How's the D-peat going? Cubs see improving defense but know things can be better

How's the D-peat going? Cubs see improving defense but know things can be better

Remember Joe Maddon’s proposed “D-peat”?

The Cubs skipper preached defensive dominance in spring training, pitching it as one of the most important aspects of the team repeating as World Series champions as a follow up to smashing that curse in 2016.

“That’s what the Chicago Cubs are kind of made out of,” outfielder Albert Almora Jr. said Saturday. “When we’re at our best, our defense is impeccable. So that’s kind of something that we strive for. We want to stick to the fundamentals and make the play.”

So how’s that D-peat going?

A casual observer might’ve been horrified to tune in Friday and see the Cubs commit three errors in a 6-1 win over the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates. Ian Happ collided with Kyle Schwarber in left-center field, resulting in no one catching a fly ball. Addison Russell allowed a base runner to advance to second when he lobbed what he believed to be a dead ball over the head of pitcher Eddie Butler. And Kris Bryant chucked a ball well wide of home plate trying to nab a runner.

The Pirates made three errors, too. It was an ugly fielding day all around at the Friendly Confines.

“The one is a communication thing,” Maddon explained, going through the mistakes from Friday’s game. “I don’t want to downgrade it, but that’s just guys talking to each other. You’ve got two young outfielders that have not played together. Now, Addison just has to know, ‘I’ve got to get permission from the umpire to throw the ball (back to the pitcher).’ That, to me, is under (the) mental component.

“We’re doing a lot of good things on defense that I don’t want to get confused with the mental mistake, the collision, the miscommunication. I’m not defending it, I’m just saying that should be easily cleaned up. (The Russell mistake) should never happen again, never.”

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Of course, Friday’s error-filled performance was just one game in a long season. The Cubs aren’t committing three errors on a daily basis, but they are committing a lot of them compared to the rest of the National League. They rank second out of 15 teams with 59. Take that stat as you will, as the Milwaukee Brewers, the team the Cubs are chasing in the NL Central standings, have made the most errors in the league, 69.

The D-peat was one of the topics brought up by Maddon in his annual midseason meeting Thursday, though the manager was quick to explain that fielding isn’t the team’s biggest problem. Getting consistency from the starting rotation and hitting better with runners in scoring position are higher on Maddon’s to-do list.

But obviously he’s paying attention to his defense and is seeing some improvement, particularly as his team gets healthier.

“Overall, I think we’ve been playing a better level of defense more recently,” Maddon said. “Addy’s been great at short, he’s been consistent. Javy (Baez), I think, at second had been outstanding. (Willson) Contreras behind the plate, my goodness, he’s among the best right now as far as I can tell. And it’s always good to have (Jason Heyward) back in right.

“I think we’ve gradually gotten back into the scheme of things defensively. The next two things to me are consistency among starting pitchers, that’s what’s going to get us there, and then solid situational offense. Those are the two areas to me. The defense is gradually ascending to the point where I want to see it. But we have to pitch like we can daily, and we have to — runner on third, less than two outs, we’ve got to get better at scoring that run. We’ve got to accumulate those runs, and that’s going to put us in a better position in the middle and the latter part of the game.”

As you can tell, there are more pressing things on Maddon’s mind when it comes to getting the Cubs back on track, out of their season-long hover around .500 and back on the road toward a World Series repeat.

But defense is a big piece of the puzzle, a puzzle that the Cubs are still looking to solve as the All-Star break arrives.

“I feel like every game we play, we’re in it. I don’t feel like we’ve lost a game or a couple games because of key errors,” Almora said. “I feel like we’re doing a good job, but I know we can do way better in every aspect of the game, offensively and defensively.”

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

The cheer master’s whistle echoed through the ballpark, and dinosaur mascots wearing giant face masks danced on top of the dugout.

With fans absent due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday’s scene didn’t quite do the Korean Baseball Organization experience justice. But it was still the league that taught Ryan Sadowski how to let loose on the field.

"I found that as a player I didn't allow myself to enjoy my success the way I should have because it's the game of baseball,” Sadowski told ESPN in 2016. “You're not supposed to show that you enjoy your success. I think it's something I learned here (in Korea), that I would take to younger kids in the States."

Major League Baseball is well aware that its status in the United States will continue to slip if it can’t figure out how to reach a younger audience. This summer presents an opportunity. If the players and owners can agree to a deal that makes the league’s early July target date a reality, for weeks it will be the only major sport on television.

Sports fans are clamoring for action after a months-long drought. What better time to draw in new fans? In that regard, the KBO could have something to teach MLB.

Sadowski is in a unique position to compare the KBO and MLB. He played in both leagues before becoming a KBO scout. Sadowski’s support for on-the-field expression is one Cubs shortstop Javier Báez would likely get behind.

