Cubs

Kris Bryant's 'unusual' patience a microcosm of Cubs' lineup

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Kris Bryant's 'unusual' patience a microcosm of Cubs' lineup

CINCINNATI — Kris Bryant may not have a home run yet, but he has been bringing something just as valuable to the Cubs lineup — patience.

In his first nine big-league games, Bryant is hitting .379, but it's his .526 on-base percentage that really stands out, with a stellar walk-to-strikeout ratio of 8:8.

"[Opposing pitchers] are going after him pretty hard right now," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "To his credit, he's not just swinging at everything. He's taking his walks. If he continues to do that, he's going to continue to hit at a high pace.

"[The walk-to-strikeout ratio] absolutely is [impressive]. Normally, these [power] guys should strike out over 100 times and if they walk even 50 or 60 times, that'd be fabulous. But for right now, he's just doing a nice job of not biting. They keep trying to expand the strike zone and he's not doing it."

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Bryant is averaging 4.29 pitches per plate appearance, which would rank fourth in the National League if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.

Even if the power hasn't completely been there in the early going (Bryant does have four doubles), Maddon likes what he sees from the rookie slugger.

"[His patience] is unusual," Maddon said. "Even just talking to him in spring training, he demonstrated a really different level of thinking for what he's about to do here. He just never seems to be frazzled or anxious about a moment. He seems to have that moment thought out and under control.

"He wants to be in the present tense. He's very mindful of really enjoying himself out there and not making it a difficult moment.

"All those forces combined to help him not want to try to get it down like right now — 'My at-bat right now, if I take a walk, it's a good thing; I'll get them the next at-bat.' He's really been good at that. It's just been one at-bat at a time.

"The home runs are going to come. Guys like that, when they start hitting them, they start hitting them in clusters."

[MORE: Cubs: Joe Maddon sees a lot of Joey Votto in Anthony Rizzo]

The Cubs as a team lead the NL in pitches per plate appearance (3.93) entering play Sunday. Anthony Rizzo is 10th in the league with a 4.18 mark, while Jorge Soler (3.95) and Dexter Fowler (3.86) also ranked in the Top 40.

Addison Russell has only played four games in the big leagues and is hitting just .111, but he's actually averaging 4.50 pitches per plate appearance, better than everybody on the Cubs except for Tommy La Stella (5 pitches per plate appearance in two games).

"Every hitter goes up there and we're just not up there hacking right now," Maddon said. "We're really working mindful at-bats and that's kinda fun to watch.

"Part of it is [the rookies] are going to keep getting better. They're already good."

Soler has been scuffling a bit lately, mired in an 0-for-11 stretch the last three games (entering play Sunday), including eight strikeouts.

But the 23-year-old rookie has drawn three walks in that span and is actually averaging five pitches per plate appearance.

[RELATED: Unsung hero Jonathan Herrera impressing Maddon, Cubs]

Maddon thinks the results will come for Soler.

"He was doing really well [with strike zone judgement] in the beginning and all of a sudden, he's started to expand a little bit," Maddon said. "And when that happens, there's nothing wrong with your swing; it's just organize your strike zone again.

"He's had the reputation of being able to organize the strike zone, which tells me he's going to do it again. Right now, he's a little bit eager. He's had a lot of guys in scoring position, too. He's also done some really nice damage.

"I just think when he gets back to his zone, he's going to start hitting the ball consistently well again."

Theo Epstein's front office has made it a point to acquire and develop guys who see a lot of pitches and can work an at-bat, following the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees model.

The results have been there for the Cubs in the early going, averaging 4.56 runs per game the first three weeks of the 2015 season.

Bryant hitting in the middle of that lineup will continue to help set the tone.

"I just think he understands the importance of [taking pitches]," Maddon said. "He's come up also with a lot of guys on base and he's not succumbed to chasing just to move the baseball. I really like that."

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Cubs are in first place, they own the best record in the National League at the All-Star break and remain as much a World Series contender as any team out there.

But things are never 100 percent rainbows and lollipops for a team with this high a profile.

No, instead of a simple thumbs up from fans and observers, a pat on the back and a “job well done,” there’s been quite a bit of focus on what’s not going well for the North Siders. Mostly, that’s meant starting pitching, as four of the team’s five Opening Day starters owns an ERA north of 3.90.

If all you’ve heard this season is “What’s wrong with Yu Darvish? What’s wrong with Jose Quintana? What’s wrong with Kyle Hendricks? What’s wrong with Tyler Chatwood?” you might think the Cubs are woefully underachieving. Instead, they’re 55-38, a first-half record not far off from what they owned at the break back in 2016, a season that ended in a curse-smashing World Series championship.

The lone Cubs starting pitcher at the All-Star Game, Jon Lester, isn’t happy with what he calls the “nitpicking” that’s come with the Cubs’ otherwise excellent start to the season.

“We’re kind of pulling at hairs,” he said before the Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night. “We’re splitting hairs right now as far as things that we’re looking for negatively on our team. And that can kind of rub wrong in the clubhouse as far as guys looking around going, ‘Wait a second, we’re doing pretty good and we’re getting nitpicked right now.’

“I don’t like nitpicking. So I feel like we’ve been doing really well and just stay with the positives of everything that we’ve been playing really good baseball.”

