Cubs

How Anthony Rizzo and the Cubs are dealing with defensive shifts

How Anthony Rizzo and the Cubs are dealing with defensive shifts

Baseball and luck go together like peanut butter and jelly.

"Luck" is one of those terms that's thrown around baseball games constantly by analysts, reporters, coaches, even players.

Saturday's Cubs-Diamondbacks game was a perfect example.

With the bases loaded and the Cubs up one in the eighth inning, Arizona's Rickie Weeks hit a line drive...that just so happened to be right at Ben Zobrist. Instead of at least a game-tying hit, it was inning over and, eventually, game over. 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon was quick to point out after the game (and then again before Sunday's game) how "lucky" his team was to get out of that jam.

That inconsistent luck on balls in play is something that has become much more of a topic nowadays thanks to defensive shifts and advanced metrics.

Maddon thinks Anthony Rizzo — who has a .251 average — would actually be hitting 20-30 points higher if it wasn't for shifts.

"Rizz or heavy pull left-handed hitters, their numbers have been impacted by shifts," Maddon said. "I think batting averages have plummeted a bit based on data — defensively — as well as data that a pitcher could utilize.

"That kind of information was not as abundant in years past. I've talked about this where I think the decline in offense or batting average is really related to the proliferation of data in video and the ability to put guys where you want to."

Rizzo received an off-day Sunday, but he actually saw both sides of that luck firsthand in the first two games of the series against the Diamondbacks.

With Kris Bryant on second base in the first inning of Friday's ballgame, Rizzo hit a hard ground ball up the middle...right into the waiting glove of shortstop Nick Ahmed.

"When is the second baseman or shortstop playing there?" Maddon asked incredulously after the game. "He didn't do it in 19-odd-8, I know that. 

"That was an absolute base hit, RBI, everybody's happy. That's a tremendous illustration what we're talking about. That is scouting defense. All that stuff conspires against left-handed hitters like him."

Of course, just a few innings later, Rizzo stroked a line drive to center field and wound up with a double when Chris Owings misjudged the ball and broke in.

In Saturday's game, Rizzo picked up a base hit on a bloop that fell between three Diamondbacks defenders.

Those last two examples were the kinds of plays that have not gone Rizzo's way so far this season.

Entering play Sunday, his batting average on balls in play was .232, 46 points below his career .278 mark. 

Rizzo admitted he was shocked when he saw the ball "bounce" his way — so to speak — on Friday.

"Honestly, yes, because it just hasn't gone like that," he said. "It's baseball. They say it evens out, so you just keep hitting it hard.

"I always feel good at the plate. I always feel like I'm right there. You know, the one ball, fortunately the centerfielder didn't get a good read on there."

Rizzo also acknowledged how frustrating it can be to hit into the shift.

"You get taught to hit up the middle your whole life, so you hit the ball up the middle and there's a guy standing there," he said. "But what are you gonna do about it? Hit the ball hard. That's all you can do is keep hitting the ball hard."

Shifting has become an integral part of the game over the last half-decade. Instead of just shifting against the big, slow power hitters like Adam Dunn or David Ortiz, teams can now conceivably shift against any hitter with all the information at their disposal.

In his rant on shifting, Maddon confirmed what we already know: Hitting hasn't yet caught up to the trend. Beyond bunting into the shift, there is nothing that has emerged as a tool to aid hitters battling defensive shifts.

It's a big reason why a .400 season or 56-game hitting streak seem so impossible right now. Sure, pitching and strikeouts are up all around baseball, but the case can easily be made that batting average is down as much because of shifting (and pitching into the shift) as anything.

Think about Crash Davis' speech at the end of "Bull Durham" about how the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is one extra "groundball with eyes" or "dying quail" per week throughout the course of the season.

With shifts, those groundballs don't find their way through the infield as much.

"When you hit the ball well and you're hitting into shifts, then all of a sudden hits — from the time you're in Little League to teen ball to high school to college — hits are now outs," Maddon said. "There's a confidence component to that also.

