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Don’t Panic (Yet)

Friday, May 20th, 2016

It’s been a frustrating week. We’ve been riding high all season with this ridiculous start, but we all knew (even if we didn’t want to admit it to ourselves) that the Cubs weren’t actually going to maintain this pace and win 140 games this season. The most annoying part is who we lost to: two of the worst teams in the league. Such is baseball.

Most of this is just the ebb and flow of a season and regression to the “true” talent level of a club. The Cubs are definitely one of the best teams in baseball, they’re just not 140-wins good (no team is). We still have the largest lead of any division leader, so it isn’t time to panic yet (right?).

What would I change about this team right now? Nothing. If you watched some of these recent losses closely, you noticed that the team was still putting up good ABs and hitting the ball hard–many of those liners were just hit right at a fielder. You can’t ask for more from a player.

The only thing that concerns me (a little) is the number of whiffs on balls in the strikezone during the game on Thursday. If this starts becoming a trend, I will actually start to worry a little bit.

The pitching has been great lately, though. If it wasn’t, the Cubs might been swept in the last two series.

So, would you make any changes right now? Is it time to panic, or should we ride this out, trusting that the offense can’t slump forever? The Giants have been scorching hot lately, so this series will be a real test. Let me know your thoughts!

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The Importance of Depth, Versatility, and Maddon’s Brilliance

Friday, May 6th, 2016

Before we get to baseball, I want to give a shout out to the bossman, Joe. We’re all glad you’re doing better–here’s to a speedy and full recovery.

OK, back to the best team in baseball.

“Depth is everything in the modern game.”–Theo Epstein.

Recent events have clearly illustrated the truth behind the prez’s words.

After being remarkably healthy last season, the Cubs have had more than their share of injuries in 2016. Kyle Schwarber, seen as one of the main cogs of the offense, went down 3 games in. Miguel Montero, the starting catcher, is on the DL. This is a double-whammy, since Schwarber’s injury was a blow to the catching depth as well. Jason Heyward, the big free agent prize from this past offseason, has missed games with a wrist injury (which has, apparently, contributed to his slow offensive start). One of the actual depth pieces, Matt Szczur, who has been playing very well, is on the DL himself. For most teams, these kind of injuries would derail the season from the get-go. As for the Cubs?

They’re 21-6.
[Update: 22-6]

How has this been accomplished? Depth, versatility, and the brilliance of their manager, Joe Maddon.

Theo and Jed have said many times that they spend the bulk of their time “worrying.” Worrying about injuries, ineffectiveness, unforeseen circumstances, etc.. They dream up worst-case scenarios and build the organization around those. So, when Schwarber went down, I guarantee that they had asked themselves: “What if Kyle goes down with an injury, what do we do then?” The contingency plan was already in place. It’s this ability to see beyond the immediate circumstances and think long-term that makes Theo and Jed so good at what they do.

Versatility goes hand-in-hand with depth. It’s no accident that the Cubs roster is loaded with players who can play well at multiple positions. This team had many “Ben Zobrists” before the actual Ben Zobrist even joined the club. Kris Bryant has played both corner outfield spots in addition to 3rd base (in fact, I think it’s time to consider Bryant an outfielder, at least for now), Javier Baez has already played all 4 infield positions, and we know he can handle the outfield as well. Heyward subbed in for Dex in CF last night (after a BS ejection). Tommy La Stella has seen time at both 2nd and 3rd. Zobrist, of course, can play all over, including spending time in RF lately. You don’t have to have as many actual players if those players can play multiple positions. This is all by design.

Of course, Joe Maddon is the perfect manager to maneuver these chess pieces. I’ve always been a Maddon fan, and I was thrilled when the Cubs hired him, but I’ve been even more impressed than I thought I would be. They guy just gets it. I think the key attribute that makes Joe so successful is his ability to think independently and critically–he doesn’t just do things or make decisions because it’s “conventional wisdom” or “tradition.” He does many things that no other manager has done or would do, yet they seem to work well. As a teacher, I try to get my students to think critically about their practice–if we examine what we do with a critical eye, and we find real evidence that it is working, then we should continue those practices with even more confidence. However, if we aren’t afraid to question traditional practices, and we find better ways of doing things, we should have the courage to go against the grain and do what’s most effective. I think this is where Maddon really makes his mark.

