Cubs

Today's White Sox lineup: Peavy on the hill

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Today's White Sox lineup: Peavy on the hill

The TakeJake campaign didn't prove to be enough for Jake Peavy to nab the final AL All-Star spot over Yu Darvish of the Rangers. But, the White Sox did get the best of Texas in the series at U.S. Cellular Field this week, winning three of four games.

Peavy didn't pitch in the series but takes the mound for the series opener against the Blue Jays Friday on the South Side. It will be his final start of the first half.

Check out the rest of the lineups below:

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Who needs Bryce Harper when the Cubs are set with Jason Heyward in right field for the next half-decade?

OK, that might be a little extreme, but Heyward has actually turned a major corner in his Cubs career, as evidenced by this stat:

And it's not just the numbers. It's how Heyward has turned things around at the plate and who he's gotten his hits off of.

Start with the walk-off grand slam against the Phillies on the last homestand. That pitch was a 97 mph fastball up and Heyward hammered it into the right field bleachers.

He also turned on a 99 mph Jordan Hicks sinker over the weekend in St. Louis for a 2-run homer. Then there was the single Heyward hit at 107 mph off Josh Hader to tie the game in Milwaukee last week — which was the first hit by a left-handed hitter off Hader all season. And the single Heyward had off the Pirates' dominant left-handed closer Felipe Vazquez in Pittsburgh last month. 

Suddenly, Heyward is able to catch up to elite velocity. And not only that, but he's PULLING these balls.

In his first two years with the Cubs, Heyward had just 1 homer off a pitch 95 mph or faster. He already has 3 this season.

"He looks confident at the plate," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "I feel like he's swinging with aggressiveness, swinging with a purpose. ... I'm happy for him that he's been delivering those [big] moments and I feel like as he does, his confidence is only gonna grow."

That refrain — "I'm happy for him" — is commonly heard around the Cubs these last couple of weeks. Inside the clubhouse, Heyward is absolutely beloved for his professionalism, work ethic and leadership. 

Heyward is a guy that's easy to root for, whether you're his teammate, a fan, a media member or part of an opposing team. Case in point:

It's been a really rough couple of years at the plate, but these last few weeks, Heyward has transformed the Cubs lineup as Joe Maddon has moved him back up to the 2-hole, where he began his Cubs career in the early part of the 2016 season.

"He's the guy that's really ascended among the group," Maddon said. "He's made all the difference by being able to hit second and providing some really big hits in the latter part of the game."

If the Cubs had a playoff game tomorrow, Maddon's lineup for that contest would probably feature Ben Zobrist leading off and Heyward hitting second (which would've sounded crazy even a month ago). Maddon loves how they set the tone and example for the rest of a young lineup that is still developing.

As Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff are trying to drill into the heads of the team's stable of young hitters the importance of putting the ball in play with two strikes, Heyward is sporting the lowest strikeout rate of his career (11.5 percent), which ranks 11th in MLB behind Buster Posey. Heyward is on pace for only 56 strikeouts in 441 at-bats this year.

And believe it or not, it was actually a concussion that got Heyward on the right path. 

During the Cubs' first trip of the season to St. Louis in early May, Heyward went into the stands to try to rob Dexter Fowler's walk-off homer on the final game of the series. The Cubs right fielder smacked his head on the wall on that play and wound up on the disabled list for nearly two weeks.

But he didn't waste any time while he was on the shelf.

"Oh I know I made strides [while on the DL]," Heyward said. "Can't waste any days. That's how hard this game is. When you're going through things, just naturally in the season, it's hard to slow it down. It's hard to break everything down, to pay attention. But I just try to use my time wisely."

Thanks to that time off, Heyward now has his hands "free" and more involved in his swing than at any other point in his Cubs career.

That's all he worked on while he was on the shelf with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

"Literally, my hands," Heyward said. "Using my hands, keeping that simple. It's way easier to make adjustments on the fly when I'm really just throwing my hands at the ball instead of just arms and muscle the ball over.

"... It's hard to catch everything wheren you're just going at it day in and day out. But I was just able to see that here and work on that and feel it and here we go."

Since he's returned from the disabled list on May 18, Heyward is hitting .307 with a .347 on-base percentage and .489 slugging percentage, good for an .836 OPS. In that 24-game stretch, Heyward has 16 RBI and 10 extra-base hits (6 doubles, 2 triples, 2 homers).

To put that in perspective, that's as many extra-base hits for Heyward as he had in the previous 40 regular season games (48 games if you include playoffs) dating back to last September.

Neither the Cubs nor Heyward are getting ahead of themselves here and guaranteeing this offensive hot streak to continue. 

This is the same guy who walked into the visiting clubhouse at Miller Park last week and flipped off MLB Network because they were discussing how the Cubs are the best team in the league when facing a starting pitcher the third time through the order. He didn't want his team to get complacent or too caught up in the past and think they've already accomplished something this season when the goal is another World Series.

There was actually a clue earlier in the season that an offensive breakout could be on the way for Heyward, but he then fell back into a slump before making a major adjustment with the time off.

"No one should get ahead of themselves with grand declarations, but he deserves so much credit," Theo Epstein said. "He made such good use of his time when he was on the DL. In a difficult spot — the concussion DL — once he felt good enough to work, he worked really hard.

