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Does Team “Chemistry” Really Matter?

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

I’ve been thinking about this issue quite a bit lately. “Chemistry” is a word that one usually hears thrown around by fans of struggling teams. It seems, to me, like a convenient factor to point to when looking for reasons to blame for failures. What do we really know about “chemistry” as it relates to professional baseball?

Here’s a quote from Joe Torre, as quoted by Jim Caple “Winning creates chemistry more than the other way around. I’ve seen clubs that don’t necessarily like each other, but they respected each other once they got on the field, and that’s more important than being happy to go out to dinner with each other.” (Source) Ozzie Guillen (I know, I’m referencing Ozzie) said that chemistry follows winning, and clubhouse strife follows losing, not the other way around.

Caple, in the same article, references the 2002 National League Champion Giants – the team of Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent (who were never accused of being great team guys). Caple quotes Jason Schmidt, who played for the Giants that season, and he provided a few gems:

“I’ve been on teams where there was one guy — and it wasn’t Barry — who made everyone miserable. But you’re not thinking about that when you’re on the field. Not at all. It’s a nonissue. I don’t really see how it affects the team’s play. Will you throw 95 instead of 90 because you’re happier in the clubhouse? Will you throw strikes?”

Since I’m writing this article, I guess I’ll give you my personal opinion. Most of us are not professional athletes, but most of us are a professionals of some sort that work as part of a “team” (however you want to define it), and we all know, anecdotally, that one’s work environment can affect your job performance and morale. So, I think there is probably something to “chemistry,” even if it can’t be quantified – but the question is, how much does it actually affect the bottom line of wins and losses? Moreover, is there any evidence, beyond our own personal anecdotes (which can’t be generalized to other situations, especially situations as unique as a pro baseball clubhouse), that “chemistry” makes any real difference in the end?

It seems that whatever bad “mojo” Bonds and Kent brought to the 2002 Giants was far outweighed by their production on the field (Schmidt’s quote indicates that he agrees). So, as much as we romanticize the idea of “chemistry” – and as much as it makes intuitive sense to us – I don’t think the evidence is there for us to focus upon it as the main reason for any team’s struggles or success. If a team were better on the field, they’d probably have better chemistry, and that’s probably the most important interaction between the two concepts.

I think a better approach would be to be more precise in our language. In my day job, I do quantitative and qualitative research, so I’m not just a numbers geek – numbers can tell us what is happening, but not always why. Since we’re dealing with human beings, there really are factors at play that help determine why we’re seeing a particular quantitative result, and it can differ greatly from person to person (morale, motivation, comfort-level, etc.. are all legitimate concerns). Guessing blindly about the interpersonal factors that are affecting a player without evidence seems counterproductive, though.

One of the most important things for digging beneath the surface of numbers to examine qualitative factors is to define terms clearly and precisely. The term “chemistry” is just ill-defined. What does it mean? It’s impossible to determine the effect of something when we don’t have a precise definition of it in the first place. For me, “chemistry” is right up there with TWTW (Hawk Harrelson’s “The Will to Win”), “bellyfire” and “grit.” It’s the old-school “gut feeling” approach to analysis that doesn’t really get us anywhere, but it can make us sound like we vaguely know what we’re talking about. I think we’d be better served to be more precise: what is actually happening, and what are the exact factors that may be contributing to a team’s (or an individual’s) performance? Even if we are just guessing, I think we’ll advance the conversation – and gain more insight – if we stick to precise, knowable concepts. I could go on – and I’ll probably return to this topic in the future – but you don’t want to spend an hour reading this post (thank you if you’ve stuck with me this far).

Aside: Speaking of research, here’s a terrible example. I came across a Psychology Today article attempting to determine the effect of “chemistry” on team performance. One of the factors they examined was how much a good manager could mitigate bad team chemistry. As a measure of manager effectiveness, they defined good managers as those that had won or had been named a finalist for the Manager of the Year award. Well, you can probably see the problem here: MOY winners and finalists are always from good teams! Of course bad chemistry wasn’t hurting those teams. Ugh, bad research, it makes me angry. Anyway, they used the Uptons as a test case (it was written before this season). Following their premise (that the Uptons are bad chemistry guys), chemistry doesn’t matter at all, since the Braves are crushing.


Do we really want to relive this game? The Cubs offense returned to their usual form, with the only runs coming off solo shots from Brian Bogusevic and Donnie “Babe Ruth” Murphy. The game was actually close until the ninth, when the Nationals put up two runs to make the game all but out of reach. Chris Rusin was banged around a lot, although he only gave up two runs in 5.2 innings. On the other side, almost-Cub Dan Haren pitched really well for D.C.. I think we’re going to see a ton of games like this one from here on out. Bring on the race for a better draft pick.

Follow Sean Powell on Twitter @powell_sean

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Cuban Invasion Continues, Bryant Promoted, Tseng Signed

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

In news that I think is only tangential to the Cubs, yet another Cuban über-prospect, 26-year-old Jose Abreu, has apparently escaped Cuba has plans to defect, and will subsequently break the bank of some MLB team. Check out his stats from the last three years:

2010-2011: .453/.597/.986 (37 HRs in 77 games)

2011-2012: .394/.542/.837

2012-2013: .382/.535/.735

Kids playing Wiffle Ball in the back yard think those numbers are ridiculous. Here’s a link to a Grantland story in which Jonah Keri says he “might be the best hitter in the world.”

