November 1, 2019

THE COLLABORATOR

David Ross is the new Cubs manager.

It really did not surprise many people.

But it is a surprise hire if you thought the Cubs were ready to win in 2020.

It was no surprise because Cubs ownership needed a new "face" for the franchise after letting Joe Maddon go to the Angels. For all the "marquee" players on the roster, it was Maddon who talked to the press at least twice daily. Ross becomes the new hire because he was a popular, folklore figure from the 2016 championship team. He has a reputation of a good clubhouse leader. He had a "get in your face" attitude with his teammates. Whether he can transition from being a teammate to being their boss is an open question.

If Maddon was the only thing holding the Cubs back from a long 2019 post-season run, then one would have assumed that his replacement would be an experienced, championship caliber manager (Girardi). But the Cubs clearly signaled that they did not want to have an independent dugout voice.

The Cubs continue to spend a fortune on more layers of administrative baseball staff (like new directors of hitting and pitching) to feed more technology and information into the current team coaches (who are not going to lose their jobs with the Ross hire). Theo and Company have built a front office like baseball is a video game that they can control from their skybox. Reams of analytical data has replaced an experienced manager's gut instincts.

The press conference attempted to stress the "qualifications" of Ross to be the next Cub skipper.
Theo said the club had been grooming Ross to be the manager since he left the team in 2016. He has been a special assistant. He sat in on scouting meetings. He sat in the amateur draft. He spent this spring training shadowing Maddon. Ross said that he wanted to become a manager when he was a player, so he observed and learned from Bobby Cox and Maddon.

Not lost on anyone is the fact that Ross has not managed at any level. Ross has not coached at any professional level. If the Cubs were grooming him to take over for Maddon, why did not Ross manage a Cubs minor league team? He had three years to get some managerial experience.

But he did not. And the Cubs did not think it was necessary. Why? Because the Cubs are not looking for a manager but a front office collaborator. A person the GM and staff can control.

Just as an experienced manager would demand a working knowledge of what the team would do for him (i.e. spend on free agents, the health of the current roster and farm system) and a pledge from ownership to spend money in the off-season (as Maddon received from the Angels), Ross was in no position to get those promises. And the Cubs could not offer them.

Tom Ricketts clearly stated that the 2020 Cubs would rebuild from within, which was another clear statement that the Cubs would not be spenders in free agency. With the farm system one of the worst in baseball, and Theo's inability to draft, develop and promote a major league starting pitcher, next year's Cubs will be the same team unless major star(s) are traded for young talent.

But as the Nationals showed you can win a championship by getting rid of your franchise player (Harper). However, it only works when you have a young rookie phenom like Soto to take his place. The Cubs have a roster construction problem. There are no minor league prospects pushing for a major league roster spot.

Will Ross be a figurehead or will he put his own stamp on the Cubs? That is the million dollar question. No one has inferred that the players quit on Maddon. The complaint was Maddon was not getting the best out of the talent on the roster. But it may be that the front office continues to overvalue their talent.

A slow start. A rash of injuries. The first real 2020 crisis will show whether Ross will be an independent voice of accountability or another Cubs PR person.

October 18, 2019

MARQUEE NETWORK

It was announced yesterday that the Cubs Marquee Network signed its
first carriage deal with AT&T's DirectTV (dish) and U-verse (cable) platforms.

No terms were announced, as in how much it will cost subscribers per month.

The Cubs floated numbers around $6 to $12 per month.

The Marquee contract was part of a deal where Sinclair, the Cubs partner,  bundled its 21 regional sports networks into one deal with AT&T to carry their networks.

DirectTV is going with the business model of being Sports heavy in content
while DishTV is cutting or eliminating sports programming to be the
cheaper alternative in the Dish industry.

Also, AT&T has been trying to get its cable platform (fiber optic network) users to move to Direct TV
to save costs of maintaining cables.

I could not find a reference to AT&T's cable market share for Chicago, but
nationally it appears that Comcast has 57% share to AT&T's 8%.

On the bad news side of things, 92% of Cub fans in Chicago metro market could be
blacked out of Cubs games (The Dodgers Network disaster), or at best, 43% could receive it (highly doubtful Comcast is going to carry a competitor and small cable operators are not going to pay hefty new carriage fees.

In reality, the best outcome for the Cubs is actually a 14% decrease in market availability
from the expired Comcast arrangement. Good work Crane Kenney. Good work Tom Ricketts.

In addition, the Marquee Network has no marquee names in the talent department. Len Kasper and Jim DeShaies contracts expired in October. The radio crew may have one year left on their deals.

Bob Costas was interviewed this week. He was asked if wanted to be the face of the Cubs new network. He said he was not contacted but he would say no. He was not interested in local baseball broadcasting at this point in his career. David Kaplan turned down an offer to be the "face" of the Cubs network which was a telling sign by the self-proclaimed number one Cubs fan.

Besides having no "face" of the new network in place, there have been no program announcements other thanthe 150 games of the 2020 season. How will Marquee fill 24 hours a day? That is the expensive question.

October 15, 2019

THE OFF-SEASON

The Cubs have a monumental work load this off-season. Whether ownership and management realize it is another story.

Front and center is a new managerial hire. The question is whether the new manager will be more effective than Maddon, or will he be handcuffed by front office hires. Maddon had to accept the rotation of coaches hired by the front office. A new, experienced manager would want to hire his "own guys" to make sure his philosophies are implemented with the players. But the Cubs clearly do not operate that way. The front office has embrace high technology and advanced statistics to the point that they believe a baseball game is no different than a computer game. It is more than likely the new Cubs skipper will be a figurehead manager.

For a long time, we have been on the roster construction issue. The Esptein Cubs have drafted quality hitters, but only Kris Bryant has proven to meet expectations when not injured. Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora and Ian Happ have become platoon players. You cannot field a team of .235 hitters and expect to win.

Where are the area needing upgraded improvements?

1. SECOND BASE. There has been a convention of players who tried to play the position. No one has made a lasting impression as a starting second baseman. Theo & Company have fallen into the Jim Hendry trap of drafting and promoting multiple second basemen to play various positions (not well). As it currently stands, is Addison Russell your starting 2020 second baseman? (cringe). Or is it unexpected rookie call up Nico Hoerner? (maybe).

2. CENTER FIELD. Albert Almora had an opportunity to take the CF position but failed. He cannot hit major league pitching. Jason Heyward played center to the detriment of his defense and his offense. When he was playing right field and batting 5th or 6th in the line-up, he was nearly a .300 hitter. When Maddon moved him to center and lead off (out of necessity) he crashed to a .117 hitter. Everyone expects Heyward's untradeable contract to be parked in Right Field in 2020.

3. CLOSER/BULLPEN.  Brandon Morrow was a dead money contract from the get-go. Craig Kimbrel is looking like Morrow 2.0. The bullpen is going to be churned and burned again because the Cubs minor league system is not producing any quality arms. Dillon Maples has a fastball but no control. James Norwood has no long run consistency. Duane Underwood could be the next Carl Edwards. You have the journeyman club of David Phelps, Danny Hultzen, Alec Mills, Rowan Wick, Brad Weick and Kyle Ryan. Of that group, maybe two or three will stay on the roster.

4. STARTING ROTATION. The starters suddenly got old and bad. It was a year long struggle just to complete five innings. Jose Quintana was the most consistent pitcher but he was not great. The professor, Kyle Hendricks, got schooled for most of the second half. Cole Hamels will not return. Jon Lester may have no gas left in the tank. The fifth starter has been a lingering problem since Tyler Chatwood failed to be demoted to the bullpen. The Cubs have only two potential arms in minors: Adbert Alzolay, who was rocked in his spot starts, and Colin Rea, a rehab pitcher who was the best player on the 2019 Iowa Cubs. There may be two or three openings in the rotation for next season.

5. LEFT FIELD. Fans like Kyle Schwarber in left. The front office loves Schwarbie. But even with the Cubs own mantra about big data requirements like OBP, Schwarber fails. His defense is still sub par. His offense is confined to a homer or bust mentality. With his natural short swing, he takes too many pitches and strikes out too often. Is he a trade candidate? Yes. Will the Cubs get a good return? Probably not because DH candidates do not command much trade value. Besides, which team is desperate to find a young Adam Dunn?

There are at least 10 positions that need to be upgraded by the Cubs. Ten. That is an expected  40% roster turnover. It has to be done. It has to be painful. The Cubs window for a championship slams shut in two years when Bryant, Baez and Rizzo become free agents.

Ownership does not appear inclined to spend money in free agent to fix holes. The pending Cubs network is looking like a financial disaster. The Marquee Network has no distribution platform. Cable and dish-tv services are rebelling against regional sports channel subscriber fees as cord cutting continues to rake the industry.

The front office will have to try its stars in order to bolster the roster. But Theo does not like to trade "his guys." Do you trade Bryant for 2 or 3 major league ready players plus prospects? Two years ago that was unthinkable. Today, it is a viable option. But Bryant may not have the most trade value. Javy Baez is the most exciting player. Willson Contreras is a rare catcher with power. Baez and Contreras could fetch the most off-season trade returns. Both are not Theo & Company draft picks but they are part of the core and would be hard to replace.

