Cubs

How Cubs finally landed Ben Zobrist as a piece to their World Series puzzle

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How Cubs finally landed Ben Zobrist as a piece to their World Series puzzle

While Ben Zobrist made a recruiting trip to New York – with the Mets showing him around the affluent suburbs in Westchester County and Connecticut – the Cubs did everything over the phone and didn’t even need to offer the most money.  

That’s the buzz around a team that sells itself now, the sense that after two meaningless exhibition games on Thursday and Friday in Las Vegas, a National League pennant could be on the line if the Cubs and Mets clash again in October.

Zobrist also visited the Bay Area to meet with the San Francisco Giants, a model franchise that ultimately matched New York’s four-year, $60 million offer. The Washington Nationals even presented a three-year, $56 million contract that would have meant a higher average annual value.

“The Cubs pretty much stay under the radar,” said Zobrist, who took a four-year, $56 million deal for the chance to end the 1908 drought and be closer to his family in downstate Illinois. “That was one place I knew – just because of Joe – and I knew the city a little bit. (With) the stadium, Theo’s track record, I didn’t feel like I needed a face-to-face.”

[MORE - Target practice: Cubs end spring training as the hunted]

Chicago already knows all about insider deals. The Cubs had a closer in Joe Maddon, who managed Zobrist for nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays and is represented by the same agency.

Theo Epstein had worked with Octagon Baseball – which has a John Hancock Center headquarters – in putting together Maddon’s $25 million landmark contract. The president of baseball operations needed those relationships and that sense of goodwill.

The Cubs had to move Starlin Castro before signing Zobrist and only one team really had the resources to take on $38 million and the belief in an inconsistent three-time All-Star bumped off shortstop to second base. But the New York Yankees didn’t want to do that deal – and give up versatile pitcher Adam Warren – at the July 31 trade deadline last year.

By the time the winter meetings started to heat up at the sprawling Nashville Opryland biodome – not far from Zobrist’s offseason home in Tennessee – the Yankees had reconsidered their youth movement and created an opening at Wrigley Field.

Everyone understood the Cubs had Zobrist on their radar. It just didn’t seem like Maddon’s roster had a glaring need for a 34-year-old second baseman or Epstein’s baseball-operations department could afford that luxury item.   

The Cubs tried to trade for Zobrist after the 2014 season, but let’s just say that Tampa Bay probably wasn’t in the mood to help. Not when the Rays were pushing Major League Baseball to pursue the Maddon tampering case.   

At that point, Tampa Bay wanted a big-time prospect along the lines of a Kyle Schwarber or an Addison Russell. Even if the Cubs knew they probably would’ve had the inside track to sign Zobrist to an extension, giving up a long-term asset didn’t make sense for a one-year rental in what was supposed to be a steppingstone season (and not a 97-win carnival).  

Until they made it to The Show, teams could keep asking about the Schwarbers and the Russells and hope they weren’t untouchable. The Cubs generally found it difficult to get teams to move down the list and focus on a different return when Russell was a Double-A player and not a big-league shortstop.  

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Maddon remembered the Rays being intrigued by Schwarber leading up to the 2014 draft, when the Cubs surprised the industry by taking the Indiana University catcher/outfielder with the No. 4 overall pick

With Miguel Montero and David Ross now in place, the Cubs wanted to unload Welington Castillo, a young catcher with a good attitude and all the physical tools. But the Rays are a data-driven operation focused on pitch-framing skills and Castillo does not grade out as well in those metrics.

“As a player, you try not to pay too much attention to rumors, because that’s all they are,” Zobrist said. “Whenever you’re on the trade block, you never know if anything will actually happen. Plus, you got a job to do.”

Tampa Bay finally traded Zobrist to the Oakland A’s in the middle of January 2015. The Cubs tried again last summer, but never felt close, because “Moneyball” architect Billy Beane wanted a frontline pitching prospect in return.  

The Kansas City Royals offered Sean Manaea, a pitcher the Cubs had considered for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft before his junior season at Indiana State University. Kris Bryant went out and put together a monster year at the University of San Diego, while injury concerns dropped Manaea to the Royals at No. 34.

The Cubs didn’t have any prospects close to joining a big-league rotation. The Royals watched Zobrist strengthen their overall team defense and lengthen the lineup (.880 OPS in 16 playoff games) against New York’s power pitching in the World Series.   

“He’s so professional,” Maddon said. “He’s a winner. It’s just the way he plays the game (with) patience at the plate, both sides of the plate. He works a great at-bat almost every time out there (and) can play multiple positions well. He’s a good, heads-up baserunner.

“When you talk to him – and when he’s going to talk to all these guys (in the clubhouse) – what’s his agenda? To win. That’s it. He’s got nothing else on his mind.”

[RELATED - Why the Cubs feel Ben Zobrist was the most important signing in baseball]

Zobrist is a self-made player who wasn’t drafted out of high school and started out at Olivet Nazarene University before transferring into Dallas Baptist University. His father, Tom, is a pastor at Liberty Bible Church in Eureka, which is about 20 miles east of Peoria.

“I believe in a divine plan,” Zobrist said. “The early part of my career in Tampa Bay was exactly what I needed at that time. Last year, (we) knew it was going to be a transition year.

“But to be able to land with Kansas City was a huge blessing. To get a sense of playing there – and playing in the playoffs and going all the way – all of that has kind of prepared me for this moment.”

Zobrist is a rich man now, but it really wasn’t all about the money. Still, everything had to click into place for a player the Cubs saw as a missing piece to a World Series team.    

“Illinois is home,” Zobrist said. “To be able to come home and try to win a championship where it hasn’t been done for a long, long time – in front of my hometown state, family, friends and with my manager that I grew up with in the major leagues – is kind of a dream situation for me.

“They’ll get everything I got for the next four years. Hopefully, we can win at least one (title) during that time.”

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
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."