Archive for the ‘Featured’ Category

Does Baseball Need to Change?

Friday, January 30th, 2015

The game of baseball has changed many times over the years. Like any successful endeavor, baseball must evolve to stay fair for players, exciting for fans, and yes, as much as we may not like to think about it, marketable to a wider audience (and the advertisers who covet those eyeballs).  While baseball’s attendance and TV viewership are both healthy at this point, its never bad to be proactive if making changes could enhance the future popularity of the sport. Modifications to the game have included raising or lowering the mound, adding the DH in the AL, and, most recently, adding instant replay challenges. There has been a flurry of news recently in regard to proposed changes to game, from banning defensive shifts (covered by Brian here - I agree that it’s not necessary), to installing a pitch clock, to forcing all pitchers to face a minimum of two batters. Those last two ideas relate to what seems to be the primary concern of those waving the “change or die” flag: shortening the length of the game. It seems clear that game length is the primary concern of MLB right now. From a Yahoo! article by Mike Oz:

“In September, MLB initiated its “Pace of Game” committee that would be exploring ways to speed up games, which had reached a record 3:08 in 2014. In 1984, the average game time was 2:40, so MLB has added almost 30 minutes in 30 years.”

The Pitch Clock

The pitch clock experiment began in the recent Arizona Fall League, and the 17 games in which it was used were an average 10 minutes shorter than the average AFL games the previous season. The pitch clock will now be used in AA and AAA this season (along with a rule requiring the batter to keep one foot in the batter’s box). In this scenario, pitchers have 20 seconds to come set on the rubber, or a ball is added to the count. Of course, Rule 8.04 already exists, which gives pitchers 12 seconds maximum between pitches, but umpires don’t enforce it. Many in the media are for this change:

Pitch clocks are (eventually) coming to baseball – SB Nation

MLB needs a pitch clock — and support for the idea is growing - New York Daily News

The Pitch Clock Is Getting Closer – Deadspin

…and others are against:

A pitch clock in Major League Baseball? No thanks … - Hardball Talk

Major League Baseball doesn’t need a pitch clock - Bless You Boys

…and then there’s are own Jon Lester (no surprise here):

Jon Lester is firmly against pitch clocks in baseball - Yahoo!

My opinion? Instituting any sort of clock is a major change for the game – not that major changes are necessarily bad. However, I think I’d prefer if the umps just enforced Rule 8.04. I know umps probably don’t enforce it because there’s no clock, but I think they could handle this if they were empowered by MLB.

Pitchers Facing a Minimum of Two Batters

Ken Rosenthal recently wrote a column entitled: “Make Relievers Face More Than 1 Batter for Faster Game, More Offense.” Guess who ol’ Ken reports the idea came from…yes, your very own President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. It is an intriguing idea. I’m thinking about all the ways it would change strategy – from bringing in relievers and pinch hitters to bullpen construction. This was just an idea floated at the GM meetings and taken up by Rosenthal – no formal proposal has been made.

So, what do you think? Have baseball games become too long? If so, and if they need to be shortened, are these the right strategies? Are there other ways to shorten games that won’t affect gameplay as much as these ideas? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have a great weekend.

 

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My Grandmother and Mr. Cub

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Looking back it seems somewhat ridiculous really.  A piece of paper with a quick message and a signature on it. For years my grandmother and her twin sister attended the Duke Children’s Golf Classic, which up until a few years back, was held in Durham,NC and raised money for Duke Children’s Hospital.  Picture the Pebble Beach Pro-Am without the Pro golfers and big name A-list celebs.  A large majority of the players were ex-athletes of various professional sports.  They definitely brought some decent names to the tourney and by no means was it a small ordeal.  My grandmother had a few favorites that she looked forward to seeing each year, but there were two that stood out for her….Sonny Shroyer (Enos from Dukes of Hazzard) and Ernie Banks. She told me Ernie always had time for his fans. He would hang around and take a picture or sign an autograph and acted like it was his pleasure to do so. Prior to her mention of Ernie Banks, I wouldn’t really say I was a Cub fan.  Growing up in southeast Detroit makes you a Tigers fan, and I loved the Tigers and still do.  However, to this day I blame Ernie Banks and my grandmother for making me a Cub fan too. It sounds crazy but on my birthday in 1987 my grandmother handed me the little piece of paper you see attached to this post, one that I have kept ever since.  It instantaneously made me a fan of a team I would come to learn were known as “The Lovable Losers”. I didn’t start out a huge fan as I was for my Tigers, but a good fan from afar if you will. It is nutty the little things that can happen to make a 12 year old child find interest in a sports team.  A hat from an uncle, a mitt with a facsimile autograph in the palm, or a piece of paper with a signature.  Moving to Chicago some 10 years later would seal the deal for me. Sometimes, all it takes is a kind gesture from an athlete passed on by a grandmother, and a team gets a new fan.