But something will have to change or the Cubs will continue to slide in the NL Central.

October 5, 2019

THE NEXT SKIPPER

The Joe Maddon era is over. He was the most successful modern Cub manager during a five year tenure. But his message failed to get another championship.

There have been references to championship fatigue, "Winner's Traps," etc. After 2016, the Cubs team has been in a slow decline. Expectations were high; player performance was sliding down. Theo Epstein railed against "potential" and "performance" during spring training. He claimed everyday was a playoff game. The Cubs then stumbled out the gate. The Cubs never had a long winning streak to cause separation in the NL Central.  All phases of the team faltered down the stretch.

The Cubs have a major decision to make: who will manage the rest of the Cub championship window. The Cubs have two years left before Kris Bryant becomes a free agent. That is the window to win. But the Cubs ownership has tapped out on money as the front office has exceeded the luxury tax threshold (again). For the past two years, Theo's moves have been costly mistakes. What manager wants to come to a team that is financially hand-cuffed and on the decline?

As it was noted by Joe Girardi many times, there are only 30 such jobs available. It is a unique club. You take the opportunity if you can get it. Girardi really wants to manage the Cubs. He was on his own personal, local publicity tour. He has the experience, winning attitude and character to lead a team. He did so in the sports world's toughest market, New York.  But he is viewed as an expensive, old school manager.

The trend is to hire an inexperienced former player or executive that the front office can control like a puppet. Teams have invested so much in advanced stats that they are forgetting baseball fundamentals for spreadsheet data.

One has to remember that all of Maddon's coaches were not his hires. The three hitting and pitching coaches the last three seasons have all been management decisions. Theo and Jed Hoyer wanted to impose their philosophies on the team. Clearly, it did not work out well.

Part of the problem has to be that when a young team wins early, they get cocky and complacent. They do not think they have to work hard in order to win. They think they are as good as their championship ring says they are. They think they can just turn it on at any time and win again. But it does not happen. They press and then they fail under the pressure because they did not put in the hard work to repeat.

The Michael Jordan Bulls championship runs were fueled by Jordan's own personal drive to excel at the highest level and to win multiple championships. The 2016 Cubs did not have that drive. They sat on their laurels. Maddon did not make the players accountable for their underperformance.

But part of the blame lies with the front office which provided Maddon with a bad roster. The rotation was no longer a strength as the older pitchers began to break down. The bullpen has always been a mess. When you spend money on closers who cannot throw or who cannot pitch, that is a problem. The team overvalued its core players to the point of having no competitive depth. And the scouting and development departments horribly failed to draft any reliable talent to help the major league club.

A Cub managerial candidate has to consider the health of the team he is expected to lead to victory. There will be other major vacancies this off season (Mets, Angels, Padres, Pirates).

It is expected that the Cubs will hire a first time manager, The reasons are simple: cheaper and controllable. The Cubs are not going to spend $5 million on a proven, veteran manager. The going rate for a first time, no-experience candidate is less than $1 million.

There is an old saying "you get what you pay for." Some out of the blue selections have won (Hinch, Cora). But the new Cubs skipper comes into a clubhouse that has a lot of baggage. The players have not faced the consequences of their performance flaws. There is no one in the minors pushing to take their jobs.

David Ross is expected to be given an offer. Ross was a vocal clubhouse leader. It is one thing to be a player or teammate but it is another to be the boss. It will be difficult to turn his friendships into employer-employee relationships.

If Ross is not the hire, then the Cubs most likely will tap one of their internal executives or advanced scouts to run the team to make an analytical impact on the strategy of the season. Many players have quietly said that they are being overloaded with information before and during games. By having a new skipper being an evangelical leader of the stat age may be a bigger turnoff than Maddon.

September 21, 2019

A PEEK INTO 2020

The Cubs are going to have a difficult 2019 off-season.

Whether the team sneaks into the playoffs or crashes & burns in St. Louis, the on-paper team has not lived up to expectations after the 2016 World Series. A dynasty it did not become.

There should be changes. It is almost certain that manager Joe Maddon ($6 million) will not be re-signed by the Cubs. In an era of paying managers a million bucks, Maddon is a dinosaur. It is not that he will not get work. National columnists believe he will land either with the Angels, Giants or Phillies.

Gone from the 2020 Cub roster is an easy exercise of expiring contracts:

SP Hamels ($20M), IN Zobrist ($12.5M), CL Morrow ($9M), RP Cishek ($6.5M), RP Strop ($6.25M), RP Kintzler ($5M), IN Delcasco ($1.5M/ buyout).  Approximately $62.5 million will be shed from the current payroll. But that figure alone does not give the front office much firepower to retool the club.

The starting rotation became a collective laboring crew. 2020 will have Lester, Darvish, Hendricks and Quintana as starters by default. The 5th starter projects to be AAA SP Colin Rea, who had an MVP minor league season at Iowa. Also in the mix would be RHP Chatwood or reclamation project LHP Hultzen.

The bullpen is going to have major turnover as well. For good or ill, Kimbrel is the closer. Wick and Ryan have earned a spot on next year's roster. The jury is still out on Underwood, Mills, Maples and Weick.With an added man on the 2020 roster, one could easily see another relief pitcher for a 15 man pitching staff.

The question remains whether the position core is good enough to compete next year.

OF: Schwarber, Almora, Happ, Heyward
IN: Bryant, Baez, Bote, Russell, Rizzo
C: Contreras, Caratini

Every single one of these players has had up and downs in 2019. The concept of having a roster of multi-positional utility fielders has run its course. The platoon situation has not worked well for the Cubs in CF and 2B. There is still a glaring need for a traditional lead off hitter. New age stats be damned: the Cubs need contact hitters with high BA to manufacture runs in close games.

Of the 11 position players above, it is possible that 4 of them will not be on the 2020 opening roster. Russell could easily be replaced by Nico Hoerner. Bryant, Almora, Happ and Caratini could be trade chips for a load of prospects since the Cubs minor league system now ranks as one of the league's worst.

Even if the Cubs sign a young ace pitcher (Gerrit Cole) or a real veteran lead off hitting second baseman or center fielder, is that squad any better than the Cardinals or the Brewers?

September 19, 2019

NEW PITCHING STAFFS

As baseballs are flying out of ball parks at record numbers, the whole concept of a pitching staff is slowly beginning to change.

Starters are no longer geared toward pitching to contact or going complete games. It is now a rarity that a starter goes past 7 innings.  The new normal is 5 innings. This puts a huge strain on the bullpen, which is now bloated to at least 9 relievers.

Some managers are using "bullpen" days to get through series. The relief corps pitch the entire game, usually 2 or 3 innings for long relievers and then the set up men and closer.  A few managers have decided to start a tough reliever to get through the top of the order, then bring in their normal starter in the second inning. This avoids seeing the opponent's top three hitters three times in a game (as stats show a dramatic fall off in pitching performance the third time through the line up card).

The need for bullpen arms absorbing more innings per season is not lost on GMs (or player agents). Middle relievers or swingmen have had steady salary increases in free agency because teams now find Andrew Miller type relievers golden (they can be middle inning "stoppers," long relievers or even closers).

There are still several stud "ace" starters in the major leagues. But there are turning into baseball's dinosaurs: high salaries and less performance.

The real push for change in starting pitching is going to be economic.

The Cubs example is telling: the team was squeezed by an business mandate not to go over the luxury cap of $206 million. The five starters are being paid $85.5 million for 2019. That is 41.5% of the lux cap space. The 9 relievers in the bullpen are being paid $55.6 million. That is 27.2 % of the lux cap space. In total, pitching at the start of the season took up $141.1 million (68.7%) of payroll budget. Or an average of $10.1 million/pitcher.

That only leaves $64.9 million to be distributed to 11 position players (for an average of $5.9 million per player.) This is why the Cubs could not make any major off-season moves for position bats because it is hard to find very good every day players for $6 million/year. Veteran bench players get that kind of money.

The budget dollars will be allocated away from pitching toward hitting if traditional starter roles are going to be decreased in the near future. (We have discussed the concept of pitching pods in the past; a system where 3 pitchers are grouped together to pitch a game; 4 pods equal 12 pitchers - - - with two additional relievers in reserve. It is a modified bullpen game but with designated pitching squads instead of a traditional rotation.)  A pitching staff of relievers may cost $6 million/arm or $84 million, which is still less than the Cubs opening rotation cost of $85.5 million. Then you almost have double the amount to spend on position players.

Will this work? We will not know until it is tried and tested in a real season(s).

September 10, 2019

THE TEAR DOWN PROJECT

The baseball world was shocked when the Red Sox dismissed President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski less than a year after winning the World Series.

The reasoning for the termination of the man who helped produce a championship is vague. There is speculation that there was a rift between baseball operations and ownership/business side of the organization. There is speculation that the Red Sox are saddled with big money contracts that can quickly turn into dead money deals. There is always the rivalry with the Yankees, who have overcome 26 injuries to runaway with the AL East title.

Ricketts fancies himself as a follower of the Red Sox baseball operations. He wants to create an outside venue for fans (and profit) like Boston did around Fenway Park. The Cubs also have a split organizational structure: one baseball side and one business side. It has been clear for years that the Cubs baseball side has been at odds with the business side over payroll and spending issues.

