Cubs

After surreal offseason, Ben Zobrist comes to Cubs camp in style as World Series MVP

After surreal offseason, Ben Zobrist comes to Cubs camp in style as World Series MVP

MESA, Ariz. – Ben Zobrist drove to work on Sunday morning in his World Series MVP car, a 50th anniversary edition gray convertible Camaro he parked in the players’ lot outside the Under Armour Performance Center. Even on a star-studded Cubs team that clearly enjoyed the spoils of winning, Zobrist popped out as someone who understood what this meant in Chicago and why these opportunities shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“The surreal moments,” Zobrist said, “were obviously being on ‘Jimmy Fallon’ and getting to do about three days worth of Disney World in about six hours – just by zooming around and going in back doors and such – to in December going to a Bulls game and the crowd basically erupting when they put the camera on me.

“Getting to go to the White House and meet President Obama and the first lady at the time. And then a few weeks after that, I got to go to the National Prayer Breakfast events and meet a whole bunch of congressmen and senators and then shake the hand of President Trump and Vice President Pence.

“Being put in arenas that you’re not used to being put in – just because you were able to do something as an athlete – is pretty special. It’s special to know that you were able to do something that made a lot of people happy.”

Not bad for a small-town kid from downstate Illinois who never got drafted out of high school and ranked 16th on Baseball America’s list of the Houston Astros’ top prospects after the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Zobrist then had to spend parts of three seasons at the Triple-A level before really establishing himself with Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays, waiting until his age-28 season to get more than 200 at-bats.

During the interview, Zobrist asked a group of reporters to move with him away from his locker, so that Albert Almora Jr. could have some space and not deal with the overflow crowd after an abbreviated workout limited by the rain in Mesa. Within the clubhouse, Zobrist is respected for his meticulous preparation, willingness to play all over the field and nerves of steel in the playoffs. That’s why the Cubs gave Zobrist a four-year, $56 million contract after watching him help the Kansas City Royals win the 2015 World Series.

“It doesn’t feel like a three-peat to me,” Zobrist said. “Every year is new. And you’ve got to kind of forget about last year, to a certain degree. I know what happened last year is pretty unforgettable. But at the same time, we’ve got to turn the page and try to do something even more special.

“Everybody was super-hungry to make it happen last year. We have to push each other to realize it’s going to be even harder this year. For us to be able to do something like repeating a championship in Chicago would be even greater than what we were able to do last year.”

Zobrist decided to live close to Wrigley Field to maximize time with his family during the season and experience the city. In another surreal, only-in-Chicago moment, fans swarmed his North Center home after the Cubs returned from Cleveland, lining up around the block to say thanks and get a moment with the World Series MVP.   

“My neighborhood was really respectful,” Zobrist said. “They were awesome all year, just kind of (recognizing) that’s our home (and) being neighbors. And then after we won – the day after we came home – I was playing outside with my kids and some of the neighborhood kids were like: ‘Oh, man, we watched you (on TV). Hey, would you sign something?’

“I’m like: ‘You know what, I didn’t do it all year, I’ll do it.’ So I started signing for a few of them. And the next thing I know, people from surrounding neighborhoods heard and started coming over.

“Just to go on the record: That’s not happening all year long this year.”

The bullpen's rough stretch continues as Cubs blow two saves in series opener

The bullpen's rough stretch continues as Cubs blow two saves in series opener

Sound the alarm, the Cubs’ bullpen issues are back. 

Friday afternoon’s culprits were Brad Brach and Steve Cishek, who together allowed three earned runs on five hits over 2.2 innings of work in the Cubs’ 6-5 loss. It was the second blown save of the season for both pitchers. 

“I was locked in today, I really was,” Cishek said. “It was just a lack of execution. I’m not going to make any excuses.” 

After spending much of the last six weeks being one of baseball’s most reliable groups, the Cubs’ bullpen has hit a rough patch of late. Over the last two weeks, only the Red Sox have more blown saves than Chicago. In that span they rank 21st in ERA, 16th in FIP, and most foreboding of all, 4th in BB%. 

“The last couple times around we’ve had shorter outings from our starters, and I think that’s kind of caused us to use them more recently,” Joe Maddon said. “But they’re fine. They’re fine. It’s just one of those days, man.” 

It’s true that the Cubs’ bullpen is still relatively fresh; they’ve pitched 168.2 innings in 2019, more than only eight other teams. Over the last two weeks, however, they’ve pitched 48.2 innings - which is 8th most in the league. They came into Friday’s game shorthanded, as Maddon noted that they were looking to avoid using Brandon Kintzler, Carl Edwards Jr., Tyler Chatwood, and Kyle Ryan. 

