Cubs

How Anthony Rizzo and the Cubs are dealing with defensive shifts

How Anthony Rizzo and the Cubs are dealing with defensive shifts

Baseball and luck go together like peanut butter and jelly.

"Luck" is one of those terms that's thrown around baseball games constantly by analysts, reporters, coaches, even players.

Saturday's Cubs-Diamondbacks game was a perfect example.

With the bases loaded and the Cubs up one in the eighth inning, Arizona's Rickie Weeks hit a line drive...that just so happened to be right at Ben Zobrist. Instead of at least a game-tying hit, it was inning over and, eventually, game over. 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon was quick to point out after the game (and then again before Sunday's game) how "lucky" his team was to get out of that jam.

That inconsistent luck on balls in play is something that has become much more of a topic nowadays thanks to defensive shifts and advanced metrics.

Maddon thinks Anthony Rizzo — who has a .251 average — would actually be hitting 20-30 points higher if it wasn't for shifts.

"Rizz or heavy pull left-handed hitters, their numbers have been impacted by shifts," Maddon said. "I think batting averages have plummeted a bit based on data — defensively — as well as data that a pitcher could utilize.

"That kind of information was not as abundant in years past. I've talked about this where I think the decline in offense or batting average is really related to the proliferation of data in video and the ability to put guys where you want to."

Rizzo received an off-day Sunday, but he actually saw both sides of that luck firsthand in the first two games of the series against the Diamondbacks.

With Kris Bryant on second base in the first inning of Friday's ballgame, Rizzo hit a hard ground ball up the middle...right into the waiting glove of shortstop Nick Ahmed.

"When is the second baseman or shortstop playing there?" Maddon asked incredulously after the game. "He didn't do it in 19-odd-8, I know that. 

"That was an absolute base hit, RBI, everybody's happy. That's a tremendous illustration what we're talking about. That is scouting defense. All that stuff conspires against left-handed hitters like him."

Of course, just a few innings later, Rizzo stroked a line drive to center field and wound up with a double when Chris Owings misjudged the ball and broke in.

In Saturday's game, Rizzo picked up a base hit on a bloop that fell between three Diamondbacks defenders.

Those last two examples were the kinds of plays that have not gone Rizzo's way so far this season.

Entering play Sunday, his batting average on balls in play was .232, 46 points below his career .278 mark. 

Rizzo admitted he was shocked when he saw the ball "bounce" his way — so to speak — on Friday.

"Honestly, yes, because it just hasn't gone like that," he said. "It's baseball. They say it evens out, so you just keep hitting it hard.

"I always feel good at the plate. I always feel like I'm right there. You know, the one ball, fortunately the centerfielder didn't get a good read on there."

Rizzo also acknowledged how frustrating it can be to hit into the shift.

"You get taught to hit up the middle your whole life, so you hit the ball up the middle and there's a guy standing there," he said. "But what are you gonna do about it? Hit the ball hard. That's all you can do is keep hitting the ball hard."

Shifting has become an integral part of the game over the last half-decade. Instead of just shifting against the big, slow power hitters like Adam Dunn or David Ortiz, teams can now conceivably shift against any hitter with all the information at their disposal.

In his rant on shifting, Maddon confirmed what we already know: Hitting hasn't yet caught up to the trend. Beyond bunting into the shift, there is nothing that has emerged as a tool to aid hitters battling defensive shifts.

It's a big reason why a .400 season or 56-game hitting streak seem so impossible right now. Sure, pitching and strikeouts are up all around baseball, but the case can easily be made that batting average is down as much because of shifting (and pitching into the shift) as anything.

Think about Crash Davis' speech at the end of "Bull Durham" about how the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is one extra "groundball with eyes" or "dying quail" per week throughout the course of the season.

With shifts, those groundballs don't find their way through the infield as much.

"When you hit the ball well and you're hitting into shifts, then all of a sudden hits — from the time you're in Little League to teen ball to high school to college — hits are now outs," Maddon said. "There's a confidence component to that also.

"You lose some confidence in what you're doing even though you're doing the exact same thing that used to be successful."

Maddon talked at length about how hitting against — and bunting against — the shift aren't easy things to do. 

For one, bunting only really works in some situations. You don't want to take the bat out of a power hitter's hands with two outs and nobody on just to reach first base safely.

The same can be said for hitting into a shift. Guys like Rizzo and Jason Heyward would sacrifice some power if they constantly tried to hit the ball the other way. 

Plus, they're being pitched into the shift, so it's not as simple as taking the ball the other way.

Maddon feels hitters should learn to adjust to shifts early-on, especially with how hard it is to make adjustments at the big-league level.

"I think it's important that you teach these guys at least to bunt," Maddon said. "We do it a little bit. But to truly get away from shift-able players, it's got to be nurtured at the minor-league level to teach these guys to stay inside the ball, hit the ball the other way and still be able to power it somewhat.

"...The objective is to get more runs on a nightly basis as opposed to more hits. Oftentimes, if you get more hits, it's probably going to end up with more runs, but I don't want to dispute that.

"I don't want our guys going out there purely driven by base hits. Sometimes, the better option is to not make an out."

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

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.