Cubs

Is this season a failure if Cubs don’t win the World Series?

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Is this season a failure if Cubs don’t win the World Series?

ANAHEIM, Calif. – If the Cubs don’t win the World Series, will this season be a failure?

The Cubs are light years away from pitchers getting asked about the trade deadline as soon as they report to spring training, or managers sitting on the hot seat, or prospects becoming overloaded with attention to distract everyone from the awful big-league product.

Year 5 of the Theo Epstein administration began on a beautiful, 75-degrees-and-sunny night in Southern California, with fireworks, a flyover and a sellout crowd (44,020) at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. But anxious Cubs fans, the build-‘em-up Chicago media and all those national experts can’t fast forward to October.

There is still more than 99 percent of the season left to play after Jake Arrieta again looked like a Cy Young Award winner while dominating the Los Angeles Angels during Monday’s 9-0 victory.

“I don’t think it’s fair to sit here on Opening Day and determine what’s going to be a success and what’s going to be a failure,” Epstein said. “It’s fair at the end of the year. As I look back on last year, I can identify a lot of things that were successes. And I can identify a lot of things that were failures, even in what was overall seen as a pretty darn good year for the organization.

“That’s what we’ll do at the end of the season, sit back and take stock on that and hope that these are the types of questions we’re asked again next Opening Day. The fact that you’re asking that means a lot’s going right for this organization.

“That’s a good feeling, but it doesn’t mean anything. We have to go out and prove it. We have to go out and earn it. We have to go out and overcome the adversity. That process starts today.

“That’s how we’re wired as an organization. Not to sit here and judge exactly what a success might be or who’s starting what game of the playoffs. We have to go earn it. We have nothing. We have nothing but each other, talent, character and an opportunity.”

[MORE: Cubs moving closer to extension with Theo Epstein]  

The Cubs skipped the steppingstone season by winning 97 games and two playoff rounds last year – and then slamming on the accelerator this winter with almost $290 million spent on free agents.

The Cubs still had four 25-and-under players starting on Opening Day – Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler – for the first time since 1975. That critical mass of young talent means the buzz around this team is here to stay.

“Nothing’s promised in this game – or in life,” Epstein said. “Windows slam shut. People get run over by buses crossing the street. You can’t control everything. So you want to make the most of every day. You want to make the most of every opportunity.

“If you don’t get there, you want to make sure it wasn’t because you didn’t work hard enough, you weren’t aggressive enough, you weren’t committed enough. And I don’t think these players have that problem whatsoever.”

Looking physically recharged and emotionally refreshed after the greatest second half by any pitcher in the history of the game, Arrieta allowed only two hits and one walk across seven innings before the Cubs shut him down at 89 pitches.

“That’s a tone that we want to set early,” Arrieta said. “We were ready for this moment.”

A lineup with some American League thump generated 11 hits and seven walks. The Cubs made Garrett Richards throw 97 pitches before knocking the Angels starter out after five innings.

There was Dexter Fowler – Joe Maddon’s “You go, we go” leadoff guy who waited all winter for the big score in free agency only to return on a one-year, $13 million guarantee – beginning the game with a double to right field, scoring on Anthony Rizzo’s two-out single up the middle and getting on base three more times.

There was the designated hitter Soler – a young player who looked like he might get lost in the shuffle on an uber-team – smacking an RBI single past diving Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons for a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning.

There was Miguel Montero – a two-time All-Star catcher hitting in the eighth spot – blasting a two-run homer to put the game out of reach in the sixth inning.

“The way we grinded at-bats today is the winning formula,” Rizzo said.

[SHOP: Gear up for the 2016 season, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs are too deep and too talented to not be thinking about making history and unleashing the biggest party Chicago has ever seen. At the end of the night, you could hear the fans singing “Go Cubs Go” as they headed out toward the parking lots.

“Any time you don’t win the World Series, there’s some degree of disappointment,” Epstein said. “The expectations thing – I know it can kind of create the subtext that hangs over the club with every two-game losing streak or every game that goes wrong.

“Or every injury – people try to put it in the context of the ultimate goal of the World Series. But the reality is that’s not how we feel internally. We know it’s a grind. We know it’s a process. We know what we’re shooting for. We’re here to win the World Series.

“But you don’t think about that on a daily basis. You think about the challenges being presented to you, how you can overcome that, coming together as a team and an organization and working your tail off to move forward. That’s what drives us.”

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."