How oft-used Steve Cishek plans to avoid a late-season fade in Cubs bullpen

How oft-used Steve Cishek plans to avoid a late-season fade in Cubs bullpen

If you pick any random Cubs game on the schedule to watch, there's roughly a 50 percent chance you'll see Steve Cishek pitch.

Cishek is the veteran, rubber-armed reliever out of the Cubs bullpen who appeared in nearly half the team's games last year (80) and is on track to approach that number again this season (76).

The 33-year-old with the side-arm delivery only made 40 appearances in the Cubs' first 90 games, but he got the call in eight of the first 11 games coming out of the All-Star Break, pitching twice in each of the four series.

The four-day midseason break helped, as do the off-days each of the last two weeks, but it's "go time" for the Cubs right now as they mount a push toward the playoffs. That means Cishek is going to throw as much as he can take given how important he is to the Cubs bullpen and how much manager Joe Maddon trusts him.

It's easy to see why Cishek is so trusted — a 2.53 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 9 holds, 7 saves and scoreless outings in 40 of his 48 appearances.

The 33-year-old finished 2018 with fantastic overall numbers — 2.18 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 4 saves, 10.0 K/9 — but he did start to fade down the stretch, posting a 4.76 ERA and 1.41 WHIP over the final five weeks.

This year, he's hoping to avoid a similar downturn.

"I tried to combat that in the offseason, really," Cishek said. "I pushed myself pretty hard in the offseason with legs and shoulders big time. The place I train at pushes it, just so I could carry the load during the season without having to break down.

"But last year was a little bit different. Obviously it's the most appearances I've ever had, but for the most part, I was able to pitch every other day because I was able to keep my pitch count low. And then I had days of recovery they gave off for me, made sure I got my soft-tissue work in and I was well-rested sleep-wise. 

"I felt OK. September, maybe I was feeling it a little bit, but honestly, I didn't feel that bad."

Cishek is in his second season in Chicago now and that means another year of rapport with manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy (who wasn't the pitching coach last season, but worked closely with all the pitchers as the run prevention coordinator).

So as Cishek works to stay fresh down the stretch for the Cubs as one of their most pivotal bullpen arms, he's constantly talking to Maddon and Hottovy.

"[I told them], 'I like and guys like to know when you have that day off 'cause we're so routine-oriented that if I can have a full day of not going through my routine and mentally going through all my checklists and just kinda go out there, play catch and have a mental day off, that goes a long way,'" Cishek said. "They've been really good about communicating that this year, like, 'Hey, you're down a day.' 

"Even, for instance, [last] week — 'you're gonna be off today and the off-day. Have yourself a little day.' It's kinda nice to not have that mental checklist to go through every day."

How has that dialogue changed from a season ago?

"Last year, they were pretty good communicating that," Cishek said. "There were some times where it'd be kinda like a game-time decision, so I already went through my whole routine and stuff. And that's fine, I'm just saying it's helpful — just a little extra help [to know earlier]. 

"Last year, the communication was great. I felt pretty good. I was honest with them and to be honest, you're not gonna feel great everyday as it is anyways. If they need you, I'm the type of guy — you're paying me a lot of money, I want to be out there for the team, for the boys, for the organization. That's just kinda how I think through stuff."

Cubs and Javier Baez discussing long-term contract extension

Cubs and Javier Baez discussing long-term contract extension

The Cubs are working to keep one of their core players on the North Side for years to come.

The Cubs and superstar shortstop Javier Baez are discussing a long-term contract extension, according to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times.

This isn’t the first time the Cubs have approached members of their core to discuss contract extensions. They gave Anthony Rizzo a seven-year deal in 2013, buying out the first baseman’s remaining arbitration years. In February, Kyle Hendricks agreed to a four-year extension, one season before the right-hander was set to hit the open market.

Baez and third baseman Kris Bryant will become free agents after the 2021 season and the Cubs have been unsuccessful in extending either player to date. According to Wittenmyer, reaching a long-term deal with Baez is seen as “much more feasible” for the Cubs than with Bryant. This makes sense considering Bryant’s agent is Scott Boras, whose clients generally hit the open market to maximize the amount of money they receive. 

This doesn’t mean the Cubs would trade Bryant if they can’t agree to an extension this winter. In fact, Boras laid out at the GM Meetings this week why a Bryant trade is unlikely, which also can apply to Baez.

"Certainly every player I have that is at that level, they're always asking the question about, 'will they? Won't they? Will they trade him? Will they do it?'" Boras said. "And the answer to that is always: I can give you a percentage over a decade of how many of those players get traded and the answer is very low. If you think that much of him and to get something back for him with a limited period of time is always very hard."

Simply put: you know what you have in superstars like Bryant and Baez. You can't say the same about less established players/prospects.

Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference in September that the organization is open to changing up the roster. So, if the Cubs feel they can’t agree to terms on an extension with Baez and/or Bryant, they could entertain trade proposals for the sake of doing due diligence.

“We’re open to change. We’re open-minded about this roster, and I expect to have a lot of trade discussions this winter,” Epstein said in September. “I think a lot of the players on this year’s team are gonna be part of the next Cubs championship team, so we want to be mindful of that.

“But it’s also really hard to accomplish improvement and change in certain areas unless you’re extremely open-minded. As we have in previous offseasons, we’re very likely to engage certain players in discussions about long-term contracts and see if there’s a way to extend player’s windows as Cubs that way. And if that’s not possible, that might make you open-minded about trades.”

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Yu Darvish weighs in on Astros cheating allegations

Yu Darvish weighs in on Astros cheating allegations

Cubs starter Yu Darvish isn’t about to blame his struggles in the 2017 World Series on the Astros stealing his signs. That doesn’t mean he agrees with the notion he was tipping his pitches, however.

