Cubs

'It's game on' — Anthony Rizzo won't back down after Padres call him out for 'cheap shot'

'It's game on' — Anthony Rizzo won't back down after Padres call him out for 'cheap shot'

If the Cubs wanted to send a message, this wouldn’t be the team to target. The San Diego Padres are a largely unrecognizable group of cast-offs and unproven players, already 15 games under .500 and tanking for the future.

This isn’t the 2015 Cubs fighting to create their own identity and take down the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs are so far beyond destroying the “Lovable Losers” label — or thinking that one play in a 3-2 win could somehow spark the defending World Series champs out of this blah “start” to a season that’s almost halfway over.

But in many ways, the Cubs take their cues from Anthony Rizzo, who knocked Padres catcher Austin Hedges out of Monday night’s game at Wrigley Field and calmly fired back after manager Andy Green called the collision a “cheap shot.”

“By no means do I think that’s a dirty play at all,” Rizzo said. “I’ve talked to a lot of umpires about this rule. And my understanding is: If they have the ball, it’s game on.”

Green vented his frustrations to San Diego reporters after watching the crash that ended the sixth inning, Rizzo tagging up from third base on the low line drive that Kris Bryant hit to ex-Cub Matt Szczur in center field.

Szczur caught the ball on the run and fired it in to Hedges, who grabbed it on the bounce, pivoted to his left and felt the full force of Rizzo (listed at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds). Hedges — a promising catcher the Padres drafted during the Jed Hoyer/Jason McLeod administration — tumbled backwards and held onto the ball for the double play that preserved a 2-1 lead before leaving with a bruised right thigh.

“I went pretty much straight in,” Rizzo said. “He caught the ball. He went towards the plate.

“It’s a play where I’m out by two steps. I slide, he runs into me. It’s just one of those plays where it’s unfortunate he had to exit.”

Rizzo — who bombed with the Padres during his big-league debut in 2011 before becoming a star in Chicago — essentially shrugged off Green’s suggestion that Major League Baseball will have to impose some form of discipline.

“The league will look at it,” Rizzo said. “It’s very sensitive because it doesn’t happen (often). But from my understanding of the rules, it’s a play at the plate.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Manager Joe Maddon made Rizzo his leadoff hitter last week as a last resort, trying to spark a team that’s now 35-34 and only 1.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. Rizzo reached base to lead off a game for the sixth straight time with a bunt up the third-base line against the defensive shift, notched an RBI with a sacrifice fly in the third inning and set the Hedges crash in motion with a leadoff triple into the right-field corner.

A verified Twitter account for the Padres Radio Network posted a photo of the collision with this caption: “Well #Padres fans, should the #Padres retaliate in this series for the slide by Rizzo? RT if you think yes, absolutely they should.”

Maddon — an anti-rules guy in general — has never been a fan of The Buster Posey Rule.

“You don’t see it anymore, because the runner thinks he has to avoid it,” Maddon said. “He doesn’t. If the guy’s in the way, you’re still able to hit him. I think we just retrained the mind so much right there that they look to miss (the catcher).

“I’d much prefer what Rizz did tonight. And what he did was right, absolutely right, so there’s nothing wrong with that. Nobody could tell me differently.

“It’s a good play. The catcher’s in the way. You don’t try to avoid him in an effort to score and hurt yourself. You hit him, just like Rizz did.”

The Cubs still managed only two runs in six-plus innings against Clayton Richard — the lefty they acquired for a dollar from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate in the middle of the 2015 season and designated for assignment last summer — after hitting into double plays in the first, second and fifth innings.

Javier Baez scored the go-ahead run from first base in the seventh inning when Jose Pirela misplayed Albert Almora Jr.’s double in left field. “Go Cubs Go” played on the sound system only after bulletproof closer Wade Davis escaped a second-and-third, one-out jam in the ninth inning.

But the lasting image will be Rizzo vs. Hedges. You know how Jon Lester will score it after his “we’re out there playing with a bunch of pansies” rant following last month’s loss at Busch Stadium.

“I was fired up — I loved it,” said Lester, who this time got the quality start no-decision. “Obviously, you don’t want to see anybody get hurt, but that’s part of baseball.

“The slide into second — I think that kind of came across as a little bit of an excuse in that game, just because we lost that game. And I think it looked bad as far as what we were saying about it. But that’s baseball. That’s the way the game’s been played for a long, long time.

“He caught the ball. He protected the plate. And Rizz had nowhere to go.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Do the Cubs need to make a deal?

cubs-stl-pod-525.jpg
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."