Despite their World Series Game 5 win, the Cubs came under fire Monday morning for their lack of hustle. On Mike & Mike ESPN Radio, Mike Greenberg commented that the Cubs seem to be lacking hustle, as evidenced by slow home-plate-to-first-base times by Jorge Soler on his Game 3 triple and Anthony Rizzo on his Game 5 double. Soler assumed a fly out or foul ball, and Rizzo assumed a go-ahead home run. Buster Olney added, “It’s interesting you say that, because I had a conversation with one of the veterans in this World Series…and that’s exactly what he said. ‘This is the World Series, how can that happen? It’s a different generation.’”
That’s right, this is the World Series, the biggest baseball stage, the postseason when even average fans tune in to watch and learn from some of the best players in the game. In today’s baseball market worth billions, where players in their late teens and early twenties are paid 10 or more times the average American salary, maybe a lapse in hustle or a hard 90-time is acceptable, if not necessary, during the regular season of 162 games in order to avoid injury or excessive exhaustion. You wouldn’t want your star player pulling a hamstring on a routine infield groundball in August, would you? Of course not. But c’mon, this is the World Series! Most of these players have never played for higher stakes. Is the “lack of hustle” a generational problem? What ever happened to the commitment Joe DiMaggio had to playing hard just in case someone was watching for the first or last time?
Your organization hasn’t won a title in 108 years. Why wouldn’t you approach every play as if it was the last? You’d think they would in the World Series; especially given Game 5 could have been the last. Greenberg and Olney failed to even mention Javier Baez’s Game 5, second-inning strikeout where he refused to run to first base on a dropped third strike, looking increasingly frustrated with his World Series offense (2 for 18 with 7 strikeouts, and 16 runners left on base after that at bat).
Let’s take a look at some numbers by analyzing the Win Expectancy (WE) for the Cubs before and after each of these three plays (Soler’s triple, Baez’s strikeout, and Rizzo’s double) to show the importance of maximizing every opportunity and play. These three players were caught up in the moment and took things for granted on the biggest stage of their sport, a time when small mental errors could make the ultimate difference in winning a game and the championship. We’ll also look at the WE if each play had ended with a different outcome. All WE are obtained from The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin.
Jorge Soler (Age 24)
Game 3, Series tied 1-1
Bottom 7th, Cubs trailing 1-0 with 2 outs
Triple to right field
WE before at bat: 29.1%
WE after triple: 35.0%
WE after next batter ends inning 26.5%
For the sake of this article, let’s assume (which is assuming a lot with an inside-the-park home run) Soler runs hard out of the batter’s box and rounds the bases for an inside-the-park home run, tying the game. The WE for the Cubs would have jumped to 52.2%, a major swing (nearly double) from where that inning ended. The Cubs lost that game 1-0 to give the Indians a 2-1 series lead.
Javier Baez (Age 23)
Game 5, Indians leading series 3-1, Cubs one loss from elimination
Bottom 2nd, Cubs trailing 1-0 with 2 outs and a runner on 1st
Strikeout, dropped third strike (ball in dirt), Baez does not run to 1st base
WE before at bat: 41.9%
WE after strikeout: 39.4%
Again, for the sake of this article, let’s assume Baez runs hard to first on the dropped third strike and reaches base, which rarely ever happens in Major League Baseball. However, this is the World Series and Game 5 is an elimination game. You never know what can happen. Though the data for the number of baserunners reaching on a dropped third strike isn’t available, such instance would be scored with either a passed ball or wild pitch on the play (a battery error). Take a look at the number of passed balls and wild pitches in MLB over the past 10 seasons, as provided by Baseball Reference.
|Year||Passed Ball (per game)||Wild Pitch (per game)|
A catcher is scored with a passed ball on average every 14-15 games, while a pitcher is scored with a wild pitch on average every third game. If anyone can provide data for the number of times a batter has reached base on a dropped third strike, it would only strengthen the claim that Baez’s chances of reaching base were slim. Regardless, remember it’s an elimination game in the World Series. For the sake of proving a point, let’s look at the scenarios if Baez had reached base.
The ball did skip quite a distance from catcher Robert Perez, so let’s take a look at WE if Baez reached first, leaving the Cubs with runners on first and second with 2 outs: 44.1%.
How about if Roberto Perez threw the ball away into right field, causing a 1st and 3rd situation (let’s note that catcher errors are also very rare): 45%.
Even though Baez reaching first base on a dropped third strike (which was far from guaranteed by running) would have only added about 5-6% to the Cubs WE, there is no excuse for Baez to have a lapse of effort and allow Perez an easy, no-pressure throw to first base because there was no runner hustling down the line. At the very least, run hard and make it look good for the millions of people watching. Not to mention the thousands of people who spent a week’s wage on tickets to Wrigley. They, along with your teammates, want to see you running to first base instead of walking back to the dugout.
Instead, the Cubs were left with their two weakest hitters (David Ross and Jon Lester) to lead off the next inning, which resulted in a 1-2-3 inning for Indians starting pitcher Trevor Bauer, who took a 1-0 lead into the fourth inning.
Anthony Rizzo (Age 27)
Game 5, Indians leading series 3-1, Cubs one loss from elimination
Bottom 4th, game tied 1-1, 0 outs, first batter after Kris Bryant game-tying home run
Double to right field
WE before at bat (after Bryant home run): 56.3%
WE after double: 63.4%
The back-to-back extra-base hits certainly turned the momentum of the game in the Cubs’ favor. Two batters (Bryant and Rizzo) increased the Cubs’ WE from 43.7% to 63.4%, a major increase in a game they eventually won 3-2 to force a trip back to Cleveland for Game 6.
A better throw from right field would have made a very close play at second base, so let’s look at the WE for the Cubs had Rizzo been thrown out at second base on his hit off the right-field ivy: 53.4%. His lack of hustle from home plate to first base, as he admired what he thought was a go-ahead home run, could have cost the Cubs 10% on their WE.
There is certainly no guarantee that any individual exertion of hustle will lead to a different outcome in a baseball game. Running out a groundball will not guarantee an infield hit, but it puts pressure on the fielder to make a clean play. Running hard on a fly ball has no measurable effect on whether a fielder will catch it or not, but it puts the runner in the best possible position to advance an extra base on a rare dropped ball. Running hard to first base after a dropped third strike does not make a difference in the outcome of the play 99% of the time, and it certainly doesn’t change the 0-for-1 with a strikeout in the box score. But it puts pressure on the catcher to retrieve the ball in a clean manner and make an accurate throw to first base. Let’s not forget that hustle is the right thing to do. It’s more about the precedent, not the result. It’s about the example we want MLB players on the biggest stage to set for younger players worldwide. DiMaggio likely wouldn’t recognize some aspects of today’s game. He, like many other players, never took anything for granted. Despite the fact that Soler and Rizzo still ended up with extra-base hits, and Baez most likely would have been thrown out at first base anyway, shouldn’t we hope that on this kind of stage the very best will play the game to its absolute potential?
I am a current independent minor league baseball player for the New Britain Bees (CT) in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. I played my college baseball at Harvard, where I graduated in 2015.