Cubs

Cubs are seeing The Kris Bryant Effect

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Cubs are seeing The Kris Bryant Effect

For all the hot-take debates and service-time drama in spring training, both sides can now claim to be right: The Cubs are feeling The Kris Bryant Effect.

At 21-16, the Cubs are good enough to where one game could make the difference between making the playoffs and going golfing/hunting/fishing in early October.

And almost seven full seasons of Bryant (1.1 WAR so far) is still greater than six, because, as advertised, he’s a middle-of-the-order force with face-of-the-franchise star power. 

For Bryant, it will be a homecoming of sorts when the Cubs open a three-game series against James Shields and the San Diego Padres on Tuesday night at Petco Park. 

Bryant found the right balance at the University of San Diego, where he excelled athletically and academically, winning the Golden Spikes Award, college baseball’s Heisman Trophy, and turning down the chance to pursue a Rhodes Scholarship.

[MORE CUBS: Despite loss, Cubs leaving Wrigley with a great feeling]

Three years after sending out vibes he would want first-round money coming out of Bonanza High School in Las Vegas – and getting taken by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 18th round – Bryant developed into the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft.

The Cubs are expected to shake up their roster again before Tuesday's game, with lefty reliever Phil Coke getting designated for assignment and right-hander Brian Schlitter going down to Triple-A Iowa while Tsuyoshi Wada joins the rotation and Junior Lake becomes part of the outfield mix again. But Bryant has been a quick study during his first month in The Show:

•  The Cubs went 5-3 while keeping Bryant down at Iowa and pushing back his free-agency clock to after the 2021 season. Bryant’s big-league debut on April 17 became a hold-up-your-iPhone moment at Wrigley Field, even with Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts against Shields during a 5-4 loss to the Padres.

“I felt more comfortable after the first day, just to get all the hoopla out of the way,” Bryant said. “It’s definitely a whole lot more comfortable seeing some guys for the second time and seeing how they’re pitching me. It’s still kind of the little cat-and-mouse game that they’re trying to figure me out and I’m trying to figure them out. I think it will be that way the whole season.”

•  Bryant led the National League on Monday by seeing 4.46 pitches per plate appearance. He also ranked tied for fourth in walks (24) and showed up as a top-10 RBI producer (24) despite playing in only 29 games after almost missing the first two weeks of the season. His presence clearly brings another dimension to an emerging team.

“It’s been an issue for us over the years,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “If you add a few veterans that do a nice job of controlling the zone, and a couple kids come up who are good at it, (then) all of a sudden we have a lineup that’s not fun for a starting pitcher to go through three or four times.”

[MORE CUBS: Travis Wood ready for whatever in move to Cubs bullpen]

•  After so much buildup, Bryant didn’t homer during his first 91 plate appearances, which set off an empty-the-dugout, silent-treatment, in-game celebration inside Miller Park’s visiting clubhouse. That shot against the Milwaukee Brewers began a four-homers-in-seven-days barrage.

“He’ll be pretty relaxed now,” Hall of Famer Billy Williams said. “He wanted to get that out of the way, because just before he came up here, there was a lot of talk about him hitting the ball out of the ballpark, and I think he could have been pressing a little bit.

“Plus the fact you got major-league pitchers up here pitching him tough. This is what happens when a young kid comes up. You got scouts sitting back there and all of a sudden they see what you can hit and they start pitching to things that you can’t hit.”

Williams – who first joined the organization in 1956 and now works as a senior advisor – smiled before a recent game at Wrigley Field.

“He’s going to be the perfect hitter for this ballpark,” Williams said. “The perfect hitter. He’ll hit the ball to right field. He’ll hit the ball to left field. He’ll hit it to any part (of the ballpark).

“He’s a big, right-handed lowball hitter. He’s a flyball hitter. And pitchers like to throw the ball down. So things will come together.”

•  Bryant didn’t ignore the other parts of his game while putting up a .902 OPS. At 6-foot-5, and with a habit of patting the ball in his glove before throwing, there will be questions about whether or not he can stick at third base. But right now, that probably says more about the organization’s stash of position players and potential flexibility than some glaring defensive weakness.

“I’ve been very impressed with how KB’s been playing over at third,” pitcher Jon Lester said. “(With) that big frame, (you kind of) wonder from the outside looking in. But he’s done a great job.”

Bryant’s surprising speed, aggressive instincts and risk-taking on the bases prompted one pro scout to give him this nickname: “The Untaggable Man.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Buy a Kris Bryant jersey here]

This shows up in subtle ways. Bryant’s hustle on a routine groundball to third base earned him an infield single during Noah Syndergaard’s big-league debut last week. The Cubs didn’t score during that two-outs, third-inning sequence, but it forced the New York Mets phenom to throw 18 extra pitches during an eventual 6-1 loss.

“Any time you can startle a team – and they don’t expect (something like) that – it sets them off their rhythm,” Bryant said. “I try to do everything I can to shake up the rhythm of a pitcher.

“He was pitching really well up to that point, making us look pretty bad up there. I definitely think that made him throw more pitches.”

•  For all the hype generated by adidas, Red Bull, Boras Corp., the Chicago media, the national writers, Epstein’s front office and the business/marketing wings at the team’s Clark Street headquarters, Bryant hasn’t really let it all go to his head, showing wise-beyond-his-years maturity at the age of 23.

“He’s a mild-mannered kid,” Williams said. “He’s stayed pretty comfortable in his skin. That’s a good thing. He’s not going to be a guy that brags and all that bull----. He’s a guy just going out there and doing his job.” 

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
 
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I definitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."