The corpse on the dissecting table

As a Cubs fan, 2008 was the most enjoyable and rewarding regular season in memory. The team played great ball all year long, easily looking like the most talented team to ever reside in Wrigley Field. For that very reason, 2008 was the most frustrating and vexing postseason of them all.

The debacle

Dammit, it really looked like this could be their year. They had great hitting, solid starting pitching and as long as they played up to their potential they had an excellent shot to at least win their first pennant in 63 years. Playing up to their potential, however, is the last thing they did this October.

I can live with them losing. Hell, I’m an old hand at seeing that. What I can’t abide is how they lost. They choked, and not just a little bit, either. That was about as bad a postseason performance by any baseball team I’ve ever seen. There’s a crucial difference between losing and choking. Losing is a result. Choking is a process. Choking is when the pressure of the situation gets to you, and you become so self-conscious you forget how to do what’s normally routine.

Choking is when your starting pitcher in the first game ties a career high for most walks in a game with seven—a total he hadn’t reached for eight years (and that was in his first full season). Choking is when every single infielder makes an error in the same game. (When was the last time you saw that happen in any MLB game, let alone in the postseason?)

The pitchers and fielders provided the most obvious examples of choking, but it affected their hitters as well. In 46 plate appearances with runners on base, they had more strikeouts than hits. After leading the league in walks in the regular season, Chicago managed only three in those situations (one was intentional). Their overall AVG/OBP/SLG line with runners on was .209/.261/.326—over 50 points lower than Duane Kuiper‘s career OPS.

Those rare occasions they got hits with runners on came when they mattered least, just as you’d expect in a choke. They got four hits (including two doubles) and a walk in nine plate appearances in the final innings of Game 2. By that time they were already down by seven runs. Prior to that they had 17 straight hitless at-bats with runners on. Aside from their meaningless late-inning outburtst, they were .143/.189/.286 when it mattered. They were so punchless they couldn’t win a sissy slap fight with the Smurfs on Ice.

This is not to take anything away from the Dodgers. They played as well down the stretch this season as could be reasonably hoped and took advantage of their opportunities in the NLDS. They didn’t really need to play well to beat the Cubs though.

The previous debacle

As a Cubs fan, you’d like to tell yourself it was just a one-time thing, and that they can always come back next year. However, they choked and were swept in last year’s NLDS in Arizona. Soriano and Ramirez both flailed aimlessly at pitches. Starting pitcher Ted Lilly provided the perfect visual image for this club when he slammed his glove on the mound after allowing a homer in Game 2.

Perhaps the most memorable performance came from Game 3 starter Rich Hill. The best way to explain the awkwardness of watching him pitch is with an analogy. Have you ever seen the Far Side cartoon where some cows are grazing, only to have one cow spurt her head up and shockingly announce “Hey! This stuff is grass! We’ve been eating grass!” That was Hill in the 2007 NLDS. “Whoah! I’m throwing sphere! How’d that happen!”

They Cubs have dropped 13 of their last 14 postseason series, but they’ve never looked as utterly inept as the last two. For example, they actually fought back from an early deficit in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS. It took a Herculean performance by Steve Garvey to overcome them in the 1984 NLCS. Those teams fell, but they didn’t crumble like a house of cards. A meek tap on the shoulder would be enough to stop the 2007-8 Cub postseason jugger-nots.

With repeated and unprecedented choke jobs, you have to wonder what the heck is going on. From a perfectly sabermetric point of view, the last two postseasons can be shrugged off as a quirk of sample size. To hell with the perfectly sabermetric point of view. Again, it’s the process, not the result, that sets off the alarm bells.

Managing the debacle

It’s unduly simplistic to claim a sole cause for the 2007-8 shortcomings, but some underlying causes can be rooted out. A key one revolves around the decisions and actions of the team’s manager, Lou Piniella.

During a panel discussion at this summer’s SABR convention, someone asked Cleveland Indians GM Mark Shapiro what are the most important traits in a manager. Shapiro noted the ability to prioritize is among the central abilities for any field general. All clubhouses have 40-50 fires that need to be put out, but a manager can only handle a handful at a time.

For the last two years, Lou Piniella has been consistent in his priorities heading into the postseason. He wants his team to be prepared physically. This year, he rested several starters and largely punted a few games outright.

He let bullpen potluck do all the pitching in the final day of the 2008 season. Seven men pitched, several of whom didn’t even make the postseason roster, in order to keep his starters healthy. He benched several of his hitters in the days leading up to the playoffs, most notably one rain-soaked day in Shea Stadium when he rested almost all of his main bats. Similarly, at the very end of 2007, he approached the end of a season as a way to prepare his pitchers for the beginning of the playoffs.

There’s nothing inherently wrong in this. Several other managers have done it over the years, without adverse affect. But that’s an oddity of the human species. You can’t treat the inner workings of the human mind in a reductionist manner. It’s not as simple as an abacus. Actions that impact one group one way can cause another bunch to react in a very different manner.