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Why Jon Lester Should Not Get David Ross as His Personal Catcher

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

As with most who will be writing about the Cubs this week, I’m going to start with something brief on the great Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. I am too young to have watched Ernie play, but he has been a constant presence in Cubdom for so long, that it just seems… wrong… that he no longer will be a physical presence with the team. I really have nothing to say that others have not said more eloquently in the last several days. I am, however, grateful that I work right around the corner from Daley Plaza, where the statute of Banks will be placed from Wednesday through Saturday, so I will be able to pay my respects to Mr. Cub.

On that note, though, we all know what Ernie would want more than anything else: a World Series championship on the North Side in 2015, so we’ll turn to my topic of the week on something that could affect the Cubs’ results in the coming season: Jon Lester and his catcher. When the Cubs signed Lester, a lot of people thought that the Cubs would make a run at his personal catcher in Boston in 2013 and the first half of 2014, David Ross.

While it made sense for Lester to have Ross as his personal catcher in Boston, it would not in Chicago. In 2013, the Red Sox’s primary catcher was Jarrod Saltalamacchia, an offense first catcher with somewhere between below average (in 2013) and utterly terrible (in 2014) pitch framing skills. In 2014, the Red Sox brought in A.J. Pierzynski, a terrible defensive catcher as well as a poor framer, to the start the season as their primary catcher. As a defender and a receiver, Ross was a huge upgrade over the regular starter.

This was an upgrade worth giving Boston’s ace pitcher, even with Ross being terrible offensively against right handed pitchers. While Lester has very good stuff, he is not an overpowering pitcher, with fastball velocity averaging just under 92 miles per hour last season. He succeeds as much on excellent control, especially over the past couple of seasons, as anything else. And when you rely on control, getting those strikes on the edges, or just outside the edges, called as strikes is vital.

Moreover, Lester’s biggest weakness is controlling the running game. His pickoff move is essentially non-existent, and we saw in the AL wild card game what could happen to him without a competent battery mate when Geovany Soto went down with injury midway through the game.

Yet all these reasons present in Boston to give Lester the defensive minded backup catcher are not present in Chicago. The Cubs have two excellent defensive catchers and pitch framers in Ross and Miguel Montero. Montero hits right handed pitching, but struggles against left handed pitching, while Ross does the opposite. However, there is not a meaningful difference in defensive and receiving prowess between the two: they are both very good in both skills. Lester doesn’t need the defensive minded backup here because the primary starter is also defensively strong, and the Cubs will be a lot better offensively running a straight platoon with Montero and Ross whenever possible. Since playing to Montero’s and Ross’s offensive strengths is what is most likely to improve the team, that should be the Cubs’ priority in choosing who starts on a day to day basis.

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Banning The Shift? Not Necessary, Rob Manfred

Monday, January 26th, 2015

On just his first day as Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred is already making waves. In a sit down interview with Karl Ravech of ESPN, Manfred proposed some changes that the league could potentially consider over the next couple of years.

Though he made quite a few statements, the one that stood out to most fans was that he was considering banning defensive shifts. Naturally, just like any rule that would change the way that the game is played, die-hard fans lashed out on social media and are already ready to burn him at the stake.

It’s certainly not necessary to get that worked up over it, as this certainly will not “ruin the game” as many have claimed, but that proposed rule change not a great idea by any means.

