Cubs

Cubs see Jason Heyward's 'baseball luck' evening out

Cubs see Jason Heyward's 'baseball luck' evening out

Good luck trying to make sense of Jason Heyward's offensive struggles this season.

Heyward is a career .266 hitter with a .777 OPS, yet he sits at .236 and .620, repectively, in those marks entering play Tuesday.

Heyward is riding a quiet seven-game hitting streak in which he's raised his season average 34 points.

He was 5-for-11 against the Pittsburgh Pirates over the weekend, but he's not ready to tempt the baseball gods just yet and say his "baseball luck" is returning to normal levels.

"I'm not gonna say it's evened out yet," Heyward laughed. "But it's good to contribute."

Heyward credited his timing with improved production on the field, which has helped his hits find holes.

He had not been so lucky the first six weeks or so of the season when hard-hit ball after hard-hit ball found defenders' gloves.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon believes Heyward's baseball luck is returning. 

"It's got to," Maddon said. "He's been maligned about not hitting high enough, but that one week we had in St. Louis and Cincinnati, he must've had eight line drives - I mean really well-struck line drives - caught.

"It's gonna come back to him. It's gonna shift back in his favor because he doesn't cave. He doesn't give in. He's not lost confidence. He understands."

Heyward's bad luck this season passes the eye test. For those who have watched the Cubs closely this season, it's easy to understand what Maddon is saying and believe Heyward's luck is turning simply because it has to.

Yet the advanced stats don't necessarily tell the same story.

Typically, when a player is struggling with bad baseball luck as a hitter, their batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is uncharacteristically low. Yet Heyward's .303 mark on the season is only six points off his career mark (.309) and only 26 points off his 2015 BABIP, when he posted a .293 average on the season.

Heyward's strikeout percentage (18.8 percent) is higher than it had been from 2013-15, but still only slightly above his career norm (18.5 percent).

His walk percentage is way up (13.4 percent compared to 9.2 percent last year and 10.6 percent in his career), which should point to better strike zone judgement that typically correlates with a high batting average.

Heyward is also hitting the ball on the ground a lot less than he did last season (46.5 percent in 2016 compared to 57.2 percent) and hitting more line drives (26.3 percent, way above his 18.7 percent career line drive percentage), which should point to a higher batting average.

But here's where things get even more strange: Despite a huge increase in line drives, Heyward's hard-hit percentage is at a career-low 20 percent while his soft-hit percentage is at the highest its been since his second year in the big leagues (2011).

Even a look at more mainstream numbers highlights a worrisome start to the season for Heyward. His slugging percentage is a woeful .276, which is the second-lowest mark in the National League, ahead of only Erick Aybar (who has a .213 SLG).

So what does all this mean?

You can group a bunch of those statistics together and make a justified claim that Heyward has simply been unlucky this year.

You can also grab a few numbers and make a case that Heyward has regressed in his age-26 season.

Regardless of reasoning — Is the $184-million contract weighing on him? Is his wrist injury sapping some power? Has he just been unlucky? — the Cubs are still pretty happy with what production they've gotten from Heyward to date.

Thanks to his high walk rate, Heyward has a .345 on-base percentage and is on pace to score 86 runs while setting the table for Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist.

Maddon has insisted on keeping Heyward in the two-hole to date and doesn't see any reason to move him down. 

Plus, if Heyward is not hitting the ball with much authority, moving him down behind the heart of the order won't help the Cubs at all.

"His on-base percentage is over 100 points higher than his average hitting," Maddon said. "That is a great guy to have in the two-hole. The rest of the stuff - the power, the gappers - all that stuff's gonna come.

"But I like the way he's starting to get on time. He's starting to show up on time and that's when it's gonna get good for him."

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.