Theo Epstein is also sitting on several potential dead money deals with the second highest payroll in the majors. He also has brought in many new players who have not helped the team surge into first place. The team is currently floundering in second place in the NL Central and losing a grip on the second wild card.

Someone will be the scapegoat. He was chosen last off-season: Joe Maddon. Maddon did not get a contract extension because the team does not want him (and his $6 million salary). Theo has been rotating coaches in Maddon's dugout to little success. Four batting coaches in four years has not improved the offense. Pitching has become erratic at best. Baseball is trending toward management hiring cheap, inexperienced and controllable managers. Maddon does not fit that role.

The farm system has not produced any sustainable help for this team. In fact, the farm system rates near the bottom because Theo has not drafted and developed one starting pitcher in his tenure with Chicago. This major flaw has a cascade affect on the team and its financing as he paid dearly to acquire pitching. With little help in the minors available, this off-season will come after a disappointing season. What will happen?

It is possible that the roster will have to be blown up. But it would have to be a dramatic change in attitude because Theo overvalues "his guys." He does not trade "his guys." He always talks about his championship core of starters. But many of these core players are breaking down with injuries, underperformance or pending free agency. The farm system is devoid of talent to make quality trades. Trades would have to be made from the current 40 man roster.

The current roster is filled with platoon situations, utility players and aging veterans. The starting rotation will be Lester, Hendricks, Darvish and Quintana. Hamels will not be re-signed. The bullpen will have to be retooled as well.

Your 2020 outfield appears to be Schwarber, Happ/Almora and Heyward. You cannot trade Heyward's contract. Schwarber has turned into an Adam Dunn DH. Happ and Almora are too inconsistent at the plate to have a .225 platoon in CF. Can you trade Happ and/or Almora? Yes, but they would get little in return because they are not proven starters. Can you trade Schwarber? Yes, but a DH/LF will not bring any great return.

Your 2020 infield appears to be Bryant, Baez, Russell/Garcia/Kemp/Hoerner and Rizzo. Rizzo is tradeable but lost in first base depth throughout the league. No one is desperate for a new first baseman. Bryant and Baez are good trade chips. Bryant, if healthy, could bring in 5 players in return (including quality minor league prospects). Baez could bring in a good haul, too.  But the one who could bring in the most MLB ready starters is Contreras because a power hitting, good catcher is very hard to find. Could the Cubs have a Caritini/Lecroy platoon in 2020? Yes, but its production would pale without Contreras.

If the 2019 Cubs get brushed aside like last season, then wholesale changes should be on the way. The business side is going to push hard for cost reductions since the new Cubs network launch is going to be a financial dud. If the Cubs management believe this current team is still a championship caliber one, then nothing will change and the final result will be disappointing fans. Fans could take trading away the heart of your core players if you got exciting young talent in return (since the championship is still in everyone's back pocket.) Otherwise, this is a slow and painful death to the bottom of the standings.

August 22, 2019

DO YOUR JOB

Yahoo Sports had the following report on the post-game rift between an All-Star pitcher and asports reporter:

Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander still isn’t over his former team’s writers. Verlander had a Detroit Free Press writer banned from the Astros clubhouse following Verlander’s loss to the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Following the contest, a 2-1 win by the Tigers, a writer from the Detroit Free Press attempted to enter the Astros clubhouse with the rest of the media. When that writer got to the clubhouse, (he) were told (he) could not enter. Three Astros' security guards were present to make sure the writer was not able to get into the clubhouse.

Verlander told the Astros he would not do his general media session if the reporter from the Detroit Free Press was in the clubhouse.

Once Verlander wrapped up his conversation with the media, the Astros let the Detroit writer into the clubhouse. The writer approached Verlander and asked about Wednesday’s game, but Verlander walked away after telling the reporter “I’m not answering your questions.”

It’s unclear why Verlander was upset with the writer. It’s possible a tweet was to blame. Following the game, the Detroit Free Press sent out a snarky tweet about Verlander picking up the loss. (It said Verlander pitched the Tigers to a 2-1 victory. Verlander only gave up two hits; solo home runs.)

The headline on the actual article and the article itself are totally normal, and makes no snarky reference to Verlander pitching the Tigers to victory. It’s possible the writer of that article had nothing to do with that tweet.

On Thursday, Verlander addressed the issue, saying he did not speak to the reporter due to “unethical behavior in the past.”

The Free Press will protest the issue to Major League Baseball and the Astros. Restricting a member of the press from a clubhouse goes against the mission of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

>>>> I have many problems here. 
 
First, MLB Rules with Baseball Writers Association and the CBA provide that BWAA credentialed sports writers shall have access to the clubhouse 10 minutes after the end of the game and players must be available to conduct interviews. The latter has not been strictly enforced if the player was getting trainer room treatment or was a pud hiding in another area of the clubhouse. The 10 minute rule is clear and enforced in the past. The Astros intentionally violated that rule. The commissioner can fine the team. 
 
Second, Verlander directing his team officials to violate a rule is problematic. When do team officials work for a player? It is the other way around. Since Verlander intentionally violated the rules, he could be suspended or fined by the Commissioner (including invoking the best interests of baseball authority since the press represents the fans). 
 
Third, Verlander could not speak to the reporter during the 10 minute Q&A period (we see that all the time - - - the players look like jerks, but can refuse to answer a question). Even if he shuts out the Detroit reporter, he is there to take down his other answers about the game. By barring him from the clubhouse, the Astros and Verlander took away the reporter's right to get information for his game story.

Fourth, and most important, this story misses THE REAL story. An All-Star player just slandered a reporter for "unethical behavior."  Why was there no follow-up on what Verlander meant and/or the details of what was the questionable behavior. This makes the rest of the sports reporters look weak and captive to the whims of sports teams. 

It is true that professional journalism is having a hard time maintaining its position as the Fourth Estate, an important vessel for truth and accuracy of daily news events. The internet and social media has made blabbering idiots the de facto voices of information (not fact or truth). In the vast majority of cases, there is no adversarial relationship between a beat reporter and the team he or she covers. But teams now see themselves as media competitors since they or their leagues have their own web sites and networks feeding fans information. Teams, like the Bears, severely restrict access and what beat reporters can say during practices. It is a horrible trend. All journalism is important to independently and accurately capture facts for history.

Verlander should have done his contractual job and listened to questions from all credentialed reporters, whether he liked it or not. The sports reporters after hearing Verlander's excuse, should have demanded the truth about his charge of unethical behavior. That is the real lost news story in this entire event. Everybody should do their job.

August 16, 2019

A SEASON KILLER

"That one is going to leave a mark,” manager Joe Maddon said. Last night's loss was not just a brown streak in the shorts, but an explosive diaper.

The Cubs blew a five run lead against the Phillies. Yu Darvish pitched one of his strongest outings of the year, but a few of us thought he was pulled early by Maddon. This indirectly led to using the bullpen which contributed to the collapse in the 9th.

The 7-5 loss on Bryce Harper's grand slam was the perfect example of what is wrong with the team.

For a long time, we have harped on the issue of playing players out of their natural position. David Bote was playing shortstop. His boot in the 9th opened the door to the huge comeback rally. Bote is not a shortstop. He is an average second baseman at best. But he sweet talked his way into a long term contract as one of Joe Maddon's "super subs."

Maddon is still living in the past (Rays days) when he had a unique asset, Ben Zobrist, who was the stellar utility man who racked up All-Star WAR numbers by playing multiple positions well. But he was in his prime and eager to show his skills. Bote is young but not skilled enough to play short.

Likewise, Ian Happ was a college second baseman. Since his return, he was been terrible at second because he spent all his time in Iowa trying to learn CF so he could platoon with Almora. But since the second base position was a sink hole disaster with Addison Russell, the Cubs traded for Kemp who has his own defensive deficiencies.

Maddon likes the "flexibility" of having players playing multiple positions so he can "rest" some players. But not playing in their natural positions costs the Cubs games. The Phils last night got at least two more outs which were used to complete their comeback rally.

In 2016, the Cubs played fantastic defense. They were number one in baseball. But defense has been spotty all year round. Anthony Rizzo has been a contortionist at first base trying to catch even routine throws.

The bullpen has been a sore point all season. The chronic injuries to Morrow, the implosion of Edwards, the inconsistency of Strop led to wholesale changes in the pen. But those changes were made on the cheap because Theo had already committed half of the payroll budget (approx. $103 million) to the rotation and Chatwood. Six pitchers took up half the budget. But the rotation rarely gave Maddon a six inning outing so the pen was taxed and gassed early on in the season.

Another issue with Maddon is that he has plus and minus relievers. Plus relievers are guys he trusts so he puts them in during tied games or leads. Minus relievers he uses when the Cubs are behind or losing badly. It is a matter of "match ups" he claims, but it is really a trust issue. But since the pen has been bad, he had been using the wrong pitcher in highly leveraged situations. Earlier in the week it was Strop. Last night it was Wick and Holland.

But a lot of the blame rests on the front office. The Cubs current roster construction is all on Theo and Jed. The bench is short and unproductive. The guys they brought in (Delcalso, Maldonando, Kemp, Russell) have been unable to produce consistent above replacement offensive stats. The parade of bad relievers continues to grow. The pitching problem clearly centers on the fact (screamed many times on this blog) that Theo has yet to draft and develop one starting pitcher in five years. Zero.