In his brief explanation of why the rule could potentially be changed, Manfred noted decreasing offensive numbers and longer game times as reasons behind it. While those are both concerning issues that the game needs to face, this would not be the way to go about making improvements.

Though shifts have grabbed more headlines over the past year or two, they are by no means a new concept. They have existed ever since the formation of baseball, but they’ve just gotten much more numbers-driven and a bit more complex over the years.

Despite the shift, the league average for BABIP has steadily risen since the 1960’s and has sat around the .290-.300 range for the past 20 years or so. The problem is not that the batters are hitting into the shift, it’s that they’re hitting the ball at a much lower rate than they once were.

While you can make the argument that pitching has improved over the years due to the variety of training methods that are now available, one of the main factors in the increased strikeout rate is the expansion of the strike zone.

In a study done last year by Jon Roegele of The Hardball Times, it was shown that the strike zone is growing larger and larger with each passing year and is 40 square inches larger now than what it was just six years ago.

Not only are umpires getting more lenient with their strike calls, it’s the area of the zone that is expanding that is especially troubling. Pitches in the bottom of the zone are being called more often than ever, as the zone below 21 inches has grown a robust 47 square inches in just six years.

Pitchers have clearly taken note of this expansion and have begun targeting the lower half of the zone. Not only have they picked up more strike calls down there than ever before, but in turn it has made the hitters swing at pitches that they never would have if the strike zone was being called the way the rulebook says it should be.

Along with having umpires stick to the rulebook definition of the strike zone, there’s another way that the league can make games more exciting without making wholesale changes to the sport.

Some have suggested a pitch clock, but many have fought back on that idea, as the baseball is the only sport that doesn’t have a time limit. I’m in favor of a clock, but not one on pitchers.

The best way to cut down game times would be to put a clock on batters when they step out of the batter’s box, which is seemingly after every pitch. Travis Sawchick, a writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, found that in one game there were 190 instances of a player stepping out of the box after a pitch.

This sounds like a truly staggering number and it gets worse when considering the amount of time that those stoppages accounted for; 40 minutes. Putting a clock on batters, or even just a restriction on the amount of times that a player can step out of the box, would drastically decrease game times and potentially make the sport less “boring” to casual fans.

There are some changes that baseball could be undergoing within the next few years, but the elimination of defensive shifts should definitely not be one of them. With options like closing the strike zone back up and putting a clock on batters, there are plenty of better alternatives to increase offense and decrease game times.

Should the MLB ban defensive shifts? Would getting the strike zone back to regulation size and instituting a clock on batters be better alternatives? What other options could the MLB go with to give offenses a boost other than steroids, as well as decreasing game times?

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GirlieView (01/22/2015)

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

GirlieView Definitions

  • Lizzie = A funny, timely quote made on the VFTB site by our writers or commenters.
  • Lizard = The best Lizzie.
  • MVL = Most Valuable Lizzie’er: The person with the most Lizzies in the period under review (usually the past two weeks.)
  • Top 10 of the 2014-2015 Offseason = The folks with the most aggregate Lizzie points YTD (1 point for every Lizzie, 3 points for every Lizard.)

As you already know, this is all completely subjective and according to my whims.

