White Sox

Montador willing to step up on power plays

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Montador willing to step up on power plays

COLUMBUS, Ohio As the Blackhawks keep working on that power play and its units, they need someone in front to get those deflections, those tip-ins, those rebound shots.

Enter Steve Montador.

The defenseman was on the Blackhawks second power-play unit on Wednesday as the team continues to try and solve its drought there. Montador has an edge to his game and should be able to carve out a spot for himself in front of the opposing goaltender.

And hes prepared to take his shots physically, too.

Yeah, now Im the one getting cross-checked. Thats territory Im familiar with from my own end, said Montador, whos welcoming the new assignment. I own my space wherever I can find it and create it and take it. If I can tip it, I will. Hopefully Im whatever the play calls for. Im not saying I can do it all but Im going to do my best to try.

Coach Joel Quenneville said Montador has some bite in his game and gives us more of a right-shot look, which is more of an option there.

A different look? Certainly. But for a team looking for something, anything on that power play, its worth a shot.

We certainly have the guys to put the puck in the net. But its about outworking four guys. And the best power plays, regardless of whos on it, (are the ones) that take advantage of that extra guy to work and create the space. A lot of times, PP goals are just point shots, tips, rebounds and jamming at the net. Im looking forward to that opportunity.

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The Blackhawks are tinkering with that power play again. What combination would you want out there? Tell us below:

If 2018 was all about 'learning experiences' for young White Sox, what did Lucas Giolito learn?

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USA TODAY

If 2018 was all about 'learning experiences' for young White Sox, what did Lucas Giolito learn?

We heard a lot about "learning experiences" during the White Sox 100-loss 2018 season.

It was Rick Renteria's way of describing the to-be-anticipated growing pains for highly touted players spending their first full seasons in the major leagues. Fan expectations were high for the likes of Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Yoan Moncada, and by very few measures did those players — some of the first of the organization's bevy of prospects to reach the South Side — live up to those expectations.

But that doesn't mean that those players' seasons were devoid of value. Renteria, the White Sox and the players all expect these "learning experiences" to have long-term benefits. In other words, it's the struggles now that will help these players succeed and create the planned perennial contender on the South Side.

So if those "learning experiences" were so valuable, what did these guys learn?

Giolito finished his first full season in the bigs with a 6.13 ERA, leading baseball in earned runs allowed and leading the American League in walks. What did he take from what looked from the outside like a disappointing season?

"I think I learned the most from my worst starts this year, the ones where I didn’t make it out of the first, didn’t make it out of the second," Giolito said before the end of the White Sox season last month. "Just going out there not having the right mindset from the get go and allowing the game to speed up on me really quickly, there’s maybe two, three, four games where that happened. And obviously I came out of those games upset and frustrated, but now looking back on them from this perspective at the end of the season, I really learned the most from those.

"Entering every single start, I get roughly 32 of them a year, make sure that I’m prepared, I’m ready to pitch, my routine is set and I’m following it to a ‘T.’ And over the second half of the season, I started to put up better numbers, put up more competitive starts just through that process of earlier in the year grinding and grinding and not doing well. I learned a lot about myself in that process as a pitcher and as a competitor."

Certain numbers don't exactly show a drastic improvement from one half of the season to the other: Giolito's ERA prior to the All-Star break (6.18) and after it (6.04) were pretty much the same. He had a much improved August (3.86 ERA in six starts) and a rough September (9.27 ERA in five starts).

But again, the 2018 season wasn't about what the numbers look like now. It was about what those numbers will look like a year or two or three from now, when the White Sox make their transition from rebuilding to contending.

"You go out there and you don’t get the job done, you’re knocked out of the game early, looking back on it, it’s like, ‘Now I know what doesn’t work.’ And I’m able to make those adjustments and the changes to the routine and the changes to mindset and things to be able to go out there," Giolito said. "I’m not going to have my best stuff every day. Some days I might not feel right and might be battling myself a little bit. But it’s being able to make that quick adjustment, not letting the game speed up. That’s the biggest thing.

"At this level, you go out there and you’re not feeling right in the first inning, it might be three runs, four runs on the board before you even know it. And I think getting that experience, getting to pitch every fifth day for an entire season and having a ton of downs and starting to figure it out more toward the end, it’s gaining that experience and learning what works and learning what doesn’t."

Throughout the season, Renteria complimented Giolito for the pitcher's ability to move on from rough beginnings to starts and turn in a five- or six-outing despite the early trouble. Giolito did a good deal of that throughout the season, with longevity during starts rarely being an issue, even if the run totals were high. Only six of his 32 starts in 2018 were shorter than five innings, and the percentage of his starts that lasted six and seven innings increased from the first half of the season to the second.