He even compares Abreu to, gulp, Miguel Cabrera. Abreu is huge (6’2” 260 lbs.), and is, by all accounts, a 1B/DH-only type (his glove is apparently well below average). That’s the main reason that I don’t see the Cubs going all out for him (and going all out is going to be what it will take to sign him).  We have a good, young, 1B signed long-term, and I don’t think a team can afford to have a defensive liability at first base, even if he is a great hitter. If the FO had some insight that the NL was on the verge of adopting the DH, I think we’d have a different story. It would be an exiting move, though, and I wouldn’t be disappointed in the least if the Cubs made a serious run at the guy. Either way, with his numbers, and the recent success of fellow Cubans Puig and Cespedes, Abreu is going to demand HUGE dollars.

We’re in the deep doldrums period with the major league club right now, but there’s actually a few interesting things going on with the organization.

I was about to write a blurb about the rumors of the looming promotion of Kris Bryant. Well, as you’ve probably heard, Bryant was just promoted from Boise to Class High-A Daytona. Several writers had speculated that he would skip Low-A Kane County, and that turned out to be what occurred. Bryant was absolutely destroying the Northwest League, so I really like the move. However, I am concerned about the amount of rain-outs in Daytona. I really hope Bryant can get enough consistent at-bats to keep his rapid development rolling.

In news that has been rumored for a few weeks, the Cubs officially announced the signing of Taiwanese pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng ($1.625 million signing bonus). Tseng, a veteran of the World Baseball Classic, is 6’1”, 200 lbs. and features a 4-pitch mix with a 95-mph fastball. He was ranked 23rd on BAs international prospects list, making Tseng the 4th Cubs signee this year ranked in the top 23.

There’s not much to say here. Mat Latos dominated the Cubs, who were shutout for third straight game at home – the first time that has happened since 1924. Travis Wood pitched well again…but he might as well have given up 100 runs, since he got exactly zero run support. Also, Aroldis Chapman throws baseballs really fast.

STATE OF THE SYSTEM
Center Field

by Rob Willer

Top Prospect: Albert Almora

Bio: The Cubs number one pick in 2012, outfielder Albert Almora projects to be a Cubs star one day soon. Signed when he was only 18, he’s a couple of years away from full development, but he’s already got most scouts checking up on his progression from high school. Its crazy to think that Almora is only 19 years old but you wouldn’t notice it on the field for how well he shows leadership and poise. Almora was the Cubs’ first round draft pick going sixth overall in the 2012 draft becoming Theo Epstein’s first draft pick.

2012 Season: He’s a good athlete with off the charts instincts and mental makeup. Almora started off his Cubs career at Rookie Ball in 2012 where you guessed hit over .300. Almora hit .321/.331/.464 to be exact over 145 at bats across Rookie Ball and Short Season A Boise while scoring 27 runs. It seems the only thing in his development that hasn’t come is the power in relation to home-runs where he only had two homers on the season. For now we’ll take his production and ability to get on base over the home-runs and tendency to strikeout.

Projection: Almora has good pitch recognition skills, so that should eventually translate into an ability to grind out ABs and take walks. Most scouts have him pegged as hitting .300 as an everyday center-fielder in the major leagues. The projections of home-runs varies but in my mind I would say 15 home-runs would be a solid estimate when he finally gets the call to the big league club sometime in 2016.

2013 Season: Almora has played at Kane County for all of this year after recovering from his injury early on in the season. Through 61 games Almora has 82 hits in 249 at bats which is good for a .329 batting average. Some other key numbers to remember are his 17 doubles, four triples and his .842 OPS. Overall Almora has done everything the Cubs’ have asked since returning from injury. Recently Almora went on the seven day disabled list with a groin injury which is probably the only reason he is still at Kane County. In my mind I believe he gets the call-up to Daytona by the end of the month baring any setbacks from the groin injury.

Sleeper Prospect: Trey Martin

Bio: Trey Martin, 19, signed an over-slot contract in 2011 as a 13th round draft pick out of a Georgia high school. Martin played the 2011 campaign at Rookie Ball where he turned in a decent season .243/.289/.357 with only four extra base hits in 76 at bats. After playing the 2011 campaign at Rookie Ball he reported back there to start the 2012 season. Looking at his vast improvement at Rookie Ball in the 2012 season it looks like the Cubs did the right thing by sending him back there to start the season. He finished his Rookie Ball campaign with a line of .448/.515/.690 through seven games going 13 for 29 with six extra base hits. Finally Martin made the move to Boise Idaho to join the Boise Hawks where he would play the rest of the season (57 games) with a line of .270/.318/.377 including 12 extra base hits and six steals in 11 attempts.

2013 Season:  Martin batted .200 in 11 games with Class A Kane County this year, but the 13th-round pick in 2011 injured his left shoulder, and needed surgery. He began the year 20th on the top 20 in the MLB.com ratings of the Cubs system. Since Almora is due for a call-up very soon Martin should get the regular at bats in center unless the Cubs move Oliver Zapata there. Martin most definitely will start the season again at Kane County after playing in only 11 games this year. Hopefully his shoulder will heal in time for spring training and he can return to his pre-injury status of projecting to be a very solid major league outfielder with above average defense. Stay Tuned as the Outfield Projections conclude with Left Field tomorrow morning.

