Cubs

Now Cubs will be the hunted in October, starting with Mets or Giants: ‘Who gives a s---?’

Now Cubs will be the hunted in October, starting with Mets or Giants: ‘Who gives a s---?’

CINCINNATI – If you had any lingering doubts about Jake Arrieta’s swagger – or how much the Cubs wanted to get these meaningless games over with – just listen to his answer to this question: Mets or Giants?

“Who gives a s---?” Arrieta said. “Who cares? Now the fun starts.”

Welcome to “TRY NOT TO SUCK-TOBER,” where this team will either live forever as the 2016 World Series champs or cause massive heartbreak for Cubs fans all over the world.

Suffocating pressure? Unfair expectations? Random crapshoot? The Cubs signed up for all this and put the bull’s-eye on their chests, beginning with last year’s joyride into the National League Championship Series – where they got swept by the Mets – and an offseason spending spree on free agents that zoomed toward $290 million and a spring-training circus that featured mimes, zoo animals and karaoke.

Ringmaster Joe Maddon will now lead the Cubs into what they believe will be a parade down Michigan Avenue. Assuming they can stay focused and healthy, get a little lucky and perform at the optimal level needed to win 11 postseason games. After Sunday’s 7-4 comeback victory over the Reds at Great American Ball Park, the best team in baseball left Cincinnati understanding that they are now the hunted.

“The boxes have been checked for the regular season,” Maddon said. “All the stuff we’ve talked about in camp regarding embracing the target and utilizing the words ‘pressure’ and ‘expectations’ in a positive way – I think we’ve done all those things.

“Give our guys credit, man, because going into camp, a lot of times when you have all those words attached to you, it can lead to a bad result during the season. But our guys have handled it well.”

The Cubs notched 103 victories and won the NL Central by 17.5 games, the Giants clinching the second wild-card spot with Sunday’s 7-1 win over the Dodgers and sending the Cardinals into a long winter. The Cubs will next face the winner of the wild-card showdown between Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner on Wednesday night at Citi Field.

“We know that nothing’s handed to you,” said Jason Heyward, the Gold Glove outfielder who defected from the 100-win St. Louis team the Cubs shoved out of last year’s playoffs. “You got to earn whatever you have. You see teams built with certain rosters and they don’t perform. It’s not throwing shade at the Nationals, but they’ve been picked to win for a while. They won their division again, but (it’s been the same thing with) the Dodgers – you see teams that are slated to do things and it doesn’t pan out that way.

“We don’t feel like we’ve done anything yet. We’ve punched our ticket to get in – and that’s the bottom line. You want to be in the dance and play for that last game.

“Obviously, we’re not above the game, so we’ve got some work to do to get ready and try to go where we want to go.”

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The Cubs got off to a fast start, winning 25 of their first 31 games before taking over the All-Star Game this summer, flying seven players to San Diego. Anthony Rizzo could see Kris Bryant pulling away in the MVP race and believes his teammate deserves the award. Together, Bryzzo generated 71 homers and 211 RBI. Kyle Hendricks (2.13) beat Jon Lester (2.44) for the ERA title in a rotation that featured four 15-game winners, with the fifth guy being two-time World Series champion John Lackey.

But the Cubs also have a next-man-up philosophy. With two outs in the ninth inning, Matt Szczur knocked a go-ahead, two-run double that bounced past Reds first baseman Joey Votto and into right field. Pinch-hitter Miguel Montero followed it up by blasting a two-run homer into the right-field seats off Reds reliever Raisel Iglesias.

By Sunday night, splashes of water covered the door to the manager’s office in the visiting clubhouse, the walls and the black leather couch still drenched from the postgame celebration recognizing Maddon’s 200th win with the Cubs.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Rizzo said. “In two years – 200 wins – for him, for us, for this organization.”

The Cubs will enjoy Monday’s off-day in Chicago before returning to Wrigley Field on Tuesday for a simulated game, the first of three straight workouts leading into Friday’s Game 1. Maddon’s message: Don’t change a thing. 

Maybe that’s why Arrieta – who trolled Pittsburgh fans on Twitter before shutting down the Pirates in last year’s wild-card game and silencing the blackout crowd at PNC Park – doesn’t give a s--- who the Cubs play in October.

“Whether you’re an underdog or the favorite, you still have to win,” Arrieta said. “Regardless of who we face, they’re going to be good. The guy on the hill’s going to be good. And their lineup’s going to be good. If we execute more pitches than they do – and we get a couple timely hits – I like our chances.

“It’s a roll of the dice. But with the group we have, we’re set to make a really deep push. And hopefully get over that hump from last year and get this thing done for Chicago.”

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."