And then there are the walks, and there was a significant decrease in the amount of guys Giolito was putting on base between the first and second halves of the season. He walked 60 batters in 103.1 innings in the first half for a BB/9 of 5.2, compared to 30 batters in 70 innings in the second half for a BB/9 of 3.9.

So there were positives for Giolito to take from his 2018 campaign.

"The second half of the season, bouncing back from what I was doing. Cutting down on the walks, starting to pitch better, pitch more consistently. Even games when I wasn’t sharp, I was getting hit around, not doing so well, I did a better job of at least giving the team a chance, getting a little bit deeper into the game," he said. "So I’d say those are some of the highlights, learning from the mistakes and learning from the failures and within the season being able to make the right adjustments to be more successful."

On Opening Day, Giolito talked about how different a pitcher he was more than a year after joining the White Sox organization. One full season in the big leagues, and Giolito is again a different pitcher. It's that continuing evolution that the White Sox hope will make him a mainstay in their rotation of the future.

"More experience, more mature. I’m no longer really fazed by the big situation. If I get into trouble in the first inning, I’m not worrying about it or thinking about it or how I screwed up the last at-bat, last pitch, I walked a guy, gave up a double, whatever it might be. Now, what’s in the past is in the past, even when I’m out there," he said. "If I mess up a couple pitches, I know the adjustment to make and I’m going to do my best to make that adjustment without it taking a couple innings or even never making the adjustment the entire start, which is what was happening through April, May, June.

"Just getting that experience and learning to make those adjustments on the fly. I’d say that’s what I’m really taking away from this year."

What caused Willson Contreras' downturn in production in 2018?

What caused Willson Contreras' downturn in production in 2018?

There was plenty of "Willson Contreras: Future MVP?" discussion during spring training.

Any time a player in his age-25 year season hits 21 home runs with a .276/.356/.499 slash line at a premium defensive position (catcher) despite missing about a month with a hamstring injury (as Contreras did in 2017), the baseball world takes notice. The notion that he might one day garner MVP recognition was nothing to be laughed at.

Through the first few months of 2018, Contreras did much of the same. He had a small drop off in power, but he still had his moments and was solid overall. Over a three-game stretch in the beginning of May, he went 10-for-15 with three doubles, two triples, three home runs and 11 RBIs. He was the first Cubs catcher with five triples before the All-Star break since Gabby Hartnett in 1935. He even started the All-Star Game — and became the second player in MLB history (after Terry Steinbach) to homer in his first career All-Star at-bat after having homered in his first career MLB at-bat (back in 2016).

But instead of cruising along at a performance level about 20 percent better than league average, something happened.

Here are Contreras' Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) numbers from the past three seasons  (100 is league average, any point above or below is equal to a percentage point above or below league average):

Here’s that breakdown in terms of batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage:

But what caused the downturn in production? 

There were some underlying characteristics of his work, particularly a mixture of significantly higher ground-ball rate, lower average exit velocity and bad luck on balls in play which led to the decrease in production.

Also notable is that after the Midsummer Classic, the hits stopped coming on pitches on the outer third. Dividing the strike zone into thirds (this doesn’t include pitches outside the zone), this is what his batting average and slugging percentage looked like:

Granted, it’s not a significant sample, but it’s there.

One non-offensive thing that sticks out is his workload.

*missed 29 games in August and September with hamstring injury

It was the most innings caught by a Cubs receiver since Geovany Soto logged 1,150.1 innings in his Rookie of the Year season in 2008. Three other catchers besides Contreras logged at least 1,000 innings behind the plate in 2018: Jonathan Lucroy, Yasmani Grandal and Yadier Molina. While they combined to fare better prior to the All-Star break, it wasn’t nearly as precipitous a drop as Contreras suffered.

Lucroy, Grandal and Molina combined to slash .255/.322/.416 before the All-Star Game and .239/.317/.405 after it.

That could possibly have a little something to do with it though.

There’s no way to be entirely sure and to what extent each of the things listed above affected Contreras last season. Could it have been something completely different? Could it have been a minor nagging injury? A mental roadblock? Too many constant adjustments throughout the season? The questions remain. A new voice in newly appointed hitting coach Anthony Iapoce might be just what Contreras, who is entering his age-27 season, needs to get back on track and reestablish his spot among the best catchers in the major leagues.