Cubs

Why Joe Maddon and the Cubs are not concerned with velocity dips from Jake Arrieta, starters

Why Joe Maddon and the Cubs are not concerned with velocity dips from Jake Arrieta, starters

Step off the ledge, baseball fans.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs are not concerned with Jake Arrieta's low velocity early in 2017.

In fact, it actually may be by design, at least in part.

Across the board, each one of the five Cubs starters has seen a dip in velocity the first two times through the rotation this season.

Arrieta has seen the biggest drop, going from an average of 93.6 mph on his fastballs in 2016 to just 91.4 mph entering Saturday's start.

[RELATED — Jake Arrieta fires back at questions about his velocity]

Maddon said before Saturday's game he wouldn't be monitoring the radar gun at the bottom of the giant video board in left field throughout Arrieta's outing.

"Honestly not at all," Maddon said. "I kind of like where he's at quite frankly because delivery has been better and his strike-throwing has been better. I would much prefer 91, 92 and an occasional 93 located than a 94, 95 out of the shotgun. It's a much better way to go."

Arrieta sat at 91-92 mph for most of Saturday's outing, but actually dropped to 88 and 89 mph in his last two innings of work. He finished with five strikeouts in 5.2 innings and gave up three runs and two homers, though the 24mph wind blowing straight out helped contribute to the longball.

"I thought he ran out of gas there at the end," Maddon said. "The velocity wasn't as high, but the location was good and the movement on the fastball was very good, the breaking ball was good. I thought he pitched well."

Led by pitching coach Chris Bosio, the Cubs have also devised a pitching plan for every pitcher  namely their starters —​ designed to keep them strong and fresh down the stretch.

That's why the starting pitchers made their debut so late into spring training and the Cubs were extra cautious after last year's World Series run that saw guys like Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks pitching into late October/early November for the first time in their career. Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) aren't getting any younger, either.

The Cubs can also afford to play things safe in April with an American League-style lineup, the game's best defense and a deep bullpen packed with current or former closers helping supplement the work of the rotation.

[MORE - Kyle Hendricks shrugs off notion of rust in second Cubs start]

Plus, Maddon and Co. already have eyes set on another long postseason run and are working toward that already, even in mid-April.

The Cubs woke up Saturday morning with the lowest ERA in baseball (2.47). Yes that's a small sample size, but something's clearly working even with a dip in velocity.

"Jake was throwing harder in spring training. So was Kyle," Maddon said. "These guys are going to get back to that number, but I want them to be at that number locating the ball like they can with that kind of movement. That's what they do.

"Jake's been really good. It's been fun watching from the side. Even though the number is not as hot [on the radar gun] so far, the hitters' reaction has not been good. I'd much prefer bad hitter reaction.

"Velocity is a beautiful thing, but my goodness, these guys, if it's not thrown in the proper spot, these hitters will get it."

Last season, Arrieta struggled to get his mechanics right after ending 2015 with the most superhuman run (0.75 ERA in 15 second-half starts) the game had ever seen en route to the National League Cy Young Award.

Arrieta was still the toughest pitcher to hit in the league last year, but walks became an issue and Maddon routinely pointed to a lack of fastball command as the main cuplrit.

As Arrieta saunters his way toward free agency and the first  and possibly only  megadeal of his career, his fastball command and cross-body delivery have fallen in line in the early going.

"Most of the time, I'm not concerned about physical mechanics going awry, but last year with him, I was," Maddon said. "I thought he was off mechanically the way he was starting, even with his posture with how he started.

"That was leading to spinning off the ball, turning off the ball, being awkward. More than trying to back off [velocity] at any point, I never really considered that. So right now, his posture and how he's starting is really good. He's repeating his delivery.

"That's what I love, man. He's on balance with his finish and the ball is going where he wants it to go with killer movement. The velocity is coming back  you watch. That's not the issue. I much prefer he continues to dot the edges with movement as opposed to try to throw the ball harder."

Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Ask any Cubs player about 2019 and it's hard not to notice the urgency in their voice. 

After just about the least-enjoyable summer that 95 wins and a playoff appearance can buy, the normal winter platitudes that they tend to reel off have taken on additional weight. Rosters with as much potential as the Cubs don't come around often, and most of those players aren't going to get any cheaper down the road. Things can change quickly in baseball. 