Báez had a message similar to Sadowski's on MLB’s YouTube channel recently. In a show taped during Spring Training, Báez chatted with Puerto Rican recording artist Residente while running the Grammy Award-winner through baseball drills.

“In my personal opinion, I would like to teach young people growing up to enjoy [the game],” Báez said in Spanish. “And if they fail, fail having fun. And keep doing what is right. Let the kids play.”

Báez has been criticized for his playing style, most famously in 2018 when he bat-flipped after a popup. Afterward, former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned Báez's “respect for the game.”

But Báez's huck wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s KBO game between the NC Dinos and Hanwhu Eagles. The broadcast didn’t feature the kind of ostentatious bat flips that have become so popular on social media. But still, in consecutive innings, players on both teams tossed their bats several feet up the baseline to punctuate base hits. No uproar ensued.

The rate at which KBO bat flips have spread through Twitter speaks to a hunger for showboating among young baseball fans. Why not embrace it?   

“It’s not that it is not the correct way of doing it,” Báez told Residente of his playing style. “It’s just not the way many coaches teach it.”

In the United States, the NBA is the poster child for attracting millennial fans. In 2017-18, young adults led the league’s growth in ratings, according to Forbes. TV viewership among 18- to 34-year-olds was up 14 percent.

The NBA does an especially good job marketing its stars. Admittedly, the game lends itself to that strategy in a way that baseball does not. LeBron James can take over any game down the stretch, but Mike Trout isn’t going to get an at-bat every time the winning run is in scoring position.

But there are other ways NBA stars capture the fascination of young fans. Kids across the country grew up shrugging like Michael Jordan or pumping their arms and pounding their chests like LeBron James.  They take deep dives into YouTube, watching the most devastating dunks of all time – the more embarrassing for the defender, the better. None of that disrespects the game. The NBA and KBO have that in common.

MLB doesn’t have to adopt the KBO’s use of specific chants for each batter and embrace bat flipping for everything from home runs to ground outs – even though, by all accounts, those elements create a delightfully raucous atmosphere.

MLB doesn’t have to abolish baseball’s unwritten rules in one day. But an amendment is in order.

What if demonstrative zeal was instead embraced as a sign of respect for the game? After all, it might be MLB’s best hope of connecting to the next generation.

6 of Wrigley Field's worst 7th-inning stretch renditions in recent memory

6 of Wrigley Field's worst 7th-inning stretch renditions in recent memory

The seventh-inning stretch is a sacred tradition at Wrigley Field. Harry Caray passionately performed “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” every home game during his tenure as Cubs radio play-by-play man, previously doing so late in his tenure with the White Sox.

Caray died in 1998 and the Cubs have continued the tradition in his honor ever since, using a rotating cast of celebrities and former players as guest conductors. Last season, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster performed at the Friendly Confines.

Some renditions are more memorable than others, though not in an endearing way like Cookie Monster’s. NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon sang 15 years ago Sunday, and not only did he refer to the ballpark as “Wrigley Stadium,” but also was off pace and didn’t really know the lyrics altogether.

Cubs fans showered Gordon with a chorus of boos, to which all he could do was chuckle and finish as fast as possible. 

Singing in front of 40,000 people isn’t easy, so it’s hard to be too tough on those whose appearances go awry. Nevertheless, guest singers know what they’re signing up for. On the anniversary of Gordon’s performance, here are five more of Wrigley’s worst in recent memory.

Mike Ditka — June 5, 1998

Well, Ditka certainly provided some energy. “Da Coach” didn’t take a breath in his 26-second blaring performance; perhaps he was winded from rushing up to the booth, to which he arrived a few moments late.

Ozzy Osbourne — Aug. 17, 2003

This isn’t a ranking of bad performances, but Osbourne sits atop the leaderboard anyhow. The Black Sabbath vocalist started off singing “Let’s go out to the ball game” before breaking into a mumble streak of made-up words. The look on Kerry Wood’s face summarizes things well.

Mr. T — May 25, 2009

It didn’t sound too good, but it sure was enthusiastic. Way to do your thing, Mr. T.

David Cross — Sept. 21, 2013

Hard to say what Cross, a stand-up comedian and actor, was going for here. He starred in three “Alvin and the Chipmunks” films and, fittingly, screeched into the mic a couple of times. Maybe it was all in jest? He ended his rendition by saying, “That was awful. I’m so sorry.” 

Scottie Pippen — Oct. 22, 2016

Pippen performed the stretch in the biggest game in Cubs history (at that point) — the pennant-clincher in 2016. The Bulls Hall-of-Famer was on tune to start before mixing up lyrics, then passing the mic to the animated Wrigley crowd. 

We’ll give Pippen a slight pass here, considering he brought six championships to Chicago during his playing days.  

With that, I'll leave you with this:

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