Respect 90: Kris Bryant will lead Cubs by example


Respect 90: Kris Bryant will lead Cubs by example

MILWAUKEE — Kris Bryant insisted the home-run drought didn’t weigh on him, but his actions spoke louder than his words.

That streak finally ended Saturday night at Miller Park, with Bryant going deep against Kyle Lohse during a 12-4 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers and the Cubs pretending to freeze him out in the dugout.  

But Bryant didn’t sulk or zone out or let his first 91 plate appearances in the majors negatively impact the rest of his game. His numbers before his first career home run: .422 on-base percentage; 4.37 pitches per plate appearance; 29 strikeouts in 73 at-bats; 17 walks, 14 RBI and 12 runs scored in 20 games.

[RELATED: WATCH: Cubs' Kris Bryant hits first career HR, returns to empty dugout]

That focus and maturity helps to explain why the Cubs drafted Bryant No. 2 overall in 2013, believing he would be able to handle all the big-market pressures, face-of-the-franchise responsibilities and off-the-field distractions.

“I can go the rest of the year without hitting a home run,” Bryant said. “As long as I’m doing that — running hard and driving in runs and helping the team win — that’s all I can control. And I’ll continue to do that.”

Bryant’s “Respect 90” hustle late Friday night still had manager Joe Maddon buzzing the day after the 6-foot-5 slugger ran hard on a groundball to shortstop with two outs in the ninth inning. A replay review rewarded Bryant with an infield single, giving the Cubs an insurance run they wound up needing in a 7-6 win over the Brewers.  

“That speaks volumes for the whole organization,” Maddon said. “Believe me, when it happened, I know (closer Hector Rondon is) coming in with a four-run lead, but I’m thinking to myself: Is that going to be the difference in the game tonight? Before the inning ever began. And it was.

[MORE CUBS: Kris Bryant hits first big-league homer in loss to Brewers]

“The other part that nobody even talked about — check out the replay where he hit the bag with his foot. If he doesn’t hit the front of the bag, he would have been out.

“Now, this is stuff you talk about the very first day when you run the bases. Get in there, run down the line, run through the bag, hit the front part of the bag, look over your right shoulder.

“You say that…I don’t know…at least a hundred times. At least. But do they all do it? No, because, eh, it’s not that big of a deal.

“I promise you: Run back the video on Derek Jeter running to first base…you see where his foot hits the bag almost 100 percent of the time. And that’s what KB did.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy a Kris Bryant jersey]

The best teams have its best players setting the example every day.

The Cubs have talked a lot about becoming a world-class organization while being a fifth-place team. For all the hype surrounding his arrival, Bryant is pretty quiet, relatively humble and very serious about his craft.

Bryant always said he wanted to let his game do the talking for him.

“There’s no greater banner or plug for the ‘Respect 90’ part of what we’re trying to get done here than what he just did right there,” Maddon said. “If all of our minor-leaguers watch that and (come) away with that takeaway, I will absolutely accept that. It was phenomenal.” 

Joe Maddon on MLB's absurd home run rate: 'The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird'

Joe Maddon on MLB's absurd home run rate: 'The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird'

Cubs manager Joe Maddon usually isn’t one for conspiracy theories, but even he’s wondering what’s going on. MLB teams are hitting home runs at an absurd rate, including the Cubs, who are hitting them at a historic rate for the franchise’s standards.

Entering Saturday, here’s where MLB teams stand in average home run rate and total home runs in 2019 compared to recent seasons:

2017: 1.26/game, 6,105 total
2018: 1.15/game, 5,585 total
2019: 1.33/game, 2,009 total

While the MLB season is just over 30 percent finished, teams are on pace to hit a combined 6,483 long balls in 2019. This would absolutely obliterate the 2017 total, which, like the 1.33 home runs per game figure, would be an MLB record.

The Cubs are no exception to this home run wave. Including Saturday (game No. 50 of the season), the team has hit 80 home runs (and counting) in 2019. Only the 2000 Cubs (83) hit more home runs in their first 50 games in franchise history.

“We’re having home runs hit here into some firm breezes, which has not happened before,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said to reporters before Saturday’s game against the Reds. “That’s the thing that stands out to me. It’s been crazy.

