Cubs

Power outage: So far, Mets pitching too much for Cubs hitters in NLCS

10-18-kyle-schwarber-cubs2.png

Power outage: So far, Mets pitching too much for Cubs hitters in NLCS

NEW YORK – The “Rocky” theme song could be heard all the way on the other side of Citi Field’s visiting clubhouse, probably blasting out of the manager’s office, not far from where backup catcher David Ross would hold court with a group of reporters.   

If the Cubs are going to turn this National League Championship Series into a classic underdog/comeback story, they will have to start hitting bombs again and get great pitching from the trouble spots in their rotation. 

But if you were looking for someone to punch a wall or flip over a garbage can, you came to the wrong place. Players lounged around watching the New England Patriots finish off the Indianapolis Colts on “Sunday Night Football.” Anthony Rizzo stood in front of his locker after a 4-1 loss to the New York Mets and shrugged his shoulders.

“What else can we do?” Rizzo said. “It’s not like we’re dogging it or anything. We’re giving it our all.”

[MORE: Jake Arrieta hits the wall as Mets put Cubs in 0-2 NLCS hole]

Smothered by young guns Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard and lights-out closer Jeurys Familia, the Cubs are down 0-2 in this best-of-seven matchup between power pitchers and power hitters.

So far, the Cubs have gone 10-for-63 (.159) with 20 strikeouts and only three extra-base hits, scoring three runs through 18 innings and losing even with Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta on the mound. 

“It’s just baseball,” said Kyle Schwarber, who went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts the night after homering off Harvey. “That’s how it goes. Those guys were on. You tip your cap. You move on.”   

As the face-of-the-franchise first baseman, Rizzo sets the tone inside the clubhouse while celebrity manager Joe Maddon shapes the public message while meeting with the media before and after every game. 

“Listen, it’s never going to be easy this time of the year,” Maddon said. “They are good. We know that. We’re also very good. We just have to string together some more at-bats. The home run is a big part of our offense. They kind of negated that a bit here. But you’ve just got to turn the page. Move it along.

“We’re all about one-game winning streaks, very seriously. I really preach daily the one-day-at-a-time approach. I know it’s Psycho Babble 101. But it actually works, so all I’m concerned about is the next game.”

As much as these Cubs love hitting at Wrigley Field and feeding off the energy from the home crowd, the matchups don’t look any better, even if it’s about 15 degrees warmer on the North Side.

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

Kyle Hendricks will start Game 3 on Tuesday opposite Jacob deGrom, last season’s Rookie of the Year who already beat Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, eliminating the Los Angeles Dodgers in the divisional round.    

The Cubs haven’t officially announced their Game 4 starter — which says something — but Maddon had been leaning toward Jason Hammel and/or possibly making Wednesday a bullpen night.

“We’ve had success throughout this whole year because we stayed ourselves,” Schwarber said. “We stayed the course. Why go away from what we’ve been doing just because we lost two games?

“They still got to win two more. Why not keep (doing) what we’ve been doing the (whole) time, have the same approach and just keep battling?”

Citi Field’s sound system played the “Game of Thrones” theme song while Syndergaard warmed up, and the 6-foot-6 rookie with long blond hair and a “Thor” nickname limited the Cubs to one run and three hits across 5.2 innings.

After seeing Harvey on Saturday night, catcher Miguel Montero had joked about the next opponent: “Syndergaard? I know he’s a soft-throwing right-hander, right? He only throws 99 (mph).

“They’re young, but they got a lot of talent.”

Now here comes deGrom, a big-game pitcher who still shouldn’t intimidate this group. The Cubs got into the playoffs as the second wild-card team, but those 97 wins showed they wouldn’t be a fluke team or an easy out.

“There is a long way to go,” Rizzo said. “Our ultimate goal is to win eight more games. Theirs is to win six more games. You can’t let two games beat us up, especially with the way we’re capable of playing.”

What caused Willson Contreras' downturn in production in 2018?

What caused Willson Contreras' downturn in production in 2018?

There was plenty of "Willson Contreras: Future MVP?" discussion during spring training.

Any time a player in his age-25 year season hits 21 home runs with a .276/.356/.499 slash line at a premium defensive position (catcher) despite missing about a month with a hamstring injury (as Contreras did in 2017), the baseball world takes notice. The notion that he might one day garner MVP recognition was nothing to be laughed at.

Through the first few months of 2018, Contreras did much of the same. He had a small drop off in power, but he still had his moments and was solid overall. Over a three-game stretch in the beginning of May, he went 10-for-15 with three doubles, two triples, three home runs and 11 RBIs. He was the first Cubs catcher with five triples before the All-Star break since Gabby Hartnett in 1935. He even started the All-Star Game — and became the second player in MLB history (after Terry Steinbach) to homer in his first career All-Star at-bat after having homered in his first career MLB at-bat (back in 2016).

But instead of cruising along at a performance level about 20 percent better than league average, something happened.

Here are Contreras' Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) numbers from the past three seasons  (100 is league average, any point above or below is equal to a percentage point above or below league average):

Here’s that breakdown in terms of batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage:

But what caused the downturn in production? 

There were some underlying characteristics of his work, particularly a mixture of significantly higher ground-ball rate, lower average exit velocity and bad luck on balls in play which led to the decrease in production.

Also notable is that after the Midsummer Classic, the hits stopped coming on pitches on the outer third. Dividing the strike zone into thirds (this doesn’t include pitches outside the zone), this is what his batting average and slugging percentage looked like:

Granted, it’s not a significant sample, but it’s there.

One non-offensive thing that sticks out is his workload.

