Cubs

Cubs: Joe West's cowboy act still bothers Joe Maddon

Cubs: Joe West's cowboy act still bothers Joe Maddon

ST. LOUIS — Joe Maddon hadn’t heard from Major League Baseball’s New York headquarters by the time he met with reporters before Tuesday night’s rivalry game at Busch Stadium.

“Not yet,” Maddon said. So MLB officials might as well put this on his tab after the Cubs manager spent roughly half of a media session that lasted 10-plus minutes criticizing the way umpire Joe West handled the end of Kyle Hendricks’ near no-hitter.

West started trending on Twitter after ejecting Maddon in the ninth inning of Monday night’s 4-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman had already started warming up in the bullpen when Jeremy Hazelbaker led off with a home run, which led to catcher Miguel Montero checking in on Hendricks.

When Montero returned to home plate, West tapped him on the shoulder and told him to go back out to the mound, and then warned it would count as a visit. Instead of rolling with the stall tactics, Maddon felt like “Cowboy Joe” became a distraction from a brilliant pitching performance.

“Absolutely,” Maddon said. “I mean this: St. Louis fans are really, obviously, intelligent baseball fans. The way they reacted to Kyle coming to the plate (in the seventh inning), I’m certain that had he pitched a no-hitter, they really would have given him like a St. Louis reception.

“(It’s) having to take him out of the game properly. He would have left the field in the right manner. So that was so unnecessary what occurred. There was a detraction, I thought, in regards to what the moment should have really felt like for everybody.”

West argued that an umpire has the power to count a catcher walking out to the mound as a visit, saying he’s done this before when Tony La Russa managed the Cardinals.

“Of course you can,” Maddon said. “Technically, there’s a lot of things you can do that aren’t done. Technically, if you ask a player to go speak to a pitcher from the dugout — which you do almost every night with every umpiring crew — (then it’s a visit). Technically, if you relay information from the dugout to a player to the mound, that could be considered a trip. Absolutely, if that’s what you choose to do.”

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Have you seen this rules interpretation before?

“No,” Maddon said. “That’s what I’m saying — it happens all the time. It’s just a method. Let’s give you the full monty right here: We needed time for Aroldis, only because this guy’s pitching a no-hitter. It’s a four-run lead. I don’t want Aroldis just to get totally amped up yet, because it wasn’t necessary.

“I.e., if (Kyle) walks the first guy and the no-hitter’s still intact, Aroldis is still not in that game. So you don’t want Aroldis to get to that level until it’s absolutely necessary. So there’s an 0-2 pitch that goes in the seats, it becomes necessary.

“(Aroldis) was close. Needed about 60 seconds. That’s not an exaggeration – 30 to 60 to get him properly ready for the game. That’s all we needed. That’s why I wanted the guys to go and talk to (Kyle).

“I would have taken the slow walk out there. He would have walked in. The game would (have ended) and nobody would have been wiser for it — or less than for it. That’s exactly what happened. There’s no other explanation.”

Maddon got in West’s face and made an appearance on the mound, leaving the ball in first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s glove and killing enough time for Chapman.

“My only resort was to do what I did to make sure that Aroldis got ready,” Maddon said. “That was absolutely a conscious thought on my part. I will not deny that.”

With the Cubs on the verge of clinching the division, and the Cardinals going through a bridge year, this rivalry needed a little drama and some more entertainment value.

“The fact that I got thrown out of the game — I don’t care,” Maddon said. “Big deal. It’s just something that I had to do in the moment based on an inappropriate reaction by the umpire. That’s it.

“It’s normal protocol. I’m not asking for anything extraordinary. I think any manager ... I’m almost certain the other 29 would have done exactly the same thing. There’s no question.”

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.