Cubs

Javier Báez sets a screen on DJ LeMahieu in Sunday's win over Rockies

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USA TODAY

Javier Báez sets a screen on DJ LeMahieu in Sunday's win over Rockies

It's no secret that Javier Báez is a wizard defensively. While he has yet to win a Gold Glove, Báez is a human-highlight reel, consistently making ridiculous plays on defense for the Cubs.

Báez took his defense to the next-level in Sunday's win over the Rockies. With Nolan Arenado at the plate, Báez started standing in front of LeMahieu, blocking the latter's vision of Victor Caratini's signs for pitcher José Quintana.

Báez would return to a more "natural" shortstop position before each pitch, eventually returning to block the 6-foot-4 LeMahieu's vision. The two players got into a semi-heated discussion over Báez's tactic, with second-base umpire Vic Carapazza stepping in to intervene. 

After the game, Báez explained the situation to reporters. The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and cubs.com each had a version of the story.

"I don't know if it was the pitch or the location, but they were doing something," Baez said. "I'm 100 percent sure. 

"We got to protect our team, our pitchers. This game is hard enough. If they're going to do it, don't do it to our face, because we're going to do something about it."

While LeMahieu denied stealing the Cubs' signs Sunday night, Báez said LeMahieu told him to "change the signs" at one point.

"Right after the strikeout, I said to the outfield, 'You see the difference when they don't know the signs?'" Baez said. "And then [LeMahieu] said something. … We won the game, and the series."

While it is almost impossible to tell if LeMahieu was actually stealing signs, Báez's team surely appreciates his action.

"That was old-school right there,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “They’re trying to give the location or signs, and Javy’s blocking. I loved it. I’ve never seen that before."

 

Wrapping up a wacky week in Chicago baseball

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USA TODAY

Wrapping up a wacky week in Chicago baseball

Welcome to “Who Knew?”, a weekly roundup of fun statistical oddities and fun facts in Chicago Baseball. Every Monday, I'll dig into the previous week’s games (Monday-Sunday) to present a collection of things you may not have noticed and answers to questions you may have never thought to ask.   Let’s get started!

Double Digit Delight

Monday at Oakland, Reynaldo López recorded ten punchouts, the first 10+ K game by a White Sox pitcher this season. Prior to López, the last Sox hurler to reach double-digits was Lucas Giolito back on Sept. 3, 2016 against the Rays.

So, as it stands, the last two White Sox 10+ K games were by pitchers acquired in the same Dec. 7, 2016 trade:

Reynaldo López, Lucas Giolito & Dane Dunning acquired from Nationals for Adam Eaton.

Also interesting about the López & Giolito games – each of the last two 10+ K games by White Sox pitchers have been by righties. Prior to Giolito, each of the Sox’ previous 48 10+ K games had been by southpaws (all by Sale, Danks, Quintana and Rodón). The previous 10+ K game by a White Sox righty had been Jake Peavy April 14, 2013.

(Un)Lucky Seven?

Tuesday at Wrigley Field, Tyler Chatwood posted a rare statline:

4.2 IP, one hit, two runs, seven walks, seven strikeouts.

It was a fairly good job of damage control, all things considered. And it was the first time a Cubs pitcher posted seven-plus walks and seven-plus strikeouts since Kerry Wood did it twice – two months apart – in 2001. 

But Chatwood did it while allowing only one hit. The last time a Cubs pitcher allowed seven-plus walks and seven-plus strikeouts with one or fewer hits allowed? 

Burt Hooton’s no-hitter (with seven walks and seven strikeouts) April 16, 1972.

Go On, Yoán

Wednesday was another wild one at the Oakland Coliseum. The White Sox used 10 pitchers in a game for the first time in their 118-year history, but let’s focus on Yoán Moncada.

It was his second game in a row with a home run and a stolen base, something no White Sox player had accomplished two games in a row since Ray Durham in September 1998.

Furthermore, Moncada’s home run on Wednesday was a grand alam.  At age 22 years, 326 days, he is the youngest Sox player to hit a 4-run 4-bagger since Kevin Bell (20 years, 345 days) on June 22, 1976. But since Bell’s was an inside-the-park home run (and the first homer of his career), you could go even further back and say Moncada is the youngest Sox player to hit a grand slam over the fence since Carlos May (age 21 years, 16 days) on June 2, 1969.

