Cubs

Can the World Baseball Classic improve? Joe Maddon isn't sure that's possible

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AP

Can the World Baseball Classic improve? Joe Maddon isn't sure that's possible

MESA, Ariz. — Joe Maddon is a huge proponent of selling the game of baseball worldwide and clearly sees the place the World Baseball Classic has in that endeavor. 

But with the WBC kicking off this week, Twitter seems ablaze with how to "fix" or improve the international competition. 

Does playing it in the first few weeks of March really help? The schedule limits some of Major League Baseball's best players from participating given they are not yet in midseason form and still in the process of getting back into the swing of things.

But when would be better? 

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

When the Olympics and other international hockey competitions are going on, the NHL shuts down for a few weeks and the game's best players head overseas to play for their home country. 

Could you imagine that in baseball? The entirety of MLB shuts down for all of July, the All-Star Game is canceled or rescheduled, the 162-game season is shortened and pitchers may endure extra stress pitching in high-intesity games that don't count toward their MLB team's ultimate goal of winning the World Series.

It'd be a mess.

And with the season already extending into November with the playoffs, after the MLB slate is out, too.

Which is why Maddon — who spoke at length on the matter Tuesday morning before his team took on Team Italy in an exhibition game at Sloan Park — isn't sure a better idea exists:

"I think it's as good as it can be under the circumstances. The time of the year really inhibits a lot of the best players playing more en masse. There's probably not an adequate or a proper time to do it other than this, so that makes it more difficult. 

"I don't blame some guys for not wanting to play. I understand why guys do want to play and support their country and participate. It's just an imperfect situation. I think we're doing the best that we can under the circumstances. It would be kinda neat if everybody's best could actually participate. 

"But the way our season is played and the length of it and what happens at the end of it, guys have just had enough. So when is the right time? At the beginning when you're fresh? At the end when you're tired? The middle like they did in hockey where they just shut it down, but nobody wants to shut it down. 

"I think we're doing the best under the circumstances and I think the number of guys participating is probably as much as you're gonna see. It's true: To get guys to get up to that mental and physical level this early can have an impact. It just depends on the player, but it can. I think the greater concern a lot of times is the physical impact, that somebody may get injured. 

"But for me, it's also like turning the dial up quickly, too. You saw Javy [Baez]. Javy noticably did that and did it well, I thought. His role this season, it's not every day, so it meshes pretty well with Javy. Like if Lester went or if Arrieta went, especially after the World Series, that would be a little bit of a concern trying to push it so quickly after playing so long."

But Maddon also understands the bigger purpose of the WBC beyond just winning: to promote the game of baseball and get kids more interested.

Of course, there's the matter of national pride, too, as teams like the Netherlands and Israel get to show the world what they're made of in countries where baseball isn't as prominent.

That being said, Maddon has always been in favor of his Cubs team carrying worldwide appeal — especially to the younger crowd — with guys like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber.

"Our group should appeal anywhere that baseball's played," Maddon said. "We do — and baseball does — a great job with us. It's about our players. I think we're authentic, we're charismatic players that are good and are young.

"So there should be a positive impact for the attempt to sell the game to a more wide-ranging group. Why wouldn't you showcase that group of players?"

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Do the Cubs need to make a deal?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Do the Cubs need to make a deal?

On this episode of SportsTalk Live, Fred Mitchell, Seth Gruen and Jason Goch join David Kaplan on the panel.

The Cubs bats come alive against the Giants while Theo says there have been plenty of trade rumors but no trade talks. Do the Cubs need to make a deal?

Plus, Ray Ratto joins Kap to talk about the Warriors struggles and the guys debate if LeBron is playing his final game in a Cavaliers uniform.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

The Cubs are ahead of the game in MLB's brand new world

The Cubs are ahead of the game in MLB's brand new world

"BINGO!"

Joe Maddon couldn't contain his glee as he was told there is actual scientific evidence that proves the Launch Angle Revolution has not had any impact on the uptick in homers over the last couple seasons.

The reason MLB players were hitting the ball into the bleachers more than ever before in 2017 was because of the way baseballs are made now, reducing the wind resistence and causing balls to carry more.