Lizzies

  • I now have Butts looking up my back side, not good, I bet he won’t even send flowers.
  • Looks like Dork and I get one cheek each. Great.
  • You’ll probably get a sandwich.
  • Theriot, Fontenot, Miles.
  • Also, three of those four QB’s have ties to Wisconsin in their sports careers. We don’t have a whole lot to cling to here in the frozen tundra except for our guns and God, so we’ll take whatever we can get.
  • Little known fact, but former Cub Jeff Samardzija played college football at Notre Dame. Not kidding…look it up.
  • Did you have similar bios ready to go on Flacco, Manning, Newton and Romo?
  • The 1991 Laketown Tigers (Little League) turned the only triple play in league history…1-5-4-3. Those kids? You guessed it…Flacco, Manning, Newton and Romo.
  • Wow! you can’t make this shit up.
  • It was the snag, spin and dish from 2 year old Cam that really made this special.
  • Mike Olt was in the middle of his more extended period of being allowed to flail at every breaking pitch thrown at him in his stint as a semi-regular starter at third base.
  • The biggest thing that happened was that the bullpen went from “oh dear, this is bad” awful to quite good.
  • Hopefully we can all look forward to a point where a reliever comes in late with a run or two lead and we can feel good about it, or at least not have to have the Rolaids ready.
  • The 22 Million is a sunk cost, I would rather have talent on the roster.
  • These are my thoughts on it too. If you can pay Edwin Jackson to be replacement level or worse, or pay Edwin Jackson plus someone to be league minimum to provide value to the team, you do the latter.
  • …and why do we allow a team to be called “the Buck-eyes” anyway. Is that not racially in sensitive to the family Cervidae?
  • And why do we allow the Cowboys to be called “the Cowboys?” Does that not imply they are fighting Indians?
  • And what about the Vikings? Are all Scandinavians allowed to be discriminated against?
  • Andy Rooney has really opened a can of worms.
  • Worms are a sensitive subject for those of us who are dead.
  • Mike Olt struck out more than Seymour at a “gentlemens” club.
  • Someone get Noah on the line…we have some platoons to hammer out.
  • Mark Prior had a pretty hard fall from grace.
  • What was he doing on top of Mark Grace anyway?
  • According to Jesse Rogers, the move “elevates their offense more than any other move this offseason”. Thank you captain obvious, as they have only made a move to essentially add a defensive starting catcher.
  • The Capn’s lawyer will be calling you for invoking his likeness without renumeration.
  • The fact that he HAS patience at the plate? HUGE addition to the team that never met a slider in the dirt it didn’t LOVE.

Lizard

  • My 3 favorite Cubs? Whoever is at bat, on deck, and in the hole.

Shout Outs

  • Big shout out to Andy Rooney for his first 2014 off-season Lizzies!!!! I could be wrong, but these might be the first posthumous Lizzies. Does anyone remember any others?

MVL

  • Congratulations to Seymour Butts, our Most Valuable Lizzie-er this time! Way to go Butts!

Top 10 of the 2014-2015 Offseason (one point for each Lizzie, three points for the Lizard)

1. Eddie Von White
2. jswanson
3. Doc Raker
4. Seymour Butts
5. Doug S.
6. Dork
6. Noah Eisner
8. Jerry in Wisconsin
9. Jedi
10. Joe Aiello
10. SBardo

Chit Chat

If you have to choose one or the other, who do you want to win the Super Bowl? (I say “have to” because neither of my picks won last weekend. But I don’t care for the Patriots (understatement) so I’m all in for Seattle even though I wanted Green Bay.)

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Trade Reaction: Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily for Dexter Fowler

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

If you missed the news yesterday, the Cubs made a trade to acquire the services of Dexter Fowler, sending Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily to the Astros in return. According to Jesse Rogers, the move “elevates their offense more than any other move this offseason”. Thank you captain obvious, as they have only made a move to essentially add a defensive starting catcher. While I do think the move is a nice one, I don’t know that it’s that huge. Let’s break it down.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE OUTFIELD

The addition of Fowler gives the Cubs an every day centerfielder and begins to clear up some of the mystery around the short term future of the outfield. Fowler has just over five years of ML service time, so he will be a free agent at the end of the season. The Cubs will need to decide on what their need is and determine if Fowler is one to fill it. With Albert Almora still probably two full seasons away from being the starter, assuming normal development, it will be an interesting decision.

