t do that anymore, because Chapman’s usage on Tuesday made his ability to do it again on Wednesday uncertain.

If they hadn’t used Chapman, the Cubs probably could have told him he was getting the last nine outs in Game 7, and prepared him to start the seventh inning, regardless of the score. That would have left only 18 outs for Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester, the team’s two best starting pitchers this year, to tag-team their way through. But I don’t know how you plan to give Chapman nine outs now, and perhaps more importantly, I don’t know how you create a plan for Game 7 that doesn’t require a reasonable contingency if Chapman looks diminished when he enters. Now, you need a Plan B.

And so now, Maddon might have to choose which reliever he might trust to pick Chapman up if the workload proves to be an issue, and he’ll either have to pick from among the pitchers he didn’t trust with a five-run lead in Game 6, or perhaps one of the starters-available-out-of-the-pen that could have otherwise been used before Chapman took the mound. If Maddon had a two-days-rest Chapman tomorrow, there would be little harm in throwing both Jon Lester and John Lackey in relief of Kyle Hendricks, allowing him to remove Hendricks from the game early if need be.

Now, though, at least one of those two is probably hanging back in reserve. The Cubs pitching staff in Game 7 could have been almost ideal, with the team capable of getting multiple innings from four really good pitchers, locking out all the pitchers that Maddon doesn’t trust from a game where Cleveland will almost certainly rely only on Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and maybe Bryan Shaw.

But now, the Cubs will likely have to extend Hendricks longer, as the bridge to Chapman is less secure, and the team can’t be as confident that Chapman will be the lockdown relief ace they acquired him to be. And the Cleveland blueprint is clear; if they have the lead after four innings, they’re going to make the Cubs score the tying run against Andrew Miller. Any hole Hendricks might dig in the third or fourth inning could end up being the Cubs’ grave.

None of this is certain, of course. Because it’s baseball, there’s a good chance that none of this will matter, and the outcome of Game 7 will be determined by something completely unrelated to the Cubs’ reliever usage in Game 6.

But on Tuesday night, Joe Maddon chose to give into the fear of the 3 percent, believing that his secondary relievers weren’t capable of holding a five-run lead and not believing in his offense to help them win the game back even if they did. He managed not to lose Game 6 instead of managing to win Game 7 at a point in which Game 7 was pretty close to already secure. The emotional desire to not even flirt with blowing a lead, ending the team’s season in the process, overcame the rational reality that the game was mostly already over.

So Aroldis Chapman got five outs that the other Cubs relievers probably could have gotten. Those outs may well have been borrowed from Game 7, in a situation where the Cubs might really be able to use a full-strength Chapman on the mound. But they won’t have that, because when push came to shove, Joe Maddon only trusts one of his relievers right now.

For his sake, I hope he doesn’t need that one reliever to bail him out on Wednesday.

Check out FanGraphs for more World Series analysis, plus a live blog of Game 7.