But all these players changing their swing path to get more lift on the ball? Not a thing for the group as a whole (h/t MLB.com):


But in analyzing Statcast™ data from the measurement tool's 2015 inception through 2017, the committee found no evidence that batter behavior, en masse, has been a contributing factor toward the homer surge. In fact, exit velocities decreased slightly from 2016 to 2017, spray angles from the time studied were stable and a small increase in launch angles was attributable primarily to, as the study refers to them, "players with lesser home run talents."

Basically, the long-ball surge was global, affecting players from all spectrums of homer-hitting ability and irrespective of their approach.

"Going into this, I thought that was going to be the magic bullet, the smoking gun," Nathan said. "But it wasn't."


Hence the "BINGO!" cry from Maddon, who has been very vocal in the fight against the Launch Angle Revolution this season.

The end result is the study will eventually lead to baseballs being returned to normal levels and a more uniform way of storing the balls moving forward. Thus, homers figure to eventually return to normal levels, too, and everybody who was caught up in the Launch Angle Revolution may be left behind.

It's the changing landscape of baseball and we've already seen the after-effects this year: April was the first month in MLB history where there were more strikeouts than basehits.

Why? Because strikeouts are a natural byproduct of the Launch Angle Revolution as players are swinging up on the ball more and sacrificing contact for power and lift.

That, coupled with an increase in velocity and higher usage of relievers, has led to more strikeouts.

It makes perfect sense — it's tougher for a player to try to catch up to 98+ mph at the top of the strike zone with an uppercut swing.

"It's one of those things that sounds good, but it doesn't help you," Maddon said of launch angle. "There's certain things that people really want to promote and talk about, but it doesn't matter. When a hitter's in the box, when you're trying to stare down 96 or a slider on the edge, the last thing you're thinking about is launch angle.

"Now when it comes to practice, you could not necessarily work on angles — your body works a certain way. Like I've said before, there's guys that might've been oppressively bad or they just had groundballs by rolling over the ball all the time So of course you may want to alter that to get that smothering kind of a swing out of him.

"But if you're trying to catch up to velocity, if you're trying to lay back and I could keep going on and on. It sounds good."

The idea of hitting the ball hard in the air has been around for decades in baseball, pretty much ever since Babe Ruth on some level. It just wasn't able to be quantified or accessed by the public as easily until Statcast came around and made it all mainstream.

The Cubs, however, have been anti-launch-angle to a degree this season. They let go of hitting coach John Mallee (who liked players to hit the ball in the air and pull it) and replaced him with Chili Davis (who teaches the full-field, line-drive approach).

The effects haven't yet yielded results in terms of consistently plating runs or having a better performance in the situational hitting column, but the contact rate is, in fact, up.

Here is the list of Cubs hitters who currently boast a career best mark in strikeout rate:

Kris Bryant
Javy Baez
Willson Contreras
Addison Russell
Jason Heyward
Kyle Schwarber

Even Ben Zobrist is very close to his career mark and Anthony Rizzo is right at his career line.

Some of that jump in contact rate can be attributed to natural development and maturation of young hitters, but the Cubs are buying into the new way of doing things and it's paying off.

It's also probably the way the game is going to shift, with an emphasis on contact going to become more important the less balls are flying out of the yard.

The Cubs have seen firsthand how to beat the best pitching in the postseason and they know that cutting down on strikeouts and "moving the baseball" (as Maddon likes to put it) can help manufacture runs in low-scoring, tight affairs in October.

Now science is supporting those theories and Major League Baseball teams will have to adjust. 

The Cubs, however, are at least a step ahead of the game.

It's a long game — the offensive strides will take time to fully take effect even for the Cubs, who are at least a full offseason and two months ahead of the curve in terms of bucking the Launch Angle Revolution.

Maddon concedes that launch angle is a cool stat to see on the video board after homers, but other than that, he doesn't see much of a use for it, pointing to Kyle Schwarber's laser-line-drive homers having the same effect as Kris Bryant's moonshots.

However, Maddon does believe there's a place for launch angle and exit velocity in the game, though mostly for front offices trying to acquire players (think "Moneyball").

"As a teaching tool, you either come equipped with or without," Maddon said. "It's like you buy a new car, you either got this or you don't. Sometimes you can add some things occasionally, but for the most part, this is what you are.

"I like inside the ball, top half of the ball, inner half of the ball, stay long throughout the ball, utilize the whole field. I still think that's the tried and true approach and I'm not stuck in the mud on this by any means.

"The harder pitchers throw the baseball, the more laying back is going to be less effective."