Chili Davis

What we learned about the Cubs in June

What we learned about the Cubs in June

The summer heat has finally descended upon Chicago, but the good news for the Cubs is it appears their bats have rolled in along with the humidity.

The Cubs endured a brutal schedule in June, having to play 28 games in 30 days, including a doubleheader on the 19th. 

Sure, there was that 4-game losing streak in Cincinnati, but they also went 4-3 against the Los Angeles Dodgers and finished the month 16-12 overall.

That final record looks a whole lot better thanks to a 3-game winning streak to close out the month in which the Cubs hammered out 35 runs on 47 hits.

Here are 10 things we learned about the Cubs in June:

1. The Cubs offense is making its march toward October.

That's not to say they're ready for postseason baseball just yet.

But the Cubs hitters are willing students and they've clearly taken the lessons to heart lately.

Hitting coach Chili Davis called a team meeting in LA before the game on the 26th, in an effort to regroup with an offensive focus on using the whole field/going the other way, cutting down on strikeouts and not trying to force home runs.

The result was 4 wins in 5 games to close June, in which the Cubs scored at least 5 runs in every contest. That continued into July, plating 11 runs against the Twins Sunday at Wrigley Field.

It's not always going to be this easy, of course. The Cubs aren't going to average more than 9 runs a game forever.

But after seeing how the offense faltered in the postseason last year and paying close attention to how the game has shifted (strikeouts up, hits down), the Cubs coaches have been thinking about October since Day 1 of spring training with an emphasis on scoring runs against elite pitching without hitting homers.

Right now, we're seeing clear development from the young hitters in that regard.

2. Jon Lester is the Pitcher that was Promised.

In Year 4 of his $155 million megadeal, Lester is still getting it done in a major way and right when the Cubs needed it the most.

With Yu Darvish out for the entire month, Kyle Hendricks enduring uncharacteristic struggles and Tyler Chatwood still trying to right the ship, Lester was every bit an ace for the Cubs in June.

He won all 5 of his starts with a 1.13 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and averaged more than 6 innings per outing to help ease the burden on the bullpen.

Lester's strikeout rate is at its lowest mark since 2008 (the year he became a full-time starter) and he's given up some hard contact as his velocity has dropped off a bit, but he's found a way to do more with less and just keeps taking the ball every fifth day to give his team a chance to win.

3. Kris Bryant is not OK...
 
...but it's probably gonna be OK.

June 2018 will go down as the worst month of Bryant's career to date. 

He endured a long slump that saw him hit just 1 HR, drive in 9 runs and post a .707 OPS in 18 games in June. He also hit the disabled list for the first time ever with a left shoulder injury.

Bryant denies the shoulder may have had an impact on his power, but Joe Maddon is insistent the 10-day reprieve will do wonders for the 2016 NL MVP.

Bryant has been taking swings in the cage and is eligible to come off the disabled list Tuesday at Wrigley Field. At the very least, he should be fresh and either 100 percent physically or awfully close. That's a dangerous thing to add to a lineup that's currently firing on all cylinders.
 
4. Kyle Hendricks is not OK...
 
...but it's probably gonna be OK.
 
Like Bryant, June 2018 was probably Hendricks' worst month in a Cubs uniform at any level. He went 1-4 with a 7.03 ERA and 1.69 WHIP, allowing 19 earned runs on 26 hits and a whopping 15 walks in 24.1 innings — all numbers we're not used to seeing associated with The Professor.
 
He's giving up home runs at an alarming rate (he's already surrendered 16 and his career high is 17), but insists he's healthy.
 
This is the guy who pitched the Cubs to the World Series in 2016, dominating the Dodgers in the NLCS. And the same guy who started Game 7 against the Indians. And Game 1 against the Nationals in last year's NLDS.
 
Hendricks is one of the most cerebral pitchers in the game and is an avid student of pitching and the Cubs' scouting reports.
 
If he truly is healthy, then chances are extremely strong that he'll figure this all out and get through this bump in the road.
 
5. Javy Baez is a legitimate MVP candidate.
 
Baez hit .318 with a .915 OPS in June, finishing 1st or 2nd on the Cubs in almost every offensive category. He also became a father for the first time. Heck, he even drew 5 walks in June!

When the best players in baseball head to our nation's capital for the All-Star festivities in two weeks, Baez should be front and center (yes, he should be in the Home Run Derby).

He's on pace for a near 30-30 season, 121 RBI, 105 runs scored and a whopping 84 extra-base hits while playing spectacular defense all over the infield and hitting anywhere in the Cubs lineup.

With half the season in the books, Baez is firmly in the NL MVP conversation.
 
