June 26, 2017

TEN PERCENT SOLUTION

Joe Maddon thinks the Cubs have been playing better in the past week.

The team has gone 6-4; mostly due to the spark of Rizzo in the lead off spot.  However, it has been feast or famine for both hitting and then pitching which keeps the Cubs mired at .500.

Even if the Cubs play at a 6-4 pace through the end of the season, they would win 90 games. 90 games could win the NL Central as most people believe the Brewers do not have the pitching to contend late in the season. Both wild cards are expected to come from the NL West.

With Schwarber demoted, Russell with a shoulder issue, Hendricks have finger tendonitis for more than a month, Zobrist has nagging injuries, Heyward on the DL, things are much rougher this season than last year's championship run.

The biggest missing pieces have been:

1. Lead off hitter. Fowler was the catalyst for the Cubs offense. As noted, for 140 years, your lead off hitter got on base, the second hitter moved him over or got on, setting the RBI table for your best hitters in the three and four slots. Bryant and Rizzo should be hitting 3 and 4. But there is no one Maddon trusts to lead off or bat second.

2. Consistent starting pitching. Arrieta is still an enigma. He has reverted to his Baltimore problems. Lackey is just about out a gas. Butler is a fifth starter which means that he can throw innings but not much is expected from him except to eat innings. The lack of starters going deep into games is taxing the bullpen. Long relief has been the premium this year, and now that Montgomery is in the #4 spot in the rotation, the Cubs are carrying an extra arm in the pen.

3. Lack of focus. It seems the Cubs are not playing with the same enthusiasm as the club did in 2016. It may be natural for a champion to let down his guard. He was won the trophy. He expects to be treated like a king. He wants to bask in the glory of his accomplishment. He wants to hold on to his place in history. He wants to reap the rewards. There have been so many Cubs with new endorsement deals and media shows that it has to have some level of distraction. There is not a concrete goal in place where the team can focus on to achieve. Getting back to the Series is not the same as remembering they won the Series.

The national baseball writers still believe that the Cubs will turn things around and play like last year's team. They still believe there is plenty of time to get on a "hot streak."  Remember when Maddon said the Cub bats would come alive in the hot weather? This June was one of the hottest on record and the Cubs bats are still in a funk.

Sending Schwarber down to the minors may have been the wake up call the team needed, but many may have slept through it. The Cubs are expected to make several major deals by the trade deadline. But finding a professional lead off hitter and a quality starter will be tough.

June 17, 2017

DRAFTING PITCHERS

In the 2017 draft, the Cubs selected 25 pitchers.  61 percent of their choices were pitchers.

20 of the 25 pitchers were in college.

7 of the 20 college pitchers were seniors.

19 of the 25 pitchers were right handed.

What does this mean?

As we have written about in this blog before, the Cubs in the Theo era have drafted more pitchers than position players. However, Theo and the gang have yet to develop one home-grown starting pitcher.

Instead, the first round emphasis had been on pure bat skills (Bryant, Schwarber, Happ, Almora).

But as this season has shown, you cannot always count on a starting staff made up of free agents (Lester, Lackey) or trade (Hendricks, Arrieta, Butler, Montgomery).

A well run organization moves players through their system on an annual basis. At each level, a prospect has to show improvement or it is time to cut bait. Players want to move up to the next level because you get more time with better coaches and better competition to hone skills.

High school prospects normally are targeted for Rookie Ball. It makes sense because the talent level is entry and a team has years of control over an 18 year. High schoolers are raw talent, usually the best player on their team or high school conference. They may be local studs but there are still years behind a college player in terms of total hours of baseball development.

Also, a 2014 draft study showed if you're going to spend a first-round pick on a player, it seems like you'd be better off drafting a college player who has a 75.39 percent chance of one day playing in the majors than a high schooler at 58.00 percent.

A team can hold onto a minor league prospect for 7 years. But there is a limitation on the number of players a team can have at each level:

Here are the roster limits by league:

Triple-A: International, Pacific Coast — 25 active.
Double-A: Eastern, Southern, Texas — 25 active.
Class A Advanced: California, Carolina, Florida State — 25 active; 35 under control; no more than two players and one player-coach on active list may have six or more years of prior Minor League service.
Class A: Midwest, South Atlantic — 25 active; 35 under control; no more than two players on active list may have five or more years of prior Minor League service.
Class A Short-Season: New York-Penn, Northwest — 35 active. No more than three players on the Active List may have four or more years of prior Minor League service.
Rookie: Appalachian, Pioneer leagues — 35 active. No more than three players on the Active List may have three or more years of prior Minor League service.
Rookie: Arizona, Gulf Coast leagues — 35 active. No player on the Active List may have three or more years of prior Minor League service.
Rookie: Venezuelan Summer, Dominican Summer — 35 active. No player on the Active List may have four or more years of prior Minor League Service. No Draft-eligible player from the U.S. or Canada (not including players from Puerto Rico) may participate in the DSL or VSL.