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The Newest Cub, the Science of Sports Performance, and Biogenesis

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Thomas Neal is the newest Cub. Neal is 25 years old, big (6’2’, 225 lbs.), and he throws and bats right-handed. He was recently DFA’d by the Yankees, and was hitting .325/.391/.411 over 297 plate appearances with AAA at Scranton Wilkes-Barre (a nice line, for sure, but he only hit 2 hr – that’s a little worrisome). He was a former top 10 prospect in the Giants system, but he’s had a few injuries. Hopefully, he’s healthy and can assume an upward trajectory. It would be nice if he could be the Cubs 4th outfielder or assume a platoon role in 2014 – although the fact that he’s been let go by three teams (Giants, Indians, Yankees) within the last two years is definitely a red flag. Rafael Dolis (remember him?) was added to the 60-day DL to make room for Neal on the 40-man roster.

I heard an intriguing interview with Sports Illustrated’s David Epstein today on NPR’s Fresh Air. He has a new book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, which sounds so good that I think I’m going to buy it. Anyway, Epstein has dug into the research on genetics as it relates to sports performance. He spends a good deal of the interview discussing how major league hitters are able to recognize a pitch, decide to swing, and finally make contact. A few of the highlights: 1) “reflexes” are largely mythical in this context – in fact, baseball players often don’t score that well on tests of reflexes, 2) visual pitch recognition out of the pitcher’s hand is the real key, 3) baseball players might as well close their eyes once the ball is halfway to the plate, because all of the mental processes and mechanical actions must be in motion by then, 4) the average pro baseball player has 20/12 vision – so, a good way to tell if a kid might be a good hitter one day is to get his/her vision tested (good vision won’t make him/her a good hitter, but poor vision would probably prevent it), 5) talent is being redefined as the genetic predisposition to respond well to training. Overall, it’s a highly interesting interview. Best of all, you can listen free here:

http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/

Ugh, I suppose I should comment on the biggest story of the day, the Biogenesis scandal. I’m sure you’ve read about this from the 349382749837 sources covering the story today. The short version: 12 players were suspended 50 games (included the Rangers’ Nelson Cruz, the Padres’ Everth Cabrera, and the Tigers’ Jhonny Peralta) and suspending Alex Rodriguez through the end of the 2014 season. Apparently, A-Rod intends to appeal, blah, blah, blah. Does anyone care anymore? Is there anyone who isn’t completely sick of A-Rod’s act? Guys like A-Rod and Lance Armstrong just need to go away. We can debate on the actual effects of steroids on performance (considering the information from the interview above, Lasik surgery might be a more effective way to “cheat”) and the moral/ethical issues. That debate aside, it is against the rules of the sport, so these players knowingly did something they knew was wrong and hoped to get away with it. The great thing for all of us is that no Cubs players were involved (insert joke about how obvious that should have been).  Honestly, I see this as a failure of baseball: the sport turned a blind eye to the issue for years, and now this “harsh justice” seems disingenuous. I’m looking forward to the day when the most reported baseball stories are positive – it seems like we’re a long way from that point, though.

STATE OF THE SYSTEM
First Base

by Rob Willer

Top Prospect: Dan Vogelbach who was the second round pick by the Cubs in 2011. Vogelbach played in just six games after signing, hitting three doubles and bombing his first professional home run. Played in 24 games with the rookie-level Arizona Cubs, hitting .324/.391/.686 that season. After those 24 games he was promoted to rookie-level Boise and hit at a very similar line .329/.391/.696 in 20 games at that level. Vogelbach has the type of offensive tools in approach, hitting ability and legitimate power  but that set of skills has to fully mature for him to be an impact player at an offense-oriented position. For the 2013 season we have seen Vogelbach play at Kane County which is the Cubs Low A Minor League Affiliate. His stats continue to be great as he moves through the system which includes 16 home-runs and 68 runs batted while having a line of .283/.360/.450. Vogelbach seems to only project as a designated hitter/first baseman due to his lack of speed and defense which raises questions since Anthony Rizzo just signed a seven year contract who also plays 1st Base for the Cubs presently. Most scouts say that he has the potential to hit 30 home-runs in a season consistently and also hit for average as well. The problems that arise with Vogelbach are his defense which becomes limited with his lack of range and athleticism due to his size. His speed is below average which is what you would expect but even for first base his speed is way below average. I have personally seen Vogelbach at Kane County this summer and have seen him do wonders with the bat which makes him a very intriguing prospect over the next couple years. Considering that the Cubs are replenishing their system I definitely could see him being a throw in to a deal to acquire a Top Pitcher/ Impact Bat in the near future.

Sleeper: Justin Bour was highly touted in 2012 after completing the year at Double A Tennessee. In 506 at bats he clubbed 17 home-runs and 110 runs batted in while having a slash line of .283/360/455. After Anthony Rizzo got called up last year to the Cubs most people believe Bour would get a chance at Triple A after he proved through out the year he was ready. Bour didn’t get that chance and ended up back at Tennessee this spring where he has struggled hitting for average as his batting average has dropped 53 points since 2012. A positive to take away from this season is his slugging percentage went up 50 points to .493 and he has hit 15 home-runs in 300 less at bats than last year. He is a big first baseman at 6’4″, 250 lbs he finally seems to be harnessing that power that some what alluded him in 2012. If you take a look at Bour’s advanced stats on FanGraphs something that jumped out to me was that he lowered his strikeout rate while increasing his walk rate which is tremendous. Bour’s story relates to Rafael Lopez in yesterday’s post about how they have talent but are still stuck at Double A and they’re not getting any younger. As long as Bour get’s called up Triple A by the end of the summer I see no reason for him not to get called up in the summer time of 2014 barring any injuries

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Will the Cubs make any more trades this season?

