Cubs

Cubs see Opening Day roster come into focus

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Cubs see Opening Day roster come into focus

MESA, Ariz. – “Today has been a ‘Godfather’ day.”

Joe Maddon had settled almost all the family business by the time he sat down in the Sloan Park complex’s media workroom on Tuesday, the Cubs manager making arrangements for what he needed from “The Cousin Eddie” RV, telling three bubble players they already made the team and seeing his Opening Day roster come into focus.

The Cubs confirmed Javier Baez will begin the season on the disabled list with a left thumb contusion, still needing more at-bats and time in the outfield and only one game left on their Cactus League schedule.

Maddon said he informed reliever Neil Ramirez, outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella that they are part of the projected 25-man group that will leave Arizona.

[MORE CUBS: Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and how Cubs can help a 'tired' sport]

As insurance, the Cubs also released and re-signed infielder Munenori Kawasaki, outfielder Shane Victorino and left-hander Manny Parra to minor-league deals (which are cost-saving moves while facing $100,000 retention bonuses).

With less than a week to go until the season opener at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, the Cubs are planning to carry 12 position players and 13 pitchers:

Catchers: Miguel Montero, David Ross, Kyle Schwarber.

Infielders: Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, La Stella.

Outfielders: Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler, Szczur.

Rotation: Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks.

Bullpen: Trevor Cahill, Adam Warren, Clayton Richard, Travis Wood, Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Ramirez.

The Cubs constructed a deep, versatile roster beyond Zobrist, who made his reputation as the game’s premier super-utility player and will be considered the backup shortstop for now. When needed, Bryant can move from third base to any spot in the outfield. Schwarber can be Hammel’s personal catcher and will still get most of his playing time in the outfield.

But Baez – who’s been sidelined since March 20 after diving headfirst into first base – presents Maddon with so many in-game options as a good baserunner and a strong defender who can play all over the field.

“We don’t want it to linger,” Maddon said. “I had him in the office, talked to him, he’s kind of disappointed because he feels he can be ready. (But) he needs to play.

“We’re not comfortable that it is 100-percent well. So let’s just make it 100-percent well and then bring him back up.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Around this time last year, the Cubs set an Opening Day roster that didn’t include Bryant, Russell, Schwarber or Baez and didn’t look like the beginning of a 97-win team.

While the Cubs probably won’t get that kind of jolt from their farm system again this year, Maddon knows it will take waves and waves of players to get through October. So the manager kept rolling with questions from the Japanese media about Kawasaki, who impressed with his karaoke skills and fundamental play.

“He gets a lot of publicity based on his personality, but this guy’s also a very good baseball player,” Maddon said. “He’s definitely an energy source. This guy is somebody you want to plug into. He provides that little motivation the whole group needs on a daily basis.

“We’re just talking about the beginning of the season, man. This is a long year and you definitely need more than 25 guys. He’s going to get his opportunity. He’s going to help us. He’s going to be a big part of our success this year. And he’s going to be one of the most popular athletes to ever play in Chicago when he finally arrives.”

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
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."