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."

Willson Contreras commissions heart-warming painting commemorating his relationship with Joe Maddon

USA Today

Willson Contreras commissions heart-warming painting commemorating his relationship with Joe Maddon

Joe Maddon’s time with the Cubs may be over, but the memories made in his five years on the North Side will live on in Chicago sports lore forever. No matter how frustratingly his tenure may have ended, the outpouring of support and appreciation from management, fans and players alike throughout the process of Maddon’s departure are evidence of that.

“I love him like a dad,” Anthony Rizzo said

“I personally never could have imagined having such a wonderful partner,” Theo Epstein later added, standing beside Maddon as they delivered joint reflections on the end of the era.

Maddon touched the lives of so many within the organization and without in his time with the Cubs, but not many more so than catcher Willson Contreras, who burst onto the scene as one of the best young sluggers in baseball under Maddon’s guidance. Maddon — a catcher himself in his short time as a player — never shied away from criticizing Contreras in times he thought it earned, but it’s clear that the two forged a real bond over the last four years. 

Sunday afternoon, artist Austin Ploch revealed that Contreras reached out to him shortly after the end of the 2019 season to commission this heart-warming piece, commemorating the mutual respect and adoration between mentor and pupil:

The painting is derived from a photo of the two that Contreras posted to his Instagram account after it was officially announced that Maddon would not return as the Cubs manager:

Ploch has commissioned work for Contreras before, but now Willson will have a tangible memento to remember his first manager (along with his 2016 World Series ring). We’re not crying, you’re crying.

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Cubs to reportedly conduct second interview with Joe Espada for managerial opening

Cubs to reportedly conduct second interview with Joe Espada for managerial opening

Astros bench coach Joe Espada has two days off before Houston hosts Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday, but it looks like some of that time will be spent in Chicago.

According to multiple reports, the Cubs will interview Espada a second time for their managerial opening. MLB Network's Jon Heyman reports that the interview is happening on Sunday.

Espada is one of the more sought after managerial candidates this offseason, as he's spent the last six seasons with two of baseball's leading franchises. The 44-year-old has been Astros bench coach since 2018, and prior to that, he spent four seasons with the Yankees — 2014 as a front office assistant, 2015-17 as third base coach.

David Ross was the presumed favorite for the Cubs' opening, when the process got underway. However, by landing a second interview, Espada has clearly given the team something to think about. In fact, NBC Sports Chicago's David Kaplan reported on Thursday the Cubs came away "exceptionally impressed" from Espada's first interview on Monday. 

MLB prefers teams not to make managerial announcements during the World Series. So, it might be a few more weeks before the Cubs announce their decision, unless they do so on Sunday or Monday.

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