Cubs

Cubs counting on Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant to start producing in playoffs

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Cubs counting on Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant to start producing in playoffs

The Cubs aren’t lucky to be here, not after winning 97 games and surviving baseball’s toughest division. Jake Arrieta turned into Bob Gibson, Kyle Schwarber launched that ball out of PNC Park and a mad-scientist manager kept selecting the right answers for a multiple-choice team.

Raise your hand if you saw Joe Maddon trusting Trevor Cahill (7.52 ERA with the Atlanta Braves) in the eighth inning of a postseason game when he signed a minor-league deal this summer.

But the Cubs are probably fortunate to be in this position — hosting their first home playoff game since 2008 and tied up with the St. Louis Cardinals in this National League division series — without Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant doing any damage.

“We’re looking for them,” Maddon said. “That’s 200 ribeyes between the two of them. That’s really important.”

[MORE: Jake Arrieta emerges as October star and gets locked in for Cubs-Cardinals]

The Cubs can’t play small ball all the way through October. Rizzo and Bryant will have to produce, starting with Monday’s Game 3 at Wrigley Field in what’s become a best-of-three grudge match.

Together, Rizzo and Bryant generated 57 homers, 69 doubles, 200 RBI and 155 walks during the regular season. Combined, the two All-Stars have gone 0-for-21 with eight strikeouts through three postseason games.  

“We’re probably out of our zones a little bit,” Maddon said. “We’re probably playing to what they want us to swing at more than we’re swinging at what we want to swing at.

“To me, it’s expansion of zone, and we’re just not adjusting back to what they’re doing yet. That’s it. Also, I think, to a certain extent they’ve been pressing just a little bit.”

Bryant grounded into seven double plays during 151 regular-season games — and has already done that twice during the playoffs. For what it’s worth, the game’s best rookie has been a far more dangerous hitter at Wrigley Field (21 homers, 1.037 OPS) than on the road (five homers, .693 OPS).

“I’ve hit some balls really hard — just at people,” Bryant said. “In the playoffs, it’s definitely more pitcher-oriented. You always see the pitcher duels. But as an individual, that stuff’s all thrown out the door right now. I could care less if I strike out four times, as long as I’m helping the team win in any way possible. Then I’m doing my job — and that’s our mindset right now.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

Bryant can beat teams in other ways, deflecting a line drive at third base and making a nifty catch during that wild-card victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. He can handle all three spots in the outfield and runs the bases as well as anyone on the team.

“I have all the confidence in the world,” Maddon said. “We’re facing good pitching. That’s what happens in the playoffs. You see good pitchers on a daily basis. We just have to make our adjustments.

“I have a lot of faith in these guys. I don’t feel they’re fatigued. I feel they’re ready to roll. They’re definitely in the moment.”

And the Cubs couldn’t play so loose and with such confidence without Rizzo’s MVP-level production at first base, clubhouse DJ spinning and we’re-winning-the-division swagger.   

“We have a lot to prove,” Rizzo said. “We haven't proven anything yet. We are young. We have a lot of talent. But we have to go out there and take it.”

Chili Davis after being ousted by Cubs: 'There were multiple players in there I didn't connect with'

Chili Davis after being ousted by Cubs: 'There were multiple players in there I didn't connect with'

Chili Davis didn't go all scorched earth on the Cubs in a recent interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, but he had quite a lot to say after being ousted by the organization after just one year as the hitting coach.

The Cubs made Davis the scapegoat for an offense that faded down the stretch, struggling for the entire second half and scoring just 1 run in three of the final four games of the year.

When he was hired a year ago, Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon talked up Davis' impressive resume that includes a 19-year MLB career, two separate stints as a successful hitting coach with the Oakland A's and Boston Red Sox and a philosophy that they hoped would withstand the test of time in the game today, preaching more contact and using the opposite field.

Throughout the 2018 season, Maddon often commended Davis for his ability to communicate with players, particularly in the area of mental approach to each at-bat.

Now that the dust has settled a bit on his firing, Davis felt he had some issues getting through to some Cubs players.