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

Hello! It’s great to be back after a few weeks away.

Although the Cubs were inactive at the non-waiver trade deadline on Wednesday (making for an anti-climatic day), let’s not forget that they were quite active on the trade market last month. Reflecting on all the moves, it appears as though the front office was quite shrewd to jump on moves ahead of the deadline, since the market seemed to have cooled quite a bit at the end. Perhaps the new CBA (which removes some of the compensation for teams that lose big-time players (it’s too much to go into detail here)) has led to the trend of teams holding onto their young talent rather than making a risky trade for a veteran that could help them down the stretch (although, I still can’t believe the Pirates stood pat with a chance to end their 2347382468-year playoff drought staring them in the face).

Rumors always fly on non-waiver trade deadline day (Twitter is awesome/insane/infuriating), and a few Cubs players were mentioned by all the national media folks. Nate Schierholtz was most often mentioned as the most likely trade candidate, followed by David DeJesus, Kevin Gregg, and James Russell. Obviously, none of them were moved, but could the Cubs still make some trades this season?

Maybe. Although it’s typically referred to as the trade “deadline,” Wednesday was just the non-waiver trade deadline. Most of you, being baseball blog readers, probably know what this means, but in case you don’t, here’s a VERY brief overview:

Teams can still make trades this month, but in order to do so, they must place any players they wish to trade on waivers. Essentially, the waiver process works like this: every team (in reverse order of standings starting with the team with the worst record in the same league as the waived player – then moving to the other league) gets an opportunity to claim that player of waivers. If a team claims a player, one of three things can happen: 1) the two teams can work out a trade (obviously, with no other teams bidding, the return would be much weaker than in July), 2) the team that originally waived the player can just let the claiming team have them (and their contract), 3) the team that waived the player can simply pull that player off waivers and keep them. If a player “clears” waivers (e.g., no team claims him), the team that waived him is free to trade him to any team – just like before the non-waiver deadline. There are a few other details, but those are the basics. The Cubs will probably place almost all their players on waivers, but we won’t hear anything about it unless trade is worked out one way or another (if a player the Cubs don’t want to trade is claimed, they’ll just pull him off waivers and keep him).

So, the Cubs could still makes some trades this season, but will they?

Probably not.

In order to get any kind of value in return in a trade, the Cubs will want their potential trade candidates to clear waivers first (the return on a player traded as a result of a waiver claim will be super low, since no other teams could bid). Players that clear waivers typically have big contracts. Last year, Soriano and Marmol were guaranteed to clear waivers, because no other team would claim them with those contracts (remember, teams that claim a player must take on his contract and place him on the 25-man roster (if the waiving team takes that option)). Since the Cubs have shed all their big contracts (at least on players they don’t want to keep) – yay Jedstein – I don’t see any Cubs players that wouldn’t be claimed. The only player I can really see being traded at all is Kevin Gregg. Although he would probably be claimed, the Cubs might elect to try to work out a trade with the claiming team – even if it’s for a hot dog and a souvenir Coke Zero – just to try to squeeze some value out of him. Then again, they couldn’t get enough for him at the trade deadline, so maybe not. I suppose players like Julio Borbon could clear waivers and get traded, but who cares?

GAME NOTES

I was all ready to use the (what I thought was) clever line “Lake out-Puiged Puig,” but my dreams were crushed with Puig’s homerun in the ninth. In any case, Junior Lake and Anthony Rizzo each hit two homeruns, which was great (Rizzo is looking FANTASTIC lately, and seeing future pieces perform is one of the few reasons left to watch this team), but that was the only offense the Cubs could muster. Once again, Chris Rusin forgot that he was Chris Rusin, and hey, he actually pitched a nice game against a tough lineup.

The Dodgers are now the Yankees of the National League, and I’m going to have fun rooting against them for years to come.

Minor League Recap August 1st

by Rob Willer

Iowa Cubs

Loux struggles as Iowa gets bested by Salt Lake 9-3

Barret Loux struggled once again going 5 and 1/3 innings while allowing seven earned runs on eleven hits. Alberto Cabrera wasn’t much better giving up two earned runs in 1 and 2/3 innings. The final Iowa Cubs pitcher of the night Marcus Hatley rebounded from yesterday’s performance pitching a scoreless inning.

The Cubs’ offense had 10 hits but was only able to get three runs across. Donnie Murphy turned in a decent going 3 for 5 with a double. The Iowa Cubs left nine men on base and went 3 for 7 with runners in scoring position on the night. Another Iowa Cubs player who broke out was first baseman Edgar Gonzales. Gonazales went 2 for four with a two run homer driving in two of the Cubs three runs.

Tennessee Smokies

Tennessee clipped the Barons 2-1.

Kyle Hendricks pitched well once again going six strong innings only allowing one run. Hendricks struck out four and allowed seven hits also lowered his earned run average on the season to 1.85. His night got even better getting the callup to Iowa Cubs. He has really broken out this year and should be fun to watch at Iowa not sure what the corresponding move will be should be announced later on today. Hunter Cervenka took over for Hendricks pitching the final three innings only allowing a hit and a walk picking up the win which improved his record to 3-1.