“[Cishek] probably didn’t have a full tank,” Maddon said. “Probably ¾ maybe. So the stuff wasn’t as clean or crisp.”

Cishek declined to comment about how energy he felt he had on Friday. Only Tyler Chatwood has thrown more relief innings than Cishek over the last week, and both Chatwood and Kintzler rank among the top-20 most-used relievers going back to mid-May. 

“Those guys always get it done,” Kyle Hendricks said. “They’ve been being used a lot in the last few days, so they can’t come in every time and get the job done. But they’re making their pitches, and attacking, and there’s nothing more you can ask for. We know they’re going to be there for us, and they have been all year.”

Late innings have been especially difficult to navigate over the last few series. After the two blown saves today, the Cubs are now 9-for-20 in save situations on the year. There are internal reinforcements coming, though, as Pedro Strop is close to returning from his hamstring injury. 

“It’s more experienced guys coming back into the fold,” Maddon said. “Guys that have done that.

“When Strop comes back, then all these guys get pushed back. It’s just lengthens your bullpen. It lengthens it. By having him there, with what he’s able to do in the last inning or two. Stropy will lengthen us out.”

And while the noise to go get another proven reliever grows, and the date that signing Craig Kimbrel without losing a draft pick nears, the Cubs are confident that a few rough outings from a good group, going through a tough stretch, is no reason to panic. 

“I still think we’re in a good spot,” Cishek said. “As the fans ride the roller coaster, we do too. There’s ups and downs throughout the long season. We started off slow, then we rode a hot streak for a long time. It’s going to happen again, we’re going to be fine.”

Wrigley Field's outfield demands a lot, but the Cubs are answering the call

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USA TODAY

Wrigley Field's outfield demands a lot, but the Cubs are answering the call

There’s no one reason that you could point to that explains why the Cubs have gone 27-12 since their horrid first road trip. You could point to Javy Baéz’s continuous star turn, or the rotation exceeding even the loftiest expectations so far. You could point to Kris Bryant’s healthy shoulder, or Brandon Kintzler’s sinker -- like plenty of people have -- and you’d be right. What’s gone under-discussed, at least in the eyes of some, is just how good the Cubs’ outfield defense has been.

“Who doesn’t love defense?” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said earlier in the week. “This group here, when everyone’s on the field and the really good defenders are out there, it’s as tight as I’ve had. The difference being I think is that the outfield defense has gotten better in the last couple years here.”

The numbers back it up. MLB keeps a statistic called Outs Above Average (OAA) that tries to convey just how good an outfielder is vs. replacement level. For the Cubs, Albert Almora is doing much of the heavy lifting, as the center fielder is worth 4 OOA -- good for 4th best in baseball -- on his own. Jason Heyward is holding is own with 2 OOA so far, and Kyle Schwarber continues to struggle (-2 OOA). As a team, here’s how many Outs Above Average the Cubs have been worth since they started keeping track in 2016:

2016: 22 (2nd)
2017: - 7 (20th)
2018: 0 (14th)
2019, so far: 4 (6th)

“I think we’ve got a lot of great athletes on our team,” Almora said. “We’re playmakers and I think we have a great coaching staff that puts us in the right spots.”

Another useful metric that Statcast keeps track of is called Directional OOA. Basically, MLB designates six directions (front right/middle/left and back right/middle/left) and gauges which direction certain teams and fielders are best at running. Almora, at least this year, has been strongest running in and left:

That was on display yet again on Friday, when Almora broke in and left to rob Derek Dietrich in the second inning:

When asked, Almora admitted that he was surprised to learn that, instead thinking that he was better in and to the right. He’s not wrong, either: in each of the previous three seasons, Almora’s finished with the most OOA coming in and to the right.

“I think most [routes] are pretty instinctual to me,” he said. “I kind of sell out when it’s a little runner. Sometimes I dive and don’t get to it because in my mind I’m programmed to where, if it’s hit to me, I’ve got to catch it.”

Heyward, on the other hand, has been stronger to his right his year:

“I just think it’s about your position” Heyward added. “You can say someone is really good at one thing, but if they don’t get as many plays to this way, or that way, you don’t really know.

One interesting wrinkle about the Cubs’ outfield is that neither Schwarber, Almora or Heyward have been worth an Out Above Average going straight backwards, and generally haven’t been great going backwards in any direction. One explanation? Between an unforgiving brick wall and the outward-jetting net that sits on top of it, robbing homers basically isn’t possible at Wrigley. Knowing that drastically changes the read on fly balls.

“You know you’re not going to go back as hard,” Heyward said. “If someone hits the ball over your head, most likely it’s going to be a double if it’s off the wall. There’s definitely differences between here and and the next place.”

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