Cubs

Jason Hammel ready to step up for Cubs as Game 4 starter

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Jason Hammel ready to step up for Cubs as Game 4 starter

Jason Hammel could be starting the biggest game of the year for the Cubs. 

Joe Maddon announced Monday that Hammel will get the ball in Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Cardinals.

It's something of a second chance for the 33-year-old starter, who was the Cubs' clear No. 3 starter earlier in the season but endured struggles for the entire second half of the season and saw 25-year-old Kyle Hendricks get the ball in a pivotal Game 2 on Saturday in St. Louis.

The Cubs have already ruled out starting Jon Lester on short rest for Game 4, meaning Hammel will get the nod in a contest where the Cubs could clinch a spot in the NLCS.

"Referring to the pressure, I feel like pressure is what you make of it," Hammel said. "Honestly, yeah, it could be a big game, but I've done this a few times now in the postseason and I understand that it's just another ballgame.

"I have to approach it that way, and I know the guys in the clubhouse will be, too. I've been preparing for this game since my last outing in Cincinnati, so I've had a little bit of time to think about it. I'll be ready to go."

[MORE CUBS: Cardinals not ready to announce Game 4 starter]

Hammel put up a 2.89 ERA in his first 16 starts of the season, striking out 104 batters in 102 2/3 innings and even drawing an All-Star endorsement from Maddon at one point in June.

Hammel suffered a hamstring injury July 8, and since then, he has put up a 5.50 ERA in 15 starts. He's racked up just two quality starts in that span, showing obvious frustration at times at Maddon's quick hook.

"It wasn't really a blow-up," Maddon said. "He was upset that he was taken out of games early because he's a starting pitcher and no starting pitcher likes that. I've probably had the same conversation with the other guys.

"Our relationship is actually really good. It always has been. I think he eventually understood why we did it and how it benefited everybody. So it's not been a problem at all. Zero."

Hammel said it was difficult to endure his tough second half, but he's felt better recently in large part due to a change in mindset.

"Obviously when you're not going right, it's hard to kind of get out of your own way," Hammel said. "But in those moments, you kind of have to tease yourself and almost trick yourself into thinking you are really good, even when you're not performing to what you know you can do.

"It wasn't like a light-bulb moment or anything like that, but I've been in the game long enough that I know if you beat yourself up, you're going to set yourself further back.

"Success in sports — anything, really — is confidence, and as long as I keep the confidence in myself, I'll be fine."

[MORE CUBS: Turning point for The Plan: Cubs get October close-up at Wrigley]

Hammel spun five shutout innings his last start of the season on Oct. 1 in Cincinnati. He's notched 15 postseason innings in his career, making stops with the Colorado Rockies (2009), Baltimore Orioles (2012) and then the Oakland A's last season.

He will need to rely on that experience in a crucial game against the Cardinals.

"I know that he's ready for the moment," Maddon said. "He feels very good about it. When you look at a guy like that, you know he's rested, that he can give you the innings necessary and he's pitched really well against these guys in the past, too.

"It's all there. I feel very good about it, actually. But regardless of what happened in the past, for me, that has nothing to do with anything. Those were things that had to be done at that particular moment.

"And those moments are dead and gone and you move on from there."

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."