Cubs

How rotation strength/health tells the story of Cubs season so far

How rotation strength/health tells the story of Cubs season so far

The Cubs don’t believe in Billy Goat or black cats or Bartman or any of that other nonsense. But mention the remarkably good health of their starting pitchers and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein wants to tap the dugout railing at Wrigley Field: “Knock on wood.”

Epstein, once the Boston Red Sox curse-buster, is the architect of a team that has already won 97 games, slicing the magic number to clinch home-field advantage through the National League Championship Series down to two.

Sweeping the Cincinnati Reds with Wednesday night’s 9-2 victory won’t tell us much about the Cubs shaking off their post-clinch hangover and getting locked back in mentally and applying Joe Maddon’s hitting lessons. This week’s headline on FiveThirtyEight — Nate Silver’s numbers-driven website — summed it up: “The Reds’ Pitching Might Be The Worst Of All Time.”

Don’t focus so much on the gaudy run differential (plus-239) or the time-filling MVP/Cy Young Award debates or Maddon’s T-shirt gimmicks or David Ross’ clubhouse influence (which does have a real impact on this team). To understand this runaway season, know that the Cubs now have five pitchers who have accounted for at least 28 starts this season.

“That’s the lead story for me,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said, “because when you have that, you have success.”

John Lackey made it through another tune-up for the Big Boy Games, limiting the last-place Reds (63-89) to two runs across seven innings, giving the Cubs five starters with double-digit wins and ERAs between 2.06 and 3.56. There’s the NL’s defending Cy Young winner (Jake Arrieta) and two leading candidates for this year’s award (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks). Jason Hammel is a 15-game winner who’s getting questions about auditioning for the playoffs.

“There’s more we don’t know about pitching health than we do know,” Epstein said. “So the things that we do know and that we can prove empirically — or that we have a strong intuition work — we try to put into practice from rookie ball up through the big leagues and hire the best trainers and best coaches and try to focus on a long-term perspective. The season is more important than any one inning or any one situation.

“So give a lot of credit to the guys in the trenches keeping our pitchers healthy. But, look, if we could replicate it every single year — that would be quite a trick. We’re going to try. But I think there’s some good fortune as well.

“Credit our pitchers, too, for doing their work. (We’re) trying to find guys with clean deliveries and good track records of health. We hope some of the things we do work. But we also know we certainly don’t have all the answers in that realm.”

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That integrated-system ideal hasn’t produced any elite pitching prospects or homegrown starters yet. But the Cubs experienced their 97-win breakthrough last year when Arrieta, Lester, Hammel and Hendricks each made between 31 and 33 starts, something that you wouldn’t have bet on happening again in 2016 after an exhausting run to the NLCS.

“It’s one thing at the end of the day I hang my hat on,” Bosio said. “It’s something I’m extremely proud of in my five years here with our horses, our core guys, whether it’s (Jeff) Samardzija and Hammel. (Or Matt) Garza, (Ryan) Dempster, (Scott) Feldman, (Paul) Maholm, all those guys.

“That means a lot to me. That’s my job. That’s how I’m going to be judged at the end of the day — the performance of our starting pitchers and our health. The same thing then goes for our bullpen.”

Restoring and flipping those rotation assets helped build the best team in baseball. Consistent starting pitching means the relievers have thrown the fewest innings in the majors and shouldn’t feel beaten-up by October. It helps explains why the Cubs lead the majors in defensive efficiency and haven’t had a losing streak longer than two games since the All-Star break.

The Cubs can only make educated guesses about why their starters haven’t broken down (yet), but this snapshot of a full-strength rotation fuels their World Series ambitions.

“When you got good mechanics, you’re going to have good results,” Bosio said. “Our guys are pretty mechanically sound. We worked extremely hard on that, because if you can’t locate the ball as a pitcher, then you can’t really follow a scouting report. If you can’t follow a scouting report, then we can’t set up the defense. So all these things coincide. It’s a fine-tuned machine.”

Cubs ride unconventional pitching performances to 8-6 win over the Reds

Cubs ride unconventional pitching performances to 8-6 win over the Reds

Before Thursday’s game against the Phillies, Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon was asked if, given the current state of their bullpen, Tyler Chatwood could see some innings as the closer. 

“I think he’s amenable to it...” Maddon responded. “... the big thing with him is throwing strikes. If he does that -- his stuff is that electric -- we’ll use him any time. As he gets well from [throwing 4 innings on Wednesday night] it’ll probably a solid two days, maybe three, before he’s ready to go again. We’ll see - we’ll see that night needs. I’m not afraid of it by any means.

“I would say that the first time he got a chance with us, it would be because the other guys aren’t available that night.”

48 hours later, with the Cubs white knuckling a two-run lead, it was Chatwood coming out of the ‘pen in the top of the 9th. Two singles, a double-play, and a Yasiel Puig flyout later, Chatwood had closed out one of the Cubs’ more unconventional wins of the season, a 8-6 nail-biter that featured a little bit of everything.  

