As my career wound down in Major League Baseball, I found myself caddying a lot. Caddying is just what it sounds like, coming in as needed, helping the talent of the future as a mentor or advisor. It also meant that when you do get the chance to start, you may be facing tough assignments that are spaced out inconveniently for you.
As I did in 2004, I faced some tough pitchers often to protect the next generation centerfielder in Marlon Byrd in Philly. I faced a Rolodex of Cy Young award winners that year (Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, and others) or All-Stars (Brad Radke and so on), and the other starters were reserved for the young buck.
That was then, but how to be ready with so many unknowns is still an important lesson about being prepared for anything that can come at you. And in baseball, anything will come at you.
Like many players who arrive to the big leagues, they have had a lifetime of being every day players. High school, college stars, or even minor league stars, who were always in the lineup. Then, as the air gets thinner, so does the opportunity to be a starter and the more you may learn about life coming off of the bench.
Addison Russell had a surprise entry into the Cubs-Cardinals game the other day after teammate Javier Baez took a pitch off of the elbow. In theory, it was supposed to be Russell’s “day off” so when he made an error in the field, speculation arose from announcer Alex Rodriguez that he may not have been fully prepared. The implication was that he had shut off his mind to enjoy his day off, and was caught off guard.
Only Russell knows how he felt, but after I spent a career in the National League as perennial starter and bench player, there is no such thing as a day off, especially in a lineup under Joe Maddon, which has emphasis on versatility, flexibility and open-mindedness.
If you are on the bench to start a game, there is an understanding that you may get in the game. At least there should be unless, and this has happened to me, the manager tells you that under no circumstance will you be called in the game. Even then, in the back of my mind, should the game go 15 innings, I could hardly be surprised if a promise may have to be broken.
One time, Phillies manager Terry Francona gave me a day off during a season where I ended up playing in 158 games and leading the NL in at bats. He said to me “it looks like the bat is swinging you.” We were out of it in September, so he could sit me and keep me on the bench. The Cubs do not have the luxury of handing out day spa packages, they are in the race, in fact, many days, they are getting chased.
I only played one partial season in the American League and this was with Texas as Alex’s teammate. After years of National League life, the AL was another planet. Players came off the bench only in matchup situations, the rare pinch run or pinch hit, and maybe for defense (other than road interleague play.). The AL does not have the built in bench call because in the NL, the pitcher hits, a circumstance which opens up many ways you can get in the game.
Like Alex, I was spoiled on years of being a starter, so it did take a little time to know how to get ready for the chance you may come in the game. He was a DH later in his career, so he knew when he was hitting, so he could get loose with a plan. If you don’t have that advantage, usually around the fourth inning or some inning before the pitcher is batting, I would start warming up. Some parks are easier than others to do that. Stretch, hit off of the tee, jog somewhere. And you will have to repeat this each inning you are not used, just in case.
What really bites into your preparation is when something happens very early in the game. This is when you could not get into a stretching routine to be ready because of the timing (Baez injury happened in the 3rd) or you could have skipped your typical pre-game warm up to bask in your day off. Sure, being a pro means being ready but being thrust in a game is still pretty jarring.
Then when you age in the game, you don’t have the bandwidth to be stiff on the bench or you may not ever get loose, so you are (or should be) constantly warming up. I learned a lot as a young player watching veterans like Shawon Dunston, Lenny Harris, and others who came off the bench ready to go. We were all a quick turn away from a pulled muscle.
Baseball is a stop and go sport, outside of the elements of surprise of in game injuries or wild substations, you may get hit by weather like the Cubs experienced last night. When is the tarp coming off? Warm up, sit down, warm up, sit down. It is not the best way to be loose, especially when you are 34, but it is always part of any sport that plays outdoors. You have to put the built-in excuses out of your head because there is a role player performing well despite the obstacles.
As an every day player, you often get out of touch with the reality of coming off of the bench and having to perform. It is challenging for any player to come off the bench no matter what the circumstance, which is what makes pinch hitter extraordinaire, Tommy La Stella, an incredible asset. It is one thing to be loose, it is another to hit a guy throwing a 96 mph sinker.
Baseball is a tough game because it depends so much on rhythm while everything is trying to disrupt it. Errors happen, no matter what, even when you are prepared and at your best. And it is ok to recognize that you may not really be loose, which is a natural occurrence over 162 games. You can’t be totally limber every day after long flights and split doubleheader’s while the body is just being the body. Sometimes you are productive playing through it, some times, you are not.
Yet there are a whole host of players who make a career out of their instant utility. Productive players who are not afforded advanced notice all of the time. Every year, these players help win championships (see David Ross.) Coming cold off the bench, going into games when the starter’s hamstring tightens up. Facing closers who throw 100 mph. Pinch running with a tight hamstring. It happens every single day on every single team. They are as important to winning as having an MVP in Kris Bryant, or a brilliant veteran, like Jon Lester.
So let’s take this opportunity to appreciate these players more instead of only noticing them when a starter has to do what these bench players have always done. Being ready on call.
The popular focus of the Bears offseason has been on a new offensive coaching staff phasing in a radically different system and playbook, integrating new “weapons” brought other teams and other schemes, and fusing them all together around a trigger/detonator in the person of quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
More than any of that, however, is Trubisky himself, the real linchpin “weapon.” All of the offseason additions, beginning with coaching staff, projects to make only marginal more impact than Dowell Loggains, Josh Bellamy, Dontrelle Inman and Kendall Wright if Trubisky himself is not much, much better than he was last season.