Instead, Theo's focus was drafting the "best" hitter in the first round to build a core of good young, "controllable" talent. He drafted and promoted quickly Bryant, Schwarber and Almora. But the two most valuable Cubs this season were Hendry draftees, Baez and Contreras.

The final straw may be the fact that Maddon did not get a contract extension after being the best manager the team has had in a century (from a win and loss stand point). The front office keeps saying its is not about wins or losses (which was the refrain during Renteria's era for another reason). But a manager is judged on his team's wins or losses. For good or ill, Maddon got the Cubs a championship. Today, the thought is that he is too old, or the players have stopped listening to him.

In reality, the owner and front office does not want to pay a manager $6 million per season. Theo and Jed would rather have a million dollar puppet in the dugout following their scripted analytic game plans than an old school manager. Is $5 million such a big deal for the Cubs? Apparently so, since the team was handcuffed all season by the Ricketts' decree of not spending more than the $206 million luxury tax cap.

Theo begat the budget woes on himself just as he did in Boston. He has a habit of making a lot of bad money deals. As noted above, six pitchers took up half the budget with underwhelming performances. If you add in the Heyward contract and Morrow's two year dead money absence, one can almost sympathize with the owner about a spendthrift general manager.

For a long time it was apparent that the Cubs, even though good "on paper," were not a championship caliber team. By comparison, the Astros, Dodgers and Yankees (with a record number of player injuries) are far superior in records and statistics. The Cubs are in a dog fight just to try to stay near the top in the NL Central. The lowly Reds have beaten up the Cubs.

But last night's loss was the worst of the road woes. It showed the world everything that is wrong with the "championship" Cubs team.

August 10, 2019

MID SEASON ADJUSTMENTS

It is hard to miss a significant change in major league pitching since the All-Star break.

MLB is still on pace to hit a record number of home runs (with the modified baseball still being denied by the commissioner). Pitchers, specifically starters in the early innings, were getting crushed by the home run ball. Part of the issue was that batters were taking more pitches to work favorable counts. Part of the issue was that umpires were calling tight strike zones which frustrated many pitchers to the point of losing control, getting into early high pitch count/leveraged situations.

Pitchers tried to combat these issues with using their change-up as their "out" pitch. It worked for a while until many sluggers decided to wait (and feast) on the change. Now, pitchers were suddenly throwing batting practice to good hitters. In retaliation, pitchers tried to pitch "old school" inside. This has resulted in many hit batters and fights. The Pirates took it too far in headhunting the Reds which resulted in an epic brawl and many suspensions.

Recently, pitchers have gotten a break. Umpires are now calling the high strike. Batters have been stat analyzed to death on launch angle, exit velocity, contact zones and count management to be able to predict pitches below the waist that can get the right attack angle to hit home runs. Batters are having a hard time adjusting to the high fastball which for most of the season was called a ball. (Traditionalists believe the strike zone is from the jersey letters to the knees. Umpires each call a different strike zone each game; most having it at lower rib cage to knees, plus or minus a few inches outside the plate corner.)

The high strike call is the pitcher's best friend. Batters have a hard time getting launch angle contact with the high strike since they have conditioned themselves to put the bat angle below their hands through the zone. Even with contact with high fastballs, they are usually spoiled or popped up.

For this evolution in balls and strikes to occur, two independent things had to converge: the umpires deciding to call a high strike and pitchers willing to risk throwing high strikes in leveraged situations.

August 3, 2019

OPENERS & CLOSERS

There is an earthquake type shift in front offices. The glory days of "ace" starting pitchers are going to start to fade . . .  fast. Just like the NFL has caused the running back position to become a generic commodity in its pass-happy offenses, baseball is soon going to put less emphasis on starting rotations to win games.

The trend has been accelerating this year. A report indicated that the amount of innings pitched by MLB starters is down 37 percent. It means that starters are pitching more than 2 innings less than they did a decade ago. It is apparent when you watch games. It is now a rarity for a starter to pitch into the 7th inning. A generation ago, starters all took the mound with the one goal of tossing a complete game. Today, starters are content with finishing just 5 innings.

Teams are constructing their bullpens not as emergency help for faltering starters but as a machine to win games. During Kansas City's World Series runs, it developed a killer bullpen of three dominant, "shut down" arms in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings. If the Royals were winning after 6, the game was over. The emphasis began to shift to the back three or four innings and not the front five.

Stats gurus have allegedly found that starting pitchers get hammered more when a batter sees them for the third time during a game. The logic is that the batter has now seen all the pitches of the starter so he can better anticipate what he will see. Also, the stat men found that the key innings in a game for a starter are the 2nd to 7th. Therefore, the Padres developed the concept of an "opener," a relief pitcher who would throw the first inning then give way to the starting pitcher. That means the starter will see the top of the opponent's order one less time during the game. This is how odd pitching metrics have gotten.

Closers used to be just mop up guys. Now, they are the highest paid bullpen pieces because for some mental reason, not every relief pitcher can get the last three outs in a game. Closers typically have one lights-out pitch; a 100 mph fastball, or a devastating fork ball. They are strike out pitchers. Teams now set up their bullpens just to get to the closer.

With starters only covering 5 innings, they are really no different than traditional "long" relievers who can spot start or throw 3 innings in a game. Long relievers are not paid as well as starters or closers. But in the new pitching playbook, they may become even more valuable.

Some teams without a decent fifth starter will result to having a "bullpen" day where long relievers will try to get 6 innings in the book before turning it over to the last three bullpen arms. In the near future, all teams may employ bullpen days for every game.

Teams are already carrying 12 or 13 pitchers on the 25 man roster. That is why so many teams, especially the Cubs, try to find bench players who can play multiple positions because they have very limited substitutes. The idea of expanding the roster to 26 players does not mean an extra bat will be added to help managers. Some teams are now employing the dual role of a pitcher/position player. The Reds have a relief pitcher who also can bat well and play the outfield. It is not usual for star pitchers to be the best player on their youth, high school or college teams. And it is not usual that they used to be the best hitter and fielder at multiple positions. But they lose part of the skill set when they just concentrate on pitching.

Even colleges are now concentrating on developing relief pitchers such as closers. In the past, Steve Stone remarked that all relief pitchers were "failed" starter. College World Series teams often have designated closers. Minor league systems now quickly separate prospects into starters and relievers as it is now just as important to find closers and long relievers.

Ownership has a vested stake in this new pitching philosophy. It should cost less payroll. the age of the $20-30 million starter will be over. Relief pitchers salaries have been going up recently, but closers usually top out around fifth starter money. If a team can save half of the starters annual salary, that is pure profit to the owners.

July 13, 2019

ENOUGH



During the All-Star break, the Atlantic League All-Star Game started to do MLB's bidding by using a new robotic umpire system. The home plate umpire wore an earpiece. A person in the press box would relay to him whether the pitch was a ball or strike based upon a computer evaluation.

The home plate umpire then relays the call to the players and fans in attendance in his normal manner. Under this robotic call rule, the umpire can also override the call.

The last item makes the rule stupid. If the umpire can override the call, then why have a man in the press box make the first call? 

MLB is all about speeding up the game. But using a computer strike zone actually delays the call of each pitch. Currently, an umpire's call is nearly instantaneous. Now, it has to be relayed from above. Even if it a 5 second delay per pitch, that adds another 17 minutes to the game.

But there is no agreement that the new technology is accurate.


The strike zone system, provided by MLB, was created by Trackman, a sports data firm. Software in the press box relays the call to a smart phone, which relays to the bluetooth earpiece the umpire wears. A square array well behind home plate monitors the strike zone.


MLB's executive vice president of economics and operations Morgan Sword told ESPN it was "an exciting night for MLB. One of our focuses is not to replace the umpire. In fact, we're trying empower the umpire with technology. The home plate umpire has a lot more to do than call balls and strikes, and he's going to be asked to do all of that. We're in touch with our umpires' union, and this is the first step of the process."

Recall, that the umpires hated the replay rule because they felt someone was watching over their shoulder. Replay challenges are limited and do not affect judgment calls. 

Balls and strikes is a judgment call. The strike zone is different for every batter. Can a single radar device behind home plate actually get the x, y, z coordinates of a 95 mph fastball more correct that nature's fastest video capture device, the human eye?

MLB executives continue to try to push "new" ideas on the sport. It makes them feel better about themselves. The concept to change rules for the sake of change is maddening at times.

For example, another new MLB being tested in the Atlantic League is allowing a player to steal first base. As can now be done when a third strike is not caught cleanly, the new rule allows the batter to try and take first on any count if a pitch is not caught cleanly.

Any past ball or wild pitch can allow the batter to take off for first base? What if the batter leaves the batter's box and stops - - - is he out? What if there is a runner at first base who does not run to second? What if there is a dispute on whether the ball near the dirt is caught or hitting the batter? (Normally the ball is called dead).  Such a new rule merely complicates the game to a degree to confuse the casual fan.

MLB needs to stop tinkering with the rule book and let the players play the game.

