Cubs

Optimism on the North Side

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USA TODAY

Optimism on the North Side

Cubs starters have picked things up over the last six games, posting a 1.13 ERA in 39.2 innings with only two home runs allowed and an impressive ratio of 42 strikeouts to only six walks over that span. Cubs starters had a 6.52 ERA over the first 11 games.

The last two starts have been particularly impressive.

Tuesday – José Quintana: 7 IP, 6 Hits, 0 Runs, 0 Walks, 7 Strikeouts

Wednesday – Cole Hamels: 7 IP, 3 Hits, 0 Runs, 0 Walks, 8 Strikeouts

Prior to that, the last time the Cubs had a lefty starter toss seven scoreless innings in consecutive games was 1935, when Roy Henshaw tossed a 9-inning CG on June 28 and Larry French tossed a 12-inning CG in game 1 of a doubleheader on June 29.

But if you add in the element of not issuing a walk, you have to go back even farther.

It was the first time Cubs had a starting pitcher (lefty OR righty) pitch 7+ scoreless innings with no walks in consecutive games.. since they were defending World Series champions in 1909!

It was Ed Reulbach on July 31, then Hall of Famer Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown on August 1 (game 1 of doubleheader).

And what about the hitting?

What’s clear is this: any success they have had is not because of Rizzo & Bryant.

It’s tempting to use the phrase “supporting cast” but I think that’s selling short the man who finished 2nd in NL MVP voting. In any event, look what the Cubs not named Rizzo or Bryant have accomplished this season (excluding pitchers):

Rizzo & Bryant:                                      .189/.318/.331, 4 Home Runs

Everyone else (excluding pitchers):       .303/.381/.509, 22 Home Runs

Of course there are two ways to interpret this. One is “Just wait until Rizzo & Bryant heat up.” The other is “By the time Rizzo & Bryant heat up, the rest of the pack will cool down a bit.” Both are reasonable. But it’s still encouraging to see Contreras show that 2018 was a fluke as well Báez show that 2018 wasn’t a fluke. So far, at least. And then there’s Jason Heyward.

The same Jason Heyward who’s one of seven players in the Majors this season (entering Thursday) with at least 4 home runs and more walks than strikeouts. His launch angle has jumped from 9.4° in 2018 to 15.2° so far this season, as has his average exit velocity (from 88.1 to 90.5). Sure it’s early, but it’s progress.

But back to Báez & Contreras. They are tied for the team lead with 6 home runs apiece. It may come as a shock (it certainly surprised me) that it’s the first time the Cubs have had two players with at least six home runs through the team’s first 17 games of a season since 1958, when right fielder Lee Walls had nine and Ernie Banks had six.

Last season, Contreras didn’t hit his sixth home run of the season until June 27 and he finished with ten. So far this season he’s hitting a robust .319/.458/.766 and looks like a force at the plate. With the catcher position fairly thin in today’s game, the Cubs have a special player in Willson.

As for Báez, he defies logic at the plate. He has the 4th highest swinging strike percentage (19.6%), the fifth highest percentage of pitches swung at (57.1%) and the third highest percentage of swings at pitches outside the zone (46.6%), yet still here he is with very similar numbers through 17 games as he had last season, even if the strikeout to walk ratio has taken a dip.

2018: .290/.371/.742, 6 HR, 20 RBI, 6 BB (4 IBB), 14 K

2019: .324/.351/.635, 6 HR, 16 RBI, 3 BB (0 IBB), 24 K

His numbers do a weak job at describing what he does at the plate. He has 3, 3, 3 and 2 hits in his last four games, and you need to see where he makes contact to truly understand.

Overall, the Cubs stand at 8-9; 4th in the NL Central. But their +18 run differential ranks 2nd in the National League; first in the NL Central (the Brewers have the worst run differential in the division at -2). They’re 7-3 since starting the season 1-6. Despite the awful start by the pitching, the team ERA stands at 4.55 entering Thursday; which is just a touch above National League average (4.40). They are one of three teams in the NL to average 6 runs a game, and their team on-base percentage of .357 is 3rd in the NL. Even with the cornerstones of the team off to a terrible start.

It's a season of ups and downs – especially in the early weeks of the season – but things are starting to settle, and there’s reason for optimism on the North Side.

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Yu Darvish's Cutter Might Be What Turns His Season Around

Yu Darvish's Cutter Might Be What Turns His Season Around

Over the past two starts, Yu Darvish has walked three batters. That stat isn’t going to catch too many eyes until you realize that in the two starts prior, he walked 11. And the two starts before those? 7. 

Control issues have plagued Darvish all season, and if the season ended today, he’d set a career-high in BB% (16.6). He’s walked at least four batters in all but three of his starts. It’s been a mess so far, but it might not be for much longer. Look at how Darvish’s pitch selection has changed over the last eight weeks:


That’s a mighty big increase in two-seamer usage. Darvish was throwing his cutter barely 5% of the time at the start of the season, and now he’s throwing it basically once every four pitches. The cutter seen a 10% increase over the first two months as well. A game-by-game breakdown shows you just how much Darvish’s approach has changed of late: 


So, things look a little different now. That spike in sinker usage came against the Marlins, when he only got through four innings while allowing a run with six walks and seven strikeouts. He admitted after the game that he got too cozy with the pitch. 

More notably, Darvish’s cutter usage continues to steadily rise. That’s good news for the Cubs, because since over the last two years, it’s been one of his more effective pitches. 

It’s also probably not a coincidence that in Darvish’s best years, his cutter has been one of his most accurate pitches. The stretch from 2013-2016 (he missed all of 2015) saw some of the lowest BB% for his cutter: 

“I just think he has better command of that pitch,” Joe Maddon said. “I think he has a better idea of where that pitch is going. I think that’s the biggest difference with it. Because of that, it’s been more effective because he can throw it where he wants to. I think that’s the primary difference. 

News and notes

  • The Cubs called up Tim Collins and Dillon Maples before Saturday’s game. Collins was up briefly in mid-April, pitching 3.1 IPs in four outings. This is also Maples second time up this season, after making three appearances in late-April/early-May. “We had to,” Joe Maddon said about calling up the pair. “There’s a lot of stuff going on right now, a lot of usage. We’ve been in nearly every game we’ve been playing, so it’s difficult to give guy breaks.”
  • The corresponding move saw the Cubs option OF Mark Zagunis to Triple-A Iowa. In 29 games this season, Zagunis slashed .257/.333/.343 with a .676 OPS. “We’ve had these young guys that have not had a chance to play with regularity,” Maddon said. “It’s wonderful for them to be in the major leagues, but developmentally sometimes it can really hurt them. He’ll be back.” 
  • With a short bench, Maddon admitted that pitcher Tyler Chatwood could be a pinch hitter. “He’s legit,” he said. “I don’t know when or how, but he definitely has to have his spikes on.”
  • Pedro Strop is scheduled to throw a bullpen on Saturday. They have another one scheduled in a couple of days. Maddon noted that he’s getting close, and mentioned the end of next week as a potential timeline to when they’d more about his rehab assignment plans. 

Cubs Talk Podcast: Redemption Stories & Schwarber Leading Off

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Redemption Stories & Schwarber Leading Off

Luke Stuckmeyer is joined by the Cubs Postgame Live team of David Kaplan and David DeJesus to break down all the various redemption stories on the 2019 Cubs, ranging from Kris Bryant returning from an injury-plagued campaign to Tyler Chatwood becoming a legitimate weapon out of the bullpen (1:00). Then, the guys discuss how well Kyle Schwarber is performing out of the leadoff spot over the last week (11:45).

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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