Why Cubs have to target pitching at trade deadline: 'The bats are here'

Why Cubs have to target pitching at trade deadline: 'The bats are here'

NEW YORK — It’s not just Joe Maddon happy talk or next-level spin from Theo Epstein when the Cubs insist they believe in their lineup and expect a huge turnaround.

How much is enough? The Cubs have used first-round picks on Javier Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ. The Cubs traded another first-round talent (Andrew Cashner) and an All-Star pitcher (Jeff Samardzija) to get Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell. The Cubs guaranteed Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist $240 million after the New York Mets swept them out of the 2015 National League Championship Series.

Short of the American League All-Star lineup, what do you want? This franchise has absolutely poured its resources into hitters. The Cubs finally looked like an offensive juggernaut again on Tuesday night, knocking out Zack Wheeler in the second inning and launching five homers during a 14-3 win at Citi Field.

The most pressing issue for the defending World Series champs — and the biggest long-term concern about The Foundation of Sustained Success — remains the rotation. That makes the July 31 trade deadline a rare opportunity for Epstein’s front office to impact a pennant race and build for the future.

“I am not hoping for anything,” Maddon said. “I really support what we have right here. (Theo) and Jed (Hoyer) are going to constantly look at whatever they perceive to be upgrading our team. So if it happens, wonderful, based on their evaluation. And if it doesn’t, my job is to make this work.”

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The Cubs have so many question marks after Jon Lester, the $155 million ace with three World Series rings who became the eighth active pitcher to notch 150 career wins, joining John Lackey, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, Bartolo Colon and Jered Weaver.

In what Maddon called an “effortless” performance, Lester shut down the Mets (29-34), allowing only one run across seven innings while piling up 10 strikeouts against one walk. That’s exactly what a 32-32 team needs now to take off in a weak division.

But where the Cubs can see so many signs pointing toward a sustainable offense and anticipated growth — youth, talent level, past playoff performances against some of the best pitching in the world — the rotation appears to be trending in the wrong direction.

The Cubs don’t know when Kyle Hendricks will stop feeling the tendinitis in his right hand and come off the 10-day disabled list. Lackey was born in 1978, has a 5.26 ERA and is threatening to break Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven’s single-season record for home runs allowed (50). Even if the cut on his right thumb is manageable, Jake Arrieta has already been dealing with questions about his velocity, mechanical alignment and walk-year distractions.

Maybe the change-of-scenery stuff works, but Mike Montgomery has already been traded three times and Eddie Butler owns a 6.12 career ERA across parts of four big-league seasons.

“I believe our guys are going to be fine,” Maddon said. “I really was counting on Kyle being back this time through. I thought that for sure, based on what I had been hearing.

“From my perspective — for me and the coaches — it’s about us maintaining the same message by doing our same work, not trying to change a whole lot and supporting our guys. It’s being there for them. I think that’s what’s important right now.

“It’s not about being angry. I don’t understand those methods of teaching or coaching. Our guys are good. They’re going to show it again this year. They need our support right now and that’s what they’re going to get.”

Support could mean finally trading from this surplus of hitters and getting that pitcher who could start Game 2 in a playoff series and solidify the 2018 rotation.

“I think the bats are here,” Maddon said. “I honestly do. We have not performed at our level yet offensively. But I believe our bats are here with good health and everybody being able to participate. There’s enough offense out there.”

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."