In three primary areas.
In figure skating and diving, the obligatory must-do’s were called “compulsories” – basic skills at which competitors were required to demonstrate proficiency. For Trubisky, improvements in three specific compulsories are the keys to this young quarterback’s development.
Trubisky is in his own molten state, still a raw, largely unknown with fewer NFL starts (12) than all but four projected starting quarterbacks (Jimmy Garoppolo, Pat Mahomes, AJ McCarron, Deshaun Watson) for 2018, but the poorest record (4-8) of any other anticipated starter, those four included. “Work in progress” is an understatement.
The Trubisky “installation” is in fact massive. Beyond the specifics of scheme, RPO’s and all the rest, Trubisky will go to training camp with precious little shared game experience with virtually any of his chief so-called weapons. Trey Burton, Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson weren’t Bears last year. Kevin White worked chiefly with Mike Glennon and the No. 1 offense while Trubisky was primarily with the 2’s. Anthony Miller was in Memphis.
But the Trubisky developmental group – coach Matt Nagy, coordinator Mark Helfrich, quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone, backup Chase Daniel – has three chief points of attention with what was drafted to be the foundation of the franchise:
For all of the positives coming out of his abbreviated rookie season, Trubisky completed just 59.4 percent of his passes – not good enough for an offense based in significant part on ball control with the pass. Substandard receivers account for some of the accuracy issues for a quarterback who completed 68 percent in his one year as a college starter. But Mike Glennon completed two-thirds (66.4 percent) of his throws in his four games throwing to largely the same group.
More to a larger point, the Bears were 2-4 when Trubisky completed less than 60 percent of his throws. His completion rate is nothing short of pivotal in keeping possessions sets of downs and entire possessions on schedule, converting third downs and resting his defense.
Nagy dialed back the offense at one point during OTA’s, Trubisky played faster “and you saw completions out there,” Nagy said, “and that's what it's all about.”
Only the Carolina Panthers reached the playoffs with a quarterback (Cam Newton) completing less than 60 percent of his passes. Slightly better statistically, Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz (60.2) was leading the MVP discussion before a season-ending knee injury, and Blake Bortles (60.2) had Jacksonville a fourth-quarter away from the Super Bowl. But the Eagles and Jaguars were top-five in both scoring offense and scoring defense. And Nick Foles got the Eagles to a Lombardi Trophy completing 72.6 percent in the postseason filling in for Wentz.
Tom Brady completed 63.9 percent as a rookie and never below 60 percent in 17 years as a starter. Aaron Rodgers, never below 60 percent in 10 years as a starter. Drew Brees, 15 of his 16 seasons at 60-plus, including the last 14 straight. Ben Roethlisberger, 12 of 14 seasons at 60-plus percent. Peyton Manning, 15 of his 17 seasons at 60-plus percent. Those five account for 17 Super Bowl appearances.
Trubisky was drafted to be that echelon of quarterback. Reaching that level begins with completing passes.
Stay the ball-security course
Trubisky may not have been dominant in any area as a rookie, but he bought into the emphasis placed on ball security by John Fox and coordinator Dowell Loggains. He ranked 12th with a very respectable 2.1-percent interception rate. Of the 11 passers rated ahead of him, only Jacoby Brisset in Indianapolis failed to get his team to .500, and eight of those 11 were in the playoffs. Ball security matters.
And it is something to watch through training camp and preseason. Adam Gase made ball security the No. 1 objective with Jay Cutler when Gase arrived in 2015. Cutler went a dozen straight practices and his 33-pass preseason without throwing an interception. The carryover was obvious; Cutler had the best season (92.3) and second-best interception rate of his career in 2015.
The same is expected, and needed, from Trubisky for the new offense, and the “old” defense, to work.
“He had, I think was a three-to-one or maybe even a four-to-one touchdown to interception ratio in college,” Helfrich said. “That works. That’s a good thing. We need to continue that. We can’t put the defense in a bad situation, our team in a situation, because there’s times in the NFL they’re going to get you and I think a quarterback kind of has that innate ability to take care of the football versus turning it over when he, for lack of a better word, panics.”
Trubisky lost two fumbles in the span of 12 games. Very respectable and a strong starting point for his year two.
Get the ball off on time
Trubisky in 2017 tied for fourth in percentage of pass plays sacked (8.6), a problem that might be laid at the feet of an offensive line forced by injuries into seven different starting-five combinations. Might, but far from entirely.
Nagy’s passing offense is rooted in timing. Receivers during practices have precision drilled into them, meaning being exactly where they’re supposed to be at precisely the instant they’re supposed to be there. Trubisky’s tutoring has stressed plays being on time.
Only the Buffalo Bills reached the playoffs with a quarterback (Tyrod Taylor, 9.9) taking sacks at a rate higher than 6.6 percent. Alex Smith went down at a rate of 6.5 percent running the Kansas City offense under Nagy and coach Andy Reid.
Trubisky’s mobility is an obvious asset for extending plays. But getting the ball out of his hands is the goal, and his decision-making and execution will be key in how long his line has to sustain blocks. Trubisky early on evinced a grasp of balancing the reward of rescuing a play under pressure against the risk of taking a sack.
“Ball security is very important so I'm just trying to take care of the football,” Trubisky said not long after taking over for Glennon last season. “But at the same time you want to stay aggressive and you could say the sacks are a result of that.”