I learned a lot this year," Davis told the Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer. "I learned that the next situation I get in, before I say yes to a job, I need to make sure I know the personnel I'll be dealing with in the clubhouse. I hope the next guy connects better with the players, because I felt that there were multiple players there I didn't connect with. It wasn't that I didn't try; it just wasn't there.

The Cubs hired Anthony Iapoce as their new hitting coach Monday afternoon. Iapoce comes over from the Rangers and has a direct link to John Mallee, who was the Cubs' hitting coach for three seasons before being let go when Davis became available last winter. 

Iapoce also spent three seasons with the Cubs as a special assistant to the GM, overseeing the organization's minor-league hitting from 2013-15. Presumably, he found a way over those years to connect with the Cubs' top young hitting prospects — guys like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras that are now leading the big-league lineup.

Hopefully he has better success at this than I did," Davis said of Iapoce in the Sun-Times article. "But regardless of who's there, certain players there are going to have to make some adjustments because the game's changed and pitchers are pitching them differently. They're not pitching to launch angles and fly balls and all that anymore. They're pitching away from that. They're going to have to make that adjustment whether I'm there or not.

Davis had a whole lot more to say on the matter and I encourage you to read the full interview with Wittenmyer over at ChicagoSunTimes.com.

A healthy Bryant very likely could've changed everything for Davis and the Cubs' 2018 lineup. Contreras hitting like he's capable of in the second half would've made a huge difference, as well.

But the end result is a finish to the 2018 campaign that was viewed universally as a disappointment — particularly in the offensive department — and the Cubs are left with their third different hitting coach in three seasons.

What caused Willson Contreras' downturn in production in 2018?

What caused Willson Contreras' downturn in production in 2018?

There was plenty of "Willson Contreras: Future MVP?" discussion during spring training.

Any time a player in his age-25 year season hits 21 home runs with a .276/.356/.499 slash line at a premium defensive position (catcher) despite missing about a month with a hamstring injury (as Contreras did in 2017), the baseball world takes notice. The notion that he might one day garner MVP recognition was nothing to be laughed at.

Through the first few months of 2018, Contreras did much of the same. He had a small drop off in power, but he still had his moments and was solid overall. Over a three-game stretch in the beginning of May, he went 10-for-15 with three doubles, two triples, three home runs and 11 RBIs. He was the first Cubs catcher with five triples before the All-Star break since Gabby Hartnett in 1935. He even started the All-Star Game — and became the second player in MLB history (after Terry Steinbach) to homer in his first career All-Star at-bat after having homered in his first career MLB at-bat (back in 2016).

But instead of cruising along at a performance level about 20 percent better than league average, something happened.

Here are Contreras' Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) numbers from the past three seasons  (100 is league average, any point above or below is equal to a percentage point above or below league average):

Here’s that breakdown in terms of batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage:

But what caused the downturn in production? 

There were some underlying characteristics of his work, particularly a mixture of significantly higher ground-ball rate, lower average exit velocity and bad luck on balls in play which led to the decrease in production.

Also notable is that after the Midsummer Classic, the hits stopped coming on pitches on the outer third. Dividing the strike zone into thirds (this doesn’t include pitches outside the zone), this is what his batting average and slugging percentage looked like:

Granted, it’s not a significant sample, but it’s there.

One non-offensive thing that sticks out is his workload.

*missed 29 games in August and September with hamstring injury

It was the most innings caught by a Cubs receiver since Geovany Soto logged 1,150.1 innings in his Rookie of the Year season in 2008. Three other catchers besides Contreras logged at least 1,000 innings behind the plate in 2018: Jonathan Lucroy, Yasmani Grandal and Yadier Molina. While they combined to fare better prior to the All-Star break, it wasn’t nearly as precipitous a drop as Contreras suffered.

Lucroy, Grandal and Molina combined to slash .255/.322/.416 before the All-Star Game and .239/.317/.405 after it.

That could possibly have a little something to do with it though.

There’s no way to be entirely sure and to what extent each of the things listed above affected Contreras last season. Could it have been something completely different? Could it have been a minor nagging injury? A mental roadblock? Too many constant adjustments throughout the season? The questions remain. A new voice in newly appointed hitting coach Anthony Iapoce might be just what Contreras, who is entering his age-27 season, needs to get back on track and reestablish his spot among the best catchers in the major leagues.