Perhaps no one on the Cubs knows this quite like Cole Hamels, a World Series champion who has been a part of multiple different playoff-caliber rosters. Hamels revived his career after a disappointing tenure in Texas ended with a late-July trade, posting a 2.36 ERA over 76 innings on the North Side. The lefty went 4-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his first five games here (all of which they won), a far cry from the dreadful performances he was putting up with the Rangers. Sometimes a change of scenery is needed, but getting healthy always helps too. 

"I had a really tough time with the oblique injury I had two years ago and trying to get my mechanics back on track," Hamels said. "I just don’t think I was able to identify and correct what was going on. I was fighting it the whole season, until I kind of looked at a little bit deeper film and then really just made some more drastic changes, and went with it."

His oblique injury in 2017 derailed Hamels for the better part of a calendar year. The strain originally landed him on the 15-day DL, but he actually ended up missing eight weeks of games. In the 19 starts after, Hamels posted a 4.42 FIP with a 1.22 WHIP, walking over three batters per nine innings. He admitted to pitching through lingering discomfort at times, instead choosing to try and grit through a game - even if that meant ignoring how it would derail his healing process. As a result, the start of 2018 didn't treat him much better. It wasn't until a longer-than-usual film study with the Cubs that Hamels found his fix. 

"Basically, I was coming out of my whole front side," he added. "My hips - you know I was really landing open. I don’t do that - I’m a closed-off guy that really kind of hides the ball. It also maintains my distance down the mound and allows me to have a little bit more velocity. So I think that was really the big change and what I’ve been focusing on this offseason." 

Looking at the numbers, the adjustment is clear as day:

Adding three miles an hour to your fastball, midseason, is pretty significant. The reinvention of his fastball was one of the driving forces behind his turnaround last season, and there's no reason to believe Hamels -- now with a full offseason of healthy workouts under his belt -- can't be that type of pitcher for an entire season. If he can, the Lester-Hamels-Darvish rotation the Cubs dreamed of might be one step closer to fruition. 

As it stands now, however, there are *plenty* of questions about the Cubs' rotation. Their youngest starter is 29. Lester had his worst season in almost a decade and the year-by-year trends don't look great. Health AND regression have dogged Yu Darvish. Jose Quintana's been fine, but is a 4.05 FIP and 1.25 WHIP in 258 innings worth losing Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease?

"I think we all know how to get ready for a game and what’s expected out of us," Hamels said. "We know how to get good results and if we have a bad game we have guys that will pick of the pieces the next day and that’s comforting. I don’t think there are going to be too many bad stretches because we have guys that are going to be able to take care of business and stop streaks and we’re going to see some pretty fun winning streaks because of what we’re going to be doing as a pitching staff." 

Being an ace certainly wouldn't hurt, but if Hamels wants to live up to the $20 million option the Cubs picked up, he'll need to fill a larger void as one of the team's leaders. ("I think in general, MLB is doing pretty well for themselves," he replied when asked if the decision financially hamstrings the Cubs. "So I don’t necessarily buy it as much, but I understand people have to work within the certain system that they set.") Though this is still a tightly-knit clubhouse, many players and coaches admitted that there needs to be a new approach to leadership in 2019. Hamels, a World Series MVP and four-time All Star, fits the bill. It can be uncomfortable for players of even his pedigree to come into a new team and immediately be a leader, and Hamels knows how far a full spring around the same group of guys will go towards fixing that. 

"I’m 35, I’ve been in this game a long time, so I think that’s where I need to be. That’s sort of the role that’s directed towards you if you’ve played the game long enough. That’s kind of where you fit. I understand that, I’ve had a couple years to really do what I need to do in order to be that leader, and I guess now that means be a little more vocal instead of just letting the play out on the field be the leader." 

Bryce Harper jokes that Tony Romo knows where outfielder will sign in free agency

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USA TODAY

Bryce Harper jokes that Tony Romo knows where outfielder will sign in free agency

Is it possible that the best quarterback in Sunday’s AFC Championship was not on the field, but instead in the broadcast booth?

CBS analyst and former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was the talk of Sunday’s matchup between the Patriots and Chiefs. Romo consistently predicted plays before they happened, much to the delight and amazement of those watching the game on television.

MLB superstar Bryce Harper even chimed in on Twitter. Harper, who is still a free agent, jokingly tweeted that he called Romo to learn which team he will play for in 2019.

Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes delivered an instant-classic game on the field. However, Romo’s performance in the booth deserves recognition and should be remembered as well.

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