July 11, 2019

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN MAKING

Since the baseball commissioner is in denial about the juiced baseball, the All Star break gives us pause to think about the bigger issues in the game.

Baseball's overlords are still trying to dramatically tinker with the game. 
So the next big push will be realignment and expansion.

For baseball purists, more the original game will be lost.

The AL and NL will be merged into one large league
after two more expansion teams enter (Las Vegas and some other cow town, like Nashville).

The divisions will be realigned geographically for owners to save costs
like the NHL did. The NHL reshuffle also was created by networks to standardize game start times, especially on the Eastern time zone.

If this was to occur, here is how things could line up:

WESTERN CONFERENCE

West Coast Division: Seattle, Oakland, San Fran, Angels
South West Division: Dodgers, Arizona, San Diego, Las Vegas
Mountain Division: Colorado, Minnesota, Kansas City, Nashville
Midwest Division: Cubs, White Sox, Milwaukee, St. Louis

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Northeast Division: Toronto, Boston, Yankees, Mets
Great Lakes Division: Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati
Mid-South Division: Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta
Southern Division: Tampa, Miami, Houston, Texas

162 game schedule: 150 games in conference; 12 games outside conference (playing a division 6 home and 6 away games).
Divisional winners seeded by season wins in best of 7 game series.
Conference championship decided by best of 7 series.
Conference champions best of 7 World Series
Team with most season wins = home team.
Realignment and expansion would mean DH would be mandated for all games.

Natural regional rivalries would be enhanced under this plan. Conference games would be stressed over long distance coast-to-coast travel.


July 8, 2019

JAKE YU

It was reported that the Cubs made the same basic offer to both Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish.
Arrieta wanted more money so he left for a disappointing free agency. Darvish signed with the Cubs with disappointing results.

How different would it be if Arrieta stayed with the Cubs? No one knows for sure.

Since leaving the Cubs, Arrieta has started 48 games, thrown 276.1 IP, giving up 107 ER, 97 BB with a 1.335 WHIP. His record is 18-17.

Since joining the Cubs, Darvish has started 24 games, thrown 137 IP, giving up 76 ER, 70 BB with a 1.365 WHIP. His record is 3-7.

Since leaving the Cubs, Arrieta's WAR is 4.1.  Darvish's Cub WAR is 0.4.

You really cannot say that Arrieta is "ten times" better than Darvish, but he had been more durable. Durable until he left his last start with elbow issues. It appears he has bone spurs which will require surgery so he will be out for an extended time period.

The rehash of this debate continues because the Cub front office continues to frustrate fans by not signing and developing starting pitching prospects. Zero. Adbert Alzolay was sent back to the minors have a weak start.

At the start of the season, many sports reporters questioned whether the age of the starting rotation would bite the Cubs. With Cole Hamels on the DL and Kyle Hendricks coming off the DL, the lack of rotation depth is clear. Spot starts by Tyler Chatwood will not cut it in the second half. Montgomery is not the same pitcher he was two years ago.

During the cross town series, Cub fans complained about the Quintana trade as Eloy Jiminez rocked a homer and Dylan Cease made his first career MLB start. Again, the Cubs made that trade because they needed to win then with a veteran arm. As the White Sox rebuild progresses,  the eventual Cubs tear down comes closer on the horizon.

June 26, 2019

IDENTIFY AND DEVELOP

There has been a recent debate on how well the Epstein Cubs Era is fairing this season. It seems the position depth has fallen off (and it is short by carrying an extra pitcher in the bullpen).

There are two independent factors at play on why the Cubs do not have a Dodger like minor league pipeline of quality starting players. First, is the ability to identify talent. Can your scouts and front office have the ability to see whether a high school or college player has "major league stuff." Second, is the ability to develop the talent's skills to major league levels. More people side on the the second factor as the reason that the Cubs farm system is devoid of talent. We have harped for years about the inability of the Epstein crew to draft, sign and develop a major league starting pitcher for the Cubs.

Looking at objective figures, is this true?

Between 2000 and 2011, 11.2 percent of minor league baseball players made it to the major leagues.
That seems to be the standard for which teams should be judged.

In regard to rounds prospects have been picked, a study showed the percentages of getting to the majors:

1st round: 66%
2nd round: 49%
3rd -5th rounds: 32%
6-10 rounds: 20%
11-20 rounds: 11%
21-40 rounds: 7%

The distribution seems to be clear: the best chance is to hit on your first 5 round picks every year, which would equal a 12.5% percentage hitting the major leagues per draft year.

What has happened in the Epstein Era drafts:

In 2012, only #1) Almora CF and #8) Bote SS have made it to the majors out of 43 picks.
In 2013, only #1) Bryant 3B and #2) Zastryzny LHP made it to the majors (with only Bryant a full time starter) out of 40 picks.
In 2014, only #1) Schwarber C and #3) Zagunis C made it to the majors (with Schwarber starting to lift his platoon status) out of 40 picks.
In 2015, only #1) Happ 2B made it to the majors (but now he has been demoted to AAA) out of 40 picks.
No one from the 2016, 2017 or 2018 drafts have made it to the Cubs major league roster.

If you only count 2012-2015 draft classes as the litmus test, only 7 of 163 selections made it to the Cubs major league roster (4.29%).  If you only count full time starters, then only 2 of 163 selections made it to the Cubs major league roster (1.22%).

Clearly, the Cubs have underperformed the 11.2% standard for prospect to major league promotion.

Adbert Alzolay was signed as a amateur free agent in 2012. He has spent more than 6 years to get his chance on the Cubs major league roster. That is a long time (the maximum time limit) to control a minor league prospect. As of this writing, he had a good first long relief outing, and is expected to spot start against the Braves. He would be the first Theo signed pitching prospect to potentially stick on the roster (fingers crossed).

When you factor in the pool of amateur free agent signing across baseball (international), the objective standard actually falls to around 10% promotion rate. With all the Cub international signings, the team's success rate is probably below the 4.29% above.

Epstein's Cub prospect development and promotion rate is 62 % below the average MLB standard. If you score only 38% on your test paper, most would call that a failure.

June 21, 2019

JUICED

Major League Baseball has admitted that the baseball this season is juiced.

Steve Stone had remarked that the exit velocity off the bat this season would lead to a pitcher dying after getting hit with a line drive. Home Runs are screaming out of the ball park at a record rate. 

From Yahoo Sports:

Commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday that the baseballs have contributed to this year’s historic home-run rate.


Manfred told David Lennon of Newsday the baseballs have less drag due to the “pill” in the middle of the ball.


The mention of drag there is more important than the “pill” at the center of the ball. Robert Arthur of Baseball Prospectus is among the many analysts who have critically look at the baseballs over the past couple seasons. In April, he concluded the drag on the baseball was extremely low. 


What does that mean? As Arthur explained, the baseball flies a lot farther:


“[D]rag is incredibly important in determining how likely a hitter is to knock one out of the park. As baseballs become more aerodynamic, they travel further given a certain initial velocity. A deep fly ball that might have been caught at the warning track can instead go into the first row of the stands. A 3 percent change in drag coefficient can work to add about five feet to a well-hit fly ball, which can in turn increase home runs league wide by an astounding 10-15 percent.”


Arthur compared the low drag to the numbers he got during the 2017 season, when the home-run rate spiked. A record 6,105 home runs were hit that season.


That record is on pace to be shattered in 2019. The league is currently on pace to hit 6,614 home runs.

This season, 16 players have already hit at least 20 home runs. Last June 21, only four players had hit 20 home runs. In 2017, it was just seven players.


Manfred did not say whether the league planned to correct the issue moving forward. Following the home-run spike in 2017, the balls seemed to fall back to normal. The home-run total dropped back to 5,585 in 2018. Still high, but nowhere near the record.


If something is going to change again, it would fall on MLB to make it happen. MLB owns Rawlings, the company that makes its baseballs.

Baseball thinks its heyday of attendance and national attention was during the steroid era. There were house ads with star pitchers saying "Chicks love the long ball." Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth's records were turned to dust.

But in a statistic driven historical game, traditionalists are appalled that MLB would be tampering with its sacred baseball.  Will there now be another new asterisk in the record book after this year is concluded?

June 19, 2019

TRADE HERO

The story line this morning is the myopic chant that the
Cubs should have never traded last night's Sox hero, Jimenez, to
the hated White Sox for SP Quintana.

There is gripe that Quintana was not the solid #2 starter that the
Cubs got in the trade, but Q has amassed a 3.9 pitching WAR since
his mid-2017 acquisition.

Jimenez may turn out to be great, or OK. Jorge Soler was sent to
KC for a closer (Wade Davis) but Soler was an injury prone
underachiever since he got to the Royals. This year he seems to
getting better: .245 BA, 20 HR, 52 RBI (third in the AL).

But you have to remember the fan debates that wanted the Cubs
to trade the new favorite, Schwarber, to the White Sox for Chris Sale.
That never happened. Schwarber has yet to blossom into the
.300 hitting power monster Baby Bambino. Sale continues to be
one of the best pitchers in the AL. (A 14.5 pitching WAR since he
arrive in Boston in 2017).

