Cubs

Cubs need to come up with answers for pitching problems

travis-wood-cubs-brewers-5-09-15.png

Cubs need to come up with answers for pitching problems

MILWAUKEE — If everything’s going so great around the Cubs, why did backup catcher David Ross pitch for the first time since Little League?

Joe Maddon almost always delivers money quotes for the media, and he doesn’t believe in throwing his players under the bus. The manager is thoughtful, engaging, refreshing and aware of life outside baseball. But there are also times where he goes into happy talk and starts sounding like Rick Renteria.  

“We got our butts beat, but I was really, really pleased with the effort once again,” Maddon said, leading off his postgame session with reporters following Saturday night’s 12-4 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. 

[MORE: Respect 90: Kris Bryant will lead Cubs by example]

But the Cubs (15-14) can’t gloss over the issues that keep building around their pitching staff, whether it’s a rotation that hasn’t eaten up enough innings, a bullpen searching for answers or a shaky defense that keeps giving opponents extra chances:

  • Travis Wood only lasted four innings against the worst team in baseball, giving up six runs, four earned, as his ERA nearly ballooned to 5.00. Kyle Hendricks (0-1, 5.61 ERA) will start Sunday afternoon against the Brewers (10-21).

Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel have accounted for 11 of the rotation’s 14 quality starts. The Cubs simply aren’t getting enough length out of the back end of their rotation.

“You just keep putting them out there, man,” Maddon said. “You put your guys out there until it happens. You keep working with them. You keep showing a positive message to them. The work’s good. The work’s great, actually. For some of the guys, it’s just not playing all the way through yet. But it will.”

And if it doesn’t, then the Cubs might have to start looking harder at external solutions.

“Obviously, you’ll talk about things,” Maddon said. “You’ll talk about things internally and try and figure out if there’s a better way to do things, absolutely.”

  • This definitely stresses the bullpen and opens up the middle of the game to the weaker spots on the pitching staff. Edwin Jackson couldn’t get an out in the fifth inning and was charged with three runs. Phil Coke allowed both inherited runners to score and now has a 6.52 ERA.

There are no great answers for Maddon in that situation.

“Every team, every GM, every manager…you’re always evaluating,” Maddon said. “That conversation exists all the time, even through what appears to be good moments and then bad moments, too. You’re always looking to see if there’s something we can do a little bit better.”

[RELATED: Kris Bryant hits first big-league homer in loss to Brewers]

  • Pedro Strop admitted he hasn’t been feeling the same oomph with his fastball lately, but he wouldn’t break the code and blame it on his workload.

“I’m not that person,” Strop said. “Maybe somebody else will say it, but not me. I just like to battle, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Strop began the season with 12 scoreless outings but has since watched his ERA jump to 4.26. He woke up on Saturday tied for the major-league lead with 16 appearances.

“I’m kind of used to that,” Strop said. “And it’s early in the season, too, so I don’t want to use that as a complaint. My fastball, it doesn’t have that life that I need, and we’re working on it.”

Maddon believes everything will even out with Strop, who reemerged as an elite setup guy since getting traded from the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season.   

“I’m not worried, because the numbers are the same,” Maddon said. “He might be feeling something right now, but the numbers are the same.”   

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

  • At the same time, closer Hector Rondon feels like he hasn’t been pitching enough to get into a really good rhythm, because the Cubs haven’t had that many save opportunities. Rondon went five days between his fourth and fifth saves, and then another five days between his fifth and sixth saves this season.

Rondon admitted he might have lost his edge on Friday night, not having the same adrenaline rush with a four-run lead and nearly blowing it before hanging on for a 7-6 win. Rondon also shook off catcher Miguel Montero a few times and threw Milwaukee 19 straight fastballs, all between 94 and 96 mph.

“You should never get wild with your fastball only,” Maddon said. “When you’re out there just throwing fastball, fastball, fastball and you’re walking people, throw something else. That’s like Catching/Pitching 101: Do not permit a pitcher to get wild with his fastball — and a pitcher should know that.”  

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Do the Cubs need to make a deal?

cubs-stl-pod-525.jpg
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
Anthony Rizzo
Javy Baez
Willson Contreras
Addison Russell
Jason Heyward
Kyle Schwarber

Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. are close to their career marks, too.

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."