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A slump in the road - the Cubs' 2019 World Series dreams hinge on the bat of Kris Bryant

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USA TODAY

A slump in the road - the Cubs' 2019 World Series dreams hinge on the bat of Kris Bryant

Does a 2-for-4 mean you are on track?

The answer is, it depends.

Kris Bryant is an MVP, Rookie of the Year, World Champion and a super talent. Not just because he displays the outward abilities like power or hitting for average, but because he has the less visible skills, like good baserunning, plate discipline, intangible instincts.

Kris Bryant has been having a tough time by Bryant standards. It is easy to rattle off numbers to underscore the distance between today and his MVP season. Early 2019 shows the .368 slugging, the hitting under .200 vs. lefties, the near .100 with two strikes and the .154 batting average when he pulls the ball.

Yet despite knowing these numbers are only after 68 at-bats, there is a deeper concern because of expectation.

The Cubs need Bryant. Last season, he was still a solid player, but the Cubs were banking on an All-Star to create a few more wins, and as we know, a few more wins and the Cubs win the NL Central outright.

Injuries have crept in; doubt always follows, even after you have a clean bill of health. Bryant also got hit in the face, which gets lost in some of the noise. These injuries and setbacks stay with a player, creeping up after a twinge in the weight room, the break-up with your girlfriend, the sleeping funny on your pillow the night before, the three game series in the stadium where you don’t pick up the ball out of the batter’s eye.

Outside of the standard numbers, his baserunning was down last season. He had been masterful of going first to third, first to home and second to home. He created runs by having great reads and even better instincts. But he was not quite as effective last year, and not getting quite the same reads, at least so the numbers say. In Bill James' annual handbook for 2018, Bryant's baserunning was calculated as a -5 net loss, which accounts for advancing extra bases, baserunning outs, double plays and a stolen bases.

But slumps are part of any players career, and they are not always just an offensive thing. In fact, they are as normal as being on fire, and there are times when the lines blur between being in one and getting out of one. It matters which direction you are heading in.

A player like Bryant has the ability to reduce the damage of a slump. He can walk and he can get on base with his eyes, all while he is fixing he stroke. He is dangerous enough of a power hitter to induce walks just because of the threat. Pitchers may know he is struggling, but they also know, one bad pitch and the ball is on Waveland Ave., no matter what he did the last seven days.

I had my share of slumps in my career and I define it as a place of relativity. We are comparing to what we think should be, both based on past and future. But it is deceiving to base expectation only on the comfort of hard data, not data that in reality is fluid and constantly changing with time and environment. Bryant's MVP season also had ups and downs, but he kept the downs short.

It is still early and Bryant still has a good space between his batting average and his on-base percentage (.235 average and a respectable .342 OBP), but he is expected to be dominant from tape to tape by this point in his career, with all the lofty traditional numbers to go with it—OBP, AVG, HR, RBIs. And for the Cubs to not just win, but win it all, Bryant's ability to be that day in and day out threat is pivotal.

Keep in mind, everyone is making major adjustments to Bryant, and it is not just his opponents on the field, but the opponent in the cloud. The data and the speed of these data-driven adjustments are lightning quick, especially against a player that can beat you single-handedly.

I remember when I was struggling mid-career, and we were heading to Toronto for a series. I was in the batting cage with Phillies hitting coach Hal McRae and expressing my frustration. I was fouling out to first, to the catcher, rolling over on balls down the middle. Then Hal said to me that it was a “credit to your talent that you are hitting close to .270 when your heart and mind are clearly with your father.”

My father was in and out of the hospital that year and eventually would pass away the last game of the season a couple of years later. There was no stat for anxiety or stress, no multiplier to explain the degree by which you are off your game. Maybe that stress is a motivator, provides an edge in some players, in others, not so much. But slumps are part mechanical as they are part mental, emotional, psychological. And they can come out of nowhere; we often don’t know what a player is going through even if it is just a bad swing and bad pitching matchups for him.

It is not the slump, but how quickly you can get out of a slump. Three weeks instead of three days makes a world of difference. Those who do not have the opportunity to play through a slump, will not make it.

When I was a veteran in the game, besides the skill decline and the health decline, there was the opportunity decline. I no longer would be granted the bandwidth to struggle through it. I needed to produce every time I got the chance to play, even if I had two weeks between starts. When a team will not stick with you, you lose the pathway to get out of the hole you dug. And often the hole gets bigger. Bryant does not have this problem.

That is because Bryant has time and has earned the time on a good team that has other assets to keep them competitive. Yet being granted time does not mean the team has time. The manager, the coaches, the closer, are on clocks too.

Working hard can do a lot, but only so much. The doubt has to go, the second guessing of self or that in-between trapped feeling when you don’t know what is coming out of the pitcher’s hand, has to go.        

The Cubs know they are built from many talented assets, many players that can do the job. At different times in the season, a different player will carry the team. If the rotation keeps rolling, while key players like Baez and Contreras are producing, and the wins are rolling in, Bryant can work through it, just another reason why being on a team that picks each other up matters so much.

The slump is highly dependent on time and opportunity. This needs to be the Cubs' year, so the time is now, and they have to keep betting that the former league MVP will find a big way out, then he will carry this team for a while, maybe right back to the World Series. Then all will certainly forget what Bryant’s stat sheet showed before April 19, 2019.  

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The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

What's the secret behind Albert Almora Jr.'s recent offensive resurgence?

