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


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? 

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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?"

Cubs ride unconventional pitching performances to 8-6 win over the Reds

Cubs ride unconventional pitching performances to 8-6 win over the Reds

Before Thursday’s game against the Phillies, Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon was asked if, given the current state of their bullpen, Tyler Chatwood could see some innings as the closer. 

“I think he’s amenable to it...” Maddon responded. “... the big thing with him is throwing strikes. If he does that -- his stuff is that electric -- we’ll use him any time. As he gets well from [throwing 4 innings on Wednesday night] it’ll probably a solid two days, maybe three, before he’s ready to go again. We’ll see - we’ll see that night needs. I’m not afraid of it by any means.

“I would say that the first time he got a chance with us, it would be because the other guys aren’t available that night.”

48 hours later, with the Cubs white knuckling a two-run lead, it was Chatwood coming out of the ‘pen in the top of the 9th. Two singles, a double-play, and a Yasiel Puig flyout later, Chatwood had closed out one of the Cubs’ more unconventional wins of the season, a 8-6 nail-biter that featured a little bit of everything.  

“It was a little bit [surprising],” Chatwood said. “But I kept myself ready. I was able to get loose in the pen and luckily I got that double play right there, and we won. So it’s good.” 

On a day when the Cubs’ cobbled together their pitching performance, it was Yu Darvish’s 7 innings -- the first time he’s gotten that deep into a game since 2017 -- that kept Chicago in punching distance. The line itself isn’t particularly flattering; six runs on 12 hits is an eyesore. His performance may not have played well on Cubs Twitter, but those inside the clubhouse could not stop talking about it. 

“That was huge. I thought he was really good today,” Albert Almora, who already surpassed his 2018 home run total (5) with a solo homer in the 2nd inning, said. “I didn’t think he was going to come back out, so I said ‘good job’ to him in the 7th. I saw him back out in the 8th and was like ‘all right, he wanted it.’” 

“It looked like he emptied the tank against Puig in the 7th with a big strikeout,” Chatwood added. “But he still went back out there and battled and pitched into the 8th. That’s huge. We didn’t have many people available today, and I think he knew that. I thought that was one of the best games he’s thrown the ball.”

Darvish managed to strand eight base runners, though, and only walked two. He’s now gone three straight games while walking three batters or less, something he’d failed to do at any point prior. 

“I knew that the bullpen was going through a little struggle, and didn’t have much rest,” Darvish said. “So my main goal was to go more than 7 innings today.” 

On a warm day, with the wind blowing straight out at 16 miles per hour, Wrigley played as small as it has all year. The Cubs (and the Reds, for that matter) went deep three times, which brings their homestand total to 11. 

“The wind was a friend to both sides today,” Maddon said. “But really, you’ve got to give Yu a ton of credit for getting deeply into the game today. He still had his good stuff in the end. The stuff was still there, but it’s 107 pitches, and it’s just deflating when all that happens.” 

Not to be outdone by the guy who started the game or the guy who finished it, recently-called up pitcher Dylan Maples was the winning pitcher of record. He and Tim Collins came in from Triple-A Iowa that morning, and Maddon wasted no time throwing Maples into the fire. After walking his first batter, Maples got Reds’ rookie Nick Senzel to strikeout on a 91mph fastball to end the 8th. 

If it hasn't seemed easy of late, that's because it hasn't been. Of the Cubs’ first 50 games, 16 have been decided by one run (9-7). Over their last 12 games, eight have been decided by two or less runs. 

“They seem to all be like that,” Maddon said with a laugh. “Especially recently. We’re seeing a lot of good pitching. 

“That’s entertainment, guys. Woah.” 

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 eighth inning of Saturday’s game, the Cubs and Reds had hit a combined six 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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