Overall, he’s the fifth youngest player in White Sox history to hit a grand slam.

20 years, 198 days Johnny Callison September 26, 1959 at Detroit
20 years, 345 days        Kevin Bell   June 22, 1976 at Kansas City
21 years, 16 days   Carlos May    June 2, 1969 at Boston
22 years, 115 days      Bibb Falk May 22, 1921 vs Washington
22 years, 326 days Yoán Moncada April 18, 2018 at Oakland
22 years, 331 days    Carlos Lee May 17, 1999 vs Cleveland (off Bartolo Colón!)

Double Duty

Friday, James Shields started the game after relieving in the 14th inning of the previous game.

He was the first White Sox pitcher to start:

  • after relieving the previous game since Matt Albers on July 23, 2016
  • after relieving and finishing the previous game since Gene Nelson April 29, 1986
  • after relieving the previous game with a decision in both since Tom Seaver May 9, 1984

       (Seaver earned a Win in the completion of a 25 inning marathon prior to his win in the May 9 start) 

Thanks to STATS LLC for the Nelson/Seaver notes.

Big start for Báez

166 players have at least 15 hits this season (entering Monday, April 23).

Of those 166, here are the highest percentage of extra-base hits:

Player Hits Extra Base Hits Percent
Javier Báez 21 15 71.4 percent
A.J. Pollock  20  14 70 percent
Eric Thames  15 10 66.7 percent
Gregory Polanco      15 10 66.7 percent
Didi Gregorius  22 14 63.6 percent

The extra-base output for Báez isn’t just confined to home runs. He has seven home runs and three triples through the Cubs’ first 19 games this season.

Through the team’s first 19 games of a season:

He’s the first Cub to have three triples and three home runs since Ernie Banks (three of each) in 1964

He’s the first Cub to have three triples and six home runs since Andy Pafko (three triples, six home runs) in 1951

He’s the ONLY Cub to have three triples and seven home runs since at least 1900!

His 23 RBI is the highest total by a Cub since Billy Williams (26) in 1970

Two of a kind

On Sunday, José Quintana became the first Colombian-born pitcher to reach 1,000 career strikeouts. Next to do it will most likely be the Braves’ Julio Teherán.  But take a minute to compare the two pitchers:

José Quintana 1,004 strikeouts 59 career wins Career 3.60 ERA MLB Debut: May 7, 2012
Julio Teherán 887 strikeouts 59 career wins Career 3.60 ERA MLB Debut: May 7, 2011

Going Forward

The Cubs are 10-9 this season and have been 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, and 9-9.  Back in 2011, they continued the pattern all the way to 10-10.

That’s as far as they have ever gone, and they have been in the National League since 1876.  We’ll keep our eyes out for that. 

Until next week…

Is Albert Almora Jr. the answer for Cubs at leadoff?

Is Albert Almora Jr. the answer for Cubs at leadoff?

Can Albert Almora Jr. fill the Dexter Fowler-sized hole atop the Cubs lineup?

Almora and Co. are set for a quick two-game series in Cleveland beginning Tuesday night, the first time the Cubs have stepped foot on Progressive Field after that epic Game 7 that ended a 108-year championship drought.

Fowler led off that game with a home run off Corey Kluber and shortly after, signed with the St. Louis Cardianls, leaving the Cubs scratching their heads for a consistent leadoff hitter since.

Kyle Schwarber was touted as "the guy" to begin 2017, but he struggled mightily, prompting an eventual trip back down to the minors that summer. Ian Happ was supposed to be "the guy" for 2018, but he's gone through similar issues and is currently reduced to a part-time role as he works on the holes in his swing with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

In between, we've seen "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" Anthony Rizzo fill the role for a few games, along with the likes of Jon Jay and Ben Zobrist, among others.

Right now, at least, the answer certainly appears to be the guy who scored the game-winning run in that Game 7.