“It was a little bit [surprising],” Chatwood said. “But I kept myself ready. I was able to get loose in the pen and luckily I got that double play right there, and we won. So it’s good.” 

On a day when the Cubs’ cobbled together their pitching performance, it was Yu Darvish’s 7 innings -- the first time he’s gotten that deep into a game since 2017 -- that kept Chicago in punching distance. The line itself isn’t particularly flattering; six runs on 12 hits is an eyesore. His performance may not have played well on Cubs Twitter, but those inside the clubhouse could not stop talking about it. 

“That was huge. I thought he was really good today,” Albert Almora, who already surpassed his 2018 home run total (5) with a solo homer in the 2nd inning, said. “I didn’t think he was going to come back out, so I said ‘good job’ to him in the 7th. I saw him back out in the 8th and was like ‘all right, he wanted it.’” 

“It looked like he emptied the tank against Puig in the 7th with a big strikeout,” Chatwood added. “But he still went back out there and battled and pitched into the 8th. That’s huge. We didn’t have many people available today, and I think he knew that. I thought that was one of the best games he’s thrown the ball.”

Darvish managed to strand eight base runners, though, and only walked two. He’s now gone three straight games while walking three batters or less, something he’d failed to do at any point prior. 

“I knew that the bullpen was going through a little struggle, and didn’t have much rest,” Darvish said. “So my main goal was to go more than 7 innings today.” 

On a warm day, with the wind blowing straight out at 16 miles per hour, Wrigley played as small as it has all year. The Cubs (and the Reds, for that matter) went deep three times, which brings their homestand total to 11. 

“The wind was a friend to both sides today,” Maddon said. “But really, you’ve got to give Yu a ton of credit for getting deeply into the game today. He still had his good stuff in the end. The stuff was still there, but it’s 107 pitches, and it’s just deflating when all that happens.” 

Not to be outdone by the guy who started the game or the guy who finished it, recently-called up pitcher Dylan Maples was the winning pitcher of record. He and Tim Collins came in from Triple-A Iowa that morning, and Maddon wasted no time throwing Maples into the fire. After walking his first batter, Maples got Reds’ rookie Nick Senzel to strikeout on a 91mph fastball to end the 8th. 

If it hasn't seemed easy of late, that's because it hasn't been. Of the Cubs’ first 50 games, 16 have been decided by one run (9-7). Over their last 12 games, eight have been decided by two or less runs. 

“They seem to all be like that,” Maddon said with a laugh. “Especially recently. We’re seeing a lot of good pitching. 

“That’s entertainment, guys. Woah.” 

Joe Maddon on MLB's absurd home run rate: 'The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird'

Joe Maddon on MLB's absurd home run rate: 'The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird'

Cubs manager Joe Maddon usually isn’t one for conspiracy theories, but even he’s wondering what’s going on. MLB teams are hitting home runs at an absurd rate, including the Cubs, who are hitting them at a historic rate for the franchise’s standards.

Entering Saturday, here’s where MLB teams stand in average home run rate and total home runs in 2019 compared to recent seasons:

2017: 1.26/game, 6,105 total
2018: 1.15/game, 5,585 total
2019: 1.33/game, 2,009 total

While the MLB season is just over 30 percent finished, teams are on pace to hit a combined 6,483 long balls in 2019. This would absolutely obliterate the 2017 total, which, like the 1.33 home runs per game figure, would be an MLB record.

The Cubs are no exception to this home run wave. Including Saturday (game No. 50 of the season), the team has hit 80 home runs (and counting) in 2019. Only the 2000 Cubs (83) hit more home runs in their first 50 games in franchise history.

“We’re having home runs hit here into some firm breezes, which has not happened before,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said to reporters before Saturday’s game against the Reds. “That’s the thing that stands out to me. It’s been crazy.

“Even [Kyle] Schwarber’s home run, I know that was hit well, but dang, that wind was blowing pretty firmly across at that point.”

Schwarber absolutely crushed his home run yesterday, a 449-foot blast that needed little help getting into the bleachers. However, Maddon has a valid point regarding home runs being hit despite the wind. Entering Saturday, 54 total home runs have been hit at Wrigley Field this season, 29 of which have come with the wind blowing in.

By the eighth inning of Saturday’s game, the Cubs and Reds had hit a combined six home runs, one of which appeared to be a routine fly ball hit by Jason Heyward that wound up in the left field basket thanks to the wind. At the same time, Yasiel Puig hit one 416 feet onto Waveland Ave. that had a 109 mph exit velocity. The wind blowing out at Wrigley Field helps, but it isn’t everything.

MLB players have questioned time and time again if baseballs are “juiced,” including Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester. And while Maddon didn’t flat out say that he thinks the baseballs are juiced, he notices a difference in how they're flying off the bat.

“I don’t know, I’m normally not into the subplot component of all of this and the conspiracy theorists, but I’m telling you right now, it’s jumping,” he said. “It’s absolutely jumping.

“Nobody is ever going to admit to it. The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird.”

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