Cubs

Jake Arrieta fires back at questions about his velocity

Jake Arrieta fires back at questions about his velocity

MILWAUKEE – Jake Arrieta is a nonconformist, trolling opposing fans on Twitter, developing his own Pilates/nutrition program, posing naked for ESPN the Magazine, openly talking about his contract and apparently reading what’s written about him.   

Or at least this article on FanGraphs – the website devoted to statistical analysis – caught his attention: “What on Earth Happened with Jake Arrieta?

Arrieta speaks in full paragraphs, looks like he could be heading toward the zone that once made him a Cy Young Award winner and dismisses any questions or theories about his low-90s velocity readings.

“Everybody wants to talk about this,” Arrieta said after Sunday’s 7-4 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “There’s FanGraph articles. I don’t care about that.

“I know that kind of stuff can come and go from time to time. I had periods last year where I was at the same spot I am right now. I had one in June, near the All-Star break. It is what it is. I still have good feel for everything. Movement is really good. The command’s good.

“When the 95-to-97 comes back, it’s going to be tough for teams. And it still is.”

Manager Joe Maddon put it this way after watching Arrieta use 98 pitches to get through seven innings and finish with 10 strikeouts against only two walks: “I’d much rather see what we saw today than 94-95 (mph) all over the map, absolutely.”

Even during an All-Star year that saw him beat the Cleveland Indians twice in the World Series, Arrieta had too many of those unpredictable stretches where he lost command and that air of invincibility.

The Cubs staked Arrieta an early five-run lead and he didn’t allow another hit after Ryan Braun’s three-run homer in the third inning. Whatever the radar gun says, Arrieta is starting his salary drive at 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA.  

“Where I’m at now in my career, I don’t worry about it, because I know that I’m smart enough to work around that,” Arrieta said. “The velocity’s still good enough to get it by guys and to do certain things in certain situations with it.

“If I’m commanding the ball on the inside part of the plate to left-handed hitters with some sink – like I was able to with a couple big strikeouts (where they’re) taking third strikes in – that’s a big deal.”

In Arrieta’s mind, he has an array of weapons, from a curveball he can drop at 75 or 82 mph, a cutter that can be effective in the right spot at 84 or 90 mph and a changeup that he’s still trying to sharpen.

Arrieta’s case for a long-term megadeal that could take him into his late 30s revolves around his baseball IQ, superior conditioning and relatively low pitching odometer.

“Some guys would call it like a ‘dead arm,’ but I feel good,” Arrieta said. “That’s all I’m worried about.”

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

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USA TODAY

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

One Cubs player is within shouting distance of starting at the 2018 MLB All-Star game. But this time around, as compared to last week, the vote deficit is a bit larger.

MLB updated its second round of All-Star ballots for the National League. Catcher Willson Contreras trails Giants catcher Buster Posey by 90,000 votes. The margin was only 22,000 votes at this time last week.

And for other Cubs players such as Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and others, the margin is a little more substantial.

Rizzo is behind Braves first basemen Freddie Freeman by nearly 870,000 votes. Baez trails Braves second basemen Ozzie Albies by 148,000 votes.

Bryant trails Rockies third basemen Nolan Arenado by 447,000 votes. At shortstop, Addison Russell is in third place, trailing the Dansby Swanson of the Braves and Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford.

In the outfield, Jason Heyward moved up to the seventh spot with 447,359 votes, dropping Kyle Schwarber to eighth with 442,471 votes, and Ben Zobrist ranks ninth with 434,943 votes.

There will be another All-Star ballot update for the NL next Monday, and voting ends on July 5 at 11 p.m. Central.

 

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

ST. LOUIS — Addison Russell is the most polarizing player on the 2018 Cubs.

Now that Jason Heyward has found his groove again at the plate, Ian Happ isn't striking out every other at-bat and Yu Darvish has spent the last month on the disabled list, it's Russell's cross to bear.

Mind you, Russell is still 24 and far from a finished product as a Major League Baseball player.

But he's had such an up-and-down run with the Cubs over the last year and a half, ever since the 2016 World Series. That includes an accusation of domestic violence last spring, though Russell denited it and MLB's investigation into the matter ended when his ex-wife declined to participate with the league.

This is the guy who collected 4 hits in the weekend series in St. Louis, including a pair of doubles, a homer and 2 walks. He's also hitting .333 with a .395 on-base percentage and .882 OPS in June.

But then again, this is also the same guy who had throwing issues in the sixth and eighth innings Sunday night (including not throwing to third base for the force out in the sixth inning) and struck out looking with runners on second and third and only one out Saturday night.

Russell currently boasts career best marks in walk rate, strikeout rate, batting average, on-base percentage, line drive rate and opposite field hit percentage. He's also sporting a 104 wRC+ (which measures runs created per plate appearance and takes into account league and park factors, with 100 being average), which is the best mark of his career.

All told, Russell is in the midst of his best offensive season. 

Then again, he still only has a .744 OPS and is on pace for just 7 homers and 38 RBI, down numbers for a guy who hit 21 bombs with 95 RBI as a 22-year-old in 2016.

Over the weekend in St. Louis, Russell said he feels good at the plate, both mentally and physically. He liked where his head was at and can feel the progression he's made as a hitter since last season.

With or without Javy Baez (who just took a 90 mph fastball off the elbow in Sunday night's game), Russell is one of the Cubs' most important players.

He's so integral to what the Cubs do on defense and currently ranks as the second-best defender in baseball with 13 Defensive Runs Saved, behind only Oakland's Matt Chapman.

Russell also has the power to completely change the landscape of a Cubs lineup that is still searching for consistency on a daily basis.

Right now, he's doing exactly what the Cubs want him to do at the plate: Walking more, striking out less and using the whole field.

"When he came in after that line drive down the right-field line [Friday], I gave him a high five twice," Joe Maddon said. "That's the whole thing with these young hitters that we have. As they learn the opposite field on a consistent basis, they'll be able to sustain high numbers. They'll also be able to sustain high walk rates.

"When you're doing that, you're giving yourself more time to make a decision. Ball inside that you're pulling, you have a longer swing to get to with less time to make up your mind. Ball away that you're gonna go the other way with, you have a shorter swing to get to it with more time to make a decision. 

"It's all part of the equation. As our guys learn the value of the middle and opposite field from a hitter's perspective, their numbers are going to continue to increase."

As it stands right now, Russell is a Gold Glove caliber shortstop with a .277 batting average and .351 on-base percentage. That's a pretty solid player, even with the low power.

With the way the Cubs' roster is currently constructed, Russell will play a huge part in whether or not the Cubs can win their second World Series in a three-year span.

But he will also have to continue to maneuver through the mental hurdle of seeing his name thrown about as part of trade rumors this summer (and possibly beyond). And he'll have to stay mentally checked in during every at-bat or play in the field.

Russell's main takeaway roughly 40 percent of the way through the 2018 campaign?

"That it's a long season," he said. "We had a really good run in 2015, '16 and '17 as well, but this year, I'm really taking my time.

"Patience is the real thing in the clubhouse — on the road, at home, doing my routine, knowing that it's all gonna work out over time."