Cubs

Cubs activate Hector Rondon as playoff bullpen begins to take shape

Cubs activate Hector Rondon as playoff bullpen begins to take shape

MILWAUKEE — For the Cubs and Hector Rondon, September will be all about staying healthy and getting ready for October, when they believe their bullpen will be able to match up with anyone.

The Cubs activated Rondon before Tuesday night’s 12-5 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, adding a one-time 30-save closer to help set up for Aroldis Chapman.

“I feel really good — I’m healthy right now,” said Rondon, who had been on the disabled list with a strained right triceps since Aug. 17 and allowed one run on two hits in the seventh inning Tuesday. “I feel a little stronger, too, so I’m ready to go.”

Manager Joe Maddon said Rondon wouldn’t necessarily slide back into a specific eighth-inning role or only high-leverage situations. With a 15 1/2-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the division, the Cubs have the luxury of keeping Rondon on a schedule, resting Chapman in certain save situations and not pushing Carl Edwards Jr. too hard during his rookie season.

Assuming Rondon (18 saves, 2.47 ERA) returns at full strength and Pedro Strop (21 holds, 2.89 ERA) recovers from a torn meniscus in his left knee and a strained right groin, the Cubs will have multiple options in front of Chapman, one of the game’s most intimidating closers with his 105-mph fastball.

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Right-handers Edwards and Justin Grimm would also appear to be locks for the playoff bullpen, with veteran Joe Smith on the bubble trying to bring the funk that’s allowed him to carve out a 10-year career in the big leagues.

Assuming the Cubs construct an 11-man pitching staff in a best-of-five series, Jason Hammel could be on the outside looking in during that round. The Cubs have left-handed (Mike Montgomery, Travis Wood, Rob Zastryzny) and right-handed (Trevor Cahill) swingmen who can throw multiple innings.

“It depends on how many you want to keep,” Maddon said. “You may actually end up with less pitchers and more (position) players in a shorter series. It’s possible.

“When you get to that point, I think you really have to consider who you’re playing and what the composition of that team looks like and all the matchups (that could) occur. We’ll have a lot of difficult decisions to make based on the versatility and how good a lot of our guys are. (But) you got plenty of time to worry about stuff like that. (And) I’m not worried about it.”

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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What To Know: News and Notes From the Upcoming Reds-Cubs Series

What To Know: News and Notes From the Upcoming Reds-Cubs Series

It’s finally Memorial Day Weekend, which is great time to take a moment and reflect on all those who were, when the Cubs were 2-7, adamant about waiting to pass judgement until the holiday weekend. It’s here, and you were right. Congrats to you. Conventional wisdom rules the day, once again. 

The Cincinnati Reds are in town for the final series in this 7-game homestand. The two teams played in Cincinnati a little over a week ago, and the Reds took two of three despite never winning a game by more than two runs. It’ll be Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish, and José Quintana on the mound for the Cubs, countered by Anthony DeSclafani, Tyler Mahle, and Tanner Roark for Cincinnati. Here’s what else to look out for: 

Schwarber’s Staying Put

It sounds like the Kyle Schwarber Leadoff Experiment isn’t going anywhere. He’s lead off for the Cubs in each of the last nine games (including Friday), and is hitting .267/.368/.567 with a .935 OPS over that span. He’s hit 2 of his 7 homers and drawn 6 of his 26 walks out of the leadoff spot. While it’s not his first rodeo, Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon talked pregame about how the team is more convinced that it’s the right fit now. 

“It’s one of those things where you have to believe it to see it,” he said. “And sometimes there’s folks that have to see it to believe it. I just thought it was the right time. Again, I liked it back then -- I did -- however he did not react to it well in that moment. But if you look at his overall abilities  as they stand right now, for me, that’s the perfect spot for him.” 

Cincinnati’s Record: a Reds Herring?

The Reds enter this weekend’s series as the last-place team in the NL Central, and owners of the 5th-worst record (22-27) in the NL. What’s interesting, though, is that they also have the 2nd-best run differential (+25) in the division, which also happens to be the 4th best in the NL. According to Baseball Reference, their actual record is *five* wins lower than it should actually be. 

“We’re playing a team right now that’s record is not good, but they are really good,” Maddon said. “I have a lot of respect for this group.”

The Reds have had some of the best pitching of any team in baseball through the first 40+ games. Going into the long weekend, they rank:

2nd in FIP (3.47)
3rd in ERA (3.50)
5th in K/BB% (17.6)
7th in WHIP (1.23)
4th in HR/FB (12.4% - especially impressive given how homer heavy Great American Ballpark is.) 

Miscellaneous News and Notes

The Cubs called up James Norwood before Friday’s game. He briefly pitched for the Cubs last season, making 11 appearances to the tune of a 4.09 ERA. This season, over 20 innings in Triple-A Iowa, Norwood is holding batters to a .206 average while posting an impressive K/BB of 22.5%. The corresponding move was optioning Rowan Wick back to Triple-A. There’s also been no update on the status of Ben Zobrist, who remains away from the team on a personal absence.