Cubs' plate approach a work in progress


Cubs' plate approach a work in progress

You may have heard the phrase "grinding out at-bats." It's one of Theo Epstein's favorites and it was one of the first things the Cubs president of baseball operations packed when he left Boston.

Yankees-Red Sox games routinely last almost four hours because both teams follow the grinding model at the plate. They make the opposing pitcher work each at-bat of each game.

That's where the Cubs want to be and it's part of the reason why respected hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo was let go last week.

This weekend's marquee series with the Red Sox was a measuring stick for the Cubs for several reasons, but maybe none more important than the quality of at-bats.

On Saturday, Jeff Samardzija was pitching well, but he needed 95 pitches to get through just five innings, something the Red Sox are famous for.

"Yeah he had I think 50 something after three innings...so that's what the Red Sox, Yankees do," Dale Sveum said. "They'll get your pitch count up there. You're not putting them away in the 1-2 counts and that kind of thing, so they're going to foul balls off and they're going to spit on the borderline pitches."

In the three-game series at Wrigley Field, the Red Sox saw 471 pitches, or an average of 157 per game. The Cubs, on the other hand, forced Boston pitchers to throw just 398 pitches, or an average of roughly 133 pitches per game.

Now, the Cubs didn't have to bat in the ninth inning of Game 1, since they won the game. But there's a clear discrepancy there in the numbers.

Sveum, a former hitting coach, preaches the importance of getting into the opponent's bullpen. His goal is for the Cubs offense to try to get the starter up to 100 pitches through five innings, just as the Red Sox did to Samardzija Saturday.

That theory worked for the Red Sox over the weekend, as the Cubs' bullpen gave up five runs in the 6.2 innings they pitched in the final two games of the series, both Boston wins. In Game 1, the Red Sox couldn't get to Ryan Dempster and were left facing Dempster, a setup man (James Russell) and the Cubs' closer (Carlos Marmol).

Sveum's goal would put the opposing starter at an average of 20 pitches per inning. In 26 innings over the weekend, the Cubs saw 20 or more pitches just five times. They scored in three of those innings.

The crazy thing about that total is the offense actually saw 28 and 24 pitches in the first two innings of the weekend, touching Daisuke Matsuzaka up for three runs Friday. So in the final 24 offensive innings of the weekend, the Cubs saw 20 or more pitches just three times.

They took just six walks all weekend while the Red Sox collected 11 free passes. But it's not just about walks. The Red Sox rarely swung at the first pitch all weekend and even though Paul Maholm had only one walk Sunday, he still threw 95 pitches in six innings.

As the Cubs enter their first full week with James Rowson as the hitting coordinator, Sveum and his staff understand the Cubs will not become the Red Sox overnight. It will be a work in progress.

"I think we're having more quality at-bats," Sveum said. "We're walking a little bit. We walked four times Friday.

"Just the quality of at-bats have to keep it going from everybody and not panic with two strikes. Things like that. The message is trying to get through in games."

There are 600,000 reasons you won't hear Gar, Pax or Hoiberg discuss losing


There are 600,000 reasons you won't hear Gar, Pax or Hoiberg discuss losing

The Bulls made headlines on Tuesday when VP John Paxson announced that David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne would be entering the rotation, thus continuing the youth movement in Chicago.

On the surface the moves make sense. The 24-year-old Nwaba, the 25-year-old Felicio and the 23-year-old Cameron Payne will be replacing 28-year-old Justin Holiday, 29-year-old Robin Lopez and 25-year-old Jerian Grant. The Bulls want to see what they have in these younger players who haven't played much; they already know what they have in Lopez and Holiday, and Grant (like the other two) is under contract through next year.

OK, got that? Here's why they're making the move: they're sitting 8th in the NBA Lottery standings and really want to move into the top-5 to give themselves a chance at what should be a loaded front-end of the draft class. It's pretty obvious, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either named Gar Forman, John Paxson or Fred Hoiberg.