As of right now, Jorge Soler will start in RF and Fowler will start in CF and probably hit leadoff. That leaves LF, where you can see a host of potentials all fighting to earn the spot. Chris Coghlan will probably get the first shot, given his play last year, but Arismendy Alcantara, Junior Lake, and Ryan Sweeney  could all figure into the mix as well. My guess is that it’s Coghlan’s job to lose with Sweeney backing up most of the OF spots.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE INFIELD

Here it gets a little more interesting. Valbuena figured to be the starter at third out of spring training, so moving him means there are a couple of scenarios. First, we could see Mike Olt get his last stand before being banished to the land of the forgotten third base prospects. It’s a land inhabited by names like Kevin Orie and Josh Vitters, Olt has to produce at this point. Another scenario puts Javier Baez at third with Tommy La Stella at second. I haven’t quite figured out what I think about La Stella yet, so I’m not sure where I stand on this one. In a perfect world, I’d dislike it because it means Olt failed and I really want him to be a guy. The final option, which I am diametrically opposed to is for Kris Bryant to get the opening day start at third. To do this, would be reckless and silly.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE ROTATION

Absolutely nothing. Dan Straily did not have a spot on this team and was probably not ever going to find a role. He’s ML ready so the Astros can give him a shot to show what he can do.

OVERALL CONCLUSION

I think it was a slightly too much to pay for Fowler, but it helps the Cubs look even more like a .500 or better team in 2015 and that’s the goal. It gets us better now without sacrificing the future.

FAN REACTION

 

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Watch Out, Spectators, The Cubs Have Signed Daniel Bard

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Amidst the big-name free agent signings that have filled this offseason, the Chicago Cubs have made a move that somehow seemed to go unnoticed to the majority of fans and analysts alike. Last weekend, the team came to terms with former Boston Red Sox flamethrower Daniel Bard on a minor-league deal with an invite to Spring Training.

If you had been in a coma for the last five years, this may have seemed like a groundbreaking deal with the Cubs signing one of the top relief men in baseball, but unfortunately things have taken a turn for the worst and Bard’s career has completely fallen off the rails.

After breaking into the league with the Red Sox in 2009, Bard quickly asserted himself as a potential closer of the future for the team, striking out 63 batters in less than 50 innings of work. While he was doing his job well, troubled loomed on the horizon in the form of a BB/9 of over 4.

The next season went even better for Bard, as his ERA dropped below 2 (with a FIP over 3.30, however) and he became a consistent option for Terry Francona in the 8th inning. With Jonathan Papelbon’s contract set to expire following the 2011 season, it appeared that the Red Sox were set with Bard as the closer moving forward.

The beginning of the 2011 season seemed to reinforce that notion, especially with outings featuring pitches like this one he threw to Nick Swisher in April of that year:

Through the first half of the season, Bard was lights out yet again, posting a 2.05 ERA and holding opposing batters to a measly .161 batting average. Much like the rest of the team who experienced one of the worst collapses in baseball history, Bard completely fell of the table in the second half.

Many attribute the Red Sox converting him to a starter as the reason for his downfall, but the cracks began to come to the surface during the second half of 2011, where he had a 5.28 ERA and walked 13 batters in just 29 innings. The month of September was far and away his worst, as he threw to a 10.64 ERA and walked 9 in 11 innings.

Since his dominant performance in the 2009-half of 2011 seasons, Bard has been completely unable to find the strike zone. Call it Steve Blass or Rick Ankiel Syndrome, it doesn’t matter; this is the case of a player that just has lost any ability to throw strikes.

Take last season in Single-A with the Texas Rangers for example; In just 0.2 innings and facing only 18 batters, Bard managed to walk 9 men and hit 7 others. If you’re keeping score at home, he either walked or hit 16 of the 18 batters that came up to the plate. This resulted in an ungodly 13 earned runs during that small time frame, which earned his release from the team.

It was prior to this time with the Rangers that Bard was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS), which causes pain in the arm and hand, as well as weakening the muscles in those areas and making it tough to grip anything. As you can guess, that’s a pretty key area for a major league pitcher.

Even with this surgery, however (one that other pitchers like Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Chris Young have underwent), Bard was not able to find the magic that he had 5 years ago. With his physical problems handled, you have to imagine that some of his issues have to be mental.

I was a big fan of Bard during his days in Boston so I’m really hoping for his sake that he’s able to put it all together, but I just don’t know if I can see it happening. His lack of control is almost unprecedented and it’d take a miracle for him to get anywhere near the major league level once again, let alone succeed at it.

