'De-peat': Cubs believe their defense can keep winning championships

'De-peat': Cubs believe their defense can keep winning championships

Joe Maddon is the kind of self-promoter and free-association thinker who can use a West Wing media stakeout to plug his restaurant in Tampa, Fla. The Cubs manager name-dropped Ava after President Barack Obama's final official White House event honoring the World Series champs.

Maddon isn't quite Pat Riley, who filed for a "Three-Peat" trademark as coach of the "Showtime" era Los Angeles Lakers and kept cashing in while running the Miami Heat. But Maddon does have a few ideas about marketing and messaging, whether or not this becomes a ubiquitous T-shirt in the clubhouse.

"If we catch the ball and pitch the ball like we did last year," Maddon said, "we shall 'De-peat.'"

Cubs officials knew they had a good team with a chance to win it all in 2016. But if you told them after last year's Super Bowl that they would win 103 games and survive three playoff rounds, the assumptions would have been that a thumping American League-style lineup bludgeoned opponents, an elite starting pitcher moved to Chicago at the trade deadline and a deep bullpen owned October the way the Kansas City Royals did in 2015.

The Cubs couldn't have done it without "Bryzzo Souvenir Co." or Dexter Fowler's "you go, we go" routine or Ben Zobrist's clutch hitting or Kyle Schwarber's dramatic return in the World Series. But Maddon's run-prevention point is that the Cubs truly thrived as a pitching-and-defense unit, even if flashier aspects of their games and personalities generated more attention.

"You could argue it was the single element at which we excelled the most," team president Theo Epstein said of the athletic, versatile group that led the majors in defensive efficiency. "It's not always obvious. I think some of our guys were so good that it was obvious.

"But it can be a subtle thing, and it really supports your pitching staff over the long season. And it wins you a ton of games without it being the obvious reason why you won. You just have to look a little deeper."

Defensive metrics can be incomplete or misleading, but look at these spreads as a baseline. The Cubs led the majors with 82 defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs, while the Houston Astros finished second at 51. The Cubs also posted a 73 Ultimate Zone Rating on FanGraphs — the San Francisco Giants ranked second at 47.7 and wound up as the only other team that graded out higher than 36.5.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo and outfielder Jason Heyward won Gold Gloves, with Rawlings also naming pitcher Jake Arrieta and shortstop Addison Russell as finalists at their positions. The Fielding Bible recognized Rizzo's steady presence and tarp-jumping, balance-beam flair and gave playoff star Javier Baez an award for multi-position excellence.

Individual skills combined with a sophisticated scouting-and-game-planning system helped Kyle Hendricks evolve into a Cy Young Award finalist and an ERA leader and make Jason Hammel a 15-game winner. Compare the Cubs' rotation ERA (2.96 ERA) to the next-best team in the National League (the Washington Nationals at 3.60) and the NL average (4.28).

"Once you get there, you never really want to go backwards on defense," Epstein said. "Once you're there, it's such an important part of your identity and a big part of the backbone of your pitching staff."

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The Cubs put their money where their mouth was last winter, giving Heyward the biggest contract in franchise history and not even necessarily making the highest bid with that eight-year, $184 million megadeal.

"Jason Heyward is the best outfielder I've ever seen," said Dave Martinez, who played 16 seasons in the big leagues and has worked as Maddon's bench coach since 2008. "It's incredible to see him, the way he moves. We never have to tell him where to play hitters or when to move in counts. He does it.

"It was almost like having two center fielders out there. We had a tough time with Dexter, at times, moving. When Heyward was out there and Heyward moved, Dexter moved with him.

"Look, granted, everybody knows he didn't have a great year hitting. But what this guy brought every day to our clubhouse (was) irreplaceable."

Paying a complementary player like a middle-of-the-order superstar might have foreshadowed this offseason, when teams appeared to prioritize youth, defense and overall contributions, perhaps undervaluing home runs and the intimidation factor within a lineup.

It can't all be supply-and-demand dynamics and luxury-tax concerns when the Cleveland Indians can swoop in just before Christmas and sign Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million contract and Jose Bautista essentially returned to the Toronto Blue Jays for the qualifying offer he rejected in November. Mark Trumbo blasted 47 homers last season and had to circle back to the Baltimore Orioles in late January for a three-year, $37.5 million deal.

The entire industry saw a Cubs Way blueprint that will now be banking on: the Albert Almora Jr./Jon Jay combination being a defensive upgrade over Fowler in center; that Heyward-led alignment compensating for Schwarber's learning curve in left; Baez taking on a more prominent role after his breakout performance during the playoffs; Maddon tailoring lineups around matchups and Zobrist and Kris Bryant's unique flexibility; and Miguel Montero mentoring Willson Contreras behind the plate.

During a Cubs Convention panel last month, Maddon said he's been studying the Seattle Mariners team that won 116 games in 2001 — without getting to the World Series — and then finished in third place in the AL West with 93 victories in 2002.

"They came crashing back to reality, and a big part of that was their defense faltered the next year," Maddon said, shifting his focus to hitting coaches John Mallee and Eric Hinske, who were sitting on the same stage inside a hotel ballroom in downtown Chicago. "So for me, this spring training, I know you love offense and it's on the back of the baseball cards. It's wonderful, it's beautiful, all that stuff. However, really, the sexy part of the game to me, John and 'Ske…"

Hinske then interrupted his boss: "Wait, you can't win if you don't score, Joe."

"I know that," Maddon said, turning his attention back to the audience. "He likes to use the word 'score' a lot."

Maddon also understands that fielding shouldn't go into slumps and knows firsthand that defense can win championships. That will be part of the overall message when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona next week: "The part that's repeatable — we got to do it."

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I definitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."