Cubs

Ben Zobrist brings World Series-or-bust mentality to Cubs

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Ben Zobrist brings World Series-or-bust mentality to Cubs

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ben Zobrist has spent most of his career as an under-the-radar player on underdog teams. Now he comes to Chicago as the big-name free agent with a World Series-or-bust mentality.

The Cubs realize the future is now and saw Zobrist as a missing piece to a contender that advanced to the National League Championship Series. That explains why Theo Epstein’s front office gave a four-year, $56 million contract to a super-utility guy who will turn 35 next season.

“I want to win a championship as a Chicago Cub,” Zobrist said during Wednesday’s press conference inside an Opryland ballroom. “That’s my one goal the next four years: We’ve got to win a championship and bring a World Series trophy back to Chicago.”

Zobrist had played nine seasons for Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays, and the Cubs coveted him enough to try trading for him last winter and before the July 31 deadline. Zobrist grew up in downstate Illinois and wanted to stay in the Midwest because he keeps a home in Tennessee and would be able to access those short Nashville-to-Chicago flights.

Even with all that history, it still came down to a “split-second decision” for Zobrist when he got a phone call on Monday informing him the Cubs would be able to trade Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees, clear a spot at second base and sign a player they believe will help transform what can be an all-or-nothing lineup, a shaky defensive alignment and a chemistry experiment in the clubhouse.

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Octagon — the agency that represents Maddon and Zobrist — has a headquarters in downtown Chicago, and all sides needed to be patient as the Cubs essentially tried to trade Castro in a one-team vacuum. Only the youth-movement Yankees could absorb the $38 million guaranteed across the next four years, offer a high-upside pitcher in return (Adam Warren) and see the real potential in a three-time All-Star who hasn’t turned 26 yet.

Zobrist didn’t explicitly confirm reports that he had $60 million offers on the table, but the New York Mets, Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants simply couldn’t match the geographic fit, another opportunity to play for Maddon and the chance to make history.

“There were some other really good offers out there,” Zobrist said. “But I think in the end, the deal that I signed was exactly where I wanted to be, as far as money goes and the fact that it was the Cubs and the allure of not only playing in Wrigley, but also winning a championship in Chicago.

“It outdid a lot of the dollar-amount figures in my mind. So when I got a good offer from ‘em, I knew that’s where I wanted to be.”

For the record, Zobrist grew up rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals and will now be on the other side of a rivalry that keeps heating up.

“A lot of my family is split,” Zobrist said. “Some of them are really happy, and some of them are really mad right now. My dad, when he found out, he was so excited he was jumping up and down and (saying): 'I can’t believe I’m so excited to be a Cub fan.'”

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The Cubs saw what Zobrist just did for the world champion Kansas City Royals, hitting .303 with an .880 OPS during 16 playoff games, and hope he can lead by example and become a calming, professional influence on a young team that will absolutely have a target on its back in 2016.

“I don’t think you really ever know kind of what it takes fully to win a championship until you do it,” Zobrist said. “I got a front-row seat to watch it happen to my teammates — in their hearts and in my own — as we made the journey in the postseason and won those critical, (tough) games where you’re coming back from being down.

“It builds a sort of mettle in you and a confidence that even when things aren’t going well, you can turn it around. You kind of know the attitude you need.

“I’m not going to be satisfied with making the playoffs here. I’m not going to be satisfied with winning the NLCS here. It’s the championship. That’s what it’s all about.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Do the Cubs need to make a deal?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Do the Cubs need to make a deal?

On this episode of SportsTalk Live, Fred Mitchell, Seth Gruen and Jason Goch join David Kaplan on the panel.

The Cubs bats come alive against the Giants while Theo says there have been plenty of trade rumors but no trade talks. Do the Cubs need to make a deal?

Plus, Ray Ratto joins Kap to talk about the Warriors struggles and the guys debate if LeBron is playing his final game in a Cavaliers uniform.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

The Cubs are ahead of the game in MLB's brand new world

The Cubs are ahead of the game in MLB's brand new world

"BINGO!"

Joe Maddon couldn't contain his glee as he was told there is actual scientific evidence that proves the Launch Angle Revolution has not had any impact on the uptick in homers over the last couple seasons.

The reason MLB players were hitting the ball into the bleachers more than ever before in 2017 was because of the way baseballs are made now, reducing the wind resistence and causing balls to carry more.