The Cubs, if they would sign all 41 players (highly unlikely) would need to release 41 players from their minor league system. Signability is an issue with both high school and college players. Normally, college seniors have little leverage because they cannot pass on signing to go back to school for another year. High schoolers have the option of going to college or signing a pro contract. College juniors have the most leverage; they have more experience/track record than high schoolers but can go back for their senior year if they fall below what they think is their signing bonus amount.

By drafting 7 college senior pitchers, the Cubs insure themselves of at least 7 news arms in their Class A minor teams for next season. If they hit on 40 percent of the rest of the pitchers, that is another 6 prospects in the mix.

The Cubs management realizes that it needs to draft and sign more and more pitchers to get a statistical edge that at least one or two will make it to the major league roster as a starter.

June 15, 2017

BY THE NUMBERS

Forty percent of the season has been played but the Cubs are still stuck in a bad neutral position. Nothing is consistent except their inconsistency.

People are trying to find out what is wrong with the new Cub dynasty. Maddon said yesterday maybe "youth" is to blame.

Both hitters and pitchers are to blame.

In 2016, the Cubs hit .256 BA (6th in NL). In 2017, the team is hitting only .235 (14th).  It is more than an 8 percent drop in production.

In 2016, the Cubs scored 808 runs (2nd in the NL). In 2017, the team has scored only 304 runs (8th). The Cubs 2017 run scoring is down 6 percent from 2016.

In 2016, the Cubs had 1409 hits (7th in NL). In 2017, only 517 hits (14th). It is an 8.6 percent decline in hits per game (8.7 vs. 7.95).

In 2016, the Cubs 199 HRs (5th in NL). In 2017, 90 HR (5th). The current Cubs are hitting more HR/G than last season, but scoring less runs.

In 2016, the Cubs stole 66 bases (11th in NL). In 2017, the team has 18 SB (last in NL). That is a 27.7 percent decrease in stolen bases.

In 2016, the Cubs walked 656 times (1st in NL). In 2017, the team has 260 walks (1st). Walks are only down 1.25 percent this season.

In 2016, the team OBP was .343 (1st in NL). In 2017, it is .324 (9th). That is more than a 5.5 percent decline in production.

For team pitching, it is more severe.

In 2016, the team ERA was 3.15 (1st). In 2017, team ERA is 4.20 (5th). It is more than one run higher this year. It is a 33 percent increase in ERA.

In 2016, the Cubs were best in hits allowed at 1125. In 2017, the staff has allowed 542 hits (5th in NL). That is 1.40 more hits per game (a 20 percent increase).

In 2016, the Cubs walked 495 batters (7th in NL). In 2017, the staff has walked 223 (9th in NL). That is a 12.5 percent increase in walks.

In 2016, the Cubs truck out 1441 batters (3rd in NL). In 2017, it is 593 (4th).  The 2017 Cubs are striking out more batters this season 9.12/G vs. 2016 8.9/G.

In 2016, the staff WHIP was 1.110. In 2017, it is 1.308. That is a 17.8 percent increase in WHIP.

The 2017 Cubs have maintained or done better than last year in only these categories:

HITTING:
Home Runs
Team walks

PITCHING:
Strike Outs

The striking double digit declines come in pitching categories (ERA, hits allowed, walks allowed, WHIP). There is more than 8 percent decline in hitting categories (BA, hits per game, stolen bases).

June 14, 2017

MAKING GREEN

The Cubs have announced three more private clubs for season ticket holders. Underneath the entire bowl of box seats will be private clubs where season ticket holders can spend a lot of money for an exclusive place to eat and drink before, during and after the game. The infield clubs have no views of the field and the bleacher club will have a peek into the Cubs bullpen.

It is another aspect of the Ricketts family trying to seize every dime from Cub fans who come to Lakeview for games.

But there is more.

ESPN's business sports reporter, Darrem Rovell, the Cubs are marketing to their season ticket holders a "piece" of the championship season. Literally, a piece of the ivy from 2016.