This contract comes with nearly zero risk to the Cubs and it’s worth taking a shot given his previous success, but anyone hoping for the Bard of old is more than likely going to be highly disappointed.

How do you feel about the Cubs signing of Daniel Bard? Can you think of any other players that fell off the table as quickly and as steeply as he did?

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The Final Frontier: The Cubs’ Convention

Friday, January 16th, 2015

I used to have an ongoing argument with one of my co-workers; which franchise is cooler…Star Wars or Star Trek? Having seen Star Wars (now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope) three times in the theater as an eight year old, it’s pretty obvious where I stood on the divide.  I never had any interest in Star Trek as a kid, although I may have had a toy or two.  As I aged, and “Trekkies” and their conventions were labeled as gatherings of basement dwelling nerds, (see the classic William Shatner SNL sketch) I became further entrenched in my Star Wars preference. (In my defense this was prior to the putrid prequels… Damn you, Lucas!) Perhaps I was stereotyping Star Trek fans…but I never planned on attending a convention to validate or refute my preconceptions.

I had also never attended the convention for my favorite baseball team until last year. (I really don’t have a phobia of conventions…I did go to Beatle Fest when I was in college.) However, after authoring a semi-successful (and very well- reviewed) book, I was “chosen” to be a vendor at the 2014 Cubs’ Convention.  Unfortunately when you are “chosen”, you still have to pay for the booth and hotel room…but that’s what my accountant is for.  It was a great experience, and I came away with three overarching themes for the weekend.

  1. It was Fun

It was surreal and humbling to be in this place; my booth next to the great Pat Hughes, signing and fortunately selling about 110 copies of my book.  The days were long, yet the time flew by as I sat at my booth the entire time, my brothers the beneficiaries of my convention passes to all of the presentations. I loved interacting with the fans, signing my book…people wanting me to sign for them (hence the “surreal” feeling).  These types of moments have been the most rewarding part of the book writing experience, just meeting and talking to people.

One family I met was particularly intriguing. They informed me they were close personal friends of the Bartmans. Yes…that Bartman family.  Being that I have always been a Steve Bartman sympathizer and never in the least bit held him responsible for the 2003 disaster, (heck…it’s one of the reasons I wrote the book!) I asked if they could get a copy to Steve and they agreed to try. Unfortunately, he declined the offer.  Leaving me to wonder if he did not realize my book exonerates him, or that the poor guy is still suffering from shell-shock.  If you are out there, Steve Bartman, I would still love to get you a copy!

Other than that missed rare opportunity, the interactions at my booth were wonderful, humbling and just plain fun….and I look forward to it again on Friday, January 16, 2015.

  1. It was Weird

Okay, here is where the Star Trek connection comes in. I think a portion of Cubs’ fans who attend the convention are the equivalent to Trekkies.  I mean this in the nicest way, (Does that sound sincere?) but I felt like I was in an alternate Cubiverse. The outfits: hats that would make Elton John blush, jerseys with names of players who played ten games for the Cubs, and loads and loads of people cavorting in Cubs pajamas.  Cubs’ tattoos were also aplenty; in fact, one fellow with the numbers 10, 26, and 14 emblazoned permanently on his shiny dome. (Google it…please)

Yet the weirdest part of my weekend occurred in the men’s room (Insert your own joke). I must warn you, this story borders on the tasteless. If you are easily offended, you may want to skip to the next section.  As I was standing at the urinal in one of the luxurious (seriously…they are very nice!) washrooms of the Sheraton, I was startled by an incredible noise emanating from one of the stalls.  It sounded…all at once…like a murder taking place, a birth occurring, or some regurgitating an entire marching band.  I am NOT exaggerating; it was like nothing I ever heard before or since. (In fact, back to Star Wars…it was a sound possibly reminiscent of what a Wookie’s washroom might sound like). I was honestly frightened, and decided to finish my business and hightail it out of there. Alas…I was too late. The door of the stall flew open like an old western saloon door and out walked an individual I instantly recognized.

