Entering Sunday afternoon’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Chicago Cubs stood at 56-77. While not literally mathematically eliminated from the postseason, the Cubs’ playoff odds rounded to 0.0% and even the most optimistic of Cubs loyalist was fully aware that the season was a lost cause for them.
At the risk of sounding beyond insufferable, I do not remember the feeling of my team, in early September, being de facto eliminated from Major League Baseball postseason contention, but I do remember rooting for some absolutely godawful NFL teams that stumbled to the finish line–St. Louis ought never forget that it once experienced a five-year stretch in which the 3-13 Rams were the second-best Rams team of that half-decade. And in those scenarios, when your team is effectively done, you still want to see your team win as a matter of principle. You find little moments to enjoy. Cool things will still happen that, even if the game doesn’t “matter” from a playoff perspective, will give you joy.
Marcus Stroman, the prized free agent acquisition of the 2021-22 offseason for the Cubs, pitched brilliantly against the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon, but Miles Mikolas punched back and kept the game even at zero runs apiece entering the bottom of the eighth inning. The Cubs went to left-handed relief pitcher Brandon Hughes, who successfully retired Andrew Knizner before surrendering a double to switch-hitter Tommy Edman. The next batter, required by baseball rules to be faced by Hughes, was scheduled to be left-handed outfielder Lars Nootbaar. But everybody in the world knew who was actually going to be batting.
Albert Pujols is arguably more qualified to bat against left-handed pitchers than any other non-regular starter in baseball. While Pujols has hit righties better as the season has progressed, his bread-and-butter in his resurgent 2022 has been hitting southpaws, and one of the quiet heroes in this quest has been the three-batter minimum; prior to it, the Cubs would have assuredly substituted a right-handed pitcher (and the Cardinals likely would have countered by pinch-hitting Dylan Carlson).
But the game scenario made issuing an intentional walk, typically the bane of the existence of statistically-oriented types, relatively reasonable. With Edman on second base, putting a runner at first (again, by the time Pujols arrived it would have likely been Carlson, or at least somebody faster than Pujols) would set up force outs and potential double plays at both second and third base. It would have brought up Brendan Donovan, a lefty who has been better against left-handed pitching. And it would have spared the Cubs the ignominy of surrendering a go-ahead run against Albert Pujols in the Cardinals legend’s final at-bat against his team’s biggest rival.
Although second-guessing is often the nature of baseball analysis, those who have criticized Cubs manager David Ross for not walking Pujols, which included the Cardinals’ television broadcasting booth, were on top it from the beginning. It’s a fair criticism to levy. But at the same time, I am here to rush to David Ross’s defense.
First of all, there is one critical detail that is often lost in the shuffle of the decision not to walk Albert Pujols–it was the eighth inning, not the ninth. Why this matters is that while the run represented by Tommy Edman on second base is the high-profile run, the one that would be represented by Albert Pujols/a pinch-runner at first base was still very much relevant. In the ninth inning or extra innings, the run was irrelevant, but had a Brendan Donovan double brought home two runs, this would have had a material impact on the Cubs’ chances of victory, as it is by definition easier to score one run in the top of the ninth inning than to score two.
The other factor is the batter beyond Brendan Donovan. While putting runners on first and second certainly increases the chances of a double play, it was hardly the likeliest outcome. Although Brendan Donovan does hit ground balls at a decently high rate, he is a perfectly competent runner (MLB’s Statcast data has him in the 49th percentile) and he would be batting, likely, with two above-average runners, Tommy Edman and Dylan Carlson (85th and 72nd percentile, respectively), in front of him. So let’s say, Brendan Donovan hits a moderate ground ball which allows the Cubs to retire Carlson but not Donovan, at which point there are suddenly runners on the corners for the presumptive National League MVP, Paul Goldschmidt. We know, of course, that Paul Goldschmidt didn’t get a hit in the eighth inning, but unlike most of the Pujols second-guessing, this would be purely evaluating on hindsight–as good as Albert Pujols has been in 2022, no reasonable person would claim that from a pure winning and losing perspective, he would be a preferable batter to have at the plate to Paul Goldschmidt.
But the real reason to not walk Albert Pujols for the Cubs is simple–they had a chance, in an otherwise lost season, to shut down their longtime nemesis in his final at-bat against them, in a meaningful at-bat at that. Had the Cubs shut down Albert Pujols, it would have been one of the highlights of the (admittedly, pretty lousy) season. Albert Pujols hitting a two-run bomb still isn’t as low of a point for the Cubs as the very fact that the Cubs season got lost in the first place. Walking Albert Pujols would have deprived Brandon Hughes of the opportunity to say he faced Albert Pujols, which even given the result that ensued is still going to be a pretty cool thing to say.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the Chicago Cubs owe anything to the Cardinals or to Albert Pujols’s home run pursuits. They owe it to themselves, in a season nearing a welcome conclusion, to try to craft their own moments. Had the Cubs been able to do so, they would have gone to a righty to face Albert Pujols, a thing which would have made the odds of Pujols heroics lower, and that would have been fine. Given that they were stuck with Brandon Hughes, the Cubs still did try to get Pujols out. And it didn’t work, but there was honor in trying. Even if the decision backfired, the difference between a 57-77 Chicago Cubs team and a 56-78 Chicago Cubs team is rightfully next to zero in the hearts and minds of the organization and their fans. The chance to triumph over Albert Pujols was too tempting to pass up.