Cubs

Cardinals ‘irrelevant’ when Cubs need to start playing their game again after third straight loss

Cardinals ‘irrelevant’ when Cubs need to start playing their game again after third straight loss

ST. LOUIS – Fireworks went off at Busch Stadium late Monday night, the St. Louis Cardinals rushing from their dugout and forming a mosh pit at home plate, a familiar scene during those long rebuilding years for the Cubs.   

Eliminating the Cardinals from the playoffs last October changed the feel of the rivalry, and so did stealing John Lackey and Jason Heyward away from a 100-win team, plus all the hype that surrounded Camp Maddon and the best start in baseball.     

But there was Randal Grichuk with two outs in the ninth inning against Cubs reliever Adam Warren, blasting a walk-off homer 382 feet over the right-field fence and into the St. Louis bullpen for a 4-3 victory and a reminder that the Cardinals are still the defending division champs. 

“It’s a long season,” Lackey said. “They’re a good team. They’ll be fine. We got to worry about ourselves, man. They’re kind of irrelevant. If we play our game, we’ll be OK.”  

Grichuk wouldn’t have been in position to get the ice shower during the postgame on-field TV interview if Lackey hadn’t given up a two-out, two-run, game-tying homer to pinch-hitter Matt Adams in the seventh inning, ruining what had been a dominant start to that point. 

But the Cardinals (24-21) are known for pouncing on mistakes here, even as a third-place team that hasn’t been playing up to the franchise’s usual standards. After losing three in a row for the first time this season – and eight of their last 12 – the Cubs now have a six-game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central.   

“We need to play better, 100 percent,” said Lackey, who gave up three runs in seven innings. “But ‘worry’ I think is a strong word. We’re doing OK.” 

The Cubs (29-14) had their chance in the ninth inning against St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal. With runners on the corners and one out, Anthony Rizzo got jammed on a 97-mph fastball and popped a ball toward third base. Matt Carpenter dove forward and made the catch. With Dexter Fowler already breaking for home plate, Carpenter crawled toward third base and tapped the bag with his glove for the double play.

That symbolized some of the frustration and bad luck for Rizzo, who had pointed to the sky after a broken-bat RBI single off Adam Wainwright in the fifth inning, snapping a 1-for-27 streak and giving the Cubs a 3-1 lead. 

This isn’t the same team when Rizzo’s not producing and Heyward’s sidelined and young hitters like Jorge Soler and Addison Russell are still making adjustments.   

“We just slowed down a little bit offensively,” said Ben Zobrist, speaking for the rest of the group after a 3-for-4 night extended his streak of reaching base safely in each of his last 29 starts. “We’re just having a harder time squaring the ball up and that’s the way it goes sometimes. We just got to work through it and battle.

“It is frustrating a little bit, but it’s still so early, We weren’t thinking too high of ourselves. We know it’s a long season. We just got to get back to the grind again.” 

The Cubs were never going to score eight runs every night and sustain a .700-plus winning percentage for an entire season. If there are signs of frustration, the Cubs kept them hidden inside the visiting clubhouse.

“You try and minimize these spots,” Zobrist said. “We talked about this at the beginning of the season. We knew there was going to be some lulls. We got hot at the beginning and now we’ve gotten cold the last couple weeks. So we have to find the middle ground and get back to playing good baseball.”  

Of course, manager Joe Maddon played it cool inside his office while talking with reporters, projecting calm for the cameras. There are no trades for hitters to be made overnight and Simon the Magician isn’t walking through that door, either. But the Cardinals are still coming and the Cubs will have to ride this out.   

“As long as they come ready to play every day, I know we’ll get back on another good run,” Maddon said. “And then eventually this will be a thing of the past. It’s inevitable.”

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."