Cubs

Cubs vs. Nationals makes it obvious: Jake Arrieta is no Max Scherzer

Cubs vs. Nationals makes it obvious: Jake Arrieta is no Max Scherzer

WASHINGTON — Super-agent Scott Boras drove the Max Scherzer comparisons through the media, trying to frame Jake Arrieta’s Cy Young Award pedigree and pitching odometer against that seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.

Every inning in each Arrieta start shouldn’t be viewed like a stock ticker, but it became the impossible-to-miss backdrop on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, where Scherzer stared down the Cubs through his blue and brown eyes and dominated in a 6-1 game that didn’t have that same October energy.

Where Scherzer is headed toward his fifth straight All-Star selection, the Cubs can only guess what they will get out of Arrieta from one start to the next, which makes you wonder: How many teams would commit five or six years to an over-30 pitcher like that?

Coming off probably the team’s best win of the season the night before — and a strong last start at Marlins Park where he felt “really close” to where he wanted to be — Arrieta walked off the mound with no outs and two runners on in the fifth inning.

The Nationals ran wild, putting pressure on the Cubs and stealing seven bases off Arrieta and catcher Miguel Montero. Arrieta’s control vanished, walking six batters and throwing a wild pitch. The defense collapsed, with second baseman Tommy La Stella leading Anthony Rizzo off first base with one throw and Montero chucking another ball into left field. Scherzer had as many hits (two) and RBI (one) as the entire Cubs lineup.

“I can pitch at his level,” Arrieta said. “I just haven’t done it consistently. He’s been very good, obviously, throughout his career. It’s been up and down. I’ve had a couple good ones, a bad one, a couple good ones, a bad one, so I would obviously like to be more consistent throughout. I just haven’t been able to do that the way that I would like.

“I’ll beat myself up tonight and put in some work and be better next time out. That’s kind of the philosophy, regardless of the situation or the results. Just try and learn as best I can and come out and do better next time.”

Halfway through his platform season, Arrieta is 7-6 with a 4.67 ERA after giving up six runs (five earned) and losing this marquee matchup against Scherzer and the first-place Nationals (46-31).

“Not where I want to be, obviously,” Arrieta said, “but I’ll try and move forward and just be better.”

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The Cubs (39-38) felt the whiplash effect from Scherzer’s violent delivery, the perfect game gone when he drilled leadoff guy Rizzo with a 95-mph fastball and the no-hitter over in the first inning when Kris Bryant knocked an RBI triple off the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field.

None of it rattled Scherzer (9-5, 2.06 ERA), who gave up one more hit and zero walks across six innings. This is the third-fastest pitcher in major-league history to reach 2,000 strikeouts, a favorite to win his third Cy Young Award this year and the Game 1 starter the Cubs would face if they make it back to Washington for a first-round playoff series.

“It starts with his delivery and deception,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I think there’s a lot of intimidation, based on how he just delivers the baseball and the angle that he throws from, the ability to ride a fastball. I think the big thing, too, is the changeup has gotten devastatingly good.

“He’s an uncomfortable at-bat, just based on the way he winds up and throws the baseball. And then the stuff just moves so darn much. It’s a unique combination of factors that he has. He’s so strong and he pitches so deeply into games — and he does it consistently well for years. He’s just a different animal.”

That makes the Max comparison so untenable for Arrieta, who lost to Scherzer and the Detroit Tigers during his final start for the Baltimore Orioles on June 17, 2013. Arrieta immediately got shipped down to Triple-A Norfolk and traded to the Cubs 15 days later in a deal that would change baseball history forever.

Boras is right when he calls that the defining struggle of Arrieta’s career and says it took “World Series cojones” to handle that pressure. But just like Arrieta’s contract year, the Cubs are now in the great unknown.

Can you get back to that Scherzer level?

“No question about it,” Arrieta said. “Just nothing really went my way — or our team’s way — tonight.”

A slump in the road - the Cubs' 2019 World Series dreams hinge on the bat of Kris Bryant

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USA TODAY

A slump in the road - the Cubs' 2019 World Series dreams hinge on the bat of Kris Bryant

Does a 2-for-4 mean you are on track?

The answer is, it depends.

