Why Theo Epstein thinks these Cubs can withstand the pressure


Why Theo Epstein thinks these Cubs can withstand the pressure

Hector Rondon waited around his hotel room, not sure if he should wear his Superman onesie to Dodger Stadium.

The unofficial Cubs closer knew he made the right decision as soon as he got down to the hotel lobby and saw his teammates already dressed up for Joe Maddon’s latest stunt.

With a red cape around his neck, Rondon rolled off the team bus and into the visiting clubhouse around 2:25 p.m. on Sunday, followed by Starlin Castro in a Super Mario Bros. T-shirt and pajama pants. Pedro Strop went with the same look in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Of course, they posed for pictures that would be posted on Twitter and Instagram. This was about two-and-a-half hours before first pitch against a $300 million first-place team in front of a national-television audience.

The Cubs would be back in the same room toasting Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter with bottles of Dom Perignon before boarding an overnight flight home from Los Angeles.

“We’re not guilty of overthinking too many things, which is good,” Theo Epstein said, talking about this specific group and not necessarily his baseball-operations department as a whole.

“The guys are really loose, and it’s not just words. I think if you’re around the team, you feel it. There’s not a lot of weight to the clubhouse on a day-to-day basis.”

As ex-manager Dale Sveum used to say: “Ya think?”

[MORE: Albert Almora named Cubs minor league player of the month]

The Cubs have lost six of their last eight games and still woke up on Thursday with a 6.5-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the National League’s second wild card. FanGraphs (96.4 percent) and Baseball Prospectus (93.7 percent) projected the Cubs as locks for the playoffs.

“There is a momentum at play in September that’s powerful,” Epstein said. “It’s more powerful than playoff odds and math and things like that that people like to look at this time of year.

“I think being loose and having a really positive vibe — even if we lose a few games in a row — is really important to help keep the momentum going the right way.”

In other words: Save it, nerds.

Epstein was the lead architect for the Boston Red Sox teams that won World Series titles in 2004 and 2007 — and the dysfunctional group that wound up with four words near the top of the 2011 season’s obituary: Fried chicken and beer.

Those Red Sox had been 30 games over .500 on Sept. 3, 2011, in second place in the American League East and nine games up on Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays.

“At this time of year,” Epstein said, “if you start paying attention to the standings, or things aren’t going your way, or you’re not performing up to expectations, or you don’t like what people are writing about you, or you’re scoreboard-watching and not getting the results that you want to get, players and teams and organizations can get too tight.

“And it’s really hard to escape that.”

[RELATED: Cubs awaiting results on Kyle Schwarber’s MRI]

The Rays stormed into the playoffs as a wild-card team while Boston’s collapse led to sweeping changes at Fenway Park, with Epstein leaving for a president’s title and a direct report to ownership in Chicago.

The Cubs have serious issues with their rotation beyond Arrieta and Jon Lester. Injuries to Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler could create bigger holes in a lineup that might already be dragging.

Addison Russell played in only 68 minor-league games last season, and Kris Bryant hasn’t experienced playing through September and into October, either.

But the Cubs could go 15-15 the rest of the way and still win 90 games. This isn’t a fluke team or an accidental contender.

“Our thing is just playing naïve,” outfielder Chris Coghlan said. “Just going out there and doing it (because) that’s really essentially what it’s about.

“When we play in October, it’s the same thing. It’s the same game. Now it’s magnified to the nth degree, but it really is the same thing for us. You’re just critiqued a whole lot more or praised a whole lot more.”

So there goes Strop — his green-and-gold Air Jordans balanced on a two-wheel electric scooter — through a Wrigley Field clubhouse that sometimes smells like stale beer and has a disco ball and DJ lighting equipment hanging from the ceiling.

“Just show up, play hard and compete and try to win a ballgame,” Epstein said. “If you win, celebrate extremely hard for about 15 minutes and then let it go (and) do it again the next day. That’s really valuable and it also helps you avoid the pitfall of getting too tight.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“It’s such a loose group. I don’t think players are out there thinking about the standings or thinking about pressure or thinking about numbers or thinking about the gravity of the situation.

“I think they’re out there relaxed, loose, having fun, playing hard for one another, enjoying the moment and trying to let their talent take over and win a ballgame.”

Beginning Labor Day, the Cubs will have 13 games in 21 days against the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates. Check back then to see if the Cubs are still playing so loose and carefree — or suddenly feeling the weight of history and expectations.

“This team doesn’t strike me as the type that’s going to be overwhelmed by any situation,” Epstein said. “Over the course of 162, we’re going to go through our ups and downs. But I think this team thrives in competitive situations.

“You’ve seen how we’ve performed against good teams, how we’ve performed in certain games with our backs against the wall, limiting losing streaks or facing real tough starting pitching.

“I think this team responds to that type of challenge. And we’ll see this month.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Schwarber, Baez on night to remember at the Home Run Derby

Cubs Talk Podcast: Schwarber, Baez on night to remember at the Home Run Derby

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull spoke with Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber after an electric and entertaining Home Run Derby in Washington D.C.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

Who Knew? Cubs at the All-Star Break

Who Knew? Cubs at the All-Star Break

With a break in the action, let’s take a look at the season so far.

Today, I’ll focus on the first 57.4% of the Cubs’ 2018 season. Which is to say, the 93 games before the All-Star Break. Clearly more than “half.”

In all seasons with an All-Star Game (1933-present, minus 1945)

This is the fifth time the Cubs have had the National League’s best record at the All-Star Break.

Here is the entire list (note – 2016 is NOT on this list. They trailed the Giants by 3 games at the Break in 2016):

1937 44-25 +2.0
1969 61-37 +5.0
2001 51-35 +0.5
2008 57-38 +4.5
2018 55-38 +2.5

Which is incredible since:

• Anthony Rizzo has a wRC+ of 100, which is league average

(he was at 131 – 31% better than league average - through the All-Star break last season)

• Kris Bryant has missed 23 games and has only 10 home runs

• The Cubs as a team have 30 fewer Home Runs through 93 games than they did last season

(100 this season, 130 last season)

• The Cubs have had six pitchers make 8 or more starts this season and only one (Jon Lester – 2.58) has an ERA under 3.90

• Cubs pitching has an MLBhigh walk percentage of 11.0%

(Tyler Chatwood’s 9 starts with 5 or more walks is most in a season by a Cubs pitcher since Dick Drott’s 13 in 1957)

• Cubs have outscored their opponents by only one run in the first inning (5251)

This includes being outscored 18-13 in the first inning in Kyle Hendricks’ 19 starts

• Cubs are 57 against the Reds

(they were 27-11 against Cincinnati in 2016-17)

That being said, it's not so incredible since...

• The Cubs have scored at least 10 runs 15 times this season. No other team has done it more than 12 times.

• Jason Heyward has a wRC+ of 109 (he’s 9% better than league average)

This is notable because in 2016 he was at 71 (29% worse than league average) and 88 in 2017 (12% worse than league average).

• The Cubs have EIGHT qualified players with at least a .340 OnBase pct. (and Ian Happ, who is eight PA short of qualifying, is at .379)

The only qualified Cub with a SUB-.340 OBP is Javier Báez (.326 – a career-high). However…

• Javier Báez has 50 extrabase hits in 91 games. Last season he had 49 extra-base hits in 145 games.

Báez is the first player in Cubs history with 15 Doubles, 5 Triples, 15 HR and 15 Stolen Bases before the All-Star Break**.

Báez is the first player in MLB history with 18 Doubles, 6 Triples, 18 HR and 18 Stolen Bases before the All-Star Break**.

**seasons with an All-Star Game – 1933-present (minus 1945)