Cubs

Cubs head to St. Louis with something to prove against Cardinals

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Cubs head to St. Louis with something to prove against Cardinals

Let's go.

That's the Cubs' marketing slogan for the 2015 season and it's also Joe Maddon's attitude with his team facing one of the biggest series of the season - a three-game set with the Cardinals down in St. Louis.

"It should be a blast," Maddon said. "Let's go. Let's go get 'em. It's the most fun part of the year."

Before the Cubs went out and finished off a sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks Sunday at Wrigley Field, Maddon sat inside the air-conditioned cramped interview room and spoke at length about how he hopes his players aren't looking at this series with the Cardinals as a difficult moment.

He wants them to be excited, but to also process everything going on "because we expect it to happen in the years to come."

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Maddon is also preparing to take on baseball's best team without rookie sensation Kyle Schwarber in the lineup. Schwarber is dealing with a rib injury and while he already said his goal is to return for Monday's Labor Day matinee at Busch Stadium, Maddon needs to gameplan without Schwarber until he gets the green light.

The Cubs go into this series trailing the Cardinals by almost 10 games and with only four weeks left in the season, winning the NL Central is going to be difficult.

But Maddon and the Cubs want to make a statement to their divisional rival.

"We need to put a little doubt in their mind that we can beat them even in their place," Kyle Hendricks said.

"We can beat anybody," Miguel Montero said. "We just have to prove it. We can say we can beat them and we have the better team, but there's only one way to find out. Let's win it."

As the young and inexperienced Cubs have entered the stretch run, Maddon has continually talked about having a mindset focused on one day at a time, going on a bunch of "one-game winning streaks." The Cubs had a "one-game winning streak" Sunday and Maddon's goal is to do the same Monday and keep going with that mindset.

But Maddon also admits the next step for the Cubs is to beat the Cardinals in St. Louis, which could do wonders for this team moving forward.

"You've gotta beat 'em in their ballpark," he said. "I've been through this before. When you're playing really good teams like that, you eventually have to beat them in their own ballpark. And that matters.

"We played well down there a lot and we've given up leads late. If we grab the lead, we've gotta learn how to hold on to it there there. That's the next learning step for us."

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The Cubs' playoff odds sit around 98 percent, thanks to a 7.5-game lead over the Washington Nationals for the second NL wild card. But their goal right now is to "get over that hump," as Hendricks said, against the Cardinals.

The Cubs are a different team than they were at the end of June, when they were swept out of Busch Stadium by the Cardinals, scoring just four runs in the three games. That series prompted Maddon to get that magician for the clubhouse in New York. The Cubs have gone 39-22 since.

The clubhouse may be packed with rookies and young players who haven't been through a pennant race before, but the Cubs are heading into the series with the confidence of a team that's hitting its stride at the right time and the understanding they can stick with what's been working.

"There's no need to change anything," Kris Bryant said. "No need to get all hyped up for it. It's just another baseball game that we're gonna go out and try to win."

Said Montero: "They got the best record in baseball for a reason. We just gotta keep playing the way we've been playing and the rest will take care of itself. We can't put that much pressure on ourselves, either."

David Ross is a seasoned veteran with a World Series ring and 14 years of experience in the big leagues. He was brought in to help coach along the youngsters in the clubhouse and as Maddon continues to preach a mindset on only the task at hand, Ross sees it paying dividends.

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"We know we're a good team," he said. "But they go out and prove it every day. They grind at-bats, they know what it takes. It's a fun group to be a part of.

"I don't think we're looking too far ahead or anything like that. It's a good team and we still got a lot of growing to do, which is scary.

"Isn't that scary? We can get better."

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.

Glanville: Changing expectations have made it so 95 wins is not enough for Cubs

Glanville: Changing expectations have made it so 95 wins is not enough for Cubs

During the first week of my rookie season with the Cubs, my teammate, the late Frank Castillo was running his sprints in the outfield in between starts. We were home at Wrigley and as was customary, a pitcher would do pole to poles, meaning he would run from the foul line to the other foul line while following the bend of the warning track. In this case, Frankie was running during batting practice after the fans were let into the ballpark.