Kris Bryant is an MVP, Rookie of the Year, World Champion and a super talent. Not just because he displays the outward abilities like power or hitting for average, but because he has the less visible skills, like good baserunning, plate discipline, intangible instincts.

Kris Bryant has been having a tough time by Bryant standards. It is easy to rattle off numbers to underscore the distance between today and his MVP season. Early 2019 shows the .368 slugging, the hitting under .200 vs. lefties, the near .100 with two strikes and the .154 batting average when he pulls the ball.

Yet despite knowing these numbers are only after 68 at-bats, there is a deeper concern because of expectation.

The Cubs need Bryant. Last season, he was still a solid player, but the Cubs were banking on an All-Star to create a few more wins, and as we know, a few more wins and the Cubs win the NL Central outright.

Injuries have crept in; doubt always follows, even after you have a clean bill of health. Bryant also got hit in the face, which gets lost in some of the noise. These injuries and setbacks stay with a player, creeping up after a twinge in the weight room, the break-up with your girlfriend, the sleeping funny on your pillow the night before, the three game series in the stadium where you don’t pick up the ball out of the batter’s eye.

Outside of the standard numbers, his baserunning was down last season. He had been masterful of going first to third, first to home and second to home. He created runs by having great reads and even better instincts. But he was not quite as effective last year, and not getting quite the same reads, at least so the numbers say. In Bill James' annual handbook for 2018, Bryant's baserunning was calculated as a -5 net loss, which accounts for advancing extra bases, baserunning outs, double plays and a stolen bases.

But slumps are part of any players career, and they are not always just an offensive thing. In fact, they are as normal as being on fire, and there are times when the lines blur between being in one and getting out of one. It matters which direction you are heading in.

A player like Bryant has the ability to reduce the damage of a slump. He can walk and he can get on base with his eyes, all while he is fixing he stroke. He is dangerous enough of a power hitter to induce walks just because of the threat. Pitchers may know he is struggling, but they also know, one bad pitch and the ball is on Waveland Ave., no matter what he did the last seven days.

I had my share of slumps in my career and I define it as a place of relativity. We are comparing to what we think should be, both based on past and future. But it is deceiving to base expectation only on the comfort of hard data, not data that in reality is fluid and constantly changing with time and environment. Bryant's MVP season also had ups and downs, but he kept the downs short.

It is still early and Bryant still has a good space between his batting average and his on-base percentage (.235 average and a respectable .342 OBP), but he is expected to be dominant from tape to tape by this point in his career, with all the lofty traditional numbers to go with it—OBP, AVG, HR, RBIs. And for the Cubs to not just win, but win it all, Bryant's ability to be that day in and day out threat is pivotal.

Keep in mind, everyone is making major adjustments to Bryant, and it is not just his opponents on the field, but the opponent in the cloud. The data and the speed of these data-driven adjustments are lightning quick, especially against a player that can beat you single-handedly.

I remember when I was struggling mid-career, and we were heading to Toronto for a series. I was in the batting cage with Phillies hitting coach Hal McRae and expressing my frustration. I was fouling out to first, to the catcher, rolling over on balls down the middle. Then Hal said to me that it was a “credit to your talent that you are hitting close to .270 when your heart and mind are clearly with your father.”

My father was in and out of the hospital that year and eventually would pass away the last game of the season a couple of years later. There was no stat for anxiety or stress, no multiplier to explain the degree by which you are off your game. Maybe that stress is a motivator, provides an edge in some players, in others, not so much. But slumps are part mechanical as they are part mental, emotional, psychological. And they can come out of nowhere; we often don’t know what a player is going through even if it is just a bad swing and bad pitching matchups for him.

It is not the slump, but how quickly you can get out of a slump. Three weeks instead of three days makes a world of difference. Those who do not have the opportunity to play through a slump, will not make it.

When I was a veteran in the game, besides the skill decline and the health decline, there was the opportunity decline. I no longer would be granted the bandwidth to struggle through it. I needed to produce every time I got the chance to play, even if I had two weeks between starts. When a team will not stick with you, you lose the pathway to get out of the hole you dug. And often the hole gets bigger. Bryant does not have this problem.

That is because Bryant has time and has earned the time on a good team that has other assets to keep them competitive. Yet being granted time does not mean the team has time. The manager, the coaches, the closer, are on clocks too.