“Even [Kyle] Schwarber’s home run, I know that was hit well, but dang, that wind was blowing pretty firmly across at that point.”

Schwarber absolutely crushed his home run yesterday, a 449-foot blast that needed little help getting into the bleachers. However, Maddon has a valid point regarding home runs being hit despite the wind. Entering Saturday, 54 total home runs have been hit at Wrigley Field this season, 29 of which have come with the wind blowing in.

By the sixth inning of Saturday’s game, the Cubs and Reds had already hit a combined five home runs, one of which appeared to be a routine fly ball hit by Jason Heyward that wound up in the left field basket thanks to the wind. At the same time, Yasiel Puig hit one 416 feet onto Waveland Ave. that had a 109 mph exit velocity. The wind blowing out at Wrigley Field helps, but it isn’t everything.

MLB players have questioned time and time again if baseballs are “juiced,” including Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester. And while Maddon didn’t flat out say that he thinks the baseballs are juiced, he notices a difference in how they're flying off the bat.

“I don’t know, I’m normally not into the subplot component of all of this and the conspiracy theorists, but I’m telling you right now, it’s jumping,” he said. “It’s absolutely jumping.

“Nobody is ever going to admit to it. The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird.”

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.

Yu Darvish's Cutter Might Be What Turns His Season Around

Yu Darvish's Cutter Might Be What Turns His Season Around

Over the past two starts, Yu Darvish has walked three batters. That stat isn’t going to catch too many eyes until you realize that in the two starts prior, he walked 11. And the two starts before those? 7. 

Control issues have plagued Darvish all season, and if the season ended today, he’d set a career-high in BB% (16.6). He’s walked at least four batters in all but three of his starts. It’s been a mess so far, but it might not be for much longer. Look at how Darvish’s pitch selection has changed over the last eight weeks:

That’s a mighty big increase in two-seamer usage. Darvish was throwing his cutter barely 5% of the time at the start of the season, and now he’s throwing it basically once every four pitches. The cutter seen a 10% increase over the first two months as well. A game-by-game breakdown shows you just how much Darvish’s approach has changed of late: 

So, things look a little different now. That spike in sinker usage came against the Marlins, when he only got through four innings while allowing a run with six walks and seven strikeouts. He admitted after the game that he got too cozy with the pitch. 

More notably, Darvish’s cutter usage continues to steadily rise. That’s good news for the Cubs, because since over the last two years, it’s been one of his more effective pitches. 

It’s also probably not a coincidence that in Darvish’s best years, his cutter has been one of his most accurate pitches. The stretch from 2013-2016 (he missed all of 2015) saw some of the lowest BB% for his cutter: 

“I just think he has better command of that pitch,” Joe Maddon said. “I think he has a better idea of where that pitch is going. I think that’s the biggest difference with it. Because of that, it’s been more effective because he can throw it where he wants to. I think that’s the primary difference. 

News and notes

  • The Cubs called up Tim Collins and Dillon Maples before Saturday’s game. Collins was up briefly in mid-April, pitching 3.1 IPs in four outings. This is also Maples second time up this season, after making three appearances in late-April/early-May. “We had to,” Joe Maddon said about calling up the pair. “There’s a lot of stuff going on right now, a lot of usage. We’ve been in nearly every game we’ve been playing, so it’s difficult to give guy breaks.”
  • The corresponding move saw the Cubs option OF Mark Zagunis to Triple-A Iowa. In 29 games this season, Zagunis slashed .257/.333/.343 with a .676 OPS. “We’ve had these young guys that have not had a chance to play with regularity,” Maddon said. “It’s wonderful for them to be in the major leagues, but developmentally sometimes it can really hurt them. He’ll be back.” 
  • With a short bench, Maddon admitted that pitcher Tyler Chatwood could be a pinch hitter. “He’s legit,” he said. “I don’t know when or how, but he definitely has to have his spikes on.”
  • Pedro Strop is scheduled to throw a bullpen on Saturday. They have another one scheduled in a couple of days. Maddon noted that he’s getting close, and mentioned the end of next week as a potential timeline to when they’d more about his rehab assignment plans.