Cubs

Theo Epstein admits there's a bit of frustration in Cubs' clubhouse over constant lineup shuffling

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein admits there's a bit of frustration in Cubs' clubhouse over constant lineup shuffling

Joe Maddon will be back as the Cubs’ manager in 2019. Theo Epstein confirmed as much during his approximately 70-minute end-of-season press conference Wednesday.

There was speculation that Maddon and the Cubs might have parted ways after the earliest end to a season during his tenure, speculation that perhaps there was some unseen behind-the-scenes head-butting going on between the skipper and the front office. Epstein made sure to say that wasn’t true, that conflict over baseball ideas is welcomed and that he in no way prefers a yes-man running his team.

But while Epstein did his best to put that issue to bed, he was refreshingly honest to the point that he revealed not everyone in a Cubs uniform is always happy with Maddon’s methods. The team president fessed up that certain players are a little frustrated with Maddon’s constant lineup shuffling, something that’s been a Maddon trademark since he arrived on the North Side ahead of the 2015 season — and the Cubs’ rise to the top of the baseball heap.

“Maybe a little bit, honestly,” Epstein said when asked if there’s frustration among the players over the lack of a set, everyday lineup. “But I also think they understand. They look around and they see the talent here. And that’s how players talk about it. ‘We have so many talented players who deserve to play, and that’s what makes us great, that’s what makes us really good. But here’s how sometimes it makes me feel, and here’s how if we could communicate about it it could make things a little bit easier.’ I just think it’s important to hear that and to listen and to communicate as much as possible about it and to be transparent.

“In a situation that’s more uncertain —more uncertain than a set lineup every single day, which we don’t have with this group — helping players anticipate as much as possible when they’re going to play, their role so they can think along is really important. And I think that’s something that Joe tries to do and does effectively. But we can all get better at it. I learned some things from talking to the players today, and I’m going to share those with Joe. I’m sure Joe learned some things from his discussions with the players, too. We’re going to continue to try to get better at it.

“I would say the players very much understand but that they’re human and of course at times they get frustrated, more often when they’re not playing or not hitting than when they’re in there a lot and hitting.”

The lack of a set 1 through 8 in the batting order during the majority of a 162-game season has worked rather well for the Cubs since Maddon took over as manager. They’ve averaged more than 96 wins during his four seasons, all of which ended in playoff berths, three of which saw the Cubs reach the NLCS and one which ended in a World Series championship.

It’s been a luxury for a team that’s had plenty of depth during this stretch. Maddon’s juggling of certain positions on the field and his desire to get certain, more traditional everyday guys rest has allowed the Cubs to stock their bench with players whose talent makes them capable of being everyday guys on many, if not most, other teams.

Being able to bring guys like Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ — and, before his rise to superstardom, Javy Baez — off the bench has helped the Cubs late in games. And as Epstein put it, it’s saved the Cubs in injury situations over the years.

“The fact that we have more than eight everyday-caliber players to throw out there and we have depth, it’s a huge part of what’s helped us win 95 games this year, what’s helped us average 97 (wins) the last four years, more than anyone in baseball,” Epstein said. “When you lose Addison Russell, Javy Baez slides over, Ben Zobrist slides to second base, and when you lose Kris Bryant, David Bote’s there to fill in. Player after player. The alternative to that overexposing a reserve or forcing a Triple-A or Four-A type player into that role, and that hurts the team and that hurts your ultimate goal.

“That said, there is a price to pay, sometimes with players not knowing they’re in the lineup every day and not having that confidence that they can go out and play and develop at their own pace. If they’re sometimes wondering if they have to get that hit today to be in the lineup tomorrow, that’s something that you wrestle with.

“Honestly, I think the right thing for the organization overall is to have too many good players instead of not enough, or to have eight guys for eight spots and then the second you suffer one or two or three injuries your whole season’s down the tubes.

“It’s the depth of really quality players we’ve had that’s kept us afloat at many times.”

The existence of frustration isn’t exactly surprising for players who consider themselves — and in many cases have proved themselves — capable of everyday roles. But this is not a new topic for the Cubs, one that predates even these comments from Zobrist in spring training.

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody,” Zobrist said in February. “You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

So while Maddon’s methods might be a tad frustrating at times, they also allow for plenty of opportunities. And more than 96 wins a season.

Joe Maddon on MLB's absurd home run rate: 'The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird'

Joe Maddon on MLB's absurd home run rate: 'The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird'

Cubs manager Joe Maddon usually isn’t one for conspiracy theories, but even he’s wondering what’s going on. MLB teams are hitting home runs at an absurd rate, including the Cubs, who are hitting them at a historic rate for the franchise’s standards.

Entering Saturday, here’s where MLB teams stand in average home run rate and total home runs in 2019 compared to recent seasons:

2017: 1.26/game, 6,105 total
2018: 1.15/game, 5,585 total
2019: 1.33/game, 2,009 total

While the MLB season is just over 30 percent finished, teams are on pace to hit a combined 6,483 long balls in 2019. This would absolutely obliterate the 2017 total, which, like the 1.33 home runs per game figure, would be an MLB record.

The Cubs are no exception to this home run wave. Including Saturday (game No. 50 of the season), the team has hit 80 home runs (and counting) in 2019. Only the 2000 Cubs (83) hit more home runs in their first 50 games in franchise history.

“We’re having home runs hit here into some firm breezes, which has not happened before,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said to reporters before Saturday’s game against the Reds. “That’s the thing that stands out to me. It’s been crazy.

“Even [Kyle] Schwarber’s home run, I know that was hit well, but dang, that wind was blowing pretty firmly across at that point.”

Schwarber absolutely crushed his home run yesterday, a 449-foot blast that needed little help getting into the bleachers. However, Maddon has a valid point regarding home runs being hit despite the wind. Entering Saturday, 54 total home runs have been hit at Wrigley Field this season, 29 of which have come with the wind blowing in.

By the sixth inning of Saturday’s game, the Cubs and Reds had already hit a combined five home runs, one of which appeared to be a routine fly ball hit by Jason Heyward that wound up in the left field basket thanks to the wind. At the same time, Yasiel Puig hit one 416 feet onto Waveland Ave. that had a 109 mph exit velocity. The wind blowing out at Wrigley Field helps, but it isn’t everything.

MLB players have questioned time and time again if baseballs are “juiced,” including Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester. And while Maddon didn’t flat out say that he thinks the baseballs are juiced, he notices a difference in how they're flying off the bat.

“I don’t know, I’m normally not into the subplot component of all of this and the conspiracy theorists, but I’m telling you right now, it’s jumping,” he said. “It’s absolutely jumping.

“Nobody is ever going to admit to it. The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird.”

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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.