Archive for August, 2012

I’m A Believer

Friday, August 31st, 2012

Earlier this week I wrote that I’d rather face a crippling, explosive stomach virus than watch the Cubs get blown out again. I was only partially kidding.

I usually watch as many Cubs games as I can throughout the season, and listen to the games I can’t see. But when the season begins to slip into futility–usually around this time of year, if not sooner–I start to lose interest. I’ll still have Pat and Keith playing in the background at work, or keep the game on TV while I eat or read or play a game on my phone. But as we get closer and closer to the end of another lost season, the Cubs get less and less of my full attention.

“Why pay attention at all?” you might ask. Why bother watching or listening when the outcome seems preordained and the frustration plentiful? Why not give that time and attention to something less likely to make me want to wander out into traffic?

Simple. Because of games like yesterday. If you haven’t read Buddy’s recap of the game yet, you should. And watch the highlights. Watch ’em a couple times if you like. Because the show the Cubs put on Thursday afternoon is one we’ve seen very little of this season, and it’s worth a little extra time and attention.

I first checked the score when I came back from lunch yesterday–at that point, the Cubs were in a 9-3 hole, and I assumed the Brewers had us beat. I checked back a few minutes later and saw we’d put up a few runs, so I turned on the WGN Radio broadcast to ride out what I still assumed to be a loss-in-the-making with Pat and Keith.

You can always tell how a game is going by the tone of Pat Hughes’ voice, and while the Cubs were showing more life than usual in the sixth inning, it didn’t sound like he had high hopes either. After a Brewers pitching change and three more runs for the Cubs the game was tied, Pat’s tone had changed, and my interest was piqued.

However, the Cubs’ relievers came in and did what they do best–give up some runs. An 11-9 deficit dulled my interest in the game and sent Pat and Keith into an extended game of Name That Player. A couple times I came close to turning the game off, but I stuck with it.

I had no real expectation that my patience–our patience–would be rewarded. Only hope. Specifically, that misguided hope that’s common to all Cubs fans. The thing buried deep within our collective psyche that says every losing streak has to come to an end, every slump will someday bust, and that no team can lose forever. In a word, it’s faith. Despite more than a century of evidence to the contrary, we believe in the Cubs.

Thursday afternoon, that faith was rewarded. By my count, yesterday’s dramatic finale was just our sixth walk-off win of the season, and only the second since the All Star Break. In spite of back-to-back walk-off wins in late April against the Cardinals, this Cubs team has been pretty short in the drama department. There’s not much to be surprised about–it’s a team loaded with weaknesses, and we’ve seemingly (hopefully) seen all the various ways they can conspire to give away a game.

But when it all comes together like it did yesterday, you temporarily forget that the season is already over, that the postseason celebrations will have to wait for a little longer, and that the Eamus Catuli sign across Sheffield will have to tack on another year of futility. You get wrapped up in the excitement and you reassert your belief in the hope that it won’t always be this bad.

In those brief moments you shed your decades of built-up cynicism, angst, and frustration and remind yourself it’s just a game. A splendid, glorious game.

Go Cubs!

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Giants Series Preview

Friday, August 31st, 2012

Probable Pitchers

Courtesy of MLB.com

Friday at1:20pm CT – Madison Bumgarner vs. Chris Volstad

Usually dominant at home and not one to give free passes, Bumgarner walked four as he allowed four runs in 6 1/3 innings in the Giants’ 7-3 loss to the Braves in his last start. He is 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA in two career starts at the Friendly Confines. Volstad doesn’t have to worry about the streak any more. He ended a 24-start winless streak in his last game, picking up the win over the Rockies as he threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings. He has a 3.82 ERA in five starts in August.

Saturday at 12:05pm CT – Tim Lincecum vs. Justin Germano

Lincecum searched for his rhythm in his last outing, allowing three runs in five innings against the Braves. He allowed two runs in a 32-pitch first inning, and he has now allowed 25 first-inning runs in 27 starts this season. Germano will be glad to be finished with the Brewers. He lost to them in back-to-back starts, giving up 12 runs over 9 2/3 innings combined. He’s had trouble getting through the batting order the second and third time as teams are figuring him out.

Sunday at 1:20pm CT – Matt Cain vs. Travis Wood

After winning just once in eight starts between June 24 and Aug. 6, Cain has gone 3-0 with a 1.82 ERA in his last four outings. He threw 118 pitches in his last start, his most in any start since he logged 125 in his June 13 perfect game. Wood posted his 11th quality start on Tuesday, yet also suffered his eighth straight loss. He is 0-8 with a 6.66 ERA in his last nine starts but has given up three runs or less in five of his last six outings.

Our Take

Despite the dramatic win yesterday, I don’t have high expectations for the Cubs this weekend. If you open your encyclopedia to the entry do a Google search for “out-classed,” you’ll get these pitching matchups. Short of a stomach virus sweeping through the Giants’ clubhouse, I’m not sure how the Cubs can really compete this weekend.

