Cubs

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer dissects what’s gone wrong and how the defending champs turn it around

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer dissects what’s gone wrong and how the defending champs turn it around

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs are without a simple explanation for their uneven start, not totally buying the World Series hangover theory, not having a devastating injury as an excuse and not noticing a new sense of entitlement in the clubhouse.

Being surprised that the Cubs are hovering around .500 might be the wrong way to look at it. This is a team that has allowed 41 runs in the first inning, put up a 4.56 rotation ERA, committed 27 errors through 34 games and watched underperforming hitters up and down the lineup. It could be so much worse.

“I don’t think it’s complacency at all,” Hoyer said Friday before the Cubs inched to 18-17 with a 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. “There’s no diagnostic test for why we’re a .500 team right now. It’s not like you can say we’re missing this or we’re lacking that. Ultimately, we’re a .500 team – and we’ve actually scrambled for some wins to get to that point. 

“In some ways, we probably haven’t played as well as that record, but I don’t think it’s complacency. These guys are really competitive. Probably the thing that I look at the most is that we’ve had so many deficits. I feel like the whole year we’ve played from behind. 

“When you’re behind a lot, it does a lot of things that are negatives. It forces hitters to press. You feel like you have to get a hit here, because we’ve got to cut into the lead. It puts players on edge. You’re constantly playing that way. 

“Also, it shortens up some starts where you wish you could allow a guy to work his way in. But when you’re in the sixth inning and you’re down 3-1 or 5-2, you have to pinch-hit there. You don’t have a choice. So I just think that the nature of our early games has made this whole season feel like we’re scrambling out of the woods every night.” 

Another weird aspect is that the Cubs pretty much nailed their offseason moves, except for late-winter signing Brett Anderson, who’s on the disabled list with a lower back strain and an 8.18 ERA.

The Cubs carefully selected the players they wanted to add to this mix, focusing on accomplished veterans who already owned World Series rings. Wade Davis – who has two wins, eight saves and a 0.00 ERA – might be the best closer on the planet. Koji Uehara – who has held the opponent scoreless in 14 of his 16 outings – is an elite setup guy. Jon Jay (.299 average) is an ideal extra outfielder and mentor to Albert Almora Jr. 

But this isn’t about one big move or a quick fix almost 25 percent into the schedule. It’s all the little things that have added up to a fourth-place team so far. These Cubs aren’t playing defense at a historic level, the way the 2016 team made spectacular throws and catches look routine and propped up the pitching staff almost every night. So much for defense being slump-proof. 

“Last year, I thought the hallmark of what we did really well was we had clean, efficient games where we led from start to finish,” Hoyer said. “We went up 4-1, got into the bad part of the bullpen and then spread it out and not even use our good bullpen to win. Those games were on a regular basis. This year, this feels like the opposite. It feels like we’re constantly fighting from behind.

“We’ve shown a lot of fight. But it feels like a lot of that fight is having to come back in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. And that’s a terrible recipe for success.”

The good news for the Cubs is that the Cardinals (19-15) aren’t running away from them and no team has separated itself yet in the National League Central. This isn’t the beginning of the Wrigleyville rebuild, trying to project prospects from the Baseball America rankings and waiting for the right free agent at the right time. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to envision the Cubs taking off again.  

“I just don’t think we’ve played our best baseball yet,” Hoyer said. “I can’t imagine this group – given what they went through last year, given how much they care about each other – (would) take anything for granted. 

“The comforting thing is we just saw largely the same group win the World Series. We know it’s there. We know that a lot of these guys are underperforming where they will be at the end of the year. 

“We’re due for an offensive outbreak. We know we can play better defense. We know we can pitch better. So we know it’s all there. Now we have to put it together.”

The bullpen's rough stretch continues as Cubs blow two saves in series opener

The bullpen's rough stretch continues as Cubs blow two saves in series opener

Sound the alarm, the Cubs’ bullpen issues are back. 

Friday afternoon’s culprits were Brad Brach and Steve Cishek, who together allowed three earned runs on five hits over 2.2 innings of work in the Cubs’ 6-5 loss. It was the second blown save of the season for both pitchers. 

“I was locked in today, I really was,” Cishek said. “It was just a lack of execution. I’m not going to make any excuses.” 

After spending much of the last six weeks being one of baseball’s most reliable groups, the Cubs’ bullpen has hit a rough patch of late. Over the last two weeks, only the Red Sox have more blown saves than Chicago. In that span they rank 21st in ERA, 16th in FIP, and most foreboding of all, 4th in BB%. 

“The last couple times around we’ve had shorter outings from our starters, and I think that’s kind of caused us to use them more recently,” Joe Maddon said. “But they’re fine. They’re fine. It’s just one of those days, man.” 

It’s true that the Cubs’ bullpen is still relatively fresh; they’ve pitched 168.2 innings in 2019, more than only eight other teams. Over the last two weeks, however, they’ve pitched 48.2 innings - which is 8th most in the league. They came into Friday’s game shorthanded, as Maddon noted that they were looking to avoid using Brandon Kintzler, Carl Edwards Jr., Tyler Chatwood, and Kyle Ryan. 

“[Cishek] probably didn’t have a full tank,” Maddon said. “Probably ¾ maybe. So the stuff wasn’t as clean or crisp.”

Cishek declined to comment about how energy he felt he had on Friday. Only Tyler Chatwood has thrown more relief innings than Cishek over the last week, and both Chatwood and Kintzler rank among the top-20 most-used relievers going back to mid-May. 

“Those guys always get it done,” Kyle Hendricks said. “They’ve been being used a lot in the last few days, so they can’t come in every time and get the job done. But they’re making their pitches, and attacking, and there’s nothing more you can ask for. We know they’re going to be there for us, and they have been all year.”

Late innings have been especially difficult to navigate over the last few series. After the two blown saves today, the Cubs are now 9-for-20 in save situations on the year. There are internal reinforcements coming, though, as Pedro Strop is close to returning from his hamstring injury. 

“It’s more experienced guys coming back into the fold,” Maddon said. “Guys that have done that.

“When Strop comes back, then all these guys get pushed back. It’s just lengthens your bullpen. It lengthens it. By having him there, with what he’s able to do in the last inning or two. Stropy will lengthen us out.”

And while the noise to go get another proven reliever grows, and the date that signing Craig Kimbrel without losing a draft pick nears, the Cubs are confident that a few rough outings from a good group, going through a tough stretch, is no reason to panic. 

“I still think we’re in a good spot,” Cishek said. “As the fans ride the roller coaster, we do too. There’s ups and downs throughout the long season. We started off slow, then we rode a hot streak for a long time. It’s going to happen again, we’re going to be fine.”

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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