"You lose some confidence in what you're doing even though you're doing the exact same thing that used to be successful."

Maddon talked at length about how hitting against — and bunting against — the shift aren't easy things to do. 

For one, bunting only really works in some situations. You don't want to take the bat out of a power hitter's hands with two outs and nobody on just to reach first base safely.

The same can be said for hitting into a shift. Guys like Rizzo and Jason Heyward would sacrifice some power if they constantly tried to hit the ball the other way. 

Plus, they're being pitched into the shift, so it's not as simple as taking the ball the other way.

Maddon feels hitters should learn to adjust to shifts early-on, especially with how hard it is to make adjustments at the big-league level.

"I think it's important that you teach these guys at least to bunt," Maddon said. "We do it a little bit. But to truly get away from shift-able players, it's got to be nurtured at the minor-league level to teach these guys to stay inside the ball, hit the ball the other way and still be able to power it somewhat.

"...The objective is to get more runs on a nightly basis as opposed to more hits. Oftentimes, if you get more hits, it's probably going to end up with more runs, but I don't want to dispute that.

"I don't want our guys going out there purely driven by base hits. Sometimes, the better option is to not make an out."

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."

Theo Epstein brushes aside rumors: 'There's essentially zero trade talks involving the Cubs'

Theo Epstein brushes aside rumors: 'There's essentially zero trade talks involving the Cubs'

No, the Cubs are not currently talking to the Baltimore Orioles about bringing Manny Machado to the North Side of Chicago.

So says Theo Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations who met with the media at Wrigley Field ahead of Friday's series opener with the San Francisco Giants.

Epstein vehemently shot down the notion of trade talks and specified the major diffence between trade rumors and trade talks, while refusing to comment on Machado in particular.

"I'm not addressing any specific rumor or any player with another team," Epstein said. "I would never talk about that in a million years. The simple way to put it is there's been a lot of trade rumors involving the Cubs and there's essentially zero trade talks involving the Cubs.

"There's a real disparity between the noise and the reality and unfortunately, sometimes that puts a player or two that we have in a real tough circumstance. And that's my job to clarify there's nothing going on right now.

"We have more than enough ability to win the division, win the World Series and we really need to focus on our roster and getting the most out of our ability and finding some consistency. Constant focus outside the organization doesn't do us any good, especially when it's not based in reality right now."

The Cubs have presented a united front publicly in support of Addison Russell, whose name has been the one bandied about most as a potential leading piece in any move for Machado.

After all, the Cubs have won a World Series and never finished worse than an NLCS berth with Russell as their shortstop and he's only 24 with positive signs of progression offensively.

Trading away 3.5 years of control of Russell for 3-4 months of Machado is the type of bold, go-for-it move the Cubs did in 2016 when their championship drought was well over 100 years.

Now, the championship drought is only one season old and the window of contention is expected to remain open until through at least the 2021 season.

Epstein likes to point out that every season is sacred, but at what cost? The Cubs front office is still very much focused on the future beyond 2018.

"Everybody's talking about making trades in May — the first part of the season is trying to figure out who you are," Epstein said. "What are the strengths of the club? What are the weaknesses of the club? What's the character of the club? What position is the club gonna be in as we get deeper in the season? What's our short-term outlook? What's our long-term outlook? What's the chemistry in the clubhouse?

"All those things. It's a process to get there and figure it out. If you rush to those kinds of judgments, you can oftentimes make things worse. I think it's important to figure out exactly who you are and give guys a chance to play and find their level and see how all the pieces fit together before you make your adjustments."

So there's no chance we could see the Cubs once again jump the market and make an early deal like they did last year for Jose Quintana or five years ago for Jake Arrieta? Will they definitely wait another five weeks until July to make a move?

"It's just the natural order of things," Epstein said. "We wouldn't be opposed to doing something, but that's not the case right now. It's not happening."