And here's why: On Wednesday Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined a whopping $600,000 by the NBA for comments he made on a podcast regarding tanking. The Mavericks are currently 18-40, the third worst record in the NBA. This comes a season after they finished 33-49, netting them the No. 9 pick that turned into talented point guard Dennis Smith Jr.

So when Cuban was asked about the best interests of his Dallas team, which touts young talent but clearly isn't headed for the postseason in 2018, he said this on the House Call with Dr. J Podcast:

"I'm probably not supposed to say this, but, like, I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night, and here we are, you know, we weren't competing for the playoffs. I was like, 'Look, losing is our best option. [Commissioner] Adam [Silver] would hate hearing that, but I at least sat down and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we're not going to tank again. This was, like, a year-and-a-half tanking, and that was too brutal for me. But being transparent, I think that's the key to being kind of a players owner and having stability."

Cuban isn't wrong, and the Mavericks sure as hell aren't the only team tanking. But to come right now and admit that losing is the team's best option wasn't, as Cuban predicted, going to sit well with the league office.

Commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo with the fine that said Cuban's comments "which concerned his perspective on the team's competitive success this season" were "detrimental to the NBA."

So while the Bulls are going about their business in trying to lose as many games down the stretch as possible, don't expect anyone to admit it's the reason behind their personnel moves. There are 600,000 reasons why.

NBA Draft Tracker: Michigan State's Miles Bridges


NBA Draft Tracker: Michigan State's Miles Bridges

NBA general managers were fully expecting to see Miles Bridges declare for the 2017 draft after a solid, but unspectacular freshman season at Michigan State. Bridges arrived in East Lansing as one of the nation’s top prospects, and his impressive leaping ability led to a number of highlight reel plays for Tom Izzo’s Spartans.

Problem is, Bridges didn’t show much versatility to his offensive game because of an inconsistent outside shot and inability to create shots off the dribble. Bridges probably would have been a late lottery pick last year on athletic talent alone, but to his credit, he decided to go back to Michigan State for his sophomore season and work on some of his weaknesses.

Unfortunately for Bridges, he really hasn’t shown much improvement year to year. Yes, he’s leading the Big Ten in free throw shooting at 89%, but his other numbers are basically flat from season to season. Bridges averaged 16.9 points a year ago, 17.1 this season. He shot .486 from the field in 2016-17, .477 this year. Even with all the work he put in on his 3 point shooting, his percentage has dropped slightly this season, from .389 to .376. Rebounding is also down slightly, from 8.3 to 6.8. 

Bottom line, Bridges is once again projected as a late lottery pick.

How does he fit for the Bulls? It’s no secret small forward and center are the two positions of need heading into the 2018 draft, and the 6-7 Bridges would give the Bulls another athletic frontcourt player who fits the pace and space game Fred Hoiberg prefers. Bridges could be a real weapon running the floor with Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine for alley-oop dunks, and he should continue to improve as a 3 point shooter.

The Bulls are hoping to land a top 5 pick to add one of the elite players in this draft, and unless the Pelicans drop into the late lottery, Bridges will probably be gone by the time that selection comes up. He’s probably a bit of a reach in the 6 to 10 range, but if positional need and athletic potential are the most important factors for the Bulls, Miles Bridges could be the choice if they don’t improve their position in the current lottery watch standings.

Personally, I would prefer either Kentucky’s Kevin Knox or Villanova’s Mikal Bridges (no relation) over Miles Bridges as a small forward prospect, but all 3 players offer different skill sets that could be helpful to a young, developing team like the Bulls.

The dream scenario would be drafting a young center like Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. or Mo Bamba with a top 5 pick, then coming back to add one of those 3 small forward prospects with the 1st rounder they acquired in the Niko Mirotic trade with New Orleans. We’ll all have to wait until the lottery is held on May 15th to see if the Bulls are in position to add two more foundation pieces to their rebuilding project.