Cubs

Cubs: Sammy Sosa (barely) stays on the Hall of Fame ballot for another year

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Cubs: Sammy Sosa (barely) stays on the Hall of Fame ballot for another year

Sammy Sosa used to love the spotlight, but now it feels like his name only comes up in the Cooperstown voting or with the Cubs Convention question. The star attraction during all those summers in Wrigleyville resurfaces in the dead of winter – for a news cycle or two – and then disappears again.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America elected Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza to the National Baseball Hall of Fame while Roger Clemens (45.2 percent) and Barry Bonds (44.3 percent) – two of the biggest symbols from The Steroid Era – didn’t come close to the 75-percent threshold needed for induction.

Griffey went 437-for-440, scoring the highest percentage (99.3) in the history of this popularity contest. Junior finished his highlight-reel career with 630 home runs and 10 Gold Gloves in center field, spending almost his entire career with the Seattle Mariners organization that drafted him No. 1 overall and his hometown Cincinnati Reds (plus a run with the 2008 White Sox after a July 31 deadline trade).

Piazza – the power-hitting catcher who turned into a 12-time All-Star and a franchise icon for the New York Mets after the Los Angeles Dodgers picked him in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft – broke through with 83 percent of the vote in his fourth year on the ballot.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Sosa just cleared the 5-percent cutoff and will remain on the ballot for another year after the BBWAA released the results on Wednesday, but his resume isn’t moving the needle, the percentages going from 12.5 to 7.2 to 6.6 to 7 since 2013.

At this point, Sosa is not expected to attend next week’s Cubs Convention, and it would probably take a fundamental shift in thinking for that sort of reunion to happen, where he’s signing autographs, sitting alongside old teammates and telling stories inside a packed downtown hotel ballroom.

The marketing machine has so many other personalities to promote that weekend (Jan. 15-17) at the Sheraton Grand Chicago, from a Manager of the Year (Joe Maddon) to a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) to a Rookie of the Year (Kris Bryant), plus the big-name additions to a 97-win team (Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, John Lackey).

In what’s becoming a new Cubs Convention tradition, a fan at the microphone or a reporter in the media scrum will ask chairman Tom Ricketts about Sosa and when the franchise’s all-time leader in home runs (545) will ever be invited back to Wrigley Field.

From top to bottom, the organization has completely changed since Sosa walked out during the final game of the 2004 season, leaving him without many longtime allies on the North Side (where institutional memories of some behind-the-scenes personality clashes still linger).

[MORE: Ex-White Sox OF Ken Griffey Jr. makes HOF while Tim Raines comes up just short]

From an ownership point of view, the sense is that Sosa could account for whatever happened – or didn’t happen – during that time and follow Major League Baseball’s roadmap back into the game.

That’s a reasonable expectation. But it’s still “awkward” – as Ricketts has said – that such a big part of the franchise’s history keeps fading from view. Especially when so many other former players use their Cubs connections to work in baseball operations and broadcasting.

Team president Theo Epstein already hired Manny Ramirez as a hitting consultant, believing “Manny Being Manny” meant something different after failing at least two drug tests, cooperating with MLB officials and sharing his story with the next generation of players.    

“I really like what he does with the hitters,” Maddon said during last season’s surprising playoff run. “Beyond that, almost as a cultural coach, (given) the fact that we have so many young Hispanic players, (Manny’s) here to validate a lot of the stuff that we’re talking about. (It) really helps – not a little – but a lot. His influence within that group has been substantial.

“When I have a situation or a moment dealing with some of the younger guys there, he’ll come in, we’ll talk about it, and then I just turn him loose.

“I love having him here. He’s a positive, upbeat kind of a guy, so he’s been a really nice fit. I’m telling you – when it comes to Starlin (Castro) and Jorge Soler, primarily those two guys – the job he’s done has been spectacular.”

Sosa’s reputation unraveled with that corked-bat incident, an unconvincing performance in front of Congress and a New York Times report that identified him as one of the players who tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2003 (during what was supposed to be an anonymous survey).

Mark McGwire – Sosa’s foil during the 1998 Home Run Derby – did some version of a confessional media tour, took hitting-coach jobs with the St. Louis Cardinals and Dodgers and will be the San Diego Padres bench coach this year. (McGwire came in at 12.3 percent in his 10th and final year on the ballot.)

Even Bonds is coming out of the shadows and will work as a hitting coach for the Miami Marlins this season.

The guess here is Sosa could still have something to offer, but the ball is in Sammy’s court.

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."