Cubs

Communication helps Cubs players handle moving around on defense

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USA TODAY

Communication helps Cubs players handle moving around on defense

One of the things that Cubs manager Joe Maddon has always valued has been the defensive flexibility of his players. The more they are comfortable moving around on the field, the more options it gives him to get different bats in the lineup or to rest players as they need it.

But on a day-to-day basis, Maddon has the dual responsibility of trying to optimize his lineup on offense and of putting his best defense on the field. And the Cubs have struggled in both of those ways at different times. The offense can be streaky, and the defense that led all of baseball in defensive runs saved in 2016 is now solidly middle of the pack while also sitting sixth in baseball in number of errors.

In order to keep all this moving around on defense from becoming a detriment to the team, the guys have to put in extra work to stay prepared. One piece of that is the communication between Maddon, the coaches and the players about when they're playing where.

"Communicatively it is impossible not to be better," Maddon said Sunday. "Really good, straight up conversations that are very, very productive."

Maddon said that after a first half that was downright sloppy at times, the team stepped up communication during the All-Star break and in the games since starting the second half. There has more openness and thicker skin to absorb constructive criticism, Maddon said, something that's vital to making this work.

In Sunday's lineup, for instance, five-time gold glover Jason Hewyard is shifted to center field and Kris Bryant is in right. From a defensive numbers standpoint, this would seem like a sub-optimal approach. Heyward is arguably the best right fielder in baseball, but the drop off when he moves to center is significant.

Thus far in 2019, Heyward has been worth 10 defensive runs saved in right field, but according to Fangraphs, he has cost 6 runs in center. His UZR/150 rating in center is less than half as good as it is in right. And he has plenty of experience in both spots; already this season Heyward has logged 253 innings in center field to his 454 innings in right.

For Bryant, who Maddon has said is playing the best third base of his career, moving to the outfield is a much bigger adjustment, but the communication from Maddon and the coaching staff has helped him handle it.

"I’ve always moved around the field, so it’s fine to me," Bryant said. "It’s just day games when it’s tough here in the outfield with the sun. I lean on guys like Jason and Albert and kind of pick their brains about how they play the outfield. Especially here, because this is a different type of field."

Wrigley has certainly long been known for its quirkiness. Bryant, like many players before him, said that he knows to check the flags and knows that the sun on day games makes his job in the outfield a little tougher.

"It hits right field between the 5-6-7 innings, and it’s tough. I mean, you almost have to come at the ball sideways or at a completely different angle just to keep the sun away from the ball," Bryant said. "Usually you’re taught to get to position, get right under the ball, and catch it. Here, when the sun’s there, it’s almost better to catch the ball on the run. That way you’re not just sitting there and it’s not in the sun."

Maddon said that, especially on hot afternoons, his outfielders have to practice a routine they learned from the late Ken Ravizza, who came to the Cubs with Maddon in 2015, to prepare themselves pre-pitch every time the ball is thrown. In the space before the pitch, they'll think of the circle that they're standing in and step out of it, even turning their back momentarily to the plate, walk around just a few feet, and then zero in on home plate for the next pitch. They're also encouraged to practice visualization to help them anticipate what they will need to do in different scenarios if the ball is hit to them, and how. 

"It really comes down to you have to be focused as the pitch is crossing home plate. That’s where it begins," Maddon said. "These are the things that you need to be able to do, and that’s what makes you a good defensive player, that thought in advance of the actual occurrence."

Sunday's lineup, Maddon said, is largely a product of him trying to put the right guys in place for starter Jose Quintana, who gives up more flyballs than Saturday's starter Jon Lester. And then there's the opposing pitching matchup to consider. David Bote matches up against Pirates starter Trevor Williams well, thus Bryant in right field. 

Maddon said that he errs on the side of optimizing his groundball defense because the Wrigley outfield dimensions play differently than most other ballparks. There aren't big gaps, so putting someone out there with less range doesn't have as much of an impact.

"But the ground is the ground. When you get a heavy groundball pitcher you definitely want your guys out there," Maddon said.

Even with the high levels of communication and the players' willingness to move around on defense -- Bryant is one Maddon has said is especially amenable to this -- it's still worth wondering if all this moving around isn't at times doing more harm than good. After all, the players are still learning.

"I’m still a work in progress out there [in the outfield]," Bryant said. "I’ve played quite a bit out there, but it’s not like I know how to handle certain things 100% yet, but I think I do a fine job."

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Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more rehab starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

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