Take batting practice for example. The Cubs are known to take the least amount of batting practice of any team in baseball. Yet, they have the most runs scored in all of baseball. Joe has said that batting practice is “the most overrated thing we do.” During his introductory press conference, Joe said that he thinks guys are swinging too much. Now, this goes against conventional thinking. If someone is struggling at something, they should work on it more, put in more hours, until they get better, right? Not necessarily so. As a musician, I know that practicing more can actually strengthen bad habits, and that sometimes it’s best to step away for awhile and attack things with a new approach. The same can be said for hitting. This is why Joe said that he wants his guys to have interests outside of baseball and not get to the park too early before a game (how many times has a coach told you to spend less time at the park/gym?). Last year, when Addison Russell was struggling at the plate, did Joe demand that he get to the park early and take extra batting practice? No. He assigned Russell a book to read and quizzed him on it every day to make sure he was reading it. Why? He wanted Addy to get out of his head at the plate and stop worrying and over-thinking. Russell’s numbers at the end of the season improved.

Another bit of conventional baseball wisdom is that moving guys around defensively will hurt their offensive game. While there’s no doubt this is true of some guys, Maddon has said several times that he thinks moving guys around on defense can actually help their offense. Why? If a player has to focus on defense, he is thinking less about offense, and his mind is free to relax and react at the plate. Have you seen Kris Bryant’s numbers since he’s been moving around to the outfield? I’m not saying that this defensive move has caused his offense to improve, but there’s no doubt it hasn’t hurt it, and he’s provided more value to the team overall by being versatile defensively. Here’s another fun fact that may go against intuition: after moving players all over the field, the Cubs are well better than average defensively!

Something as seemingly silly as the themed road trips may actually be helping this team play better on the field. In the pregame interview the other day, Joe talked about how having to wear those silly suits out in public helped players realize that it doesn’t matter how they look–they need to get over and forget about the superficial things and focus on what’s important…and Joe believes that really carries over to the field. Once players (or any of us) can let go of the silly distractions in life and focus on what’s important, we’re able to focus and perform at a higher level. “Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure” isn’t about not being serious in your work–it’s the opposite. It’s about not letting distractions that don’t really matter (like appearance, old-school “rules” of the game, the media, taking oneself too seriously) go and focusing in on the present task at hand. You just don’t hear baseball managers speak with this sort of depth and sophistication on big-picture ideas like this.

I hope everyone is taking time to really enjoy this team. We haven’t seen our guys play like this in a long time, maybe ever.

Have a great weekend. May your “W” flag fly high, may your brats sizzle on the grill, and may your cap look as cool as Pedro Strop’s.

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Scoring without Hitting and Making Adjustments

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Getting on base is everything.

The Cubs have clearly demonstrated this principle so far this season. Despite having several key players with low batting averages (Rizzo and Heyward are both hitting well below .200, while Soler, Russell, and Zobrist are all hitting .224 or lower), the Cubs are 2nd in all of MLB with 78 runs on the season (they’re only 15th in total hits). The Cubs’ patient, “selectively aggressive” approach has paid-off, as the team leads MLB with 70 walks, leading to a .347 OBP, 3rd-best in MLB. Of course, they also have the best record in all of baseball.

The team’s performance so far also illustrates the point that OBP is more valuable than slugging. This is why OPS, although a convenient stat to quickly get a picture of a players overall performance, is imperfect: it overvalues slugging. The Cubs, with the 2nd-most runs (and best record) in baseball have only the 14th best slugging% and the 10th best OPS. It’s the OBP, driven by walks, that has led to the run scoring. I hope this also underscores how worthless a stat batting average is: the Cubs are only 17th in that category. Runners on base lead to runs.

