The psychology of October: Cubs plan to keep it simple

The psychology of October: Cubs plan to keep it simple

The day before Game 1 of the NLDS, a reporter asked Anthony Rizzo if he was annoyed by all the media attention and pressure heaped on the Cubs.

The face of the franchise just shrugged his shoulders and said it comes with the territory and reminded reporters the Cubs have been dealing with lofty expectations and crazy media attention since February, so this isn't much different.

As the 2016 Cubs officially begin their bid at ending a 108-year championship drought Friday night at Wrigley Field, the weight of a long-suffering fanbase will be on their shoulders.

Every team enters postseason play feeling the pressure, but the Cubs are tabbed as the clear favorites for the World Series and have created an environment where anything short of a championship will be seen as a massive disappointment.

So how can players block out all the noise and keep the moment from getting too big?

"I don't know that you do," veteran catcher David Ross said. "Everybody's different. It'd be hard to say for each individual guy. For me personally, it's about just having your at-bat. 

"We've been talking about it all year: pitch-to-pitch, trying to work your at-bat, game-calling. You're trying to pay attention to the things you've watched all year: Make sure you know the scouting report and you've got the information and then it's about going out there and doing it.

"There's no secret formula."

Rizzo got his first taste of October baseball last year when an upstart Cubs team knocked out the Pittsburgh Pirates in the winner-take-all wild-card game and then bumped the St. Louis Cardinals from the NLDS before running into Daniel Murphy and the New York Mets.

Rizzo believes that experience will help the Cubs' young players slow the game down.

After all, that's what each player is trying to do during the postseason - keep things from speeding up on them.

"Slowing it down is just about simplifying it, really," said Ben Zobrist, who anchored the World Series-winning Royals lineup last fall. "If you start thinking about everything that's going to happen around the game, then that's when it speeds up - when you have multiple thoughts in your head and you're thinking about too much.

"That's when it's gonna speed up. I think when you simplify, you think about the one thing you need to think about at that moment and you stay in the present. That's when things slow down."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Since the Cubs reported to Mesa, Ariz., in mid-February for spring training, Joe Maddon has implored his team to embrace the pressure and expectations.

He also had a message for the players during one of his rare team meetings Tuesday afternoon.

"The one thing I really wanted to get across, you have to understand this - something's gonna go bad," Maddon said. "Something's gonna go wrong. And it happens to everybody. It's how you react to that moment that sets you apart."

When Theo Epstein met with the media Tuesday afternoon a couple hours after Maddon's session, a reporter asked the Cubs president if he thought fans were thinking positively about the team's chances of winning it all.

"Check back if the other team scores the first run or gets the first baserunner," he deadpanned. "Look, I think there's a real connection between the fans and this particular team and there's a lot of trust.

"Therefore, a lot of excitement, but no matter what happens, there's gonna be some rough moments, no matter how successful the postseason. So we just gotta keep this place nice and loud.

"If we do get behind in a game, we know the support will still be there, but we just have to make sure that it comes out, that it's audible and loud and our players can hear it. I know our fans will come through for that."

Cubs players can relate to those fans anxious to get it going. 

Both Ross and Kris Bryant spoke Thursday afternoon about how they're chomping at the bit after four days off.

Veteran catcher Miguel Montero is about to take part in his fourth postseason and he's had no trouble embracing the expectations.

"I don't believe in the pressure," Montero said. "You actually live for these type of moments. As a player growing up, you want to be in this situation. I always said, like, 'I want to be up in the ninth inning with the winning run on third and I want to be up hitting because I live for that.'

"I think that's what we're living for right now - this time of year. We've prepared ourselves to be where we're at right now and go farther."

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.

Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move


Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

Friday, the Cubs announced they've signed right-hander Daniel Winkler to a one-year deal worth $750K. The deal is a split contract, meaning Winkler will earn a different salary in the major leagues than if he gets sent to the minor leagues. He has one minor league option remaining. 

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Cubs and your teams on your device.