Cubs

Cubs confident they'll see the real Justin Wilson in 2018

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AP

Cubs confident they'll see the real Justin Wilson in 2018

Justin Wilson is proof that not everything Theo Epstein touches immediately turns to gold.

Though, that's not to say it's the fault of Epstein or the Cubs' front office.

Who could've possibly predicted Wilson's epic struggles in Chicago after pitching well with the Detroit Tigers earlier in the season?

When Epstein and Co. traded for the dynamic left-handed reliever, he was one of the top high-leverage pitchers in baseball — sporting a sparkling 0.94 WHIP, 2.68 ERA, 13 saves and 55 strikeouts against only 16 walks in 40.1 innings.

But in Chicago, Wilson was suddenly ineffective. He managed just 53 outs in 23 appearances, walking 19 batters and serving up 18 hits in 17.2 innings. His strikeouts actually went up a tick, but the lack of control was alarming.

Things got so bad, Wilson was used to get just two outs in the postseason and wasn't even active for the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Yet none of that has scared the Cubs off from counting on Wilson to be a big part of the 2018 bullpen.

"I think you will [see a rebound]," GM Jed Hoyer said. "Sometimes guys come to a new place, they get off to a rough start and that kinda snowballs on them. When you look at his track record, there's no reason in the world to think he won't be pitching late in the game or won't have a big role.

"That's what he's done his whole career except for the blip with us and I think he'll get right back to doing that again."

But Wilson wasn't the only Cubs reliever who struggled with walks. It was a bullpen-wide issue in 2017 — a problem the Cubs hope to correct in 2018, in part due to a new pitching coach (Jim Hickey) providing a different voice.

Dig deeper, however, and it's clear to see Wilson's issue wasn't only that he forgot how to throw strikes. 

In Detroit, 36.9 percent of pitches Wilson threw were balls. In Chicago, that number rose to 42 percent, which is only a difference of 5 extra balls every 100 pitches thrown. 

That's not enough to account for such a huge increase in walks. So what gives?

A huge part of the problem was a precipitous dip in batters swinging at pitches Wilson threw out of the zone. Over his career, Wilson has hovered around batters swinging at his pitches out of the zone around 1/3 of the time. In Chicago batters swung less than 1/4 of the time at pitches out of the zone.

That may be because he started throwing his fastball a lot more with the Cubs and relied less on his breaking stuff (slider and cutter). He has rarely thrown his changeup in his career, but never even tried it with the Cubs.

What it boils down to is fastball command, which Joe Maddon typically points to first whenever a pitcher is experiencing inconsistency on the mound. Wilson didn't always know where his fastball was going, which means his breaking stuff didn't play as well in conjunction with that and he was thus forced to throw his fastball more often just to try to get more strikes.

Now that they're not in the middle of a pennant race, both Wilson and the Cubs have had time to digest what went wrong. The organization is optimistic good times are coming, mostly because they see the issues as clearly fixable.

"Oh sure. No question," Hoyer said. "We saw some glimpses at the end. You've seen it happen enough times that a guy gets off to a bad start. 

"It's all fixable. We still feel the same way about the player. I think coming into a new season, a new spring training, a new pitching coach — I think that's all positive."

The "new season" part may be the biggest factor working in Wilson's favor.

There's no doubt his struggles last fall got inside his head. How could they not? 

But a new year means time to hit the reset button on the confidence and mental side of the game, which can make all the difference.

"If things don't get off on the right foot, they probably try too hard," Hoyer said. "They want to impress their teammates and it can go south on them. It's not the first time [this has happened].

"I have a ton of confidence in him. This guy's had a really good career — pitched late in the game for a long time. There's no reason to think he won't come in and be good for us next year."

Even the Indians can't deny the lasting impact Cubs have on Progressive Field

Even the Indians can't deny the lasting impact Cubs have on Progressive Field

CLEVELAND — Even the Indians can't deny the lasting impact Cubs have on Progressive Field.

Namely, the impact the Cubs left on the floor of the visiting locker room.

With 18 months in between visits, one of the first things the Cubs noticed about their clubhouse at Progressive Field was the new carpet.

"It's probably necessary," Joe Maddon said with a smile. "So some good things have come from all that stuff, too, for the visitors. You get new interior decorating."

After the Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 World Series, the Cubs — and Bill Murray — dumped an awful lot of champagne and Budwesier on the old carpets.

Like, A LOT. 

"Oh yeah," Addison Russell said, "I think we messed it up pretty good."

It'd be hard to fault the Cubs for an epic celebration to honor the end of a 108-year championship drought, especially the way in which they accomplished the feat with maybe the most incredible baseball game ever played.

As the Cubs returned to the emotional, nostalgic-riddled scene of that historic fall, the parallels were striking.

Exactly 18 months before Tuesday, the Cubs walked into Progressive Field for the start of the World Series in 54 degree Cleveland weather with overcast skies and a pestering little drizzle.

Tuesday, the Cubs walked back into Progressive Field in 54 degree Cleveland weather with overcast skies and a pestering little drizzle.

A bunch of Cubs also found their lockers in the same place in that visiting locker room.

Russell, Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester all have their lockers in the same spots this week as they had for the 2016 Fall Classic.

Some clubhouses go in numerical order, some go based on position groups. The Indians don't really seem to fall under either camp, considering Lester was surrounded by all position players in the corner of the locker room, where — before Tuesday —was last seen giving a heartfelt "thank you" to the media for "putting up with him" all season.

"Just walking back into the stadium from the bus into the clubhouse, you get the sense of nostalgia," Russell said. "I see that they replaced the carpet, which is nice. But yeah, the weight room, the food room, I just remember walking around here having that World Series Champs shirt on.

"It's a great memory. I think this is the same locker I had as well. Everything's just fitting like a puzzle piece right now and it's pretty awesome."

Kyle Schwarber is basically Superman in Cleveland

Kyle Schwarber is basically Superman in Cleveland

CLEVELAND — Kyle Schwarber LOVES hitting in Cleveland.

It's like he morphs into a superhero just by stepping foot into the left-handed batter's box at Progressive Field.

Playing in Cleveland for the first time since his legendary return to the field in the 2016 World Series, Schwarber went absolutely bonkers on a Josh Tomlin pitch in the second inning Tuesday night:

That wasn't just any homer, however. 

The 117.1 mph dinger was the hardest-hit ball by any Cubs hitter in the era of exit velocity, aka since Statcast was invented in 2015:

Schwarber followed that up with another solo blast into the right-field bleachers in the fourth inning off Tomlin.

Schwarber — an Ohio native — collected his first MLB hit at Progressive Field back on June 17, 2015 in his second career game. He went 6-for-9 in that series with a triple, homer and 4 RBI.

Couple that with his World Series totals and the first two times up Tuesday and Schwarber has hit .500 with a .545 on-base percentage and .900 slugging percentage in his first 33 trips to the plate in Cleveland.