"Clearly found something in his swing — his hands, the feel of creating some lag and some whip in his swing. That's huge for him because with all that he's been through the last couple years, he never lost the ability to recognize pitches early, the ability to manage a really good at-bat and never lost his hand-eye.

"Now that he's got that whip going, you see the ball coming off the bat totally differently. He's driving the ball through the gaps, he's hitting with some backspin or the pull side. The ball's coming out hot when he gets it deep to the opposite field.

"Just really happy for him that all the work has led to the better feel for his swing and how he can take advantage of that great brain and eye that he has at the plate."

Why the Bulls should consider drafting the Young Bull, Alabama's Collin Sexton

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AP

Why the Bulls should consider drafting the Young Bull, Alabama's Collin Sexton

Take the best talent available.

It's a tired cliche used far too often in any major sport's draft. But it's also true, and especially true in a sport where only five players are on the court at one time. Position-less basketball (look, another cliche!) is at its peak, and NBA teams are trying to get their best talent together.

And when the Bulls go on the clock at No. 7 in two days' time, there's going to be a special talent waiting for them.

Collin Sexton became a national darling in March, like so many collegiate stars do on the biggest stage. First he hit a buzzer beater floater against Texas A&M that essentially put his Alabama Crimson Tide into the NCAA Tournament. Then he knocked off SEC regular season champ Auburn and went toe-to-toe with Kentucky in an SEC Tournament loss. He disposed of a Virginia Tech team in the NCAA Tournament with a 25-point effort before running into the buzz saw that was Villanova in Round 2, though his 17 points were a valiant effort.

All told Sexton averaged 24.2 points on 53 percent shooting in six postseason games. He made 48 percent of his 3-pointers, averaged 4.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists, and played better than 33 minutes per game.

The lightning-quick point guard was tough, physical, competitive and a bully as he fought to bring the Crimson Tide not only to the NCAA Tournament, but within a game of the second weekend.

Sexton's best attribute, without question, is his pick-and-roll action. Thanks to head coach Avery Johnson, who spent years in the NBA, Alabama deployed an offense more similar to the NBA game than most other programs. Consider that Sexton used 28.8 percent of his scoring possessions in pick-and-roll settings. He scored 180 points on 180 possessions, either blowing by a taller defender or shooting over teams that went under screens. His 0.957 PPP ranked in the 87th percentile, and the 180 possessions were more than Derrick Rose (42), Russell Westbrook (37) and John Wall (66) all had in their respective freshman seasons combined; only Rose's 0.929 PPP came close to Sexton's, but again that was on less than a quarter of the possessions Sexton had.

Sexton also got to the free throw line in bunches. His 252 attempts ranked seventh in the country, just below Trae Young's 274 attempts. Then again, Young's usage rate (38.4%, tops in the country) was higher than Sexton's 32.5% usage. Of the 54 players with a usage rate at or above 30%, Sexton's 57.5% free throw rate was fifth highest, and first among Power 6 schools. His elite quickness and speed allowed him paths to the basket where he drew contact more ofen than not, which will only make him an even better pick-and-roll player at the next level.

But he may have seeked out contact too often. For the attempts he did have, Sexton still was a below-average finisher at the rim. His 0.976 PPP on those attempts ranked in the 27th percentile. He's undersized at 6-foot-1.5 and 183 pounds, though his toughness can't be denied. Whether or not he can withstand an 82-game schedule is another story, and he'll need to be more in control at the rim. He won't get the same foul calls in the NBA that he got in Tuscaloosa.

Sexton shot 36.8 percent from deep in his first 16 games. Then he went through a serious lull, making just 23.5 percent of his 3-point attempts to finish out conference play. The postseason run allowed him to find his stroke again, as he made 48 percent of his 23 attempts. On the year he made 33.6 percent of his attempts, but he's a better shooter than those numbers suggest. His 0.942 PPP on jumpers ranked in just the 54th percentile, but he projects as someone who will have to be respected from deep, even if it isn't his best attribute (think Kemba Walker, a career 36% 3-point shooter).

Sexton's defensive numbers are essentially average across the board. His toughness and intensity can't be taught and will help him at the next level. So, too, will his 6-foot-7.5 wingspan (buzzword alert!). It does say a lot that Alabama's defense was ranked 20th in the country, per Ken Pom. Sexton certainly had a hand in that, and he should benefit from coaching at the next level on how to properly use his quick footwork and frame.

Yes, the Bulls have Kris Dunn. Yes, Dunn showed signs of life last season after getting away from rookie killer Tom Thibodeau. But the Bulls are at a time in their franchise's rebuild where they can't pass up talent to fill a need. Talent is their need. And Sexton, a five-star recruit who has already been under the tutelage of a former NBA coach for a year, has that talent. He'll inject some nastiness into the lineup - his nickname is Young Bull for the way he bullies opponents - he immediately improves the Bulls' lackluster transition game and he solidifies the Bulls' backcourt.

Dunn and Sexton can play off one another, even if it relegates the former to a Marcus Smart-type role: important, useful, just not in the spotlight. Sexton running pick-and-roll/pop with Markkanen only makes both players better, and it allows the Bulls freedom to look at a wing or a big with the 22nd pick. If the Bulls feel Sexton will be there at 10, 11 or 12, perhaps they trade with a team looking to move up for a Michael Porter Jr. or Trae Young. But Sexton's talent supersedes any positional needs for the Bulls. They can fill holes later on needs. When a talent is waiting for them to draft, they've got to take it and run.