It’s not that the Giants’ pitchers don’t make mistakes—they do. But is this a Cubs team you really trust to capitalize on those mistakes? We just made Milwaukee’s staff look like world-beaters–what happens when we face off against two perennial Cy Young candidates?

We could have another 12-run explosion in reserve, but it would be a surprise. Far more likely that these will be low-scoring events, with frustration and missed opportunities aplenty. I’ll still watch, but I don’t have high hopes at all.

Series Prediction: Maybe one win. Maybe.

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Game 130: Slugfest

Friday, August 31st, 2012

Box Score / Highlights / Condensed Game

What Went Right

  • The Cubs anemic offense (currently 15th in runs scored) did some serious damage. David DeJesus reached base five times, Luis Valbuena collected three hits (not a typo), Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo picked up two hits each, and Brett Jackson added two doubles and two walks.
  • Believe it or not, Cub batters walked 11 times. I’m playing the lottery tomorrow!
  • K-Rod took the hill for the Brewers in the final frame (thank you). In case you missed it, he and his fellow mound mates racked up 205 pitches.
  • Anthony Rizzo came through with a double in the 9th to tie the game. Alfonso Soriano followed with the winning knock.
  • James Russell and Carlos Marmol didn’t allow an earned run.
  • No errors for the defense.

What Went Wrong

  • Four Cub pitchers basically threw batting practice today. The Brewers pounded out 17 hits, seven for extra bases. Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Jonathan Lucroy and the great Cody Ransom were especially lethal.
  • Darwin Barney went 0-5, dropping his on-base percentage to .295.
  • I didn’t get to see the first six innings. Bummer.

Not Exactly Nostradamus

Every March I get together with a group of fellow baseball freaks to make our official predictions for the upcoming season. Now that September is upon us, I thought it might be fun (or maybe embarrassing) to look back at my spring training random thoughts, gut feelings, crystal ball interpretations, etc. Here’s how I saw it a few months ago…

NL Central: Milwaukee, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Houston

For some strange reason I believed in the Brewers pitching staff. As of this writing, Milwaukee is 13th in ERA. Good call!

NL East: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, Miami, NY Mets

The Nationals were a trendy pick, but I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid. Wrong again. At least I got the Marlins implosion right.

NL West: SF, Arizona, LA, Colorado, SD

Who would have guessed that Tim Lincecum would post a 5+ ERA? Can the Giants hold off the new-look Dodgers?

NL Wild Cards: Atlanta & Cincinnati

Looks like Dusty’s Reds will make the playoffs one way or the other, which still isn’t fun to say/type. Here’s hoping they get knocked out early.

AL Central: Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City, Chicago, Minnesota

I couldn’t have been more wrong here. Cleveland was my “out of nowhere” contending team for 2012, and I thought the White Sox would be completely awful. Kudos to Chris from Illinois, who picked the White Sox to win the AL Central way back in March. Detroit may still bring home the division crown, but Robin’s crew isn’t going away.

AL East: NY Yankees, Boston, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Baltimore

I doubt even Buck Schowalter’s wife picked the Orioles to be competitive in 2012. Meanwhile, the Yankees keep rolling along.

AL West: Texas, LA/Anaheim, Oakland, Seattle

If the Angels can straighten out their bullpen, I may actually get this division right!

Wild Cards: Boston & LA/Anaheim

I really thought the Red Sox had too much talent for even Bobby Valentine to screw up. That’s what I get for thinking. By the way, the Angels were my pre-season pick to win it all. That prediction doesn’t look great right now, but of course anything can happen in the playoffs. If they make it.

Who was your World Series champ before the season began? Who would you pick now?

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Northside Archives: Post-Break Losers

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

The Post All-Star Break period started so well, but then the calendar turned to August…

The Good News
The Astros are terrible. Like all-time, record-breaking, epic terrible. As a point of reference, they were once 22-24. Since that day they’ve compiled an 18-66 record. That’s a .214 winning percentage – the equivalent of a 35 win season. With a 40-90 record, they’ve gone 9-47 since June 26; and sitting 9 wins back, they’d need a huge turnaround to finish ahead of the Cubs.

The Bad News
Houston is moving to the AL in 2013. Ok, that’s only part of it. As I think most of us know by now, the Cubs are 6-20 in August with only two games to go. Increasingly the question becomes, will they lose 100? Very likely. Or will they grab the title of ‘worst Cubs team ever’ with 104 losses? Possible. In 1962 & 1966 the Cubs lost 103 games. The .364 winning percentage in those years is the worst in franchise history.