Regardless, for two straight years Piniella has prioritized physical preparation for his team. Both times the playoffs made painfully obvious that the Cubs sorely needed better mental preparation. What’s more, his decision to prioritize physical preparation has likely helped cause their mental shortcomings.

The decision to treat players differently because the postseason is coming up sends the team some signals. First, it loudly pronounces to the players that the upcoming games are fundamentally different from everything they’ve experienced before. Second, it implies that they can’t be trusted to win unless they approach this somehow differently.

If you think the team can just keep playing as they have all year and win, there’s no need for any fancy adjusts on the verge of the postseason. Instead, these notions can make a team self-conscious. That’s the single worst thing that can happen to a team. If you have to think about what you’re doing, it won’t be done properly. It should come naturally.

To make an odd analogy, I once asked my mother where the “E” key is on a typewriter. She’s been a secretary most of her adult life and can type over 100 words a minute. Because I made her think, she was caught flatfooted and had to go over all the keys, finger-by-finger, in her mind before answering. That’s Piniella’s Cubs in the playoffs.

What really makes me think Piniella has been the catalyst for the consecutive debacles is how it began. If he had been content to merely overmanage the end of the regular season, perhaps everything would’ve worked out alright. But no, his most grievous bit of inadvertent self-consciousness raising came in Game 1 of the 2007 NLDS.

He only trusted three starting pitchers heading into the postseason: Carlos Zambrano, Lilly and Hill. So he decided to go with three starters and use Zambrano on short rest if need be for Game 4. Since Zambrano had minimal experience with short rest, Piniella decided that no matter what, he would pull him early in Game 1 so he’d been well rested in Game 4.

It’s hard to underestimate what a bad move this was. Piniella thought a bird in the bush was worth as much as one in hand. Zambrano pitched fantastically, allowing only one run in six innings. Aside from a gopher ball, no one had made it past first base since the first inning. The Cubs had just tied the game 1-1, and Zambrano had only thrown 85 pitches. Piniella yanked him anyway.

All it served to do was give the D-backs a better chance to win the game (which they did), increase the pressure on the rest of the Cubs, and make them that much more self-conscious.

It’s funny because the Cubs were a veteran team, and many of their players had experience success in the postseason. Derrek Lee won a title with the 2003 Marlins. Ted Lilly pitched brilliantly for Oakland in the 2003 ALDS.

However, psychology can be funny, and the mentality of a crowd can be the most difficult of all to penetrate. You take your cues in part from those around you. Seeing a room full of comrades self-consciously flail at the same time can leave a mark on you. If it’s in a pressure situation, the experience can be heightened further.

These things can gain momentum. Stonewall Jackson once noted that repeated victory will make an army invincible. He meant they’d have more faith in themselves, come to expect victory, and be willing to endure greater costs to achieve their goals than a less proven unit would.

The converse is also true. Repeated loss can make a bunch expect defeat. When the wheels start coming off, the result can be a ghastly sight. You see it happen fairly regularly in football. Far more Super Bowls have turned into utter routs than anyone would reasonably expect based on the talent at hand.

In those first six innings of the 2007 NLDS, the Cubs showed no signs of choking. Since then, that’s all they’ve done. Since Zambrano left that game, they’ve been outscored 35-11. They’ve led for barely three innings. Their five starting pitchers have barely averaged four innings a game, with a 2.123 WHIP, and 7.89 ERA. They haven’t had a game score of 50, and barely half their pitches have been strikes.

As bad as their hitters looked in the clutch in 2008, they were even worse in 2007. In the final two games, they went 3-for-31 with 10 strikeouts and five double plays with runners on. In the 48 innings since Zambrano’s early yank, their hitters have had 83 plate appearances with runners on base and gone .160/.241/.293 in that spell.

This isn’t all Piniella’s fault. The players have to take ownership for their mammoth inability to play up to their potential when they most need to. Some, most notably Alfonso Soriano, have a longstanding tradition of playing poorly in October. He looked so lost with the Yanks in their Octobers that they team thought about trading him even before they new they could land A-Rod with him.

Still, Piniella’s actions have worsened the situation. Instead of minimizing the damage, he’s maximized it. In a recent column, I noted that if he won a pennant with the Cubs, he’d waltz into Cooperstown. If that doesn’t happen, he’ll have his place in the Hall of Very Good Managers.

Future debacles?

In the past you could always tell yourself, “well, maybe they can get better and have a chance.” This team isn’t getting better. If they were ever going to have a year, it was this one. That doesn’t mean their window has closed. They could make the playoffs with fewer wins next year. The human mind and crowd mentality remain strange things. One laugher of a game could allow them to right their ship and remind them they can play up to their potential.

But how can you have any faith in this bunch in the postseason? They’ve had two consecutive Octobers when they wet their pants every time they stood on the field. The onus is on them to prove they have the mental fortitude to make their physical gifts worth a damn.

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