Why Cubs are better positioned to beat the Zack Greinkes this year


Why Cubs are better positioned to beat the Zack Greinkes this year

PHOENIX – When a Clayton Kershaw or a Madison Bumgarner schooled the Cubs last summer, manager Joe Maddon wrote it off as getting ready for October, young hitters learning how to handle the velocity, movement and sequencing they would see in the playoffs.

Zack Greinke could have rejoined Kershaw on a Los Angeles Dodgers team that was supposed to have unlimited resources — or teamed up with Bumgarner on the San Francisco Giants to try to create a dynasty and stoke that West Coast rivalry.

That would be Greinke’s decision. Until the Arizona Diamondbacks swooped in with a six-year, $206.5 million offer, stunning the baseball world before the winter meetings ever started.

The Cubs spent almost $290 million this offseason — even without that kind of pitching megadeal — trying to build a better team to get back to the National League Championship Series and beyond.

The new-and-improved lineup jumped Greinke in the first inning on Saturday night at Chase Field, scoring three early runs on the way to a 4-2 win over the Diamondbacks and showing their blueprint for October.

“He’s obviously still a Cy Young-caliber pitcher,” Maddon said. “I just think our guys might be better equipped to handle the moment. Greinke is still pretty much the same guy he was last year. I think our younger guys might be a little bit more than they were last year, based on experience.

“That doesn’t mean we’re going to go out there and hit him all over the ballpark. I just think from the mental perspective, our guys might not be — I don’t know if the right word is ‘in awe’ — or just a better understanding of what they’re going to face.”

[MORE: Kyle Schwarber vows to come back to Cubs bigger, faster, stronger]

Greinke’s arsenal and baseball IQ had drawn comparisons to Greg Maddux during the free-agent process, creating the belief that he could age gracefully over the life of a long-term contract. Knowing that Greinke had bombed in his Opening Day debut — a 10-5 loss to the Colorado Rockies — the Cubs couldn’t allow him get into a rhythm.

It started with back-to-back-to-back singles from Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Anthony Rizzo. Kris Bryant then smashed a ball off diving shortstop Nick Ahmed, hustling for a double while Rizzo ran from first to third base. Miguel Montero’s sacrifice fly to deep left field made it 3-0 in the first inning.

“We didn’t want to let him settle in,” Rizzo said. “We were going to try to be aggressive, right out the chute and we did a good job of getting those runs early. He ended up settling in against us and doing what he does to everyone. But those runs were huge for us.”

Even with Kyle Schwarber on crutches and sidelined for the rest of the season with a torn ACL and LCL in his left knee, the Cubs still have a deeper, more diversified offense than last season.

Zobrist changed the Kansas City Royals lineup during last year’s World Series run after a midseason trade from the Oakland A’s. He tacked on another run against Greinke in the fourth inning when he slammed a two-out double off the wall in center field.

“When our guys go up to hit, man, it’s contagious,” Maddon said. “They’re talking in the dugout. It’s not just happening at home plate. They’re talking about grinding out the at-bats. You hear that all the time. But then you actually have to do it. And our guys are doing it right now. It’s beautiful.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Kyle Hendricks never looks like he’s in awe or confused or overwhelmed, and the No. 5 starter allowed only two runs in 6.2 innings, outpitching Greinke, who finished second to Jake Arrieta in last year’s NL Cy Young race. Adam Warren (Cubs debut) and Hector Rondon (first save this season) combined to get the final seven outs.

After winning the offseason, the Cubs are now 4-1 and no longer the young team learning how to win. This didn’t have the all-or-nothing feel that sometimes made last year’s games so unpredictable (major-league leading 1,518 strikeouts) or the NLCS sweep by the New York Mets so disappointing.

“The power’s still there,” Maddon said. “The power’s definitely prevalent. But it’s more like we’re seeing the line-drive, base-hit, eking-out-to-score-a-run kind of an offense, which I love. So if you could combine those things — that’s what’s going to help you at the end of the year.

“When you get to the playoff time and you’re facing really good pitching, to be able to move the baseball in counts matters a lot, as opposed to swinging and missing and coming back to the dugout.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Do the Cubs need to make a deal?


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


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

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."