Almora has drawn the last four starts at leadoff, during which the Cubs won three of those games against two hopeful playoff contenders (St. Louis, Colorado). He's collected a hit in each game — 8 in total — and scored 6 runs.

Oh yeah, and Almora made so many highlight-reel catches in center field over the weekend that he might've just secured the Gold Glove before May's even hit:

Almora is hitting .378 with a .911 OPS in eight starts as the Cubs' leadoff hitter this season, scoring eight runs and even drawing a few walks (3 in 40 plate appearances).

Of course, it is a small sample size still — he entered Sunday's game hitting .419 as a leadoff hitter before going 1-for-6 in the finale in Colorado, meaning one bad game would drastically change those numbers.

But Almora is also doing this against right-handed pitching recently — with three of these last four starts coming against righties (all Cubs wins) — so the past week is yet another example that the Cubs' 24-year-old centerfielder is flashing serious signs of development.

As good as he's been recently, Almora still probably isn't the answer at leadoff long-term for the Cubs.

He's seeing just 3.32 pitches per plate appearance, ranking 346th out of 355 MLB hitters in 2018. That's a far cry from Fowler's 2016 season, when he ranked 4th in baseball in pitches seen per plate appearance, coming in just behind Mike Trout and just ahead of Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt.

When any guy the Cubs throw out as the leadoff hitter is on a hot streak, the offense looks to be firing on all cylinders. But what made Fowler so great atop the order was his ability to take walks regardless of what kind of stretch he was on as a hitter.

Fowler drew a walk in 14.3 percent of his plate appearances in 2016 and boasts a 12.7 career rate. Almora is drawing a free pass 7.5 percent of his times up in 2018, and that's a jump from his 5.7 percent career rate.

"Dexter is an outstanding leadoff hitter," Joe Maddon said when Fowler and the Cardinals visited Wrigley Field last week. "He goes through his moments, too, when he gets hot or cold. But he knew how to do it because even when he wasn't hitting, Dexter was really good at accepting his walks.

"On top of that, he's got this effervescent personality that your team can feedoff of and he was really good about not wearing it on his sleeve when he wasn't going well. On-base percentage was normally floating around that 35 percent mark or better, even when he wasn't hitting well.

"It was nice to have him here to do that. Beyond that, he's such a wonderful teammate and in the clubhouse, he's outstanding. We have not had that stability since he's gone, but we'll figure it out."

The Cubs have scored the most regular-season runs in the National League since that last time Fowler was atop the lineup, but in that span, Cubs leadoff hitters are hitting just .247 with a .326 on-base percentage and .741 OPS.

By comparison, Fowler hit .276 with a .393 on-base percentage and .840 OPS in 2016.

Imagine the potential for this current lineup and for "Bryzzo" in RBI opportunities if the leadoff hitter was getting on base anywhere near the rate of 2016 Fowler.

Almora has just a .335 career on-base percentage and 28 walks in 493 plate appearances, including a .301 career OBP against right-handed pitchers. And that's with this recent hot stretch and a great couple months to end 2017 as the Cubs deployed him in the best situations for him to succeed.

If Almora plays every day, he will probably get overexposed at some point.

So if not Almora, then who? Happ isn't the answer at the moment given his struggles and extreme strikeout rate (43.1 percent).

Ben Zobrist would be perfect and Maddon admitted he would've led off over Almora in the finale against the Cardinals last Thursday if the veteran utility man was not dealing with a back ailment that later landed him on the DL.

Tommy La Stella is another good fit, but where would he play every day? Kyle Schwarber looks like Kyle Schwarber The Hitter again, but after the experiment as a leadoff hitter last season bombed, would anybody really want to risk a setback by inserting him in the spot again?

Jason Heyward left Colorado with a .352 on-base percentage and even though it may come at a complete shock to most Cubs fans, he could be an option to lead off if he shows consistency over a larger sample size. Javy Baez is the only Cubs hitter hotter than Almora, but even though he put together a stretch worthy of a weekly NL honor, he hasn't walked in almost two weeks and has just two unintentional free passes in the first month of the season.

So for now, it's Almora's show and deservedly so. 

But chances are, he's not the guy that's going to bring long-term stability to the Cubs' leadoff position on an everyday basis.