Cubs

Yu Darvish still searching for results, but maintains he's on the cusp of putting it all together

Yu Darvish still searching for results, but maintains he's on the cusp of putting it all together

Yu Darvish accomplished something Saturday he has never done in a Cubs uniform — he pitched at least 5 innings in three straight starts for the first time since signing that $126 million deal more  than 14 months ago.

That's not exactly an indicator that Darvish will be contending for the National League Cy Young this season, but it's certainly a step in the right direction from his previous 10 starts in Chicago.

Darvish lasted just 5 innings in Saturday's 6-0 loss to the Diamondbacks, needing 88 pitches to get through those frames before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fifth inning. 

He retired 12 of the final 14 batters he faced, including a pair of strikeouts to end his last inning. 

Does he feel like he's still moving forward?

"I think so, especially that last inning," Darvish said. "The fifth inning — mentally — was very good. It's good for next start."

The end line Saturday wasn't great — 5 innings, 5 hits, 3 runs, 3 walks, 7 strikeouts, 2 homers — but he kept his team in the ballgame after giving up back-to-back homers to the second and third hitters of the afternoon.

He was still hitting 96 mph in the fifth inning and acknowledged he could've easily gone another inning if the Cubs weren't trailing 3-0 when his spot in the batting order came up.

"The fastball velocity came up as the game was going on, the breaking ball got sharper," Joe Maddon said. "...They got him quickly and then [Zack] Greinke pitched so well. I thought keeping it at 3, which Yu did do, and that's really not a bad thing after the beginning of that game. We just could not get to Greinke. 

"Had we been able to get back into the game, I think Yu's performance would've been looked on more favorably, because he actually did settle down and do a pretty good job."

Still, the Cubs need more than moral victories every time Darvish takes the ball.

Theo Epstein said earlier this month he doesn't think it's fair to issue a "start-to-start referendum" on Darvish, but this is 5 starts into the season now for the 32-year-old right-hander, who's walked 18 batters and served up 6 homers in 22.2 innings so far. 

Forget the salary or the big free agent deal. This is a four-time All-Star who has twice finished in the Top 10 in Cy Young voting, yet fell to 2-6 with a 5.31 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in 13 starts in a Cubs uniform. 

In those 13 starts, Darvish has walked multiple batters in 11 of them and allowed at least 3 earned runs in 8 outings. He's also averaged less than 5 innings a start overall, and that number is down to just 4.5 innings per outing in 2019. 

Darvish said he wants to pitch into the seventh inning (something he's never done as a Cub) and believes that would be great for his confidence that's been building — slowly but surely — since the start of the season. But he still has to get over that hump.

"His stuff's nasty — plain and simple," Jason Heyward said. "Any time I pitch with Yu in a video game, guarantee at least a 1-hitter. I feel like his confidence is just another thing he'll have to keep building on for himself. 

"Every game is different. Today was — I guess you could say — a step back or whatever. Last start was pretty good and next start, I know he's gonna come out and be hungry again. ... Today was one day. We got a long season. Hopefully next time we can scratch a few runs across."

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Wrigley Field's outfield demands a lot, but the Cubs are answering the call

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USA TODAY

Wrigley Field's outfield demands a lot, but the Cubs are answering the call

There’s no one reason that you could point to that explains why the Cubs have gone 27-12 since their horrid first road trip. You could point to Javy Baéz’s continuous star turn, or the rotation exceeding even the loftiest expectations so far. You could point to Kris Bryant’s healthy shoulder, or Brandon Kintzler’s sinker -- like plenty of people have -- and you’d be right. What’s gone under-discussed, at least in the eyes of some, is just how good the Cubs’ outfield defense has been.

“Who doesn’t love defense?” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said earlier in the week. “This group here, when everyone’s on the field and the really good defenders are out there, it’s as tight as I’ve had. The difference being I think is that the outfield defense has gotten better in the last couple years here.”

The numbers back it up. MLB keeps a statistic called Outs Above Average (OAA) that tries to convey just how good an outfielder is vs. replacement level. For the Cubs, Albert Almora is doing much of the heavy lifting, as the center fielder is worth 4 OOA -- good for 4th best in baseball -- on his own. Jason Heyward is holding is own with 2 OOA so far, and Kyle Schwarber continues to struggle (-2 OOA). As a team, here’s how many Outs Above Average the Cubs have been worth since they started keeping track in 2016:

2016: 22 (2nd)
2017: - 7 (20th)
2018: 0 (14th)
2019, so far: 4 (6th)

“I think we’ve got a lot of great athletes on our team,” Almora said. “We’re playmakers and I think we have a great coaching staff that puts us in the right spots.”