The Cubs traded Gleybar Torres, another top prospect, to get
Chapman from the Yanks (which was the move that won the Series).
Chapman was an expensive rental because Torres has 4.9 WAR
in only 190 games.

Trades are not won or lost when they are made. And they are not

evaluated based on one game against the team that traded you.

The Cubs picked up Quintana because he was reliable and cheap
($10 million/year). We know that the Cubs are in a huge budget
brick wall so finding a reliable starter for under $10 million is
impossible. (Chatwood still costs $13 million/year). 

The bottom line is you cannot say at this moment  it is a bad trade
even when your former Number One prospect comes back to
bite you.

June 4, 2019

ANOTHER ARM

The Cubs first round draft choice was a college starting pitcher.

MLB.com stated:

27) Cubs: Ryan Jensen, RHP, Fresno State

This is the biggest surprise of the first round so far, as Jensen was ranked No. 99 on our ranking of the top 200 Draft prospects. There's a lack of college pitching in this Draft, however, and we may see more teams push some college arms up their Draft boards, as the Cubs appeared to here. Jensen has one of the best fastballs in the college class, usually working at 94-98 mph and maintaining his velocity into the late innings. The secondary stuff is inconsistent, as is his control, and he doesn't have a real big frame (6-foot, 180 pounds), so he could be a reliever.

It is surprising that the Cubs reached for a third round prospect in the first round. It is another small frame pitcher who projects to be a reliever.
First round arms are supposed to be starters (unless you are a dominant career closer like the White Sox Burdi) because all relievers are failed starters.

High velocity throwers are nice, but can they pitch to make outs?

The reason the Cubs picked a college pitcher: to try to fast track him to the majors. The minor league system is devoid of any immediate help for the pitching staff. Could Jensen's velocity be enough to be a late season call-up to bolster an overworked bullpen? It is doubtful. But the Cubs window for a second championship run is closing fast with the improvements in their own division rivals.

The Cubs in the Theo era have NEVER developed their own starting pitcher. The first round choice is already pegged for relief duty by scouts. 

It appears that the Cubs cannot solve their pitching problems by spending any money. Kimbrel and Keuchel are unrestricted free agents, but the Cubs are not thought to be interested in either. Ricketts has said he would not allow the Cubs to go over the luxury cap (where the Cubs payroll was on Game 1). The front office has been squeezing nickels out of dimes to supplement the roster. When the Indians gave up on Carlos Gonzalez (he was hitting .210), the Cubs picked him up for a prorated league minimum (from part of the payroll savings of not paying Zobrist who is on the restricted list). This is like trying to find lost change under the sofa cushions in order to buy a pizza.

Do not be surprised if the Cubs front load more pitchers in this year's draft because that seems to be the overriding need for the system.

May 23, 2019

TOUGH GET GOING

When the going gets tough, the tough get going . . . to Japan.

Carter Stewart, a 19-year old pitcher was drafted in the first round of the MLB draft. Due to an alleged injury, the Braves cut his signing bonus offer in half, to $2 million. Stewart refused the offer. He is now expected to be drafted lower, in the second round.

But he won't be drafted at all. It has been reported that Stewart will by-pass the MLB and sign directly with a Japanese pro team for a six-year deal worth over $7 million.

This is a clever runaround of the draft and stash MLB procedure for young talent. You sign with a team, get a bonus, then toil in the minors from four to six years at a bare minimum salary. He is getting more than his projected $2 million bonus by $5 million. Currently, minor league players are paid from $1100 to $1800 per month depending on what level they are at in the system. At best, he would make $60,000 to $80,000 for six years of minor league service. Japan is giving him $5 million for the same training.

Though he is now committed to playing in Japan through age 25, Stewart will, essentially, enter free agency once he’s finished and be able to sign for whatever the market commands when the time comes. Stewart would be considered a standard international free agent should he play in Japan for the next six years, according to writer Jeff Passan.

In addition, he will have six seasons of higher than MLB minor league experience which could drive up his market value (see, Yu Darvish).

This could be the future for highly prized prospects who do not want to wait years in the minors to get their shot at the Big Show. And this is also a way to avoid being drafted by sink hole franchises like the Marlins.

May 11, 2019

TANDEM

Yu Darvish had another Yu is Darbage outing. Four innings pitched, 97 pitches, 6 walks, one run . . .  his control was awful enough to get seven strikeouts.

Montgomery came back from his injury rehab to throw five innings of winning relief.

Which leads to a problem and a solution.

Darvish cannot command his stuff. Montgomery wants to be a starter. Darvish has such a fragile mental state that Maddon has to take baby steps with him. Monty has been the good soldier since he became a Cub.

At some levels in minor league baseball, teams have a "tandem" system for starting pitchers. In a game, one starter is delegated to throw 3 or 4 innings and then another starter comes in to throw 3 or 4 innings. In theory, this is less strain on a young arm by limiting innings per start. But at the same time, it helps to build up arm strength.

There was always a question on why Montgomery's minor league rehab was to stretch him out like a starting pitcher. The Cubs have their long reliever with Chatwood. But perhaps the Cubs inability to get a real closer is making the front office think about moving Chatwood to a late inning role.

But in the Marlins game, it was shown that the combination of Darvish and Montgomery can work in a "tandem" situation. I would not be surprised that Montgomery will not be used until Darvish's next scheduled start.

May 9, 2019

SYMBOLS & STRIFE

Yesterday, there was more non-baseball news than the actual Cubs-Marlins game.

Russell Addison returned from his 40 game suspension for domestic abuse to a chorus of boos and a light smattering of applause. Theo Epstein stressed before the game that the Cubs, as an organization, gave Russell the opportunity for a second chance for which he had fulfilled his conditions of his return. The Cubs also acknowledged that there would be many fans who would voice their displeasure at the return of a spouse abuser. Epstein said that the fans had their right to their own opinions on this issue.

The Cubs also announced it banned a fan for an alleged racist gesture that was caught on a live, mid-inning broadcast with Doug Glanville. The alleged offensive gesture was an upside down "OK" sign. There is a debate whether this symbol, which is part of a kid's "circle game," was intended to be a racist slur towards Glanville. But others have said that white supremacists have recently adopted this kid's sign as a racist slur. Most people watching the telecast were unaware of the gesture or its meaning. The Cubs stated that it had "zero tolerance" for any racist actions in Wrigley Field. Whether the Cubs did an investigation or interviewed the fan about his intent is unknown.

But the Cubs and ownership have created an even bigger problem. It has been well reported through the release of Joe Ricketts emails of his intolerant behavior toward minorities. Joe Ricketts, through a Cubs press release, apologized for his involvement in racist jokes and intolerant conversations he made in his emails. In the end, there was no further ramifications from that scandal. "Zero tolerance" apparently does not apply to ownership privilege.

The same is true with the inconsistent application of fan speech. The Cubs said it was okay for fans to boo the return of a spouse abuser, but it not okay to make an alleged racist hand sign. There are many more people offended about Russell's alleged criminal conduct than what fans say or do during a game.

If the Cubs have zero tolerance toward a fan's alleged action, why does the Cubs organization have great tolerance for spousal abuse behavior and its patriarch's racist remarks?

May 7, 2019

QUALITY START

What is a real "quality start?"

MLB defines a quality start as:

A starting pitcher records a quality start when he pitches at least six innings and allows three earned runs or fewer. A starting pitcher has two jobs: to prevent runs and get outs. The quality start statistic helps to quantify which pitchers did a "quality" job in those two departments.


This definition of a "quality" yields an absurd result: a pitcher who allows three earned runs over six innings would have an ERA of 4.50 -- not good -- and yet he still receives a quality start. 

Bill James addressed this in his 1987 Baseball Abstract, saying the hypothetical example (a pitcher going exactly 6 innings and allowing exactly 3 runs) was extremely rare among starts recorded as quality starts, and that he doubted any pitchers had an ERA over 3.20 in their quality starts. This was later confirmed through computer analysis of all quality starts recorded from 1984 to 1991, which found that the average ERA in quality starts during that time period was 1.91.

Former pitcher Carl Erskine said "in my day, a quality start was a complete game ... you gave everybody a day's rest." This view was also echoed by Fergie Jenkins who often said that it was his job every time he took the job was to have a complete game win. If he was going against an opponent like Bob Gibson, he knew that he could only give up one or two runs tops in order to win the game.


Growing up, it was the consensus gold standard for a pitcher to have an ERA under 3.00.

To get to that level, a pitcher would have to have these types of starts in order to get the win:

5 IP 1 ER = 1.80 ERA
6 IP 2 ER = 3.00 ERA
9 IP 3 ER = 3.00 ERA

2.57 ERA for 7 IP with 2 ER, but 3.86 ERA with 3 ER.
2.25 ERA for 8 IP with 2 ER, but 3.36 ERA with 3 ER.

Therefore, a quality start should be a scaled event for starting pitchers at points of 1, 2 and 3 earned runs allowed to get under 3.00 ERA.

The oddity in this analysis plays into the rise in the bullpen managed game. A starter with 1 ER in 5 IP can be pulled for a shut down bullpen of under 2.00 ERA to get under a 3.00 ERA for the entire game. Stat men claim that starter's batting average against climbs dramatically when facing a hitter the third time in a game. Managers are not only managing the pitch count but also the number of times through the batting order.