The bleacher bums, known for their relentless in-your-face attitude towards visiting outfielders, were supportive and understanding when it came to the home squad, despite the so-so season we were having to date in 1996. When Frank, who had 1 win and 9 losses up until that point, ran by the left field section of these diehards, I heard a fan clearly tell Frank, “That’s OK Frank, next game, you will be 2-9!” It was loud enough for me to hear from where I was shagging fly balls nearby. I was surprised that this group of rough-and-tumble fans still had optimistic words of support.

Yet this was consistent with everything I had seen from the Cubs fans on my way up from the minor leagues, particularly when I was interacting with the fans during major league spring training before I was called up. Positive, hopeful, worried, waiting for bad luck to dash hopes, loyal and always with kind words, no matter how you were playing.

As a player who was just getting his first taste of major league action, this was comforting. The idea that I could make mistakes, that I had room to fall short and support would still be there, but you also wondered where the line was between complacency and patience, rebuilding and folding, hope and naïveté. 

Since I was new enough to just be taking it in, this was clouded by my own fandom. Like most new arrivals, everyone on your team is an All-Star in your mind. You are not sure where you will fit in yet, even with an abundance of self-confidence. Playing with teammates that I had imitated in Wiffle ball or rolled dice with their card on my table during a teenage Strat-O-Matic game, made me recognize that I was surrounded by greatness, in fact, icons. Sandberg, Grace, Dunston, Sosa. These were household names in the baseball mind of my childhood. How could we not have high expectations with these guys?

I was not objective enough to analyze the bullpen or the backup catcher, or how this team hit with runners in scoring position. That was past data, we have a future, and it could all change next week, right?

But there is something different about high expectations when you are on the back end of years of winning. When you are on the heels of a World Championship like the 2016 Cubs produced.

The language the Cubs players used throughout the 2018 campaign and after they were knocked out reflected the highest of expectation. The idea that every year is not just a playoff appearance, a 90-win season, a better-than-last-year achievement. It is a year measured by the singular accomplishment of being a world champion. 

When a team has rattled off a few years in a row of going deep into the postseason with a roster full of young players that could have just as easily stopped and taken pictures for simply being happy to be in “The Show,” it says a lot that these Cubs players arrived expecting much more. Age was just a number, underscoring that not only was winning aspirational, but it was a destination that was pre-set, as if they bought a plane ticket and anything other than a trophy was an unauthorized detour.

Along my professional career, I heard a lot of motivational spring training speeches (at least 14 of them). Every organization says they have assembled the best staff on Earth. Everyone says they have acquired the best talent in the Milky Way. Everyone looks around and sees top draft picks, legends of the past and a few guys that may be in the Hall of Fame one day. Yet all 30 teams are saying the same thing and only one can remain standing when all is said and done.

In today’s era of draft-and-develop over a patient-but-direct timeline, it may come down to whether a young player arrives at the right time in the cycle of his organization. Is he there for the upswing? If you play long enough, every team has a least one upswing, even if it lasts only a year. But you must be a core player, otherwise the trade machine could gobble up your timing.

Regardless, it makes a difference when a team has done it before. It makes expectation a word more akin to destiny. The team does not have to accomplish this championship goal by waving a magic wand. They believe it is now by repeating history, or at least as Mark Twain once referenced, “rhyming” with history. And despite baseball’s fascination and respect for its past, a player’s history is often measured in single-digit years.

After they were quickly eliminated from contention, the 2018 Cubs made it loud and clear. The ending was a huge disappointment. 95 wins was not good enough, a Wild Card was not champagne worthy. 

Yet I cannot help but think back to Frank Castillo and the fan that up until that time in 1996, never saw such a run that this 2018 unit has seen over the past few years. This fan often exuded a sentiment that being relentlessly positive was important and a 95 win-season and an early playoff exit still generated satisfaction. Certainly when I was a rookie arrival, if we won 95 wins that year, 95 major league wins was more than I could have fathomed as a young baseball fan when I was in Little League.

The Cubs have taken steps to show that satisfaction was not achieved in 2018 and there are consequences. Hitting coach Chili Davis was let go, more changes probably on the horizon. Fans can rest assured that the organization’s leadership is playing for the era of “now,” and they require no pat on the back for winning 95 games, in fact, they are declaring that the basking period of 2016 is officially over.