Cubs

Cubs get back to normal, snap losing streak by beating up on lowly Reds

Cubs get back to normal, snap losing streak by beating up on lowly Reds

The seemingly surefire way for these Cubs to get out of a rut? A date with the Cincinnati Reds.

After dropping six of seven to the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins, the Cubs went to the Queen City and swept the Reds. Now, after getting swept in an ugly four-game set with the New York Mets, the Cubs returned to Wrigley Field on the Fourth of July and turned in another blowout win against their Ohio-based Central Division rivals, beating up on the Reds, 10-4.

The Cubs surely didn’t care who the skid-stopping victory came against, but the schedule was in their favor with the Reds — now 30-54, one of the worst teams in baseball — in town.

“It’s huge because we have a lot going for us and we have a lot to miss out on if we don’t minimize those stretches,” outfielder Jason Heyward said after the game. “It’s part of the game, it’s going to happen, you go play good teams that are playing well on the road and go through stretches when you have injuries and things. Everybody that makes it to that spot at the end of the year, they overcome that. That’s what we’ve got to do.”

Monday’s game didn’t prove the Cubs could suddenly beat the Mets after a weekend of beatdowns. It didn’t immediately erase concerns that popped up in those series defeats to the Cardinals and Marlins. But for one day things did seem to get back to normal for a team that had a white-hot start to the season.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs tagged the Reds for three runs in each of the first two innings. Heyward delivered a two-run double in the first inning. Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras each homered in the second inning, Bryant’s blast a two-run shot that served as his National League leading 24th of the season. Two runs scored on a bases-loaded error in the fourth, and Addison Russell hit his own two-run homer in the sixth.

This was the offense that was pouring it on earlier in the season, before a rocky June. It was the offense that’s scorched the Reds all season. The Cubs have outscored the Reds, 97-36, and gone 10-1 in 11 head-to-head matchups.

Kyle Hendricks, with ample support from that offense, was again terrific. Hendricks’ ERA is down to 2.61, and his performance Monday stood out as aces like Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester come off rough outings in New York. Hendricks lasted just 5 1/3 innings Monday, but he allowed just a single unearned run.

“We had a few rough ones, but every team’s going to go through that. It’s a long, long season, and everything’s fine,” Hendricks said. “We’ve had a lot of guys banged up. Expecting a lot of new guys to come in and pick up some big jobs. It’s been a tough stretch, but we’ve still got to take it one game at a time.”

[RELATED: Hendricks pitching as good as any Cubs pitcher]

Detractors will say, “Hey, it was only the Reds. Big deal.” And as mentioned, the Cubs’ problems don’t get thrown out the window with one win against a last-place team. But aside from temporary worry following an outfield collision between Bryant and Albert Almora Jr. — Maddon said Bryant should be fine come Tuesday — there wasn’t much of anything that went wrong in this one.

Or, as Maddon put it:

“Hey, it’s better than not beating the Reds.”

The good news is that the woeful weekend in Queens is now firmly in the rearview mirror, with Monday’s win returning the Cubs to a sense of normalcy. Despite the preseason expectations, the Cubs weren’t going to go 162-0. But the Cubs are hoping that June was just an aberration.

“It’s always good to keep (losing streaks) at a minimum,” Maddon said. “You’re going to have those moments. To think you’re not going to is really skewed kind of thinking. It’s going to happen, and it did. So you move on, you play today’s game, you have a nice dinner, you come back and do it again tomorrow.”

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.