Cubs

Cubs ride momentum into showdown with Pirates thinking playoffs

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Cubs ride momentum into showdown with Pirates thinking playoffs

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs didn’t want to cash in all their trade chips for a two-month rental at the deadline when the best-case scenario might be facing Gerrit Cole on the road in a one-game playoff.

The Cubs will miss the Pittsburgh Pirates ace during a huge three-game series that begins Monday night at PNC Park, but a young team will still get a feel for playing at that high level.

“I love it,” manager Joe Maddon said. “To really ascend in a division, you have to play the better teams within your group and beat them. And to beat them where they live also is important, too. It’s really kind of fun. I think it’s a blast.”

The Cubs ride into Pittsburgh with a sense of momentum after Sunday’s 4-3 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, sweeping this four-game series at Miller Park and thinking about October.

[MORE: Kris Bryant undergoes concussion-protocol testing after hustle play]

That pushed the Cubs to 10 games over the .500 mark for the first time this season – and into a tie with the San Francisco Giants for the National League’s second wild-card position.

The defending World Series champs open a four-game series at Wrigley Field on Thursday night. After this week, everyone should have a much better idea about whether or not the Cubs (57-47) really are contenders.

“They’ve been there, done that,” Maddon said. “No question. But at the same time, if you get a bunch of hungry guys coming on, that could be a pretty good position to be in, too.”

The Cubs got a quality spot start from Clayton Richard (one run allowed in six innings) on Sunday afternoon, wringing another win out of a guy who spent most of this season pitching for Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate.

The Cubs are able to line up their most accomplished pitchers – Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Dan Haren – for a Pirates team (61-43) that’s four games up in the wild-card race.

“We’re confident here that this group can get it done,” Arrieta said. “We just need to be conscious and aware of those moments when focus might start to slip mentally through the course of the game. Limit the mental mistakes. Make the plays we’re supposed to make and pitch a little bit. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans]

Even if winning the division appears to be out of reach for a third-place team that trails the St. Louis Cardinals by 9.5 games, there’s still value in feeling the heat of a pennant race. It’s all part of what the Cubs are trying to build here.

Forget all the rookies in the lineup and think about it this way: In his career, Anthony Rizzo has now played in almost as many All-Star Games (two) as meaningful games after the July 31 trade deadline (three).

“You have to stretch your mind once to get to the playoffs,” Maddon said. “And then moving beyond that, it becomes more believable on an annual basis and it’s something (where) you won’t settle for anything less than that on an annual basis. It’s all part of the maturation process of the team. It’s all there.”

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.