*missed 29 games in August and September with hamstring injury

It was the most innings caught by a Cubs receiver since Geovany Soto logged 1,150.1 innings in his Rookie of the Year season in 2008. Three other catchers besides Contreras logged at least 1,000 innings behind the plate in 2018: Jonathan Lucroy, Yasmani Grandal and Yadier Molina. While they combined to fare better prior to the All-Star break, it wasn’t nearly as precipitous a drop as Contreras suffered.

Lucroy, Grandal and Molina combined to slash .255/.322/.416 before the All-Star Game and .239/.317/.405 after it.

That could possibly have a little something to do with it though.

There’s no way to be entirely sure and to what extent each of the things listed above affected Contreras last season. Could it have been something completely different? Could it have been a minor nagging injury? A mental roadblock? Too many constant adjustments throughout the season? The questions remain. A new voice in newly appointed hitting coach Anthony Iapoce might be just what Contreras, who is entering his age-27 season, needs to get back on track and reestablish his spot among the best catchers in the major leagues.

Glanville: Changing expectations have made it so 95 wins is not enough for Cubs

Glanville: Changing expectations have made it so 95 wins is not enough for Cubs

During the first week of my rookie season with the Cubs, my teammate, the late Frank Castillo was running his sprints in the outfield in between starts. We were home at Wrigley and as was customary, a pitcher would do pole to poles, meaning he would run from the foul line to the other foul line while following the bend of the warning track. In this case, Frankie was running during batting practice after the fans were let into the ballpark.

The bleacher bums, known for their relentless in-your-face attitude towards visiting outfielders, were supportive and understanding when it came to the home squad, despite the so-so season we were having to date in 1996. When Frank, who had 1 win and 9 losses up until that point, ran by the left field section of these diehards, I heard a fan clearly tell Frank, “That’s OK Frank, next game, you will be 2-9!” It was loud enough for me to hear from where I was shagging fly balls nearby. I was surprised that this group of rough-and-tumble fans still had optimistic words of support.

Yet this was consistent with everything I had seen from the Cubs fans on my way up from the minor leagues, particularly when I was interacting with the fans during major league spring training before I was called up. Positive, hopeful, worried, waiting for bad luck to dash hopes, loyal and always with kind words, no matter how you were playing.

As a player who was just getting his first taste of major league action, this was comforting. The idea that I could make mistakes, that I had room to fall short and support would still be there, but you also wondered where the line was between complacency and patience, rebuilding and folding, hope and naïveté. 

Since I was new enough to just be taking it in, this was clouded by my own fandom. Like most new arrivals, everyone on your team is an All-Star in your mind. You are not sure where you will fit in yet, even with an abundance of self-confidence. Playing with teammates that I had imitated in Wiffle ball or rolled dice with their card on my table during a teenage Strat-O-Matic game, made me recognize that I was surrounded by greatness, in fact, icons. Sandberg, Grace, Dunston, Sosa. These were household names in the baseball mind of my childhood. How could we not have high expectations with these guys?

I was not objective enough to analyze the bullpen or the backup catcher, or how this team hit with runners in scoring position. That was past data, we have a future, and it could all change next week, right?

But there is something different about high expectations when you are on the back end of years of winning. When you are on the heels of a World Championship like the 2016 Cubs produced.

The language the Cubs players used throughout the 2018 campaign and after they were knocked out reflected the highest of expectation. The idea that every year is not just a playoff appearance, a 90-win season, a better-than-last-year achievement. It is a year measured by the singular accomplishment of being a world champion. 

When a team has rattled off a few years in a row of going deep into the postseason with a roster full of young players that could have just as easily stopped and taken pictures for simply being happy to be in “The Show,” it says a lot that these Cubs players arrived expecting much more. Age was just a number, underscoring that not only was winning aspirational, but it was a destination that was pre-set, as if they bought a plane ticket and anything other than a trophy was an unauthorized detour.

Along my professional career, I heard a lot of motivational spring training speeches (at least 14 of them). Every organization says they have assembled the best staff on Earth. Everyone says they have acquired the best talent in the Milky Way. Everyone looks around and sees top draft picks, legends of the past and a few guys that may be in the Hall of Fame one day. Yet all 30 teams are saying the same thing and only one can remain standing when all is said and done.

In today’s era of draft-and-develop over a patient-but-direct timeline, it may come down to whether a young player arrives at the right time in the cycle of his organization. Is he there for the upswing? If you play long enough, every team has a least one upswing, even if it lasts only a year. But you must be a core player, otherwise the trade machine could gobble up your timing.

Regardless, it makes a difference when a team has done it before. It makes expectation a word more akin to destiny. The team does not have to accomplish this championship goal by waving a magic wand. They believe it is now by repeating history, or at least as Mark Twain once referenced, “rhyming” with history. And despite baseball’s fascination and respect for its past, a player’s history is often measured in single-digit years.

After they were quickly eliminated from contention, the 2018 Cubs made it loud and clear. The ending was a huge disappointment. 95 wins was not good enough, a Wild Card was not champagne worthy. 

Yet I cannot help but think back to Frank Castillo and the fan that up until that time in 1996, never saw such a run that this 2018 unit has seen over the past few years. This fan often exuded a sentiment that being relentlessly positive was important and a 95 win-season and an early playoff exit still generated satisfaction. Certainly when I was a rookie arrival, if we won 95 wins that year, 95 major league wins was more than I could have fathomed as a young baseball fan when I was in Little League.

The Cubs have taken steps to show that satisfaction was not achieved in 2018 and there are consequences. Hitting coach Chili Davis was let go, more changes probably on the horizon. Fans can rest assured that the organization’s leadership is playing for the era of “now,” and they require no pat on the back for winning 95 games, in fact, they are declaring that the basking period of 2016 is officially over.