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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Sports Talk Live Podcast: Jason Kipnis' concerns about the quality of baseball upon return

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USA Today

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Jason Kipnis' concerns about the quality of baseball upon return

David Haugh, Charlie Roumeliotis and Adam Hoge join Kap on the panel.

0:45 - Nick Foles is officially a Chicago Bear. Over/under 10.5 starts for him next season.

3:36 - The Cubs' Jason Kipnis takes to Instagram to talk about the quality of baseball if it returns this season. Do fans care what the game looks like or do they just want to watch sports no matter what?

6:37 - ESPN's fan vote crowned Michael Jordan as the greatest college basketball player of all-time. He beat Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kap says MJ is the GOAT but he may not be college hoops' all-time top 5.

8:20 - The guys debate which dunk on Patrick Ewing was the best in Bulls history: Scottie's or Michael's. And they preview the next installment of Bulls Classics- Game 1 of the 1996 East Finals against Shaq and the Magic.

12:08- NBC Sports' national NBA insider Tom Haberstroh joins Kap. Could the NBA resume with teams playing neutral-site games? Tom also explains how the league's social significance will affect its decision when to return and he discusses his favorite era in history.

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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Fast or furious? Rush to play in 2020 not worth the risk for Cubs, MLB

Fast or furious? Rush to play in 2020 not worth the risk for Cubs, MLB

Dammit, we want answers. Now.

That might be one of the toughest and ugliest truths in our notoriously impatient country during the coronavirus pandemic, at least for many of us with the luxury of good health as we shelter in place.

Especially for those keeping an eye on any signal or clue from the sports world.

Even before this attention-devoid age of iPhones and binge-viewing on demand, nobody was built more for impatience than sports fans who always have demanded the gratification — if not always quite immediate — of the thrills and agonies of definitive outcomes.

Dammit, we want a final score. Now.

Or at least a schedule. 

The uncertainty and moving timelines are enough to make you throw the Kapman’s MyPillow at the TV.

It’s also what makes this moment so precarious, and the natural rush for answers and a return to live sports so potentially costly.

Even within the initial confusion and hand-wringing Tuesday over whether Toronto’s ban on public events through June specifically included professional sports events (it does not), the news that three players for Japan’s Hanshin Tigers tested positive for COVID-19 seemed almost a footnote.

But, of course, that should be the screaming headline on this whole thing. 

The pro leagues in Japan were pointing toward a delayed start to their season later this month and were back to training for it after “flattening the curve” on the coronavirus cases in that country.

Now it’s all in flux again, and nobody knows when they’ll start that season.

We’re far behind Japan in containing the spread of the virus in this country.

And we’re still talking about starting the baseball season in May or June? Or maybe July at the latest and try to play into October, and push the postseason well into November (maybe at warm-weather, neutral sites)? Into the teeth of the next flu season?

And 40,000 fans at the games? Come on. Playing without fans already is being discussed and is a near certainty for any restart that involves the 2020 calendar. 

By Wednesday nobody was surprised when the Cubs’ London series against the Cardinals in June was officially canceled by MLB. 

Should we be surprised if the entire season meets the same end?

Dammit.

Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis, in an Instagram post Tuesday night, expressed respect for the depth and real-life seriousness of the crisis while also suggesting a far less serious concern about injury risk if baseball rushes players back to the field after a long layoff.

“Not to mention if we start back up and someone (asymptomatic or not) tests positive,” he wrote. “Shut it down again? I don’t know how we’re supposed to have that many tests provided! I really do hope things get better for everyone and there’s baseball this year, but these are just some of the worries creeping into my head that make me think otherwise.”

Ask the Hanshin Tigers and the rest of the Central League in Japan what they think about that right now.

And then consider the risk again.

Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is a cancer survivor who underwent chemotherapy to recover early in his professional career. Does he bear a greater risk than other players if he contracts the virus?

“I don’t think so. I’m at full strength,” Rizzo said. “All my blood work — it’s not like I’m low on any levels. All my lungs and liver and everything functions like it should be functioning, as it should be functioning as a 30-year-old athlete. So I’m not worried about it.”

Maybe he’s right

On the other hand, healthy people in the teens and 20s with no underlying high-risk conditions reportedly have died because of this virus.

And what about players who do have underlying higher risks, such as asthma, diabetes or blood-pressure issues?

Cubs reliever Brandon Morrow has Type 1 diabetes, as does former Cub Sam Fuld, a Phillies analyst and strategist based in the clubhouse.

Managers Joe Maddon (66) of the Angels and Dusty Baker (70) of the Astros are in the high-risk age range, as are many team support and medical staff who work in and around clubhouses in the majors.

“It’s scary,” Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward said during an interview on WMVP 1000 radio the week after MLB shut down spring training camps. “You don’t prepare for stuff like this.”

Players handle flu bugs, nagging injuries, off-the-field pressures, and often play through those, Heyward said. 

“You can’t really fight this one,” he said. “The best thing to do and the best way to fight is be smart and distance yourself from people and be ready to resume when it is time to resume. It goes without saying we hope it happens sooner than later, but more than anything you just want to hope they get it right and careful.”

But we want answers. Now.

Dammit.

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