Cubs

Cubs: Kyle Hendricks trying to tune out all the noise in rotation battle

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Cubs: Kyle Hendricks trying to tune out all the noise in rotation battle

PHOENIX, Ariz. - If Kyle Hendricks is healthy, it would be surprising to see anybody else beat him out for the fifth starter spot when the Cubs break camp to start the 2016 regular season.

The Cubs have four pitchers in their projected bullpen - Adam Warren, Travis Wood, Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill - with track records as starters, but entering spring, it seemed as if it was Hendricks' job to lose.

Joe Maddon has insisted there are no final decisions made on the rotation beyond Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey, but also admitted the incumbents (Jason Hammel and Hendricks) have a leg up on the rest of the competition.

Hendricks struck out four and gave up a run in two innings Thursday in the Cubs' 2-1 loss in their Cactus League opener, and said he's just trying to block out all the noise.

"I'm pretty good at focusing on what I gotta do," Hendricks said. "It's just coming in every day and not really looking around, just keeping your head down and working hard.

"I know I have a lot to work on mechanically, but also getting my arm strength up for the first game. There's a lot to do to focus on yourself, for sure, and not think about all that."

[CUBS: Schwarber playing two positions will boost his development]

Maddon said he wanted to see Hendricks out in some game action to watch how the 26-year-old right-hander handled his mechanical adjustments and tempo in game. The Cubs want Hendricks to slow things down a bit and make sure he gets into a rhythm.

After a stellar rookie campaign (7-2, 2.46 ERA, 1.08 WHIP), Hendricks regressed a bit in 2015 (8-7, 3.95 ERA, 1.16 WHIP). But his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was almost identical to 2014 (3.36 compared to 3.32) and he also saw his strikeouts rise significantly (from 5.3 K/9 to 8.4).

Hendricks made 32 starts last season and it's safe to say any team in baseball would take those numbers from their fifth starter.

Hendricks, however, feels like he has room to grow entering his second full big-league season.

"I wasn't too happy with last year," he said. "I expected a lot better - more innings, better performance, honestly, going deeper into games. Just being better for my team.

"I think there's a lot more."

Hendricks got lit up by the Chicago White Sox in mid-August last season (eight hits, three walks, five runs in 3.1 innings), but feels like he turned a corner when he realized some mechanical issues on video after that outing.

He posted a 3.88 ERA in nine starts from that point on, including 12 straight shutout innings to close out the regular season.

"I felt good at how I ended," Hendricks said. "I kinda salvaged at the end there and finished strong, but I wanna be that guy that is consistent every time out and the team can know what to expect from me every time out.

"I wasn't that all last year, so I'm looking to have consistency from start to finish."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Hendricks said he has different "cues" in his mechanics now and feels like he has a better understanding of how to fix any issues in-game. He also listens to his catchers and Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio, who know what to look for now.

Hendricks - a Dartmouth graduate - admitted he can think too much at times on the mound and is trying to just see the glove and throw the ball.

With all the competition around him in Cubs camp this spring and his inconsistency last year, does Hendricks feel like he has something to prove?

"Possibly," he said. "I'm not really thinking about it. I'm just trying to go out there and make good pitches and really simplify as much as I can.

"If you start thinking too much, you can get in your own head."

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."