Cubs

No return date for Dexter Fowler, but Cubs can't wait to get him back

No return date for Dexter Fowler, but Cubs can't wait to get him back

Dexter Fowler has missed the last 14 games. And the Cubs have lost 10 of them.

While there are plenty of other reasons the Cubs have recently made fans sweat with ugly sweeps at the hands of the Cardinals and Mets and dropping three of four to the Marlins, Fowler's absence is among the most glaring.

The center fielder and leadoff guy is in all likelihood going to be voted into the starting lineup for the National League All-Star team, but when he finally returns to the Cubs' starting lineup remains a mystery. The updates that came Monday from Fowler and manager Joe Maddon regarding the center fielder's hamstring injury fell more into the speculation category.

"I can’t put a time on it," Fowler said. "It feels good. It’s getting better, it’s getting better fast. That’s a good sign. I can’t really look toward the future."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

When Fowler initially went on the disabled list two weeks ago, it was billed mostly as precaution. He wasn't expected to need the full 15 days. But 15 days later, Fowler remains on the DL, and he might remain there a few days more, too.

What was certain Monday was that he'll go on a rehab assignment. When that will happen, however, was also unknown.

"He needs a day or two of rehab, getting out and playing. We don’t know when that’s going to be yet," Maddon said. "It’s not impossible to think that it can be by the end of this week. But it’s a day-to-day thing. He’s getting better, he’s feeling well. Obviously he’s motivated to play in the All-Star Game, that’s a big part of it. I understand that. We’ll just play out the rest of the week and see where it takes us. But there’s no definitive game strategy right now."

So if Fowler is one of three starting National League outfielders when the All-Star rosters are announced Tuesday, will he get a chance to play in the game?

Again, unknown.

"The thing with him is health. Maybe coincidentally you would send him out on those two days anyhow to play rehab, and it just happens to be before an All-Star Game. That would all be more coincidence more than we’re trying to push for him to play in an All-Star Game. That wouldn’t be it at all," Maddon said. "This might be the right time to do it. And then you know that he’s fine, and he goes (to the All-Star Game) and plays a couple innings out there, gets a couple at-bats, comes back and plays. I don’t know, this is all conjecture. But you don’t want to have the timing interfere with what you would have normally done anyway."

[MORE CUBS: Maddon expects Kris Bryant to be fine after scary outfield collision]

Here's what is a definite, though: The Cubs want Fowler back, and they could use him back in a big way. Again, his absence isn't the only reason the Cubs are experiencing a downturn from their white-hot start to the season. But losing an All-Star leadoff man has its obvious repercussions.

Fowler has led off every game he's started this season and posted a spectacular .290/.398/.483 slash line with 41 runs scored, 19 doubles, seven homers and 28 RBIs. Since his departure from June 18's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, a variety of Cubs hitters have led off, with Ben Zobrist taking over the role on a consistent basis of late.

And while Zobrist's numbers in the leadoff spot are similarly strong — .286/.394/.500 slash line — it's taking Zobrist's bat out of the middle of the lineup that's causing the offense to sputter at times, per Maddon.

"Zo’s done a great job in the one-hole. He’s done a really good job," Maddon said. "I think that there’s an argument to be made it’s been kind of equal. But then you don’t have Zo somewhere else. That’s the issue. So I think either one of those two guys do a wonderful job (batting leadoff). But when you’re unable to utilize Zobrist in a different spot, obviously because Dex isn’t there, that’s where I think the impact has been felt more than anything. Getting Dexter back is important."

So will Fowler go on rehab this week? Will he be back with the Cubs this week? Will he play in the All-Star Game? Or will none of that happen until after the All-Star festivities?

The Cubs' answers to all of those questions are the same: "We'll see."

But the answer to whether they want and need Fowler back is different. The answer is a resounding yes.

"I thought we could hold serve," Maddon said of the time without Fowler in the lineup. "We’re not far below .500 since this has all been going on, we just had a bad series in New York. You go three out of four in Miami, get yourself righted in Cincinnati, and then have a tough weekend. I’m fine. I don’t think there’s any reason to overestimate anything. We definitely want to have Dexter back, no question."

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."