Tuesday, The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich reported the Astros stole signs electronically in 2017, the season they won the World Series. Although sign stealing in baseball is nothing new, doing so with a video camera posted up in center field, fixated on the opposing team’s catchers, crosses a line.

Former MLB infielder Trevor Ploufee also reported the Astros stole signs and described the system in a series of tweets:

Darvish – who was pitching for the Dodgers at the time – infamously struggled in the 2017 Fall Classic. He allowed nine runs in 3 1/3 innings across two starts: Game 3 in Houston and Game 7 in Los Angeles. He allowed five runs in 1 2/3 innings in the latter, a 5-1 Astros series-clinching win.

Darvish’s World Series struggles were initially attributed to him tipping his pitches. He weighed in on the topic on Thursday, posting a video to his YouTube channel where he disagrees with the notion he gave off signals to Astros hitters. He speaks in Japanese in the video, but one Reddit user translated what the right-hander said.

Some of the more interesting points:

On whether the Astros were stealing signs or not

But personally, Game 7 was played at Dodgers Stadium. Since what we currently know is limited to Minute Maid Park, I don’t think there were any signs stealings going on at that game. However, with the technology that they have, I really think it’s not impossible that they’ve done it at LA as well.

On the notion that he was tipping his pitches

After Game 7, there were news about how I was tipping my pitches. After the World Series ended, I personally asked a player from the Astros about it. He said that I was fumbling my ball before I threw my fastball. After Game 3, the Dodgers suspected that I was tipping my pitches, and I reviewed some footage with some people. I reviewed my mechanics from that footage, but we all couldn’t find any noticeable signs that I was giving something away. During Game 7, I was really aware and concerned about this, so I made extra sure on the mound that I wasn’t giving anything away.

After Game 7, I’ve been personally trying to get to the bottom of this problem. This year, from a source from the Astros that I won’t disclose, I was told that I was tipping my pitches during Game 3 and 7 by fumbling my ball before my windup. Since I saw my Game 7 footage numerous times, I was convinced that I wasn’t doing that, and there was something in the back of my mind that didn’t mesh well with what that player was saying, and what was shown on the footage.

Two things off these comments:

-Dodgers president Andrew Friedman noted Tuesday at the GM Meetings that one Los Angeles player, who was good at picking up pitch-tipping (reportedly second baseman Chase Utley), studied Darvish’s World Series starts. Utley said Darvish was not tipping his pitches:

-A’s pitcher Mike Fiers – who was with the Astros from 2015-17 – told Rosenthal and Drellich that Houston had a camera positioned in the outfield at home games. Whether they also had a system setup on the road is unknown at this time (such as Game 7), but Darvish (and the Dodgers, at the time) seem adamant that he wasn’t tipping his pitches.

But even if they did steal signs, Darvish doesn’t blame the Astros on him pitching poorly in the World Series:

Now, do I think that my failure in the 2017 World Series is because of the Astros stealing signs? I don’t think so, I think Astros have talented players. Results don’t change, and I don’t expect anyone to send me apologies for what they had said to me for the past two years. Through adversity, I’ve been able to work hard and play for a great organization, the Cubs. If I start associating my failure to the Astros scandal, I don’t think that I would be able to develop as a person. I think adversity is important in life, and I think these types of failures will be an important experience for me, as a player. I’m willing to swallow the results of 2017.

It's nice to see Darvish has moved forward; he had a stellar second half in 2019 and will open the 2020 season as the Cubs top starting pitcher. However, he had a tough time dealing with backlash from Dodgers fans, and the Astros cheating may have cost him in free agency. The Cubs signed Darvish to a lucrative six-year, $126 million deal, but he may have gotten more, if not for his poor World Series showing. Plus, he remained on the open market until February 2018.

On possibly using racist remarks to steal signs

I’ve read and heard articles and reports that players were stealing signs by saying racist remarks. During the 2017 World Series, [Yuli] Gurriel did a racial gesture after he hit a home run off of me. I don’t really care, but if he did that knowing about the signs, I think that puts that problem in an entirely different light.

Gurriel hit a home run off Darvish in Game 3, doing a racist gesture after returning to the Astros dugout. He was suspended five games to start the 2018 season as a result, avoiding a ban from the World Series. The gesture was extremely problematic in its own right. If Gurriel did it to convey stolen signs and/or to openly mock Darvish for knowing his signs? Brutal.

Darvish also noticed some strange tendencies from opposing hitters when he was on the mound in 2019:

Especially this year, I've noticed a lot weird things. When I’m in the set position, usually the batter looks at me. It depends on the batter, but they generally look at my elbows, my eyes, my shoulders, you know it. But several times this year, I’ve noticed that the batters don’t look at me. Even without runners on second, I see players just looking into the distance, around left center field. It’s awkward. This usually happens when we’re the visiting team. I’ve even told [Cubs catcher Victor Caratini] during mound visits that the batters eyes were not on me.

According to Cardinals beat writer Jeff Jones, the Brewers and Rangers are egregious with electronic sign stealing as well, though there’s no word if MLB is investigating them.

Darvish had one final PSA to MLB about cheating:

So, um, let’s stop sign stealing. What’s fun about swinging at something that you know that’s coming? I wonder if the batters are actually happy with that. If Houston was actually content with winning the World Series knowing that they were stealing signs electronically... I don’t know, I wouldn't be able to do that as a player if I’m in their shoes. It’s very disappointing.

Well said, Yu. What comes next is to be determined, but Cubs president Theo Epstein pointed out the magnitude of the situation at the GM Meetings.

"Certainly not something to be swept under the rug," said Epstein, who initially admitted it's best for teams not to comment while MLB is looking into the matter. "It needs to be fully investigated and bring light to it and I'm sure there will be appropriate action taken."

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