Cubs

Cubs: Joe Maddon not concerned as strikeouts pile up

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Cubs: Joe Maddon not concerned as strikeouts pile up

No team in the last five years has reached the playoffs while striking out as frequently as the Cubs have so far in 2015.

That much is a cause for concern, as the Cubs entered Saturday’s tilt with Cincinnati sporting a 25 percent strikeout rate. This is a team that strikes out once every four trips to the plate, which through a traditional lens would seem to show a warning sign for the months ahead.

Lineup regulars Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero and Addison Russell all are striking out in more than 20 percent of their plate appearances. Reserves Chris Denorfia, Junior Lake and David Ross are all above 20 percent as well.

[MORE: Cubs will keep Tsuyoshi Wada in rotation after pair of rough starts]

Manager Joe Maddon, though, brushed aside any concerns about how frequently the Cubs make outs by not putting the ball in play.

“I totally disagree with the concept that all strikeouts are created equally,” Maddon said. “I don’t believe that.”

Bryant’s numbers go a long way toward explaining Maddon’s argument.

Baseball America’s former No. 1 prospect has a 29.5 percent strikeout rate in his 227 plate appearances entering Saturday. That’s the seventh-highest rate among qualified major league hitters.

But in 63 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, Bryant has walked as much (14) as he’s struck out. In 16 tries with runner on third and less than one out, Bryant has four strikeouts and 13 RBIs.

[RELATED: Joe Maddon wants Tsuyoshi Wada to hit the reset button]

Those are situations in which putting the ball in play is the No. 1 goal, and Bryant for the most part has accomplished it. He’s taken his bigger hacks and waited on his pitch more with nobody on or a runner on first — in which putting the ball in play could lead to a double play — and has 53 strikeouts in 164 of those chances.

“I’ve talked about strikeouts have to be in different buckets,” Maddon said. “They’re not always in the same bucket. For a long time the strikeout has been viewed as an out only. … Two outs nobody on, no big deal. Two outs, runner on first base, no big deal. Runner on third base nobody out, big deal. Runner on second no out, big deal.”

The same is the case for Montero, who only has one strikeout in 11 plate appearances with a runner on third and less than two out. The strikeouts, for the most part, are coming in non-crippling situations. The same can’t be said for Soler, though.

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The 23-year-old — who’s currently on the disabled list with a sprained ankle — has baseball’s third-highest strikeout rate (32.2 percent) but is striking out at a higher rate with runners in scoring position (50 percent in 56 PA). He’s struck out five times with a runner on third and less than two out, but has a 30 percent strikeout rate with nobody on base.

Outside of Soler, though, members of Cubs’ lineup have been solid at putting the ball in play when they need to. Maddon attributed that to a good understanding of when a strikeout is fine and when it’s not.

“I definitely see them involved in those at-bats when there’s runners in scoring position,” Maddon said. “It doesn’t always work, but I can definitely see the mental involvement. I do appreciate that.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”