Cubs

Joe Maddon's plan for Kyle Schwarber and the Cubs outfield defense

Joe Maddon's plan for Kyle Schwarber and the Cubs outfield defense

MESA, Ariz. — Hardly any player has ridden the roller coaster of nationally-televised extremes more than Kyle Schwarber.

In 2015, his defense in left field came under heavy fire in the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets.

Last fall, Schwarber became a cult hero in the baseball world after his remarkable return from a knee injury and ridiculous production in the World Series (.400 AVG, .971 OPS) after missing more than six months.

In reality, Schwarber is not really either of those as a player and any thought otherwise is probably placing too much emphasis on a small sample size.

He probably won't ever hit .400 and it's entirely possibly he may never look as lost playing left field as he did 17 months ago against the Mets.

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Cubs manager Joe Maddon has talked up Schwarber's outfield defense plenty over the last year-plus and the 24 year old proved it Thursday at Sloan Park, leaping high at the wall in left field to rob extra bases.

"He wants to do it and anything he wants to do, he does and he does it well," Maddon said. "I saw a picture of him jumping for that ball — he got up in the air a bit, too. He's athletic.

"He had a bad game or whatever in the playoffs a couple years ago and everybody's taken that one moment and built it into this negative situation. He's not. He's gonna be really good out there."

For all the credit Albert Almora Jr. gets for defense, he had 0 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in 193 innings in center field in 2016, according to FanGraphs. By the same metric, Schwarber had -3 DRS in 295.2 innings in left field in 2015.

And now Schwarber has had another two years to learn the position a bit more (when he wasn't injured, that is).

That being said, Maddon confirmed Schwarber — who will also play some catcher, though he hasn't yet appeared behind the plate this spring — will be relieved on defense quite a bit in 2017, both to keep him fresh after the devastating knee injury and to improve the outfield alignment late in games when the Cubs have the lead.

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Schwarber should be used to that after Maddon inserted Chris Denorfia — who started in right field against the Cubs for the Colorado Rockies in Saturday's Cactus League game — into left regularly at the end of 2015 for defensive purposes.

This year, it will mostly likely be veteran Jon Jay coming into the game as a defensive replacement.

With Jay in left, Almora in center and four-time Gold Glover Jason Heyward in right field, the Cubs may have the ability to field one of the best defensive outfields in the game.

"It's real good," Maddon said. "All three of them are really good. It'd be very nice to have in the latter part of the game. Probably something we'll do.

"I just spoke very highly of Kyle and I do believe that, however, you still would want to improve your defense in the latter part of the game. You do that as well as take the stress off his leg.

"You may see something like that early on in the season, whereas we have a lead late, you would put Jon out there with Albert and Jason, which obviously is your best way to do it.

"But we'll wait and see how that's all gonna play out, because I know Kyle wants to play nine innings."

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."

Theo Epstein brushes aside rumors: 'There's essentially zero trade talks involving the Cubs'

Theo Epstein brushes aside rumors: 'There's essentially zero trade talks involving the Cubs'

No, the Cubs are not currently talking to the Baltimore Orioles about bringing Manny Machado to the North Side of Chicago.

So says Theo Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations who met with the media at Wrigley Field ahead of Friday's series opener with the San Francisco Giants.

Epstein vehemently shot down the notion of trade talks and specified the major diffence between trade rumors and trade talks, while refusing to comment on Machado in particular.

"I'm not addressing any specific rumor or any player with another team," Epstein said. "I would never talk about that in a million years. The simple way to put it is there's been a lot of trade rumors involving the Cubs and there's essentially zero trade talks involving the Cubs.

"There's a real disparity between the noise and the reality and unfortunately, sometimes that puts a player or two that we have in a real tough circumstance. And that's my job to clarify there's nothing going on right now.

"We have more than enough ability to win the division, win the World Series and we really need to focus on our roster and getting the most out of our ability and finding some consistency. Constant focus outside the organization doesn't do us any good, especially when it's not based in reality right now."

The Cubs have presented a united front publicly in support of Addison Russell, whose name has been the one bandied about most as a potential leading piece in any move for Machado.

After all, the Cubs have won a World Series and never finished worse than an NLCS berth with Russell as their shortstop and he's only 24 with positive signs of progression offensively.

Trading away 3.5 years of control of Russell for 3-4 months of Machado is the type of bold, go-for-it move the Cubs did in 2016 when their championship drought was well over 100 years.

Now, the championship drought is only one season old and the window of contention is expected to remain open until through at least the 2021 season.

Epstein likes to point out that every season is sacred, but at what cost? The Cubs front office is still very much focused on the future beyond 2018.

"Everybody's talking about making trades in May — the first part of the season is trying to figure out who you are," Epstein said. "What are the strengths of the club? What are the weaknesses of the club? What's the character of the club? What position is the club gonna be in as we get deeper in the season? What's our short-term outlook? What's our long-term outlook? What's the chemistry in the clubhouse?

"All those things. It's a process to get there and figure it out. If you rush to those kinds of judgments, you can oftentimes make things worse. I think it's important to figure out exactly who you are and give guys a chance to play and find their level and see how all the pieces fit together before you make your adjustments."

So there's no chance we could see the Cubs once again jump the market and make an early deal like they did last year for Jose Quintana or five years ago for Jake Arrieta? Will they definitely wait another five weeks until July to make a move?

"It's just the natural order of things," Epstein said. "We wouldn't be opposed to doing something, but that's not the case right now. It's not happening."