'Pedro Strop Day' comes at a perfect time for the Cubs and their affable reliever

'Pedro Strop Day' comes at a perfect time for the Cubs and their affable reliever

"Pedro Strop Day" could not have come at a better time.

The Cubs' affable veteran reliever smiles and laughs every single day he's at the ballpark anyways, but he had plenty of reason for a bounce in his step Sunday morning after notching saves in back-to-back games.

Strop has been locking down the closer's role for the last couple weeks with Brandon Morrow on the shelf and shut down the Padres in the ninth inning both Friday and Saturday afternoon.

As they're about to embark on a quick three-day trip a few hours south to Kansas City, the Cubs thought it'd be the perfect time for a theme day. And not just any theme, but a "Dress Like Pedro Strop" trip, mimicking the flashy, loud wardrobe of the team's longest-tenured reliever.

This is the brainchild of Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who is a big fan of having his teams play dress-up on road trips, but has toned it down a bit this season.

"Of course nobody — NOBODY — could actually be Pedro Strop," Maddon said. "But we can all attempt to be.

"I've been after it for a while. I always thought it'd be great to have a Pedro Strop look-a-like road trip."

Maddon is bummed because he ordered an Egyptian snake necklace for the occasion, but it didn't arrive in time.

Still, the theme promises to deliver some laughs.

Strop was handing out gold chains and wacky hats at his locker for anybody that needed one. He was most excited to see Randy Bush all dressed up because he picked out the entire outfit for the Cubs front office executive.

Ben Zobrist entered the clubhouse Sunday morning with ripped jeans and a pair of bright-green shoes with wings — yes wings — coming out of the sides.

Strop knew it wouldn't be difficult to pick out his most "Pedro Strop" outfit from his closet, but he made sure to select something particularly "loud."

At the very least, this is a great, light-hearted tribute to the longest-tenured member of the Cubs bullpen, a guy fellow reliever Steve Cishek calls "a beast." 

This is the dude who celebrates walk-offs by high-stepping along with Kris Bryant down the third-base line:

Strop has been a model of consistency since he came over from the Baltimore Orioles in the trade with Jake Arrieta in the middle of the 2013 season, never posting an ERA over 2.91 or WHIP over 1.17 in a Cubs uniform. He's racked up 112 holds and 13 saves over those six seasons, including a career-high 7 saves this year. 

Maddon attributes a lot of that sustained success to Strop's sheer physical strength and ability to keep his arm healthy.

"He puts the ball on the ground and he has a wipeout slider that works against righties and lefties," Maddon said. "So I think the fact that he's been healthy and as strong as he is with really dominant stuff — he has the kind of stuff that can be closer stuff, but he's so valuable being able to move him around.

"If you look at his numbers over the last several years, he's probably as consistent as any reliever in baseball."

But Strop doesn't only want his impact on the team to be felt on the days he pitches.

He looks at himself as an ambassador of morale within the clubhouse.

"We have fun," he said. "That's part of the game. I don't want to go home 10 years from now and when my kids ask me, 'Hey Papi, did you have fun when you played?' I want to say yes.

"I try to put my teammates in the same mood every time. Sometimes you're in a bad mood, but I make sure they're in a good mood by the time they go and pitch."

When asked about how he has his own personal road trip theme in tribute of his style and personality, Strop couldn't do much by smile ear-to-ear and shrug.

"It's just me," he said. "They accept me the way I am and I love the way they accept me."

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season.

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs


Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast


Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.