The Smokies offense was kept in check for most of the night only mustering four hits over 29 at bats. Justin Bour homered again for his 15th of the season it was a solo shot in the seventh. John Andreoli knocked in the winning run in the ninth with a run scoring single to score Javy Baez from third.

Daytona Cubs

Corey Black was excited to get on the mound Thursday night but the Daytona Cubs were rained out so his debut will be pushed until Friday.

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Game 65: Edwin Jackson Solid Again, DeJesus Hurt

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

Box Score / Highlights

Star of the Game – Edwin Jackson – .145 (WPA)


This game featured two starting pitchers with similar beginnings to the 2013 campaign. Both Shaun “I spell my name wrong” Marcum and Edwin Jackson came into the game with bad records and high ERAs, but the peripherals suggested that they were pitching much better than the results (they came in with 3.38 and 2.90 FIPs, respectively). Also, they each had a nice start the last time out.

Edwin continued the trend. He pitched 6 innings, striking out 7 (he had a nasty slider tonight), and allowed only 1 earned run. James Russell came into the game in the 7th and made things interested by giving up 2 runs for the first time this year (his season ERA is still an excellent 2.03). Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg each pitched a scoreless inning to close out the game (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence). Speaking of unbelievable things, I actually think Gregg, packaged with another player (see below), could bring back a non-non-prospect in return. Who would have thought that…well, ever?

The Cubs offense got on the board early with a Nate Schierholtz solo blast in the top of the 1st (see, isn’t Dale a genius for knowing that Nate needed an at-bat in the 1st inning?). The bats really broke out in the 2nd, scoring 4 runs (such a rare thing these days). The inning was capped-off by a David DeJesus 3-run triple – a shot that would have left most ballparks.

It was nice to see Anthony Rizzo have a nice game at the plate. He had 3 hits, including a ringing double, and scored 2 runs. No, I don’t think his moving down in the order had anything to do with it, but it obviously didn’t hurt. I have a feeling that both Rizzo and Starlin Castro are due to break out soon. By the way, has anyone else noticed that Castro is alternating between 2 different types of bat every plate appearance?

Perhaps the biggest story from this game is the DeJesus injury. He injured his shoulder colliding with the center field wall as he attempted to catch a deep fly ball off the bat of Juan Lagares. The x-rays showed a shoulder sprain – which could mean a lot of things, I suppose. DeJesus will be placed on the 15-day DL. I don’t want to sound cynical, but the biggest impact this will have on the Cubs is whatever effect this injury has on DeJesus’ trade value. I could really see DeJesus, especially as part of a package (see above), netting a decent prospect or two in return.

Dale Sveum said after the game that the Cubs may bring up a bullpen arm immediately while they decide what outfielder to call up (the Cubs did play a 14-inning game, so they could probably use an extra arm for a day or so). Brooks Raley (who was just sent down to make room for Henry Rodriguez) and Chris Rusin are the two Iowa pitchers currently on the 40-man roster.

Things could get interesting when the Cubs bring up an outfielder to replace DeJesus, but I doubt that they will. If we’re assuming the Cubs will bring up someone already on the 40-man (which they don’t have to do, necessarily, but it would seem to make sense), here’s how I would rate the candidates:

Boring: Dave Sappelt

Intriguing: Brett Jackson (he’s still struggling, so I really can’t see the benefit of bringing him up).

Hype-inducing: Junior Lake. This would be the most fun for all of us, but there’s no need to rush him up now, and he’s just getting settled in AAA. There’s no way this is going to happen.

So, it will probably be good ol’ boring, Dave “I-defend-Ian-Stewart-on-Twitter” Sappelt. If the Cubs were going to make a 40-man move, Brian Bogusevic has had a really nice season, and it would be good to see what he could do with the major league club.

This will be my last post for a few weeks – I’m getting married next weekend, and I’ll be travelling all over for a few weeks. It’s been tons of fun writing for this site, and I look forward to returning later in the summer. Thanks for reading – see you soon!

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Game 61 – Insert Fog Pun Here

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

Box Score / Highlights

Star of the Game – Brandon Phillips – .293 (WPA)


Javier Baez went 4 for 4 with FOUR (4) homeruns for Daytona tonight. This would be exciting in any case, but it’s even more exciting in that it’s part of a recent upward trend in Baez’s performance. He’s now up to .291/.339/.570 with 13 HR and 44 RBI this season playing in what’s known as a pitcher’s league.

Oh…wait. I’m supposed to be recapping the CHICAGO Cubs game tonight. I guess I thought I’d start off with something positive.

Brandon Phillips almost single-handedly defeated the Cubs tonight. He drove in 6 runs and hit a grand slam in the third inning. Scott Feldman actually pitched decently except for that third inning.

Homer Bailey was dominant tonight, allowing just 4 hits and striking out 8 in 8 innings of work. He missed his spots in a few times, but his stuff was so good it didn’t matter.

Honestly, the fog was the most interesting part of this game. There just isn’t much else to say – the Cubs were dominated by the opposing starting pitcher. They did do the “fake rally” in the ninth again. [I feel like I type “fake rally” every time I do a game recap – but that’s truly because the Cubs always give us a teaser in the ninth.]

