Cubs

Bring it on: Cubs-Cardinals rivalry will escalate to another level

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Bring it on: Cubs-Cardinals rivalry will escalate to another level

PITTSBURGH – The National League’s marquee Midwest franchises have been playing each other since 1892 — with more than 2,300 games between Chicago and St. Louis — but the rivalry has never seen anything like this before.

The PNC Park fireworks during Wednesday night’s 4-0 wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates will be nothing compared to the Cubs facing the Cardinals in their first playoff matchup ever.

“We’ll deal with the Cardinals tomorrow,” Theo Epstein said, completely soaked inside a raucous visiting clubhouse where cigar smoke hung in the air, champagne sprayed from all directions and loud rap music blasted from the sound system. “It’s going to be incredible.”

The president of baseball operations had grown up on the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees and taken down The Evil Empire before accepting the challenge in October 2011. The mandate was clear: Finally catch the Cardinals and build a World Series winner after more than a century of disappointments.

[MORE: On to the next one - Schwarber, Cubs dismantle Pirates in wild-card game]

By Year 4, Epstein’s front office assembled a 97-win team that didn’t fear anyone but still finished third in the brutal Central. It’s not as glamorous or as media-centric as the old American League East, but the divisional era had never before seen baseball’s top three teams play in the same division.

“We’ve had a little magic going all year long,” Epstein said. “It just felt with all of our being like we deserved a nice little run here in October. Congratulations to the Pirates on a great regular season. They have every right to feel like they should be going on, too. But only one of us could.”

Jon Lester — the $155 million lefty the Cubs signed last winter to help them get to October and pitch in big moments — will start Game 1 of this best-of-five series on Friday at Busch Stadium.

But Lester’s No. 1 priority late Wednesday night was making sure Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder got hit with enough Korbel: “It burns, don’t it?”

Ex-Cubs Kerry Wood and Ryan Dempster and former Blackhawk Chris Chelios joined the party. Out on the service-level concourse, winning pitcher Jake Arrieta chatted with movie star John Cusack for a moment as players celebrated with their friends and families. 

“We have a lot of confidence in our group,” said backup catcher David Ross, who tried to protect Arrieta and play peacemaker in the seventh inning and almost wound up in the middle of an all-out brawl. “We don’t really think about the other team that much. 

“We try to take care of our stuff in-house and worry about our own guys, our own pitching, our own hitting, our own bullpen and try to go out there and put together a game plan to beat the other team.”

[NBC SHOP: Get the latest Cubs gear here]

Kyle Schwarber — who had once been viewed as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in last year’s draft — showed the young Cubs wouldn’t be afraid of the moment or worried about history by driving in three runs with his first two playoff at-bats. 

The Cubs went 8-11 against the gold-standard franchise this season, turning up the heat on this rivalry with Joe Maddon’s calculated messages through the media, the manager comparing the Cardinals to “The Sopranos” and knowing he should have a dangerous team for years to come. 

The Cardinals have those 11 World Series titles and all that playoff experience after earning their 12th postseason appearance since 2000. But at the most intense time of the year, the Cubs look like a team that’s playing with nothing to lose.

“We’ll get ready for St. Louis a little later on,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman who sounded crazy back in January predicting the Cubs would win this division. “We’re going to enjoy this one.”

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."