Cubs

As spring training opens, Cubs hope this is the beginning of a dynasty

As spring training opens, Cubs hope this is the beginning of a dynasty

Even after winning arguably the greatest Game 7 ever played – and headlining one of the largest gatherings in human history – the Cubs still feel this is more like the beginning than the end.

The Cubs believe they have enough personality, style and crossover appeal to become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors, drawing sellout crowds all across the country and becoming must-see TV.  

The Cubs hope they have the homegrown talent and big-market financial muscle to match what the New York Yankees did in 1998, 1999 and 2000, pulling off a three-peat to go with their 1996 World Series title, part of an unbelievable stretch of 24 consecutive winning seasons.    

The Cubs talked about this amid the early-morning, champagne-fueled haze on Nov. 3, even before changing back into their street clothes, leaving Progressive Field’s visiting clubhouse and flying back from Cleveland to Chicago.

Once pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Tuesday, and go through their first formal workout at the Sloan Park complex on Wednesday, the celebration will be over. Manager Joe Maddon can start rolling out the mimes, zoo animals and karaoke machines (or whatever else gonzo strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss comes up with this spring). But don’t get lost in the distractions – the Cubs are focused on becoming a dynasty.    

“We just keep getting better,” Jon Lester said. “That’s, I think, kind of a scary part for the rest of our league for the next however many years.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Two years ago, Lester showed up in Mesa, experienced a dead arm and got diagnosed with the yips on Opening Day, making it seem as if that $155 million investment might be doomed from the start. All the Cubs have done since then is win 200 games, five playoff rounds and the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908.  

Lester has been exactly what the Cubs hoped for, a 200-inning machine, a no-nonsense professional and one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation. The prospects Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer put front and center during their recruiting pitch to Lester have been better than advertised.    

Kris Bryant is 25 years old and already a Rookie of the Year, reigning MVP, Hank Aaron Award winner, two-time All-Star and World Series champion. Addison Russell is 23 years old and already an All-Star shortstop. Kyle Schwarber is already a Chicago legend and still hasn’t spent a full season in the big leagues yet. Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. will also remain under club control through at least the 2021 season.

“For anybody in this game, there’s a lot of factors you can’t control,” said San Francisco Giants general manager Bobby Evans, who had been an executive for the even-year teams that won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014, “from your health to the performance of your guys to your rosters (that) can be changed overnight in different ways.

“But from the controllable players that they have – and the leadership that they have from the manager to the general manager to Theo – it’s a really great combination of baseball people and elements to a lineup and a rotation and a bullpen that clearly are well-thought-out. And (it) gives me great pleasure to know they’re not in our division.”

The Cubs will also benefit from playing in a National League where so many franchises are playing/tanking for the future and a division populated with small-market teams. The Baseball Prospectus PECOTA system projects the Cubs (91-71) as the only Central team with a winning record – and the St. Louis Cardinals finishing at 76-86 (which would be only their second losing season since 2000).

“We want to compete,” St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak said. “We think we have talent that’s coming that’s going to be useful in the big leagues. So I don’t feel like in any way that we need to take a two- or three-year timeout.

“When you look at it from just a neutral state, (the Cubs are) built to be successful for many years. But you also have to understand that things sometimes happen. People get hurt. Sometimes people underperform. We’ve entered seasons where we thought Adam Wainwright was going to be our ace – and he ends up not coming out of spring training.

“You adjust, so that’s being able to create enough depth. And if you’re able to do that, it allows you to be successful. Or maybe the other way to think about it is it allows you to withstand some negativity.”     

[RELATED - Can Cardinals, Pirates stop Cubs from running away with the NL Central?]

There are legitimate concerns about how the rotation will hold up and where the next wave of pitching will come from. When Epstein talks about avoiding “organizational arrogance,” it’s easy to think of the Bloomberg Businessweek cover from April 2015 heralding a “sports empire” now “in bloom” (after five straight fifth-place finishes, five different managers since 2010 and all the delays/drama/dysfunction surrounding the Wrigley Field renovations).

But it’s not hype anymore to say that the Cubs are positioned to rule baseball for years to come. It’s why Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward turned down the Cardinals last winter and signed his $184 million megadeal with the Cubs, believing this core could mirror the Atlanta Braves teams he grew up watching and broke in with as a 20-year-old kid, blasting a three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his first big-league at-bat on Opening Day 2010 at Turner Field.

“You only hope,” Heyward said. “You never know what’s going to happen with stuff. On paper is one thing. God willing, everybody stays healthy. (But) it looks like it could be a lot of fun for a long time.

“I know it’s going to be a lot of fun, because it’s an awesome place, an awesome organization to play for. These guys are very young – and they’re getting a lot of experience early on – and that can make for a lot of confidence-building and a lot of comfort and having that sixth sense on the field.

“(That’s) what you see with really good teams when they make a run like that – most of those guys play together for a while. And we have a chance to do that here.”

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

cubs-stl-pod-525.jpg
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."