The  Cubs are offering up leaves of ivy that covered Wrigley Field's outfield wall last season to season ticket holders — and the price tag is $200 per leaf.

From Rovell:

The team emailed premier clients and season ticket holders on Tuesday offering the Ivy leaves that cover Wrigley Field's outfield walls from the 2016 season. Typically discarded when the ivy turns to red and sheds its leaves in November, the team, after the 2016 historic season, instead chose to collect the leaves for the first time and have them each authenticated with a hologram.

2,016 leaves will be sold. $403,200 in additional revenue to the Cubs.

How much more will premier season ticket holders have to pay to support their team?


June 10, 2017

LOAD UP THE BUS

Joe Maddon has never been shy about using platoons.

He says that he needs to keep his bench players "fresh" so he tries to start them at least one a week.

A platoon situation in the major leagues is really a concession that the team does not have one full-time major league player at that position. You have a player who may hit right handers better than the other guy, and thus the lineup card is dictated purely by match-ups.

The Cubs have found themselves in an unusual Triple Platoon situation. Ian Happ, Albert Almora and Jon Jay are all playing regular center field for the Cubs. Add in the occasion move of Jason Heyward to center to have Ben Zobrist in right, center field has become a summer park district program.

Center field production is one of the many Cub 2017 issues.

Almora has played in 49 games. He is hitting .268, 3 HR, 12 RBI, .322 OBP.
Newcomer Happ has played in 24 games. He is hitting .213, 5 HR, 10 RBI, .315 OBP.
Bench player Jay has played in 49 games. He is hitting .296, 0 HR, 10 RBI, .386 OBP.

You don't think your center fielder will be the tops in any category (Colorado's Blackmon is an exception in RBI), but the leaders in categories show how far off the Cubs players are:

HR leader: Judge 18.
RBI leader: Lamb 56.
BA leader: Zimmerman .365.
OBP leader: Trout .461.

Contributing to the Cubs offensive woes is that default starting LF Kyle Schwarber is hitting a season low .170, 10 HR, 25 RBI, .297 OBP. Also in a funk (on and off the field) is Addison Russell. He is hitting only .209, 3 HR, 19 RBI and .291 OBP.

Normally,  Happ, Schwarber, and Russell would be candidates to be sent down to the minors to work on their game (physically and mentally). But there is no one in Iowa is begging for a promotion. The best CF is Jacob Hanneman, but he is hitting .400 in only 5 games (0 HR, 3 RBI). He must have been hastily promoted because in AA he only hit .180, 1 HT, 6 RBI in 34 games. Likewise, the Iowa shortstop, Ozzie Martinez, is hitting a light .219, o HR and 8 RBI in 40 games. The best Iowa middle infielder this season was Happ.

In one respect, the Cubs could load up the bus and send a bunch of players to Iowa. But in another respect, there is no one worthy of being called up to fill their places.

June 3, 2017

QUICK FADE

In 2015, Pirate OF Andrew McCutcheon was on top of the baseball world. He was an All-Star. He was 5th in the MVP voting. He was only 28 years old. He was a leader in a resurgent, young Pittsburgh club.

He was rumored to be in trade talks (his contract expires in 2017). But the Pirates kept him to anchor CF and hit third in the lineup.

In 2015, McCutcheon hit .292, 23 HR, 96 RBI, .401 OBP, 4.9 WAR. Great production. Great teammate. Great clubhouse leader.

Then in 2016, things quickly began to turn. He hit .256, 24 HR, 79 RBI, .376 OBP and a negative 0.7 WAR. At age 29, his plate discipline (OBP) and defense began to diminish.

Now, 51 games into the 2017 season, writers are saying it is shocking that a 30 year old former All Star is a shell of his former self. He is hitting only .217, 8 HR, 24 RBI, .290 OBP, and negative 0.4 WAR. He can no longer handle center field duties.  For an entire season, he projects to hit .217, 24 HR, 72 RBI, .290 OBP and negative 1.2 WAR.

One would think that injuries would be the cause of the massive production drop. In 2014, he had an oblique injury. In 2015, he was hit by a pitch on his elbow. Since then, there has been no reported major injury news.

This season he has been benched for lack of production, and dropped in the lineup to #6 (where he has recently responded with a GW HR).

But no one is seeing a great turnover by the former All Star.

Baseball is a hard and cruel game. There are so many moving mental and physical parts that a break down in one element can signal the end of a career. It is still shocking to see it happen so quickly to a player of the caliber of McCutcheon.