Cubs

Theo Epstein knows what Cubs are up against vs. Indians skipper Terry Francona

Theo Epstein knows what Cubs are up against vs. Indians skipper Terry Francona

CLEVELAND — While his belief in statistical analysis has gained notoriety with the non-traditional usage of reliever Andrew Miller this postseason, Terry Francona has always gone against conventional baseball wisdom.

Since his days in Philadelphia, the Cleveland Indians manager has never been afraid to trust the numbers in order to find an edge that might help his team. Francona’s shrewd style, one he’s most certainly honed over the years, has come into focus this October for the willingness to employ his best reliever far earlier than most managers traditionally would ever imagine. Even though his decisions have had a significant impact on the Indians’ fortunes, the club’s veteran manager likes to downplay his role in an aw-shucks manner.

But he isn’t fooling his former boss. As the Cubs began their first World Series appearance in 71 years on Tuesday night, the team’s president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein, knew his old Boston Red Sox manager would undoubtedly have a few unconventional ideas in store.

“Tito has always been great at blending the numbers with his gut and his knowledge of the game and the same thing he’s doing now,” Epstein said. “Back when he was with the Red Sox, he always took his managerial game to another level in the postseason. He was willing to be assertive in situations where maybe he wouldn’t have over the grind of the regular season and be very decisive and very proactive.”

Francona’s progressive use of Miller has become a focal point as the situations in which managers utilize their key relievers has been a talking point among analysts for several years now. Whereas the majority of managers normally save their top relievers for last, analysts believe the best skippers don’t hesitate to use theirs in the highest-leverage of situations.

So when Francona trotted Miller out in the fifth inning of Game 1 of the American League Divisional Series on Oct. 6 only two days after Baltimore’s Buck Showalter didn’t use Cy Young candidate Zack Britton in a wild-card loss, the national conversation gained steam.

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But this isn’t Francona’s first foray into making decisions based on analysis. He used to write down the splits of batters and pitchers on the back of lineup cards when he managed the Phillies from 1997 to 2000. Then he added a computer into the mix when he made decisions as the Oakland A’s bench coach in 2003, and it grew from there. Not only did he spend eight seasons with Epstein in Boston, Francona now has one of baseball’s largest analytical front offices as his disposal. That has resulted in a number of decisions the old guard might find eye-opening.

Consider that Francona used the slow-footed Carlos Santana in the leadoff spot 85 times this season even as his own front office thought the Indians might be losing too much offense. Cleveland also became the first team since the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals to lead the majors in both offensive and pitching platoon advantage.

Even though he’s unconventional, Francona’s players trust his decisions.

“He does a great job of putting us in the best situations possible,” outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall said earlier this postseason. Of Chisenhall’s 418 plate appearances, 366 (87.5 percent) came versus right-handed pitchers, against whom he has a .784 OPS. Chisenhall has a .642 OPS against left-handers.

But it’s more than just giving his players an edge that has earned Francona their trust. Miller said it's his ability to communicate the basis for decisions that helps players better understand.

“It’s all about finding a way to communicate that information in a way that players can use it,” Miller said. “I think if you throw a bunch of numbers at us that we don’t understand, it doesn’t do us any good. But when we have a manager like Tito who is almost translating that as it gets to us and he communicates well with guys ... whatever it is, he’s just a natural when it comes to that and we’re thankful we have him because he’s really good at that.”

As Epstein pointed out, Francona seems to improve his decision-making in the postseason. He doesn’t hesitate to give his starting pitcher a quick hook, nor is he afraid to use his best reliever in the fifth inning.

“Just a fantastic postseason manager and he’s done that same thing here in this postseason,” Epstein said. “We know what we’re up against.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.