Cubs need to get over the 'mental hump' in St. Louis


Cubs need to get over the 'mental hump' in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS — There are times where it feels like the Cubs almost have to play a perfect game to win at Busch Stadium and beat the best team in baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals are in their heads.

Star manager Joe Maddon basically admitted as much late Friday night after watching his team absorb a 3-2 loss to the Cardinals that took 10 innings, ended on a walk-off error and showed the experience gap in this rivalry.

“Give them credit,” Maddon said. “However, we’ve lost several tough games in this ballpark. We have to get over the hump. It’s more of a mental hump than a physical hump.”

The Cardinals (49-24) prey upon mistakes, play with a sense of calm in big moments and get contributions from guys you never heard of before. The Cubs (39-33) wasted seven strong innings from Jake Arrieta, left 12 men on base and wilted in front of another sellout crowd (45,558).

“I believe in our guys,” Maddon said. “I believe our guys can play with these guys. I know their record is better than ours. There’s a long way to go. We’re gonna get it done here.”

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The Cardinals got it done with Greg Garcia, a pinch-hitter who hadn’t homered in 61 games at Triple-A Memphis this season and still changed the game with one swing.

Five days after Arrieta threw 122 pitches in a complete-game shutout against the Minnesota Twins, Maddon brought in hard-throwing reliever Pedro Strop to protect a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning. Garcia led it off by hammering Strop’s 94 mph fastball 408 feet out toward center field. It just cleared the fence, past the “THIS BUD’S FOR YOU” sign, landing as Garcia’s first career home run in the big leagues.

“We got to win that game,” Arrieta said. “Stropy’s been pitching really well. He just scuffled a little bit there. But they’ve been lights-out. And at the end of the day, they found a way to get it done — and we didn’t.

“Playing a team of their caliber here at Busch Stadium — with a lead late — those are games you have to try and find a way to close out.”

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The defense had bailed out Arrieta in the first and second innings, with Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo throwing home on groundballs to prevent two runs for St. Louis. But the Cubs couldn’t make the big play in the 10th.

With no outs, the bases loaded and five defenders positioned across the diamond, Jhonny Peralta hit a groundball to the right side of the infield off Justin Grimm. Mike Baxter — who had made a great catch running over from right field and into foul territory and diving into the seats earlier in the night — had to hurry and threw wide of home plate.

“We got to win these games,” Rizzo said. “These are important, crucial games to gain ground and stay in the race with them.”

The third-place Cubs now trail the Cardinals by 9 1/2 games in the National League Central. For all the confidence and nerve they’ve shown in winning 18 one-run games already this season, the Cubs still have so much left to prove in St. Louis.

“We know what the Cardinals are doing,” Arrieta said. “We know that we have to do some things a little bit better to kind of trim that lead.

“It’s about coming out and just trying to win the game that day and not necessarily worrying about too far into the future. We have more than enough time to put together some good stretches to minimize that number a little bit.

“But it starts here.”

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.

Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening


Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

Is this the offseason that Cubs executive Jason McLeod finally becomes an MLB general manager?

According to Bruce Levine, the Giants are reportedly interested in McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development, for their vacant general manager position.

McLeod joined the Cubs' front office in 2011 alongside Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Before the Cubs, he spent six years in the Red Sox front office and two in the Padres' (with Hoyer, who was San Diego's general manager from 2010-2011). 

Of course, the Giants' reported interest in McLeod doesn't necessarily mean that he will interview for the job. However, it's worth noting that McLeod interviewed for the Twins' general manager job in 2016; he also withdrew his name from consideration for the Padres' general manager job in 2014. 

In addition to the Giants, McLeod's name has been linked to the Mets' general manager vacancy. This is more speculation, but the point is that it seems to be only a matter of time before McLeod is hired as general manager elsewhere.

For what it's worth, though, McLeod is under contract through 2021 and has previously said that he is grateful to be with the Cubs. 

“I’m exceptionally grateful,” McLeod said. “All of us are. Look at where we are at this moment in time with this team," McLeod said in 2016. "I can’t imagine a better environment, a better culture to work at in baseball.

"We’ve been together a long time. We’re friends. We’re good. We embrace the fact that we are good. And we challenge ourselves to be even better.”