Conclusion: a quality start should be any start that yields a 3.00 ERA or under.

April 21, 2019

LAME DUCKS

Maddon said Morrow, who currently is on the 10-day injured list, struggled in his recovery from throwing off the mound earlier this week.

"The bounceback after the last time out wasn't as good," Maddon said. "So, we've got to back off of him once again and just slow things down. That's just where he's at. It's not unlike what had been going on (last season). It was all trending very well and then, like I said, this last time, just not as good. So, we just have to pay attention to what he's saying."

Pat Hughes was marveling yesterday  on the radio that the home crowd could reach 38,000.
Really? A 70 degree Saturday on a holiday weekend and only get 38,000 fans? It should have been
48,000 standing room only. But the game casts continue to hard sell single game, special event and
suite ticket packages like a desperate snake oil salesman. It is another sign that money is tight for the Cubs. Every unsold ticket is a lost asset.

It does go to show that Ricketts have clamped down on pennies and dimes for the baseball club.
Morrow cannot be counted on returning, and there is zero movement to find his replacement.
Kimbrel is still unemployed which is baffling for clubs in need of relief pitching.

But Theo has repeated his Boston downfall: overspending on players who underperform.
Morrow $21 million; Chatwood $33 million; Darvish $126 million = $180 million bust.
If you add the Hamels $20 million option to cover for the bad Darvish deal, that is an entire
season salary budget on four players.

As Maddon is the lame duck manager, I now wonder if cutting off the dollar taps by ownership
is a real signal that Theo & his Gang are also lame ducks (Theo only has 2 years to go on his contract).

Kenney continues to hype that the new Cubs channel will be like finding an untapped gold mine,
but he is as delusional as Theo was with his recent pitching acquisitions. The Dodger Network deal has been a disaster for broadcast partner Time-Warner. Regional sports networks are in flux due to the Disney-Fox merger. The Cubs trying to start their own network in an era of cord cutting cable viewers without a strong local partner is a recipe for disaster.

The Cubs struggled to get to .500, then Darvish gave up two back-to-back jacks in the first inning to set the tone for another bad day. He calmed down some, but was pulled again in the fifth inning when the offense failed to show up. Now, Chatwood takes the mound for a Lester DL start. The consensus is today's pitching is going to be bad as Chatwood became the lame duck when Hamels returned to help anchor the rotation.

The old saying is true: you cannot win the division early in the season, but you can certainly lose it. The NL Central continues to be highly competitive, with the Pirates surging past the Brewers into first place.

April 9, 2019

CONTRACT EXTENSIONS

 Everyone is trying to figure out the dynamics of a weak free agent market and the rash of player extensions. It may be a simple conversion of complex rational behaviors.

First, for the past several years, front offices have gone off the deep end on Big Data. Teams have figured out new statistics on spin rates, hit ball velocity and motion capture mechanics. Teams can break down their players into computer data. Now teams have more stats (good and bad) on their players to justify lower arbitration offers or free agency passes on veterans who used to be paid on past performance.

Second, while baseball is still generating record revenues, there are storm clouds on the horizon as attendance is down, TV ratings are down, TV advertising (and associated broadcast fees) have hit a plateau and demographics are trending to age out. Kids today would rather spend four hours playing Fortnite than watching a baseball game. In order to keep profit margins, teams are relying more on young, cheap and controllable players to fill major league rosters.

Third, the age of the super-agent is fading away. In the last two off-seasons, agents have missed the market trends, especially for the second tier free agents. Teams were armed with weaponized stats proving that older veterans decline in value after age 30. Teams were only going to pay for future performance, hence lower average annual salaries and contract years. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado got their deals because they were both 26, in their prime production years. Other veterans, including pitchers, still sit on the side lines without a job.

Fourth, veteran players and union officials are mad about the free agency market. They whisper collusion but cannot prove it. They are thinking about striking when the current collective bargaining agreement is over. But the prospect of a strike or a lock out does not sit well with a majority of baseball players. Hence, the surge in player extensions (usually at team friendly rates.)

Mid-February  25 contract extensions have been signed, notably by many young players including Ronald Acuña Jr., Blake Snell,  and Eloy Jiménez, who had yet to have a major league at-bat.  Acuña Jr. and Snell were last year’s Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award winners while Jiménez could be this year’s ROY.
Acuña, Snell, and Jiménez’s teams locking them up this early in their careers has a two-fold effect: given how good they are (or, in Jiménez’s case, could be), they stand to potentially set salary records going through arbitration. Acuña, for example, was set to become eligible for arbitration for the first time in 2022. His extension is for eight years and $100 million, meaning he won’t become a free agent until after the 2026 season at the earliest. He will earn $15 million in 2022, and $17 million from 2023-26.

Compare that to Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado (who also signed an extension). Arenado earned a $26 million salary going through his final year of arbitration eligibility. Arenado avoided all the potential drama and cross currents of a broken free agent system by taking the familiar guaranteed money of the Rockies. There is some value in the stability of staying with your current team (professionally and family situations).

Agent Scott Boras, who has had many clients getting paid less than he projected, is not happy with these young prospect extensions:

"Great young players are getting what I call snuff contracts. And a snuff contract is that they’re trying to snuff out the market. They know the player is a great player, and he’s exhibited very little performance. So they’re coming to him at 20 and 21, and I’m going to snuff out your ability to move, to go anywhere, to do anything, and your value. And I’m going to pay you maybe 40 cents on the dollar to do it. What’s my risk?"

Ken Rosenthal recent reported that the players believe team representatives are even circumventing the player and his agent by appealing to the players’ families, especially for players with poor and/or Latin American backgrounds. That may help explain why many young players are taking the guaranteed money.  Contract negotiations do not happen in a vacuum. A multimillion dollar guaranteed contract is life changing for most families.

By taking themselves out of the picture, Acuña and Snell cannot set the bar for the industry for players of their caliber, age, and service time, which makes agents jobs much harder to push the boundaries of free agent money. Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel have been caught on the other side looking in as the season started. By testing the free agent waters, Kimbrel and Keuchel have been swept away by teams signing younger players earlier.

But there still are puzzling aspects to contract extensions. The Cubs extended utility infielder David Bote for 5 years, $15 million. Bote is not even a starting player! He is a career .240 hitter. His career WAR is 1.0, not even the level of a AAAA replacement. Yet, Bote went to management and begs for some job security. The 24th man on the roster got his wish with a cash strapped club paying him five times what he was projected to earn in the next 5 years. Teams can still spend oddly in this new era of extensions.

April 4, 2019

TILT

The Cubs have started the urgency of the 2019 campaign like a bunch of Keystone cops falling over each other. It started with horrible pitching, then moved on to terrible fielding, then moved on to lack of hitting, and finally to questionable base running. After another bullpen meltdown, Jon Lester claimed that the team feels "the pressure" from the front office.

Yes, Theo Epstein was mad at the end of last season. He wants the players to take accountability for their performance. Prospects are no longer potential players. He wants results. Now.

But in reality, Epstein is both diverting the blame and redirecting his anger against ownership. He created this roster of underperforming, overpaid pitchers. He created the atmosphere of dread by not extending Joe Maddon's contract. He overspent on players in the past two seasons which gave him no payroll flexibility in this off-season to fix any glaring problems.

In all levels of the organization, the Cubs have fallen flat on their faces.

The fan angst will boil with another Yu Darvish start. He says he is fine; his pitching coach thinks there is a problem with his pelvic tilt; or vice versa. The embrace of big data in pitching (the
Cubs have a motion capture system where each pitcher in spring training threw a "base line" delivery) is further messing with the mental aspects of the pitcher's routine. Carl Edwards suddenly showed up in the first series with a new (illegal) delivery. There is no confidence that the coaching staff has any real insight or control of the staff.

But things get stranger. In the midst of the losing streak, David Bote suddenly gets a five year, $15 million extension. WTF? Bote got an extension before Schwarber, Almora, Baez or Contreras? Bote is not even a STARTER. Why is he getting a raise five times more than he would normally earn? Is Theo a spendthrift? Or was this giving ownership a quick middle finger? Clearly, the front office is also on tilt with this extension.

The team is playing bad, the front office has no answers, and the Brewers are off to a hot start. This all plays into the gloom and doom of the season opening 9 game road trip.

March 28, 2019

THE INDICTMENT

The national news is filled with Chicago criminal headlines of celebrity favoritism, clout and pandering to voters. But the real indictment is the following:

When you looking at this pitching staff, what do you see?

STARTING PITCHERS
Yu Darvish
Cole Hamels
Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
Jose Quintana



RELIEF PITCHERS
Brad Brach
Tyler Chatwood
Steve Cishek
Carl Edwards Jr.
Brandon Kintzler
Mike Montgomery
Randy Rosario
Pedro Strop


The answer is obvious and criminal: none of these pitchers were drafted and developed by Theo Epstein.

Every one came by trade or free agency. 

In seven years (seven amateur drafts), Epstein and company have failed to draft a pitcher and develop them to be on this year's 2019 Opening Day roster.  

As a result, the starting rotation is the financial sinkhole of the team. If you include 6th starter Tyler Chatwood, the rotation's payroll is $97.9 million (or 47.5% of total budget).