Starlin Castro

I don’t want to do a bit on Starlin Castro with every recap, but his development is so important to the future of the club, and so much speculation has been swirling about him lately, I just feel the need to write a bit more. Castro actually had a double (which was just fair – but hey, he’s due for good luck) in the ninth to pair with a hard lineout earlier in the game (he was robbed by Brandon Phillips, of course).  The look on Castro’s face after he hit the double was priceless – he looked to the heavens and let out a big sigh as to say, “about time, bro.”

Relatedly, I was listening to the Fringe Average podcast with Mike Ferrin of MLB Radio Network and Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus today (I highly recommend it if you haven’t checked it out). Parks was discussing organizations’ hitting philosophies and how he disagrees with instilling a “blanket” hitting philosophy on all the hitters in an organization. He said that some hitters are naturally aggressive, instinctive, “see-ball-hit-ball” hitters, and that he believed that it was misguided to try to turn those guys into high OBP players who take tons of walks – this takes away what makes the player great in the first place. Does this sound like anyone we know? After I listened to the podcast, I took to Twitter to ask Jason Parks about how that idea applied to Castro – here’s our Twitter conversation:

@powell_sean @ProfessorParks on latest FA ep. you mentioned not applying blanket philosophy to all hitters. How do you think that applies to Castro/Cubs?

@ProfessorParks @powell_sean I think its very applicable to Castro; he’s an aggressive hitter that makes a lot of contact and doesn’t walk. That’s who he is

@powell_sean @ProfessorParks I was thinking Castro during that segment. Just hope Cubs haven’t tinkered past the point of no return

For the record, I don’t think we’re close to past the point of no return with Castro, since he’s only 23. Even though I would love to see him increase his walk rate a little, we know he’s never going to take tons of walks, so I’d rather have the old Castro who is making contact (and getting hits in the process), even if he’ll never be the high OBP player we thought he might be. Time will tell in this process, but it’s always interesting to see a “national” prospect expert weigh-in on Cub-related matters. OK dear readers, I’m off to sleep – hopefully, I will dream of Baez bombs landing on Waveland Avenue.

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Game 59 – Shark and the Offense Come Up Flat

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Box Score / Highlights

Star of the Game – A.J. Burnett – .302 (WPA)


Ugh. What a dud. I looked forward to this game all afternoon – I got my work in at the gym early, did some chores, and settled down for a nice afternoon of Cubs baseball. Way to ruin my day, guys! At least I had the last day of the draft to obsess over.

Jeff Samardzija has dominated the Pirates in his career with a 0.84 ERA in 5 previous starts. So, you’re probably thinking that he’s going to go out and just crush them again, right? Wrong. Jeff floated everything up in the zone, and the Pirates’ hitters (yes, the Pirates’ hitters) teed off on him all afternoon. His splitter didn’t have the usual devastating downward dive – something was obviously off. I thought he was going to get back on track after he got a double play ground ball to get out of the second inning allowing only one run, but it just wasn’t his day. He wound up with a line of 6.0 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 7 SO, 1 BB.

Of course, it didn’t really matter how Shark pitched today, because the offense did absolutely nothing. The only Cub runs came on Soriano’s 2-run homerun with one out in the ninth (by the way, Soriano was due after a few near-misses in the last couple of games). A.J. Burnett was solid, going 8 1/3 innings and only allowing 4 hits (he did walk 3). I will say that the Cubs offense did run into quite a bit of bad luck. They had several line drive outs and were putting good wood on the ball for most of the game. Perhaps the hitter who had the worst luck – which came at the worst possible time for him – was Starlin Castro

Starlin Castro

So, let’s talk about the topic du jour – the struggles of the Cubs’ shortstop. Over his last 78 plate appearances coming into today’s game, Castro was hitting an atrocious .153/.218/.194 (his 0 for 3 today dropped his season average to .247). He’s taking fastballs right down the middle early in counts and swinging wildly at breaking balls outside the zone after he gets down in the count. Obviously, the Cubs coaching staff has tried to make adjustments to Castro’s approach and instill in him the “selectively aggressive” mindset that is part of the Cubs Way. [For the uninitiated, “selectively aggressive” essentially means that a hitter should look for pitches they can drive early in the count and lay off anything that isn’t what they’re looking for – it sounds simple, but it takes discipline and a great batting eye.] The idea with this method is to turn Castro into an all-around offensive force who has a high OBP in addition to getting tons of hits (and hopefully increasing the power numbers as well). Castro did walk more and hit more homeruns last year than in previous years, but he just hasn’t gotten on track this season in any regard. Some have speculated that he may have too many voices in his ear, and others have suggested that playing on a losing team is sinking his motivation and focus. Dale Sveum seems to think that mechanics are at least part of the issue. Sahadev Sharma did a great piece on this topic (I suggest you read it in its entirety) – http://www.csnchicago.com/cubs-talk/starlin-castro-battling-through-adversity-plate – and he quotes Sveum in the article:

“It’s an everyday battle right now,” Sveum said. “Whether it’s his mechanics are bad or it’s in the head. I’d like to see him back to where he was back in 2010 and 2011 when there was a lot less movement going on. He thinks they’re the same mechanics, but they’re not the same mechanics from when he came up to the big leagues or even 2011. It might look the same, but there’s way more movement when the pitch is being delivered.”

