Cubs

This is what Starlin Castro has been waiting for with Cubs

starlin042815.png

This is what Starlin Castro has been waiting for with Cubs

Starlin Castro believes the last five years made him a stronger person and a better player.

Wrigley Field is a place that chews people up and spits them out, but it’s also pretty sweet when the Cubs get rolling. This looks like it could be a block party through the summer, with Castro right in the middle of it all.

Castro has been the lightning rod for five fifth-place teams, so he’s going to enjoy nights like Tuesday, when the Cubs wore down the Pittsburgh Pirates during a 6-2 victory, nearing the end of April with a 12-7 record and a growing sense of confidence.

“Now, I’m starting to know my talent,” said Castro, who went 3-for-5 with an RBI, a stolen base and two runs scored. “I’m starting to know everything that I can do on the field.

“That’s the moment that I waited for all my life.”

Castro is only 25, a three-time All-Star shortstop with his prime years still in front of him, locked into a reasonable contract that could run through the 2020 season. That usually got lost amid all the Twitter freak-outs, media takedowns and trade rumors.

[MORE: Cubs keeping an eye on Almora, Baez]

Castro appears to be raising his game on a contending team that’s already creating some national buzz. He’s batting .342, showing the swagger and unbelievable hand-eye coordination that made him the National League’s 2011 hits leader.

“I have not been here before, but I hear different people, what they say,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Right now, he is engaged, man. He is engaged in every pitch, offensively and defensively.

“He’s totally invested right now. It’s really fun to watch.”

Look, Castro always played hard, worked on his defense and wanted to be in the lineup for all 162 games. He’s slammed enough helmets to show how much he cares. It’s just that the zoning-out moments always seemed to go viral.

Would you be locked in all the time if your franchise decided to write off multiple major-league seasons? Castro seems to be energized by playing alongside the prospects everyone had been talking about: Addison Russell, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler.

Castro “Respected 90” leading off the second inning, smashing a ball toward Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer, signaling safe after running through first base and beating the throw for an infield single (after a replay review).

Castro then went first-to-third on Junior Lake’s single up the middle and that hustle sparked a three-run rally. A deep lineup eventually knocked out Pirates lefty Jeff Locke in the fourth inning after forcing the 2013 All-Star to throw 86 pitches.

“If you win, everything’s easier,” Castro said. “We’ll be together. We tried really hard to get better every year. I think now we got the people that we want. We got the people that everybody was waiting for to be here with us.

“It’s awesome. You got all nine hitters to protect you. They have to pitch to you, because they got another good one behind you. It’s easier to hit like that.”

It’s also easier inside a clubhouse with an established veteran presence, where Castro and All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo don’t have to be the daily focus.

“We just go out and play,” Rizzo said. “We answer the questions we need to answer, but it’s all about winning games now. Nothing else matters.”

[MORE: Maddon, Cubs preaching patience on Jorge Soler]

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein doesn’t believe anyone is untouchable – and he will eventually have to answer the long-term question at shortstop – but he’s also been one of Castro’s biggest defenders.

“I’ve always thought Starlin was a really, really good player,” Epstein said. “His defense, I think, took a big step forward last year and he’s carried it over into this year. He gets a chance to hide a little bit in the lineup now. He doesn’t have to be the focal point for the opposition. He’s playing really good baseball on both sides. I’m proud of him.”

Castro did bobble the ball trying to make a backhanded play in the third inning, committing his third error this season. But that doesn’t mean Russell should move over from second base tomorrow. Castro also made a diving stop in the fifth inning, lunging to his right and catching a line drive to steal a base hit from Francisco Cervelli.

“He’s been really good,” Maddon said. “I saw him in spring training. Obviously, he did not play that well at shortstop. I think part of it was we – I – challenged him to win a Gold Glove this year. And he might have been pressing or pushing to fulfill that thought and didn’t exactly know how to do it.

“Him and ‘Jonesy’ (third-base coach Gary Jones) have been working really hard at simplifying his approach, coming to get the ball, not laying back, pretty much taking charge of reading hops and playing through the ball better. Simple stuff. But if you’re not doing it, then the residue is normally not anything good.”

Castro also sprinted for an infield single in the eighth inning – and moments later got thrown out trying to steal second base – but Maddon wants an environment where his players aren’t afraid to make mistakes.

“It’s really been fun to watch (Castro),” Maddon said. “Totally animated. When he is in a position to do something to help us and does not, he’s really upset with himself. I don’t want him to do that too often. I don’t like when a guy beats himself up too hard. But he’s really holding himself to a high level of accountability right now, personally.

“With regards to (his teammates), especially young Latin players, his interaction with them is really taking on the form of veteran leadership. So right now, I can’t say enough good things about the guy. I’ve been really impressed.”

Standing at his locker after the game, Castro put on a black Air Jordan hat and turned around to face the media. He listened to a question about his fifth manager in six seasons.

“You need a guy that trusts your talent and lets you play,” Castro said. “That’s the thing that Joe did. They trust us. They know what we can do. That’s the most (important thing): Let me play and I can play hard for you every day.”

Chili Davis after being ousted by Cubs: 'There were multiple players in there I didn't connect with'

Chili Davis after being ousted by Cubs: 'There were multiple players in there I didn't connect with'

Chili Davis didn't go all scorched earth on the Cubs in a recent interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, but he had quite a lot to say after being ousted by the organization after just one year as the hitting coach.

The Cubs made Davis the scapegoat for an offense that faded down the stretch, struggling for the entire second half and scoring just 1 run in three of the final four games of the year.

When he was hired a year ago, Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon talked up Davis' impressive resume that includes a 19-year MLB career, two separate stints as a successful hitting coach with the Oakland A's and Boston Red Sox and a philosophy that they hoped would withstand the test of time in the game today, preaching more contact and using the opposite field.

Throughout the 2018 season, Maddon often commended Davis for his ability to communicate with players, particularly in the area of mental approach to each at-bat.

Now that the dust has settled a bit on his firing, Davis felt he had some issues getting through to some Cubs players.

I learned a lot this year," Davis told the Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer. "I learned that the next situation I get in, before I say yes to a job, I need to make sure I know the personnel I'll be dealing with in the clubhouse. I hope the next guy connects better with the players, because I felt that there were multiple players there I didn't connect with. It wasn't that I didn't try; it just wasn't there.

The Cubs hired Anthony Iapoce as their new hitting coach Monday afternoon. Iapoce comes over from the Rangers and has a direct link to John Mallee, who was the Cubs' hitting coach for three seasons before being let go when Davis became available last winter. 

Iapoce also spent three seasons with the Cubs as a special assistant to the GM, overseeing the organization's minor-league hitting from 2013-15. Presumably, he found a way over those years to connect with the Cubs' top young hitting prospects — guys like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras that are now leading the big-league lineup.

Hopefully he has better success at this than I did," Davis said of Iapoce in the Sun-Times article. "But regardless of who's there, certain players there are going to have to make some adjustments because the game's changed and pitchers are pitching them differently. They're not pitching to launch angles and fly balls and all that anymore. They're pitching away from that. They're going to have to make that adjustment whether I'm there or not.

Davis had a whole lot more to say on the matter and I encourage you to read the full interview with Wittenmyer over at ChicagoSunTimes.com.

A healthy Bryant very likely could've changed everything for Davis and the Cubs' 2018 lineup. Contreras hitting like he's capable of in the second half would've made a huge difference, as well.

But the end result is a finish to the 2018 campaign that was viewed universally as a disappointment — particularly in the offensive department — and the Cubs are left with their third different hitting coach in three seasons.

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.