But all these players changing their swing path to get more lift on the ball? Not a thing for the group as a whole (h/t MLB.com):


But in analyzing Statcast™ data from the measurement tool's 2015 inception through 2017, the committee found no evidence that batter behavior, en masse, has been a contributing factor toward the homer surge. In fact, exit velocities decreased slightly from 2016 to 2017, spray angles from the time studied were stable and a small increase in launch angles was attributable primarily to, as the study refers to them, "players with lesser home run talents."

Basically, the long-ball surge was global, affecting players from all spectrums of homer-hitting ability and irrespective of their approach.

"Going into this, I thought that was going to be the magic bullet, the smoking gun," Nathan said. "But it wasn't."


Hence the "BINGO!" cry from Maddon, who has been very vocal in the fight against the Launch Angle Revolution this season.

The end result is the study will eventually lead to baseballs being returned to normal levels and a more uniform way of storing the balls moving forward. Thus, homers figure to eventually return to normal levels, too, and everybody who was caught up in the Launch Angle Revolution may be left behind.

It's the changing landscape of baseball and we've already seen the after-effects this year: April was the first month in MLB history where there were more strikeouts than basehits.

Why? Because strikeouts are a natural byproduct of the Launch Angle Revolution as players are swinging up on the ball more and sacrificing contact for power and lift.

That, coupled with an increase in velocity and higher usage of relievers, has led to more strikeouts.

It makes perfect sense — it's tougher for a player to try to catch up to 98+ mph at the top of the strike zone with an uppercut swing.

"It's one of those things that sounds good, but it doesn't help you," Maddon said of launch angle. "There's certain things that people really want to promote and talk about, but it doesn't matter. When a hitter's in the box, when you're trying to stare down 96 or a slider on the edge, the last thing you're thinking about is launch angle.

"Now when it comes to practice, you could not necessarily work on angles — your body works a certain way. Like I've said before, there's guys that might've been oppressively bad or they just had groundballs by rolling over the ball all the time So of course you may want to alter that to get that smothering kind of a swing out of him.

"But if you're trying to catch up to velocity, if you're trying to lay back and I could keep going on and on. It sounds good."

The idea of hitting the ball hard in the air has been around for decades in baseball, pretty much ever since Babe Ruth on some level. It just wasn't able to be quantified or accessed by the public as easily until Statcast came around and made it all mainstream.

The Cubs, however, have been anti-launch-angle to a degree this season. They let go of hitting coach John Mallee (who liked players to hit the ball in the air and pull it) and replaced him with Chili Davis (who teaches the full-field, line-drive approach).

The effects haven't yet yielded results in terms of consistently plating runs or having a better performance in the situational hitting column, but the contact rate is, in fact, up.

Here is the list of Cubs hitters who currently boast a career best mark in strikeout rate:

Kris Bryant
Javy Baez
Willson Contreras
Addison Russell
Jason Heyward
Kyle Schwarber

Even Ben Zobrist is very close to his career mark and Anthony Rizzo is right at his career line.

Some of that jump in contact rate can be attributed to natural development and maturation of young hitters, but the Cubs are buying into the new way of doing things and it's paying off.

It's also probably the way the game is going to shift, with an emphasis on contact going to become more important the less balls are flying out of the yard.

The Cubs have seen firsthand how to beat the best pitching in the postseason and they know that cutting down on strikeouts and "moving the baseball" (as Maddon likes to put it) can help manufacture runs in low-scoring, tight affairs in October.

Now science is supporting those theories and Major League Baseball teams will have to adjust. 

The Cubs, however, are at least a step ahead of the game.

It's a long game — the offensive strides will take time to fully take effect even for the Cubs, who are at least a full offseason and two months ahead of the curve in terms of bucking the Launch Angle Revolution.

Maddon concedes that launch angle is a cool stat to see on the video board after homers, but other than that, he doesn't see much of a use for it, pointing to Kyle Schwarber's laser-line-drive homers having the same effect as Kris Bryant's moonshots.

However, Maddon does believe there's a place for launch angle and exit velocity in the game, though mostly for front offices trying to acquire players (think "Moneyball").

"As a teaching tool, you either come equipped with or without," Maddon said. "It's like you buy a new car, you either got this or you don't. Sometimes you can add some things occasionally, but for the most part, this is what you are.

"I like inside the ball, top half of the ball, inner half of the ball, stay long throughout the ball, utilize the whole field. I still think that's the tried and true approach and I'm not stuck in the mud on this by any means.

"The harder pitchers throw the baseball, the more laying back is going to be less effective."