I really don’t want to besmirch or embarrass this person too much, so I will conceal his identity as much as possible…and if you don’t want to know, skip ahead to the next section. The man who walked out of the stall was dressed in a full Cubs uniform, is a self-appointed Cubs’ mascot and his name rhymes with Donnie Boo-Boo.

  1. Pat Hughes is Awesome

I was very excited to find out my booth was located next to the Cubs’ radio play-by-play voice.  When he arrived to his booth, I approached him stating, “Mr. Hughes.” He immediately stopped me and said, “Call me Pat.”

Of all the experiences of my initial Cubs’ Convention, my impression of Pat Hughes will always remain the strongest.  Even if I were the world’s most proficient writer, I could not do justice to the grace and humility this man showed.  Throughout the weekend, he was constantly under siege for photo-ops and autographs…requests that make many celebrities and semi-celebrities run away screaming, as if this is beneath them.  “Pat” treated them all as if they were all old friends, remembering many by name, and taking time to engage with each of them.  I was truly amazed, and I wish others handled “celebrity status” with the same modesty and elegance. I learned that I should try to emulate Pat in any future endeavors dealing with people, but his is a lofty standard.

The 2015 Convention is almost upon us, and this year should have a much more positive vibe with Joe Maddon, Jon Lester and prospects galore! I highly recommend it if you have the opportunity. I have decided to give it another go this year.  I hope to sell some books, meet some people, and hopefully experience all of the weirdness and fun again.

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The Importance of the Bullpen for the 2015 Cubs

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

From May 17 through July 4 of 2014, the Cubs were one of the better teams in baseball, going 25-19 (a .568 winning percentage, which is a 94 win pace) over the 44 game stretch. Yet, after that game, the Cubs went ahead and traded what had been their best two starting pitchers to that point, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, to the Oakland Athletics for Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, and Dan Straily. We all know why the Cubs were sellers despite the impressive month and a half run to Independence Day: through May 16 the Cubs went just 13-27, digging a hole that almost no team could surpass.

But why were they 13-27 over the first month and a half of the season? There are two primary reasons. First, the Cubs spent April with a largely ineffective Carlos Villanueva filling in for a rehabbing Jake Arrieta when the Cubs couldn’t avoid throwing a fifth starter. Second, and more importantly, the Cubs’ bullpen was terrible. Over the first 40 games of the season, a pitcher coming out of the bullpen tallied the loss in 11 games. In the final 122 games of the season, a reliever was tagged with the loss in just 14 games. While win-loss record is not a good way to determine pitcher effectiveness, it’s generally a bad thing when your relief core gives up the go ahead run in more than a quarter of your games.

So what was the big thing that changed with the Cubs around May 17? None of the prospects had been called up. Mike Olt was in the middle of his more extended period of being allowed to flail at every breaking pitch thrown at him in his stint as a semi-regular starter at third base. Junior Lake was getting regular playing time. The biggest thing that happened was that the bullpen went from “oh dear, this is bad” awful to quite good.

The bullpen went from having an ineffective Jose Veras closing, along with an injured Pedro Strop and a mediocre James Russell as setup men at the start of the season to what I see as one of the more underrated bullpens in baseball heading into 2015. The Cubs have four power right handed relievers who can get hitters from both side of the plate out: Hector Rondon, Neil Ramirez, a healthy Strop, Justin Grimm, and free agent import Jason Motte. Another hard throwing right hander, Cuban import Armando Rivero, is just about ready for the Majors, and at least one of the Cubs’ glut of fifth starters is likely to end up in the bullpen. While I’m rooting for Jacob Turner to put enough together to be the fifth starter due to his upside, he could be a very good relief pitcher with just some minor adjustments right now.

The Cubs are going to have to rely on this vastly improved (and quite inexpensive) bullpen early in the year as the prospects and second year players (yes, Baez and Alcantara are now considered second year players), when it wouldn’t be surprising for the Cubs to go on some extended runs where they struggle to score runs. If the Cubs’ pitching, including its underrated bullpen, can keep them in the race over the first half of the season, the Cubs will be in a great position to make a run in the second half as the young hitters (hopefully) continue to come along.

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