Cubs

How rotation strength/health tells the story of Cubs season so far

How rotation strength/health tells the story of Cubs season so far

The Cubs don’t believe in Billy Goat or black cats or Bartman or any of that other nonsense. But mention the remarkably good health of their starting pitchers and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein wants to tap the dugout railing at Wrigley Field: “Knock on wood.”

Epstein, once the Boston Red Sox curse-buster, is the architect of a team that has already won 97 games, slicing the magic number to clinch home-field advantage through the National League Championship Series down to two.

Sweeping the Cincinnati Reds with Wednesday night’s 9-2 victory won’t tell us much about the Cubs shaking off their post-clinch hangover and getting locked back in mentally and applying Joe Maddon’s hitting lessons. This week’s headline on FiveThirtyEight — Nate Silver’s numbers-driven website — summed it up: “The Reds’ Pitching Might Be The Worst Of All Time.”

Don’t focus so much on the gaudy run differential (plus-239) or the time-filling MVP/Cy Young Award debates or Maddon’s T-shirt gimmicks or David Ross’ clubhouse influence (which does have a real impact on this team). To understand this runaway season, know that the Cubs now have five pitchers who have accounted for at least 28 starts this season.

“That’s the lead story for me,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said, “because when you have that, you have success.”

John Lackey made it through another tune-up for the Big Boy Games, limiting the last-place Reds (63-89) to two runs across seven innings, giving the Cubs five starters with double-digit wins and ERAs between 2.06 and 3.56. There’s the NL’s defending Cy Young winner (Jake Arrieta) and two leading candidates for this year’s award (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks). Jason Hammel is a 15-game winner who’s getting questions about auditioning for the playoffs.

“There’s more we don’t know about pitching health than we do know,” Epstein said. “So the things that we do know and that we can prove empirically — or that we have a strong intuition work — we try to put into practice from rookie ball up through the big leagues and hire the best trainers and best coaches and try to focus on a long-term perspective. The season is more important than any one inning or any one situation.

“So give a lot of credit to the guys in the trenches keeping our pitchers healthy. But, look, if we could replicate it every single year — that would be quite a trick. We’re going to try. But I think there’s some good fortune as well.

“Credit our pitchers, too, for doing their work. (We’re) trying to find guys with clean deliveries and good track records of health. We hope some of the things we do work. But we also know we certainly don’t have all the answers in that realm.”

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That integrated-system ideal hasn’t produced any elite pitching prospects or homegrown starters yet. But the Cubs experienced their 97-win breakthrough last year when Arrieta, Lester, Hammel and Hendricks each made between 31 and 33 starts, something that you wouldn’t have bet on happening again in 2016 after an exhausting run to the NLCS.

“It’s one thing at the end of the day I hang my hat on,” Bosio said. “It’s something I’m extremely proud of in my five years here with our horses, our core guys, whether it’s (Jeff) Samardzija and Hammel. (Or Matt) Garza, (Ryan) Dempster, (Scott) Feldman, (Paul) Maholm, all those guys.

“That means a lot to me. That’s my job. That’s how I’m going to be judged at the end of the day — the performance of our starting pitchers and our health. The same thing then goes for our bullpen.”

Restoring and flipping those rotation assets helped build the best team in baseball. Consistent starting pitching means the relievers have thrown the fewest innings in the majors and shouldn’t feel beaten-up by October. It helps explains why the Cubs lead the majors in defensive efficiency and haven’t had a losing streak longer than two games since the All-Star break.

The Cubs can only make educated guesses about why their starters haven’t broken down (yet), but this snapshot of a full-strength rotation fuels their World Series ambitions.

“When you got good mechanics, you’re going to have good results,” Bosio said. “Our guys are pretty mechanically sound. We worked extremely hard on that, because if you can’t locate the ball as a pitcher, then you can’t really follow a scouting report. If you can’t follow a scouting report, then we can’t set up the defense. So all these things coincide. It’s a fine-tuned machine.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.