6. Yu who?
 
Darvish hasn't pitched all month...unless you count a rehab stint in Class-A South Bend.

The 31-year-old pitcher received a cortisone shot in his right elbow Friday to address the impingement/inflammation and could resume throwing this week.

But he'd have to build his arm strength and stamina back up, so he probably won't be able to return to the Cubs rotation before the All-Star Break.

Through June, he had only accounted for 40 innings and a 0.2 WAR (FanGraphs) in a Cubs uniform.
 
7. Mike Montgomery talked the talk, now he's walking the walk.
 
Montgomery made waves multiple times since the end of last season as he continued to be outspoken on his desire to be a starting pitcher.

When finally called upon for the opportunity, Montgomery has been absolutely phenomenal. He accounted for more innings (35) in June than any other Cubs pitcher, sporting a 2.83 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 2-1 record. 

Maybe more importantly, Montgomery has gone at least 5 innings in every start, including a string of 5 straight outings where he completed 6 innings

Whenever Darvish returns to the rotation, there's no way Montgomery is going back to the bullpen if he can keep getting these results.
 
8. The Cubs have depth, and they've needed every bit of it.

The Cubs filled up the DL in June. They began the month with Darvish, Carl Edwards Jr. and Eddie Butler on the shelf and then added Bryant and Brandon Morrow, Rob Zastryzny and Justin Hancock. Reliever Brian Duensing also hit the DL after the Cubs' win over the Twins on June 30.

Then there's the paternity leave, with Chatwood missing a start because of the birth of his first child and Baez out of the starting lineup for one game (Friday) for the same reason.

The Cubs built up their depth in every facet of the game over the winter and they've needed every bit of this summer already.

The shuttle of "Iowa relievers" was in full force and was met with mostly good results from Anthony Bass (0.73 ERA), Randy Rosario (2.45 ERA), Luke Farrell (3.95), Cory Mazzoni (1.50) and even Duane Underwood Jr., who pitched well in a spot start in LA.

The Cubs have also needed to lean heavily on their position player depth both with Bryant on the DL and a stretch of 17 games in 17 days to end the month. Maddon has been diligent about getting all his players rest and it's worked out beautifully to this point.

9. It would be silly to trade Addison Russell.

2018 hasn't gone exactly like Russell or the Cubs have planned, but he had a really good month of June while side-stepping trade rumors and a lingering finger issue on his left hand.

Russell hit .329 in June (2nd on Cubs) with an .867 OPS (4th on Cubs). He even flashed his formerly-lost power with a pair of homers in the final few games of the month.

On the season, he's hitting .286 with a .358 on-base percentage and .407 slugging percentage while playing Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop.

10. THIS is the Jason Heyward we've been waiting for.

When the Cubs handed Heyward an 8-year, $184 million contract before the 2016 season, they thought they were getting a Gold Glove defender, clubhouse leader and solid hitter with room to grow as he entered his prime.

Instead, he struggled at the plate in the first 2+ years in a Cubs uniform before June came along. 

He finished the month second on the team in OPS (.873) and RBI (16) while leading the Cubs in hits (34). Since May 29, only Paul Goldschmidt (.360) had a better batting average in the NL than Heyward (.359).

Heyward and the Cubs are confident the changes are built to last, too, now that he's gotten his hands a lot more involved in his swing and is able to drive the ball and catch up to elite velocity.

He's still the leader in the clubhouse and a fantastic defender and now that he's hitting consistently, Heyward has emerged as one of the most valuable players on the team.

How a rainout changed the course of the Cubs' season

How a rainout changed the course of the Cubs' season

There's something about rain and these Cubs.

It's a match made in baseball heaven.

The Cubs began the season by crawling along at a rather disappointing pace when compared to the level of expectations bestowed upon the team in spring training.

Part of that was due to an incredibly wacky first few weeks of the season with awful weather forcing five postponements. 

It was that last postponed game, however, that changed the 2018 season — for now, at least.

The Cubs were supposed to host the St. Louis Cardinals for three games to close out their first homestand of the season. But the first game was pushed back due to poor weather and then the teams played Tuesday night before Mother Nature reared her ugly head again Wednesday.

Mark that Wednesday — April 18 — as a day to remember when we close the book on the 2018 season.

The Cubs have lost just twice since then, going on a run where they won 8 of 10 against a bunch of playoff-hopeful teams (Cardinals, Rockies, Indians, Brewers).

So what happened on that day?

The Cubs fully bought in to their new offensive philosophy under first-year hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

"Guys were wearing out the cage with Chili and Hainesy and the other guys," Theo Epstein said before Monday's tilt with the Rockies at Wrigley Field. "I think that was the day we had a big increase in buy-in and team-wide offensive approach that we were gonna use the whole field.