Statistics aside, we can just watch the games, and these principles are obvious. With a patient approach, leading to lots of baserunners via the walk (and having the nice side benefit of wearing down the starting pitcher and getting into the bullpen early), a team doesn’t have to string together several hits in a row (what advanced stats guys call “sequencing”). One timely hit (or wild pitch or error) can score multiple runs. That’s why you’ve seen the Cubs have a few innings this year in which they score more runs than they have hits. The issue with relying on stringing together multiple hits in a row is that a lot of chance (luck) is involved with hitting.

Don’t believe me? One of the best new pieces of evidence we have is exit velocity. Take the example from Monday night’s game: Jason Heyward put three balls in play, 2 at 110 mph, and 1 at 102 mph (the average exit velocity is 88 mph). Even without that data, just using your eyes, you could tell that Heyward absolutely smoked those balls. What happened? They were all hit right at defenders. That, my friends, is bad luck. It just exists. Kris Bryant, on the other hand, hit two soft dribblers that fell for hits. Do you see where I’m going with this? Batting average is just a bad stat–we’re simply used to using it because someone, a long time ago, decided it was the stat that was going to be highlighted. It was an arbitrary decision.

OK, so, over the first week of the season, the Cubs were drawing tons of walks and scoring tons of runs. However, this is professional sports, so we know that the opposition is going to make adjustments, and that’s exactly what happened. In the Rockies series, the Colorado pitchers had success against the Cubs by throwing strikes early in the count. You can’t pile-up walks if pitchers can pound the zone consistently. Mike Leake also had success early in the Monday night game by throwing strikes. So, now it’s up to the Cubs hitters to be able to make adjustments and counter a strike-thrower when they aren’t getting the walks. This is where hitting, and especially slugging, is going to have to improve.

…and it will! There is no way that Heyward and Rizzo will hit below .200 for long. This team is also full of powerful hitters that will start putting the ball into the bleachers on a regular basis, so I’m not worried. I expect the Cubs to be among the top teams in slugging when it’s all said and done (in addition to being among the top in OBP). This is why I would be so scared if I were an opposing team: the Cubs have the best record in baseball, score among the most runs, and they haven’t even started hitting yet. This team, my friends, is GOOD.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that we’ve had the best pitching in MLB so far!

Enjoy this team. Savor the moments. Have a disco-ball-and-champagne party after every victory!

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Predictions for the 2016 Season

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Let’s face it. We’re all champing at the bit for some baseball, even spring training. We’ve obsessed over the offseason moves (incredibly, there are still several free agents unsigned), but the Cubs are almost certainly done at this point (at least with major moves). Despite the daily barrage of pics and quotes from pre-spring training, there really isn’t that much significant news to report or discuss right now.

So, let’s just have some fun. I’m going to publish some predictions for the upcoming Cubs season, which means I’m risking looking pretty bad when the season is over…but, like I said, it’s all in good fun.

Of course, the goal here is for you to respond with your own predictions in the comments so we can compare notes in October.

Prediction #1: The Cubs will win 95 games (2 less than last year), but will be a better team than the 2015 squad. They will win the NL Central.

I’ve seen some writers predict that the Cubs will win 100 games, and I think that’s crazy. It’s not that I don’t think the Cubs can win that many games–they certainly can–it’s that I would never predict that any team would win that many. Also, you may be asking: how can a team that loses 2 more games be a better team? Statistical variance, my friends. The Cubs won many one-run games last year, and those wins tend to be pretty random. So, the Cubs could have a few less “breaks” going their way this season, but still be a stronger team compared to their rivals and win the division (and go deeper into the playoffs).

Predication #2: Homerun Totals

Bryant: 31
Rizzo: 30
Schwarber: 24
Soler: 19
Heyward: 18
Russell: 14
Baez: 13

Prediction #3: Gold Gloves

Russell (ss)
Heyward (cf–he’s going to be better than everyone thinks, guy is a super athlete and an extremely hard worker)

Prediction #4: MVP Voting

Bryant will finish 4th; Rizzo will finish 8th (this is just a wild guess that I probably shouldn’t even attempt)

Prediction #5: WAR Ranks (2016 total)

1. Bryant
2. Arrieta
3. Rizzo
4. Heyward
5. Lester
6. Zobrist
7. Schwarber

Prediction #6: Prospects

We’re now past the point that we’re relying on prospect call-ups as a main factor with the big league club. However, I think a few prospects will make their way to Wrigley this summer and contribute in a non-zero way: Carl Edwards (bullpen); Albert Almora (late-season call up as a CF defensive sub late in games (as Heyward moves over to RF)). I don’t think we’ll see Willson Contreras before September unless there is a major injury to Montero or Ross. He just needs more time to develop the bat.