As JD pointed out during the telecast, these mechanical issues are something that have to be worked on over time in the batting cage before games. It’s not like you can tell a guy to stop doing something that’s developed into a habit and it will be fixed right away. If Castro is dedicated to getting better (there’s no reason to think he isn’t), and he maintains his motivation (which will have to be intrinsic, since he’s not playing for a contract), he should be able to make the necessary adjustments and get back to hitting the ball consistently. Today was the smallest of sample sizes, but he hit hard line drives all day. If he keeps that up, those line drives are going to eventually start falling for hits.

As for those that are calling for him to be traded immediately – he’s at his lowest possible value right now, so that makes no sense. Additionally, it’s not like there is a shortstop in the minor leagues pushing him for a spot. Javier Baez, if he even sticks at short (which I doubt) is still in class A ball and is at least 2 years away from the big leagues. I think it’s best that Castro goes through these struggles now in a “lost” season. After all, he’s only 23, and these sorts of struggles are bound to happen in a young player’s career. If he hasn’t put it together in a couple of years when the Cubs are ready to start competing, the team will have to look at other options. Until then, Viva Castro!

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Day 1 – Draft Recap

Friday, June 7th, 2013

Did you sit through the MLB coverage of the draft last night? Two thoughts: 1) compared to the NFL and NBA drafts, the production value of MLB is, well, er, not as good; 2) Harold Reynolds can go away now, thank you.

Speaking of comparing drafts – Twitter exploded after the Cubs’ first pick with complaints about the Cubs not filling a need. Well, this is where we have to remind ourselves that, unlike players drafted into the NFL and NBA, players drafted by major league teams almost never make immediate impacts on the big league club. It’s about acquiring assets – many of whom will be traded and eventually play for other teams (or never make it to the big leagues at all). Smart teams don’t worry about who is already playing a certain position in their minor league system; they take the best player available – especially if it’s an early pick in the first round. As Jason McLeod said, the Cubs were never going to select a player based on need, and that is the right strategy in MLB.

#2 Kris Bryant

For several weeks now, many Cub fans in the blogosphere have debated whether the Cubs should select Mark Appel, Jonathan Gray, or Kris Bryant with the second overall pick, with many (most) assuming that it would be one of the two pitchers. Before the draft, I felt that I would be happy with any of those three, although I guess I was rooting for Appel just a bit (I suppose the Stanford thing swayed me somewhat). With Appel going off the board to the Astros at #1 overall, the Cubs had their choice between Bryant and Gray. The Cubs elected to go with Bryant, the powerful third baseman out of the University of San Diego. Subsequently, ESPN’s Bruce Levine reported that Appel was #1 on the Cubs’ board, with Bryant at #2 (Jason McLeod said that Gray’s positive Adderall test didn’t cause them to pass on him, although we’ll never really know). Even though the Cubs may have preferred Appel if they had their choice, you can’t be disappointed that the Cubs selected the biggest power bat in the draft – at least the Cubs didn’t make the choice based on signability or other external factors.

In 62 games this season with San Diego, Bryant hit .329/.493/.820 (that’s an OPS of 1.313, folks) with 31 HR, 62 RBI, 66 BB, 44 K, 80 R, 7 SB. I’m going to pause here for a moment so you can read that line again. This is my favorite ridiculous Bryant stat: he personally out-homered 228 of the 296 teams in Division I baseball. The BB/K ratio is excellent. Although we can’t read too much into college stats (especially since he wasn’t playing in an elite conference), all the scouts seem to agree that his power is legit. Read this report from Mike Rosenbaum and allow yourself to drool a little:

“Epitome of a power hitter; presents plus-plus raw power to all fields; chance to boast elite power at maturity with improvements; loose hands and wrists; quick trigger and reaction time; outstanding bat speed; power should always be there even if average isn’t; showcases impressive barrel control through the strike zone; excellent hip rotation creates extension through the baseball; favorable point of contact off a firm front side; generates backspin carry to all fields; power will translate with wood.”

Some scouts have commented that he may hit around .260-.270 or lower in the majors, but, as we all know, if he can walk and hit for that kind of power, he’ll be a great player to have.

Jason McLeod said that Bryant has the attributes of a middle-of-the-order hitter in the major leagues that can play at a high level for many years. Although Bryant’s power would play at any corner spot, he’ll be even more valuable if he can stick at third base. He’s 6’5″ 215 lbs. with room to grow, so I’m skeptical that he’ll stick at third once he matures fully. However, the Cubs will play him at third to start, and he’ll be given an opportunity to stick there – let’s hope he does!

After the Cubs selected Bryant, I got the feeling that they would repeat last year’s strategy of drafting a high-profile position player with the first pick (Albert Almora last year) followed by a tidal wave of pitching selections. It looks like the wave got rolling with their second round pick.

#41 Rob Zastrynzny

With the 41st pick (the second in the second round), the Cubs selected Rob Zastrynzny from the University of Missouri. I really thought that the Cubs would go with Hunter Green out of Warren East H.S. in Kentucky with this pick (Holden did a great overview of him), so I was surprised to see Zastrynzny go here (by the way, Zastrynzny is going to make all of us use copy-and-paste a lot). At first, I was a little bummed – Baseball America had him ranked 76th, he was ranked 81st by Perfect Game (at Baseball Prospectus), and he wasn’t ranked in the top 100 by MLB.com. (Were the Cubs hoping to sign him way under slot in order to pay Bryant over slot, or were they trying to save money for later picks?) However, after reading the Baseball Prospectus (Perfect Game) write-up, I feel much better. Here’s a portion:

“…Zastryzny has seen his draft stock steadily rise through the course of the spring and could hear his name heard as early as the second round. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound southpaw was undrafted out of Corpus Christi, Texas high school despite going 17-1, 0.20 with 198 strikeouts his senior year. He stepped into the Missouri rotation early in his freshman year and has built his upper-80s fastball into a pitch that now tops out at 94 mph with excellent sinking and running life at times. Zastryzny’s best secondary pitch is a low-80s changeup that has very good arm speed and matches his fastball in life and in his ability to spot the ball low in the zone. His third pitch is a curveball that is a workable offering in setting up hitters, but it is not currently a swing-and-miss pitch.”