It wasn't switching to an axe bat like Kris Bryant. It wasn't even a mechanical adjustment of any kind.

No, Almora has turned things around at the plate just because he has more of a belief in himself right now.

"This game is all about confidence," the Cubs centerfielder said. "It's a game of ups and downs. It's tough mentally, but the quicker you could get back to having that confidence, the better. It's kinda like tricking yourself."

Having 39,246 people demand a curtain call has to do wonders for your confidence.

Almora hit his first career grand slam in the bottom of the fifth inning Wednesday night and was none too happy to oblige the packed house at Wrigley Field.

That blast was his fifth homer of the season, which ties the total he reached in all of last season.

Over the first 21 games of 2019, Almora was hitting just .182 with a .432 OPS and 0 extra-base hits in 61 plate appearances.

Then he pinch hit against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen on April 25 and smacked his first homer of the season. Since then, he's hitting .341 with a .966 OPS and 12 extra-base hits in 87 plate appearances. 

So if the difference is confidence, is there a way to manufacture confidence? Like a "fake it until you make it" kind of thing?

"No, it's tough," Almora said. "It really is. Maybe some guys are really good at it. Defensively, it's a different type of confidence, because you can control more, but you can be confident at the plate and not have the results."

When Bryant started turning things around at the end of April, much was made about his switch to an axe bat. There's no doubt that change in weaponry perfectly correlated with Bryant's red-hot production at the plate over the last month, but even he downplayed the whole thing, using the idiom, "it's not the arrow, it's the Indian" on the Cubs' last homestand.

In talking about Bryant Tuesday night, all Joe Maddon discussed was the star player's confidence, saying he is "unconsciously confident" in every aspect of his game right now.

"It's just who I am — I feel like this is me as a baseball player," Bryant said. "I'm working counts, getting on base, baserunning, playing all over. When I'm doing that, I feel pretty confident, so I hope I can continue that."

Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce echoed Almora's sentiment that baseball is all about confidence and while mechanical changes can certainly help breed that confidence, the only real way to build it is with positive results on the field. 

Obviously mechanics come into play all the time in professional baseball and there's no doubt Almora's and Bryant's physical mechanics are locked in at the moment.   

But there's no substitute for confidence and there's no drill to work on something that isn't tangible and can't even be quantified. 

"I don't know [how to build confidence]," Almora said. "I wish I had the answer. That's why this game is so hard. You just gotta battle and try to not ride that huge up-and-down roller coaster. Try to stay the same. I feel like just having a good attitude is a good part of it and I think it's something I'm trying to feed off of my teammates. I think I've been doing a really good job of just being happy no matter what."

This is Almora's fourth year in the big leagues and he's closing in on 1,100 plate appearances at this level. But he still doesn't feel like he's come anywhere close to mastering the Confidence Conundrum.

"No, because you wanna perform every year, so every year's different no matter what," Almora said. "I've had success hitting at the big-league level, but every year's a new challenge and every year you have challenges for yourself and for your team to win, obviously. It never gets easier."

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Amid rough patch, Cubs shake up their bullpen

Amid rough patch, Cubs shake up their bullpen

The Cubs bullpen has been under the microscope recently as they've hit another rough patch.

With Pedro Strop on the injured list, Cubs relievers have combined for a 5.04 ERA and 1.72 WHIP over the last week, allowing 32 hits and 11 walks against only 15 strikeouts in 25 innings.

The Cubs are shaking things up, sending veteran left-hander Xavier Cedeno to the injured list with left wrist inflammation and promoting right-hander Rowan Wick from Triple-A Iowa.

"We had to get things straightened out out there," Joe Maddon said of the bullpen. "Cedeno's still not 100 percent right, so we made that move. Wick's up and he's been pitching really well. We liked him in spring training; he provides length if we need it also, so there were a lot of reasons to do it, but he was pitching well enough to be here, too."

The Cubs acquired Wick, 26, from the Padres back in November for minor leaguer Jason Vosler. Wick has pitched well in Triple-A Iowa this season — in 13 outings, he has a 2.84 ERA and 1.11 WHIP while striking out 25 batters in 19 innings. 

Of his 13 appearances, 7 have been of a multi-inning variety and he hasn't allowed a run in his last 3 games (6.2 innings). He said a key to his success has been the ability to throw three different pitches for strikes and has been in a good flow lately of getting ahead in the count.

Wick made 10 appearances for the Padres in San Diego last year, sporting a 6.48 ERA in 8.1 innings.  The results weren't what he wanted in the big leagues, but that experience is something he can rely  on now.

"[I learned] that I can pitch here and that I belong," Wick said. "To be comofttable and hopefully pitch well."

Cedeno, 32, signed with the Cubs just before spring training started, but has been hampered by the same wrist issue all spring. He was first activated off the injured list less than two weeks ago and did not give up a run in 5 appearances, though he surrendered 4 hits and 3 walks in just 2 total innings of work.

With Wick in tow, the Cubs bullpen now looks like this:

Steve Cishek
Brad Brach
Brandon Kintzler
Kyle Ryan
Mike Montgomery
Tyler Chatwood
Carl Edwards Jr.
Rowan Wick

Strop is working his way back from a hamstring injury and threw a 25-pitch bullpen Monday, so his return may not be far off. 

Brandon Morrow resumed his throwing program Monday, as well, but is still weeks away from returning even in a best-case scenario.

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