Right now, the Cubs’ .380 winning percentage has them sitting fourth all-time on the franchise list. Even though they are 16-28 since the All-Star Game, they had been 10-8 in late-July. Remarkably, in four other seasons they’ve performed worse after the All-Star Break (’56, ’74, ’80, ’99). In the worst of those years the Cubs were 26-51 (.338), and that was just in 1999! But if August is any indication as to how the Cubs will finish the season, expect a 57-105 record. Unbelievably, the Cubs franchise ‘low’ isn’t really that low…

Relatively Good News, Relatively
The Cubs current franchise low (59-103) is tied for the 131st worst record in MLB history. The MLB list is littered with seasons from long ago – Philadelphia, Oakland, Boston, Baltimore, and Atlanta in particular had several teams on this list from the early-mid 1900s (in several cases, those franchises were in other cities at that point). Even the arch-rival Cardinals make the list several times, their worst record being 43-94 in 1903 (and that team was the beneficiary of some luck, their Pythagorean win percentage had them as merely a 42 win team).

What If?
Just for fun, let’s assume the Cubs don’t win again. Besides the fact that we would have the most bitter, self-flagellating, angst filled recaps imaginable we’d also finish 49-113. That would be (depending on what the Astros do – or more accurately, don’t do) the 23rd worst record of all-time. Only 3 of those seasons come after 1945 (’52 Pirates, ’62 Mets, ’03 Tigers).

I still say we finish somewhere between 55 and 62 wins (I know, I’m really going out on a limb there). But increasingly it seems we’ll be on the low end of that, and title of ‘worst Cubs team ever’ will be taken and bestowed on this team – hopefully, for all time.

(This post was written before today’s game, which–shocker!–looks like it will be another loss the Cubs just won in dramatic fashion. -ed.)

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Starlin Castro: Dictating his Future

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Mo Money, Less Problems
This week the Cubs have announced a 7-year $60 million extension that buys out the first 3 years of Castro’s free agency. He will receive a 6M signing bonus, there’s also a club option for 16M for an 8th year (1M buyout, part of the 60M) and an MVP incentive that could bump the final 2 years up an additional 2M. In total Castro could earn 79M over the next 8 season. Here’s the yearly breakdown:

2013 (age 23): 5M
2014 (age 24): 5M
2015 (age 25): 6M
2016 (age 26): 7M
2017 (age 27): 9M
2018 (age 28): 10M
2019 (age 29): 11M (2M MVP clause if he wins or finishes top 5 in voting twice)
2020 (age 30): 16M (1M buyout & the 2M MVP clause if he wins or finishes top 5 in voting twice)

Here’s the many reasons why I love this deal. First, the team put a big chunk of the money at the beginning of the deal. Keeping Castro at basically 10M annually during his first 3 seasons he would have been a free agent is a savvy move. This will open up more money for the rest of the team, during seasons the Cubs will be competitive.

Second, the team is buying low. Castro is having his worst season statistically of his young career. This was a perfect time to lock him down long-term if you believe he’s just going to keep getting better. If Castro has a breakout season in the next year or two, he would be owed a lot more than what he just got. Even if Castro doesn’t improve but maintains a similar level of production the team still saved money. For example, look at Hunter Pence, a solid 3-4WAR player who also was a Super Two. He will make 35M during his 4 arbitration seasons. Including the signing bonus, Castro will make only 29M over his first four years.

Finally, the team now has control of Castro’s prime seasons (26-30). They will also be in an excellent position to extend Castro again before he hits free agency to buy out the rest of his productive years (31-34). If the team approaches Castro and offer another 8 year extension when he has 3 seasons left on his current deal, the Cubs could have Castro’s entire productive career at a discount, without having to pay big money for his decline seasons (35+). If the Cubs do not want Castro past his prime, they can trade him before the end of the 2019 season as his 10/5 rights won’t kick in unless the team accepts his option for 2020. This is a very shrewd move by a front office who looks to have learned from long term mistakes of the past.

Getting Better Despite the Numbers
It’s easy to look at Castro’s dip in batting average, abysmal OBP and errors then argue that Castro hasn’t improved at all this year and the Cubs are taking on a huge risk with this long term deal; however, in the two areas that concerned the Cubs the most, Castro has made marked improvements. Castro’s defense is much improved to the point I believe, and even more importantly, the Cubs believe, Castro is a long-term SS. His footwork and throwing look much better than his first two seasons and the advanced metrics show him as an above average defender (3.2 UZR). While he still makes his share of errors usually due to his concentration issues, he makes more difficult defensive plays that outweigh these negatives.

He’s also made some huge strides with his plate approach since late June. On June 24th, Castro was hitting above .300, however he was walking a measly 1.9% of the time in 312 PAs. In the 232 PAs since then, we’ve seen Castro’s average dip to .276 but his walk rate has increased to 9.9% of the time, his swing rate on pitches out of the zone dropped by nearly 10% and Castro has seen nearly 2 more pitches per plate appearance. That’s a remarkable improvement.

Add these improvements to his 3rd straight season with improving power numbers and stolen bases, a desire to continue getting better, take into account he’s only 22 and already has 3 seasons under his belt when players his age are usually at double-A, and it’s no wonder the Cubs see Castro as a player worth the 60 million dollar risk.

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