Prediction #7: Pitcher Wins and RBIs

Who cares?

Prediction #8: World Series

This is one prediction I will NEVER make!

Fun Tidbit:

I live in the Dallas area now, and the Rangers are giving away season tickets to any fan that can hit a homer at Globe Life Park. If I really put everything into a swing, hit the sweet spot, used an aluminum bat, and the wind was howling out…hey, I think I could get within 150 feet of the warning track.

Happy Friday!

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My Top 5 Cubs Moments of 2015

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

As we approach the new year, we are inundated with (mostly lame) “Best of” lists. Well, friends, I’m here to bring you yet another one of those egregious lists.

Disclaimer: this is my list. These may not actually be the top, most important, best, or your favorite moments from the season, but I’ve been given this space for now, so you’ll just have to put up with my take for a moment–not sorry. Also, I’m only going to include moments from the regular season, since the postseason was amazingly glorious all by itself (except, er, for that ending). Finally, I’m not going to include anything from the offseason, so you won’t see the Joe Maddon or Jon Lester signings. So, in the immortal words of Casey Kasem, let’s start the countdown.

5. The Schwarber Game

This is the moment when we went, “oh yeah, we have that guy, too.” On July 21, just over a year after being selected with the 4th overall pick in the draft (a pick that was roundly criticized by many, include, ahem, *cough* a few commenters on this blog), in Cincinnati, in front of scores of friends and family (he grew up nearby as a Reds fan–Votto was his hero), Schwarber blasted a mammoth (come on, dude doesn’t hit any other kind) homer to tie the game in the ninth, and then another to win it in the 13th. What a night that must have been for him. He’s going to be our Jim Thome for years to come (and no, he won’t catch, at least not primarily).

4. Bryant’s Debut

No, he didn’t get a hit. Yes, he struck out 10,000 times and looked really bad, but remember, this is my list. This moment makes the cut because I was at Wrigley to witness this game, and I can tell you, it was the most electric regular-season-in-negative-million-degrees-meaningless-game I’ve ever attended. The entire crowd stood for every one of his at-bats and lived and died with every pitch. After each inevitable strikeout, the crowd moaned as if we just lost Game 7. After such an fantastically historic rookie season, it’s easy to forget just how long it took Bryant to hit his first homer (I believe it was around 700 at-bats), but the kid makes adjustments and looks like a keeper to me.

3. Bryant’s Walk-Off (well, one of them)

July 27: The Cubs had lost a zillion games in a row and everyone was depressed. We had given up a big lead to the lowly Rockies. Bryant saved the day with a rocket into the dark Lakeview night. Everyone cheered. It was awesome.

2. Sweeping the Giants

I have to admit, after we were swept by the Phillies (the Phillies), I thought that our youth and good luck from the first half (we won so many one-run games, the outcome of which can be pretty random) had finally caught up with us. You can only dodge the coin-flip and the regress-to-the-mean dragon for so long. This four-game sweep of the defending champs in early August bounced us over the Giants for the second wild card spot and announced to all that this team was for real.

1. Arrieta’s No-Hitter

I watched this on TV, but I stood and shouted and leapt with every pitch. I celebrated after the game as though I was in Wrigleyville. A signature moment for a pitcher, a team, a fan. Thanks Jake.

Honorable mention:

All of Addison Russell‘s defensive plays; Rizzo’s brilliant season being almost overlooked; magicians in the clubhouse and on the field; Bryant knocking the videoboard onto Waveland, killing thousands; Lester actually being really good–stop whining; Joe Maddon giving players reading assignments; the inspired benching then re-starting of Castro.

Thoughts? Submit your list in the comments.

I hope everyone is enjoying the holidays. Happy New Year. Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure.

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