Lester’s got a point, though at the same time it’s an understandable discussion topic: If the Cubs aren’t getting consistent results from four of their five starting pitchers, what kind of effect will that have in a playoff series? There’s a long way to go before things get to that point, but Cubs players made their own expectations known back in spring training: It’s World Series or bust for these North Siders.

Lester has been phenomenal, unquestionably worthy of his fifth All-Star selection. He posted a 2.98 ERA in 19 first-half starts. But the rest of the rotation wasn’t nearly as pretty. Hendricks finished his first half with a 3.92 ERA, Quintana with a 3.96 ERA, Chatwood with a 5.04 ERA and Darvish, who made only eight starts before going on a seemingly never-ending DL stint, with a 4.95 ERA. Mike Montgomery, who’s made nine starts, has a 3.91 ERA overall and a 3.20 ERA as a starter.

None of that’s exactly end-of-the-world bad, and there are plenty of pitching staffs across baseball that would probably make a trade for those numbers in a heartbeat. But is it the elite, best-rotation-in-baseball type stuff that so many projected for this team before the season started? Of course not. And Lester knows it. He, like team president Theo Epstein, just looks at that fact a little differently than the fans and observers who are so quick to push the panic button.

“Can we pitch better? Absolutely. As a collective unit, yeah we can. And that’s a positive,” Lester said. “I think guys are ready for runs. You kind of saw Kyle put together a couple starts there where he’s back to being Kyle. Q’s been throwing the ball pretty well for us.

“I think this break will do Chatwood a lot of good. This is a guy, he’s pounding his head against the wall, beginning of the season he wasn’t giving up any runs but everybody’s talking about walks. I look at the runs, I don’t care about the walks.

“We get these guys back to relaxing and being themselves, we’ll be fine. Our bullpen’s been great, our defense has been great. Offense is going to come and go, as we’ve seen in the game. As starters, we’ve got to keep our guys in the game the best we can, at the end of the day our bullpen and our defense is going to pick us up.”

The fretting will likely never end unless the Cubs have five starters throwing at an All-Star level, that's just the way things go. Something’s got to fill all that time on sports radio, after all, and for a team with postseason expectations, it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about how they might fare in the postseason, where those starting-pitching inconsistencies will most definitely come into play.

But Tuesday night, Cubs fans will see three players representing their club. Lester will be a happy observer with one of the best seats in the house, and Javy Baez and Willson Contreras will deservedly start among the best in the game. And they’ll have bragging rights over all their NL teammates because nitpicking or not, they’ve got the best record in the league.

Grinding it out, working as a team: The story of the Cubs

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USA TODAY

Grinding it out, working as a team: The story of the Cubs

Five times in franchise history. That’s how often the Chicago Cubs have owned the best record in the National League heading into the All-Star game. This is the first time since 2008.

Here’s what makes it even more surprising.

They’ve been doing it without Kris Bryant for long periods of time. He’s missed roughly one quarter of the Cubs’ games. Bryant’s injuries have forced him to sit out 23 games and the 2016 National League MVP has just 10 home runs. How many teams could lose a player of that caliber and still be elite? Not many.

They’ve also found a way to the top with the other half of the Bryzzo Souvenir Co. going through multiple slumps during the first 93 games of the season. According to the advanced metric of “Weighted Runs Created Plus," Anthony Rizzo has been human at the plate. Rizzo’s wRC+ rating of 100 is exactly the league average. Last year at this time his wRC+ was 31 percent better than the league average. His current WAR is just 0.2.

Don’t get me wrong, Rizzo and Bryant have still made an impact and both have shown signs that their stocks for the second half should by on “buy now” list.

So, the Cubs’ 1-2 punch has been off their game and it’s not their biggest struggle in the so-called first half. That dubious honor belongs to the starting rotation. Their two offseason additions have been disasters. Yu Darvish hasn’t pitched and Tyler Chatwood hasn’t thrown strikes.

By this point, you’re wondering how the Cubs aren’t in 4th place? Well, for those three issues there have been just as many answers from different places. Maybe more.

In the outfield, Albert Almora’s .319 batting average ranks third in the NL and he simply seems to catch everything. Jason Heyward. Who saw this coming? He’s delivering at the plate on a regular basis. In 2016, Heyward’s wRC+ was 29 percent worse than the league average. This year, he’s climbed to a 109 rating or nine percent above average. He also catches everything. Combine those two with Kyle Schwarber’s 17 bombs and his massive defensive improvements and you have an impactful outfield. Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist have done their parts too.

Speaking of Happ, the Cubs have eight players with at least a .340 on-base percentage. Happ needs just eight more plate appearances to be the ninth Cubs’ batter on that list.

All major factors, but the biggest reason the Cubs are atop the NL despite all this adversity is “The Javy Baez Show”. El Mago has done it with his glove, his baserunning, his defense, his energy and his bat. Baez is the first player in MLB history with 18 doubles, six triples, 18 home runs and 18 stolen bases before the All-Star break.

So, how have the Cubs reached this place for the just the fifth time in franchise history? They’ve done it by grinding it out. They’ve done it as a team. Two traits that should serve them well the rest of the way. #EverybodyIn.