"Since that, we've gotta lead the league in opposite field hits. It's good to see."

Data gets a little tricky in terms of trying to nail down how many actual "hits" each team collects to the opposite field, but there are numbers to support Epstein's claim.

Over the last two weeks, the Cubs rank 7th in baseball in terms of batted balls (hits + outs) to the opposite field. That's pushed their season rank to 18th in 2018, indicating a clear shift from their pull-happy ways to start the year.

Previous hitting coach John Mallee did a lot of good things for this organzation, but one of his main philosophies was trying to get players to hit the ball in the air and to pull it. As such, this team didn't use the whole field anywhere near as much.

The 2017 Cubs ranked 27th in baseball in opposite field hit percentage. The 2016 team finished 29th out of 30 teams.

"Chili came in with a mandate of getting guys to consider using the whole field a little bit more," Epstein said, "working on situational hitting, working on a two-strike approach, working on line drives through the gaps instead of sort of the all-or-nothing approach that sometimes we can fall victim to at times the way the whole league does.

"In that regard, it's been a really nice first month as a team."

The first month has seen some major offensive steps forward for Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr. and even Kris Bryant. The results haven't shown up for Addison Russell yet, but he is using the opposite field more than ever before.

The end result is a Cubs offense that ranks third in the NL in runs scored and second in runs per game.

Of course, it could also just be a hot two-week stretch and a small sample size. But if the Cubs have really bought in on using the entire field, an incredibly-talented offense has just gotten that much more dynamic.

Meet the new Kyle Schwarber

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AP

Meet the new Kyle Schwarber

It would be easy to point to Kyle Schwarber's new six-pack as the main reason why he's off to a solid start at the plate.

But Schwarber's offensive prowess is more related to the work he's done inside his own head, not on being in the Best Shape of His Life.

He's out to prove he's more than just a three true outcomes guy.

In the Cubs' 8-5 win over the St. Louis Cardinals Thursday, Schwarber flashed a different part of his game with a pair of groundball RBI singles that helped stake his team to an early lead.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon also pointed to Schwarber's lineout up the middle in the eighth inning as his favorite at-bat, even above the run-scoring hits.

"That's as good as I've seen him in a while," Maddon said.

Schwarber is hitting the ball with authority up the middle and the other way, shortening up his swing with two strikes and finding ways to beat the shift by just sticking his bat out and directing the ball to the left side of second base, where teams only have one defender.

Schwarber is still largely a three true outcomes guy, on pace for 30 homers, 101 walks and 172 strikeouts.

But he no longer looks so stressed/anxious with runners in scoring position. He's been working toward relaxing with guys on base and instead of trying to put every ball out onto Sheffield Ave., he's doing what he can to just put the ball in play.

He insists his thought process with runners in scoring position hasn't changed since last year, but he is definitely getting better results now.

After starting the year 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, Schwarber went 3-for-6 in such situations on the Cubs' recent homestand. Even more impressive: All three hits have come with two outs and went to center or left field.

"I'm not trying to go out there and put a lot of pressure on myself because that's when negative things are gonna happen," Schwarber said. "You just gotta be able to have that same approach you have when there's no one on base."

Since the start of the 2017 season, here are Schwarber's numbers based on runners:

Bases empty: .220 AVG, .831 OPS
Runners on: .206 AVG, .730 OPS

The Cubs are trying to get him back to his 2015 form when he exploded onto the major-league scene to hit .270 with a .914 OPS with runners on base.

There is reason for optimism and the numbers back up Schwarber's progress.

In 2017, 83 percent of his season RBI came on home runs — he only had 10 RBI that didn't come from longballs.

This year, he already has 5 RBI on non-homers and there is still roughly 90 percent of the season remaining. Only 44 percent of his 2018 RBI have come on dingers.

As impressive as anything, Schwarber ranks 17th in baseball in walk percentage (16.9 percent) while also reducing his strikeout percentage slightly from last year's struggles

Schwarber has spent a lot of time working with new hitting coach Chili Davis, but he won't allow himself to ride the daily roller coaster based off recent success, even if it is helping his confidence.

"Yeah, I've been feeling good," Schwarber said. "There's been some tough at-bats here and there, but still taking the walks and also trying to get those guys in when they're on and go from there.

"Not gonna get too high, not gonna get too low when things are going bad. Just stay right in the middle."

When Schwarber is producing like this and Javy Baez is ascending to star status, this Cubs offense won't be struggling to find consistency for long.

"If these two guys keep on doing [this], wow," Maddon said. "Sky's the limit."