Working hard can do a lot, but only so much. The doubt has to go, the second guessing of self or that in-between trapped feeling when you don’t know what is coming out of the pitcher’s hand, has to go.        

The Cubs know they are built from many talented assets, many players that can do the job. At different times in the season, a different player will carry the team. If the rotation keeps rolling, while key players like Baez and Contreras are producing, and the wins are rolling in, Bryant can work through it, just another reason why being on a team that picks each other up matters so much.

The slump is highly dependent on time and opportunity. This needs to be the Cubs' year, so the time is now, and they have to keep betting that the former league MVP will find a big way out, then he will carry this team for a while, maybe right back to the World Series. Then all will certainly forget what Bryant’s stat sheet showed before April 19, 2019.  

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It's safe to say Kyle Hendricks has figured 'it' out

It's safe to say Kyle Hendricks has figured 'it' out

It was only a matter of time before Kyle Hendricks figured it all out. 

It appears Friday was that day. 

The 29-year-old right-hander was off to a slow start to the season, surrendering 24 hits and 8 earned runs in 13.1 innings across his first three starts, good for a 5.40 ERA and 2.18 WHIP. 

Things looked a little better last time out — only 2 earned runs allowed on 6 hits in 5 innings last Saturday against the Angels — but even after that start, Hendricks admitted he still feels like he's fighting himself and searching for his fastball command.

"You can't rush it," he said after that outing. "You can't rush the process. But it definitely gets frustrating. I need to do a better job and give the team a better chance to win when I'm out there regardless. And set a better tone — be more aggressive with my fastball and set a better tone for the game. You want it to come quick, but at least I'm seeing something, so I just gotta stick with what I'm doing."

Whatever he was seeing with his mechanics came to pass in Friday afternoon's 5-1 Cubs win, as he completely baffled the Diamondbacks in a brilliant performance — 7 shutout innings, permitting only 3 singles while striking out 11. It was his first double-digit strikeout game since he whiffed 12 Cardinals on Aug. 13, 2016 en route to his ERA title that season.

"Yeah, like I said, you kinda always want it to come, but I didn't think it was gonna come this quick," Hendricks admitted after Friday's game. "So to go out and make that many good pitches, yeah it helps the confidence a lot. It solidifies the things we've been working on, so I just told the guys this was just one good day, so tomorrow, gotta get right back at it with another good work day and hopefully get on a roll here."

It was also the Cubs' third straight appearance from a starting pitcher of 7 shutout innings, after Cole Hamels and Jose Quintana turned the trick in the final two games in Miami earlier in the week.

The one pitch Hendricks felt good about last time out — his changeup — was his bread and butter Friday, too. He threw it 30 times out of his 100 pitches and induced 8 swings and misses.

"That was kinda classic Kyle," Joe Maddon said. "Great changeup, again. A lot of called strikes, pitching on the edges. ... That first inning or so, still seeking and then once he found it, he got into a nice groove."

Part of the success of the changeup was due to Hendricks' command with his fastball, which he apparently figured out — for one start, at least. He threw 66 percent of his pitches for strikes throughout the game and 35 of his 56 fastballs went for strikes. 

"From the get-go, I just felt more comfortable in my mechanics, so it just freed everything up," Hendricks said. "From there, I just used my fastball a lot better — kinda like what I was talking about. Fastball command and just establishing it early. Everything else worked off that and it just had good action today. Kept it down, made a lot of good pitches, so it worked out."

Hendricks even saw 17 pitches at the plate despite an 0-for-4 performance, as the Cubs offense put 19 runners on base throughout the course of the afternoon.

However, his day was not without negatives. He took a 110 mph liner off the left leg in the seventh inning, but stayed in the game and finished off the last two hitters he faced.

He also snapped his fascinating personal streak, as he threw his first wild pitch since Sept. 5, 2016 — a span of 6,662 pitches:

"I had no idea; I came in the clubhouse and someone brought that to my attention," Hendricks said, laughing. "Time to start a new streak."

In all, Hendricks picked up his first win of 2019 and lowered his season ERA to 3.54 and WHIP to 1.67 with his performance. He also helped pitch his team back to the .500 level (9-9) for the first time since the opening weekend of the season.

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