The bullpen does not have a real, full time quality closer. Brandon Morrow is still on injured reserve, but his health for 2019 is always going to be a nagging issue. 

As we have opined for years, the lack of developing home grown pitchers is killing the Cubs ability to make moves, keep a youthful core and combat arm injuries. Now, without any money to spend in case of injury, the Cubs are in a very tight spot in a very competitive NL Central.

March 22, 2019

ONE OF THE GREAT GREATS

The last bow of a legend came in his home country. Irchiro Suzuki announced his retirement after the second game of the early season. As MLBTR stated:

With these two games, the 2653rd game of his MLB career,  Ichiro, 45,  has now appeared in parts of the last 28 seasons in both Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball, completing one of the most remarkable careers in the history of the sport.  Over 951 games with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan and then 2653 games with the Mariners, Yankees, and Marlins in North America, Ichiro recorded more professional hits than any player ever.

Heading into today’s action, Ichiro had an incredible 4367 career hits — 1278 in NPB, and 3089 in MLB, reaching the 3000-hit club in the majors despite not playing his first North American game until he was already 27 years old.

After nine years as a star in Japan, Ichiro made a heavily-anticipated jump to the majors prior to the 2001 season after the Mariners won a posting bid to acquire his services.  The transition was more than just seamless — Ichiro’s debut in the Show saw him hit .350/.381/.457 over a league-high 738 plate appearances for a 116-win Mariners team.  He became just the second player to win both the Rookie Of The Year and MVP Awards in the same year, also winning the first of three Silver Slugger Awards and the first of 10 Gold Gloves.

Ichiro’s smooth left-handed hitting stroke and quick acceleration out of the box made him a threat to reach base every time he made contact.  Perhaps the most notable of his many achievements was setting a new single-season hits record in 2004, as his 262 hits broke the 84-year-old mark formerly held by Hall-of-Famer George Sisler.

Ichiro’s defense and baserunning were perhaps just as impressive as his exploits at the plate.  He stole a league-best 56 bases in 2001, and finished his career with 509 steals, tied for 35th-most in Major League history.  As a right fielder, Ichiro unleashed a throwing arm that instantly drew comparisons to Roberto Clemente in terms of both power and accuracy.

While his skills inevitably declined with age, Ichiro did his best to stave off Father Time, playing past his 45th birthday due a fitness regime and nonstop preparation.  This work ethic helped make Ichiro one of the most respected players of recent times, idolized by both fans and teammates alike all over the world.

Irchiro ends his MLB career with a 59.4 WAR, .311 career BA, 117 HR, 780 RBI, 509 SB and 3,089 hits. His career is comparable to Hall of Famers Rod Carew, Lou Brock and Tony Gwynn. Despite his accomplishments, Irchiro probably had the "quietest" superstar career in MLB history.

March 16, 2019

BAD RULE CHANGES

Despite the increasing bad blood between the players union and owners in regard to the stagnant free agent market, MLB is pushing forward with some terrible rule changes.

CHANGES EFFECTIVE IN 2019
 
Inning breaks: Subject to discussions with broadcast partners, inning breaks will be reduced from 2:05 to 2:00 in local games and from 2:25 to 2:00 in national games. The Commissioner’s Office retains the right to further reduce the breaks to 1:55 in local and national games for the start of the 2020 season.


REACTION: Hold my beer!!!!! That is a whopping 6 minutes of alleged time saved during a game.

Trade Deadline: The waiver trade period will be eliminated. The July 31 Trade Deadline will be the only deadline. Players may still be placed and claimed on outright waivers after July 31, but trades will no longer be permitted after that date.


REACTION: A hard deadline affects all teams the same. The change in the waiver rule only helps bad teams who can make a claim of a good player trying to be sent down (when another player is activated from the DL).

All Star Game: As far as the game itself is concerned, the 10th inning -- and all subsequent innings -- of All-Star Games that go into extra innings will begin with a runner on second base.



REACTION: A horrid rule!  It FUNDAMENTALLY alters the foundation of the game: earning your way on base by a hit, a walk, a dropped third strike or catcher interference. But to put a runner in scoring position with no outs is a face slap to the origins of the game AND the poor pitcher who starts the inning in an artificial hole. This does not speed up the game because the pitcher now has to slow down and concentrate more, since the runner on second is trying to steal the signs.

Home Run Derby: Total player prize money for the Home Run Derby will be increased to $2.5 million. The winner receives $1 million.



REACTION: Who cares? It is an exhibition game.

Mound visits: The maximum number of mound visits per team will be reduced from six to five per game. MLB had instituted an initial mound-visit limitation prior to the 2018 season.


REACTION: Woo-hoo Johnny, that change saves a whopping 4 minutes in game time (2 minutes each for each team.)

CHANGES IN 2020 SEASON:
 
Active roster provisions: The roster size from Opening Day through Aug. 31 will increase from 25 to 26 (with the minimum number of active players rising from 24 to 25, and roster sizes for doubleheaders rising from 26 to 27).


REACTION: Adding another player but limiting the number of pitchers on the roster to 13 in regular season (and 14 in September) does nothing to help the players union beef on service time. Contending teams used to call up a half dozen players to help them win games down the stretch; including more relievers and specialty players like pinch runners or defensive specialists who could not make the regular season roster. Also, it is not like the 26th man is going to be a big money veteran player. More likely it will be the team's best AAAA earning the minimum salary.

The 40-man active roster for September will be eliminated. From Sept. 1 through the end of the regular season, all clubs will carry 28 players.


REACTION: Again, adding just two players does not help if a team is struggling with a tired arm pitching staff (especially with new restrictions on batters relievers must face and the inability to use position players as mop up guys). In the past, a team could bring up 15 players or their entire 40 man roster up in September. No one did, but they could. If a team does not want to pay for extra players, why penalize a team that wants or needs to do so?

Furthermore, the number of pitchers a club can carry on the active roster will be capped at a certain number, to be decided by a joint committee. (But MLB is suggesting 13 in regular season; 14 in September). To adhere to that rule, clubs will have to designate each of their players as either a pitcher or a position player prior to each player’s first day on the active roster for a given season. That designation cannot change for the remainder of the season.

Position players will not be allowed to pitch except in the following scenarios:

They are designated as a “Two-Way Player.” A player can only qualify for this designation if he accrues at least 20 Major League innings pitched and at least 20 Major League games started as a position player or designated hitter (with at least three plate appearances in each of those games) in either the current or the prior season.

Extra innings.
In any game in which his team is losing or winning by more than six runs when he enters as a pitcher.


REACTION: I guess this is the Otani Rule, where clubs will have to scout Japan to find the next SP-OF star. This anal retentive rule about telling the world if you are a position player or pitcher is stupid. They are all BASEBALL PLAYERS. As kids, we played all the positions depending on the circumstances. I can see dumb unintended consequences such as a manager pulling his pitcher and place him in the outfield for a reliever (which is still fine), then have the reliever get an out then switch with the original pitcher (because who says a reliever has to pitch 3 "consecutive" batters, see below). Let the managers manage for gosh sakes.

Three-batter minimum for pitchers: Rule 5.10(g) will be amended to require that starting pitchers and relief pitchers must pitch to either a minimum of three batters or to the end of a half-inning, with exceptions for incapacitating injury or illness. This will effectively end the so-called “LOOGY” (left-handed one-out guy) and other specialist roles in which pitchers are brought in for one very specific matchup.

REACTION: Another terrible rule because it destroys in-game strategy. The rule is another feeble attempt to speed up play, but it will not do it because the new rule forces a manager to leave a starter in longer. A struggling starter takes more time between pitches. A reliever is on a shorter pitch count than a starter, so instead of throwing a dozen pitches in consecutive days, a reliever can be used up after one appearance. That creates more wear and tear on pitchers . . . equates to more injuries and expensive DL time.

Injured list: The minimum time a player spends on the injured list will be increased back to 15 days from 10, and the minimum assignment period of pitchers who are optionally assigned to the minors will increase from 10 days to 15. MLB had reduced the minimum injured list period to 10 days prior to the 2017 season to reduce the incentive for teams to play shorthanded or for players having to play at less than full strength. However, teams manipulated the rule change to rotate relievers on and off their active rosters, thereby maintaining a full stash of rested arms, which resulted in more pitching changes.


REACTION: Teams were trying to PUT THE BEST PRODUCT on the field. Now, they are penalized for using their full 40 man roster? If MLB wants more action by having tired, injured and bad players on the field, then let the batters hit off tees and run around the bases like little kids.

None of these rule changes help the game. It is trying to hack a quality video game. 

If you really want to speed up play of the game, do not allow batters to leave the batter's box after the first pitch (except if they are knocked down or a foreign object gets into their eyes). A batter takes 10 seconds between pitches to re-set his gloves and armor. In a 300 pitch game, that is 50 minutes of dead air. Once a batter is in the box, the ball remains live. If he steps out, the pitcher can throw home for a ball or strike. Remember, current rules allow the umpire not the player to call time out. Umpires can speed up the game by not giving batters unlimited time outs to step out of the box. In fact, quick pitchers like Mark Buerhle got the game into a fast rhythm that home plate umpires liked (and subliminally helped him with calls).