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Cubs feel every Jason Hammel start is a chance to win

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Cubs feel every Jason Hammel start is a chance to win

Jason Hammel is on fire.

Hammel gets the ball Friday in the second game of this weekend's four-game set with the visiting Reds, and he brought in a recent string of success that's made him one of the best starting pitchers in the National League.

Entering Friday's game, his 2.76 ERA over his first 11 starts placed him in the top 10 in the NL among starters, and he ranked just outside the top 10 with 76 strikeouts.

And Hammel's been particularly strong of late, posting a 2.03 ERA and striking out 60 opposing hitters in his last eight starts, during which he's 4-1.

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It's all part of a campaign that could send the right-hander to Cincinnati as a part of this summer's All-Star Game.

But if he sounds like a surprise All-Star candidate to you, he doesn't to his teammates.

“He hasn’t surprised me at all," fellow Cubs starter Jake Arrieta said. "It’s kind of the Jason that I’ve seen in the past. We had him over here last year, and he had a tremendous run with us leading up to the trade to Oakland. I saw him have an extremely good year in 2012 in Baltimore. He made that transition from being a guy who struggled, a guy who went up and down, back and forth from starting to the bullpen to really transforming himself into an extremely durable, quality starter and a high-level starter for us. He’s extremely consistent. You know what you’re going to get when he toes the rubber. He’s going to pound the strike zone with all three of his pitches, he’s not going to walk many guys and he’s going to pitch deep into the game. And he’s been showing us exactly that thus far this year, and I expect nothing less from him.”

“Jason’s been my teammate for a while," outfielder Dexter Fowler said. "This is probably the best I’ve seen him pitch. He looks comfortable, and he’s executing his pitches. Everything’s going his way.”

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon wants Tsuyoshi Wada to hit the reset button]

Hammel's excellence on the mound isn't just giving him his own eye-popping stats, it's also making life easier for his teammates.

Be that a daily expectation that Hammel will deliver or specifics of playing the field, Hammel's teammates love it when he takes the hill.

“I don't know if his performance specifically gives us added confidence, it’s knowing what you’re going to get from him every time he’s out there, and that gives us the feeling of, ‘OK, we’ve got a chance to win today.’ Every time he’s out there, we’ve got a good shot to win the game," Arrieta said. "And that’s kind of the reputation that he’s starting to develop over the past couple of years, and it’s a tribute to his ability to take that next step not only out there every fifth day but in between starts. Understanding scouting reports, refining his stuff in the bullpen and getting ready for the next lineup. And that’s what he does really well.”

“His pace of game is great, keeps the infield active. He’s a solid, solid pitcher for us," catcher David Ross said. "He’s been doing everything you could ask from the starter. He goes deep into games, saves our bullpen. There’s really not a whole lot of innings where you feel stressed out, no real bases-loaded, nobody-out situations. He keeps the game pretty much at bay and is really, really consistent. We enjoy when everybody’s on the mound around here, but for sure Jason’s been one of our most consistent starters.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs get back to normal with re-opening of RF bleachers]

Hammel's been striking out guys at a rapid pace this season, averaging nearly seven strikeouts a start. In his last six starts, he's struck out 49 batters. In his last four, he's struck out 35 batters. He sat down 11 Miami Marlins in the Cubs' win on June 1.

His teammates like it when he does that, too.

“It kind of gives us a day off," Fowler joked. "You don’t have to run for too many balls, it’s just him and the catcher.”

And though Hammel might be the guy (or one of the guys) representing the Cubs at the All-Star Game, he's got plenty of talented company in the Cubs rotation. Arrieta ranks just a few notches below Hammel in ERA (3.16) and ranks higher in strikeouts (83). Jon Lester has 70 strikeouts. Kyle Hendricks' ERA of 3.96 also has him in the top 30 in the NL.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

That confidence Hammel provides when he takes the ball carries throughout the whole rotation.

“It’s great, especially as a catcher, to have that much fun with this staff. There’s so many weapons that each guy possesses," Ross said. "It makes it real easy as a catcher, and fun, to be a part of this staff.”

Maybe more than one Cubs starter will make the National League's All-Star roster. But for now, the team is simply enjoying the fact that these pitchers are giving their teammates a chance to win every single day.

“It gives you a chance when you go out there and you’re like, ‘OK, all we have to do is put up some runs,’” Fowler said.

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."