Another useful metric that Statcast keeps track of is called Directional OOA. Basically, MLB designates six directions (front right/middle/left and back right/middle/left) and gauges which direction certain teams and fielders are best at running. Almora, at least this year, has been strongest running in and left:

That was on display yet again on Friday, when Almora broke in and left to rob Derek Dietrich in the second inning:

When asked, Almora admitted that he was surprised to learn that, instead thinking that he was better in and to the right. He’s not wrong, either: in each of the previous three seasons, Almora’s finished with the most OOA coming in and to the right.

“I think most [routes] are pretty instinctual to me,” he said. “I kind of sell out when it’s a little runner. Sometimes I dive and don’t get to it because in my mind I’m programmed to where, if it’s hit to me, I’ve got to catch it.”

Heyward, on the other hand, has been stronger to his right his year:

“I just think it’s about your position” Heyward added. “You can say someone is really good at one thing, but if they don’t get as many plays to this way, or that way, you don’t really know.

One interesting wrinkle about the Cubs’ outfield is that neither Schwarber, Almora or Heyward have been worth an Out Above Average going straight backwards, and generally haven’t been great going backwards in any direction. One explanation? Between an unforgiving brick wall and the outward-jetting net that sits on top of it, robbing homers basically isn’t possible at Wrigley. Knowing that drastically changes the read on fly balls.

“You know you’re not going to go back as hard,” Heyward said. “If someone hits the ball over your head, most likely it’s going to be a double if it’s off the wall. There’s definitely differences between here and and the next place.”

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What To Know: News and Notes From the Upcoming Reds-Cubs Series

What To Know: News and Notes From the Upcoming Reds-Cubs Series

It’s finally Memorial Day Weekend, which is great time to take a moment and reflect on all those who were, when the Cubs were 2-7, adamant about waiting to pass judgement until the holiday weekend. It’s here, and you were right. Congrats to you. Conventional wisdom rules the day, once again. 

The Cincinnati Reds are in town for the final series in this 7-game homestand. The two teams played in Cincinnati a little over a week ago, and the Reds took two of three despite never winning a game by more than two runs. It’ll be Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish, and José Quintana on the mound for the Cubs, countered by Anthony DeSclafani, Tyler Mahle, and Tanner Roark for Cincinnati. Here’s what else to look out for: 

Schwarber’s Staying Put

It sounds like the Kyle Schwarber Leadoff Experiment isn’t going anywhere. He’s lead off for the Cubs in each of the last nine games (including Friday), and is hitting .267/.368/.567 with a .935 OPS over that span. He’s hit 2 of his 7 homers and drawn 6 of his 26 walks out of the leadoff spot. While it’s not his first rodeo, Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon talked pregame about how the team is more convinced that it’s the right fit now. 

“It’s one of those things where you have to believe it to see it,” he said. “And sometimes there’s folks that have to see it to believe it. I just thought it was the right time. Again, I liked it back then -- I did -- however he did not react to it well in that moment. But if you look at his overall abilities  as they stand right now, for me, that’s the perfect spot for him.” 

Cincinnati’s Record: a Reds Herring?

The Reds enter this weekend’s series as the last-place team in the NL Central, and owners of the 5th-worst record (22-27) in the NL. What’s interesting, though, is that they also have the 2nd-best run differential (+25) in the division, which also happens to be the 4th best in the NL. According to Baseball Reference, their actual record is *five* wins lower than it should actually be. 

“We’re playing a team right now that’s record is not good, but they are really good,” Maddon said. “I have a lot of respect for this group.”

The Reds have had some of the best pitching of any team in baseball through the first 40+ games. Going into the long weekend, they rank:

2nd in FIP (3.47)
3rd in ERA (3.50)
5th in K/BB% (17.6)
7th in WHIP (1.23)
4th in HR/FB (12.4% - especially impressive given how homer heavy Great American Ballpark is.) 

Miscellaneous News and Notes

The Cubs called up James Norwood before Friday’s game. He briefly pitched for the Cubs last season, making 11 appearances to the tune of a 4.09 ERA. This season, over 20 innings in Triple-A Iowa, Norwood is holding batters to a .206 average while posting an impressive K/BB of 22.5%. The corresponding move was optioning Rowan Wick back to Triple-A. There’s also been no update on the status of Ben Zobrist, who remains away from the team on a personal absence.