The key there is that he has increased his fastball velocity to 94 – Zastrynzny definitely seems like a prospect on the rise. A tall lefty who has a moving fastball at that velocity sounds intriguing. I’m legitimately excited about this pick now (as excited as an Illinois grad can be about a player from Mizzou), and I’m looking forward to following his progress. After all, none of the players chosen in the second round are sure things, so this is where the front office guys earn those big salaries.

It will be interesting to follow the rest of the Cubs’ draft starting today. I expect a torrent of pitching selections, with a few position players thrown in here and there (I wouldn’t be surprised to see a catcher selected sometime early on). Although we’ll never hear about most of these players again, it’s a fun time of year for those of use that follow prospects. Enjoy!

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Game 44 – Garza Returns!

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Box Score / Highlights

Star of the Game –Travis Snider – .578 (WPA)


The Cubs have waited 10 long months for Matt Garza to return and rejuvenate…the offense?! Garza’s 2-out 2-run double in the 2nd inning was the Cubs’ most effective offensive play of the night. It’s not a great sign when most of your offense comes from the pitcher two games in a row.

On the mound, Garza was spectacular. I can’t imagine a better return for a pitcher coming off such a lengthy absence. Seriously, he deserves a shaving cream pie in the face. While he didn’t have amazing control (to be expected from someone in his situation), his stuff was unhittable. He made more than one opponent look foolish at the plate. The Pirates got their first hit in the 5th inning, and that was a weak blooper by Clint Barmes. Garza was going into the game with a strict pitch count of 85-90, so his elevated pitch counts early in the game forced his exit after 5 innings (if you are going to comment to say that Sveum should have left him in longer, please stop now – you’d be incorrect). Perhaps the biggest story for the Cubs up until the trade deadline is going to be Garza’s future. Get ready to hear A LOT about it over the next several weeks (more on that in a minute).

Unfortunately, the game continued past the 5th inning. The wheels fell of the wagon in the 6th as Hector Rondon entered the game…and left with the bases loaded and one out. Subsequently, James Russell was brought in to try to clean-up the mess. I was actually glad to see Sveum go with Russell in that situation – even though it wasn’t late in the game, it was definitely the highest leverage situation of the contest (I leave it up to you, commenter, to decide what it means to say that James Russell is the team’s best reliever). Russell proceeds to walk the unwalkable Pedro Alvarez (to be fair, it was a questionable check-swing call by the third base umpire), scoring the first Pirates’ run. Enter piñata-of-the-moment Shawn Camp, who allowed a grand slam to pinch hitter Travis Snider.

That brings me to my next thought: I really hope there is a Michael Bowden trade looming. I can’t see any other reason why the FO would DFA Bowden to make room for Garza on the roster rather than kicking Camp to the curb. I’m wary of jumping to conclusions based on small sample size, but it’s obvious that Camp is done. This is going to be a real head-scratcher if some sort of deal involving Bowden doesn’t go down.

Of course, the Cubs provided us with their patented fake rally in the ninth. Darwin Barney capped a 4 for 4 night (I know!) with a triple with one out and subsequently scored on a Starlin Castro single to bring the Cubs to within a run. Anthony Rizzo had a chance to be the hero with runners on first and third and two outs, but he struck out after a long at-bat.

(By the way, Barney needs to start sending me a portion of his game checks. He’s had a huge offensive night 100% of the time when I’ve done the recap. So what if this is only my second one?)

Returning to long-term issues, what will the Cubs do with Garza? Assuming he stays healthy and pitches well (and I realize that’s making significant assumptions at this point), there are two primary options: trade him or attempt to extend his contract. Most writers and commentators seem to think that the Cubs will trade him before the trade deadline and receive a decent prospect or two in the process. However, trading Garza isn’t a total no-brainer. He’s still only 29, and the Cubs might be able to sign him to a reasonable contract that would make him a valuable piece in the rotation for the next 3 or 4 years. So, what would you prefer? I know we’re dealing with abstract “players” here, but would you rather trade Garza for a couple of organizational top-ten-ish prospects who could be ready to contribute in a year or two at the earliest, or would you prefer to sign Garza (knowing the risks) for $13-$15 million a year for three or four years to pair with Samardzija at the top of the rotation? I suppose it depends on when you see the Cubs returning to competitiveness (and on who those prospects would actually be). If the Cubs do extend Garza, it may be a sign that they are going to start to “try” to win as early as next season. Complicating matters, if Garza pitches REALLY well for the rest of the season, the Cubs won’t be able to sign him to an extension, because he’d surely want to test free agency. There are many angles to this issue, and there are significant implications to the Cubs, so we’ll be returning to this topic again and again for the next several weeks. I look forward to some great conversations!

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