Archive for Cubs

How the Cubs Are Swinging

We’ve been through this about the Blue Jays — a promising team suddenly added both Troy Tulowitzki and David Price, and since then, the Jays have taken off. Since the day Tulowitzki first appeared in a Toronto lineup, the team has gone a league-best 21-4, storming into first place and showing few signs of slowing down. Right now, in the American League, the Blue Jays are probably the best ballclub. With two new elite-level players, there’s no team looking much stronger as we head for the playoffs.

Funny thing about that Tulowitzki-specific date — since then, the Blue Jays have gone 21-4, but the Cubs have gone a strikingly similar 21-5. Granted, the Pirates and Cardinals have also done well, but the Cubs have caught fire, featuring what’s been a top-five offense. Before this specific stretch, the Cubs were 10th in the National League in runs scored, and fifth in runs allowed. Over the highlighted weeks, they’re second in runs scored, and tied for second in runs allowed. Run prevention, they’ve mostly had. Run production is a newer thing. Top-to-bottom power is a newer thing. Just about everyone has been a positive contributor, but in particular, Dexter Fowler and Addison Russell have seemingly turned their seasons around.

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What Makes Bruce Bochy and Joe Maddon Great?

With the Cubs in San Francisco to face the team just behind them in the wild-card race, it makes sense to compare the two managers. After all, they both ended up within the top five in a recent ESPN.com survey, and their teams have both found success in recent years. Though they were born just a year apart, their styles are different enough that they seem to be a study in contrasts.

Who better to ask about what makes them great than their own players and coaches and beat writers? Well, maybe unbiased observers can be more critical than our sample, but the task at hand is to delineate the managers’ strengths.

So, what makes Bruce Bochy great? What makes Joe Maddon great?

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JABO: Jon Lester Still Has Things Under Control

Last year’s Royals caused us to fall in love with stolen bases all over again. The AL Wild Card Game put their utility on display, and it was around that game the whole nation turned its attention to Jon Lester‘s refusal to attempt any pickoffs. I probably don’t need to review this for you, so I’ll skip ahead. When Lester began this year with the Cubs, plenty of people were wondering whether he’d attempt more pickoffs than the zero he tried in 2014. He seemed like a pitcher who could be taken advantage of.

Flash back to the first month of the season. Lester threw over, all right. Twice. Sort of.

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NL Rookie of the Year No Longer a Two-Horse Race

Heading into the season, Kris Bryant enjoyed favored status when it came to predicting a National League Rookie of the Year. When FanGraphs writers were polled before the season, 20 of 36 votes went to the Chicago Cubs’ third baseman; seven went Joc Pederson; six were cast for Jorge SolerNoah Syndergaard, Jung Ho Kang and Raisel Iglesias each got one. A couple months into the season, Pederson inserted himself into the race with 13 home runs by the end of May. As the year has moved on, Bryant and Pederson have come back to the pack a bit while Matt Duffy, Kang and Syndergaard have moved into the conversation for the NL’s top rookie. The award is no longer a two-horse battle, and all the players who have risen up are sure to see plenty of exposure since each of them is in the middle of a pennant race.

As Owen Watson wrote, this season has been a historic one for rookies, particularly position players. With Bryant and Pederson leading the way, the rookie class is producing at a greater level than any in the past decade. It’s likely the best class in nearly 30 years, back when Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco were rookies. In the past month, Bryant and Pederson have allowed a few other players to enter the race. Pederson — a three-true-outcomes player to begin the season — has removed the two positive outcomes over the past month, walking just 3% of the time and hitting only one home run. Bryant hasn’t fallen quite as far. He’s still drawing walks, but he is striking out nearly one-third of the time and has a wRC+ of 58 over the past 30 days. Read the rest of this entry »


Grading the 58 Prospects Dealt at the Trade Deadline

This breakdown starts with the Scott Kazmir deal on July 23, but there weren’t any trades from the 16th to the 23rd, so this covers the whole second half of the month, trade-wise, up until now. I count 25 total trades with prospects involved in that span that add together to have 58 prospects on the move. Check out the preseason Top 200 List for more details, but I’ve added the range that each Future Value (FV) group fell in last year’s Top 200 to give you an idea of where they will fall in this winter’s list. Also see the preseason team-specific lists to see where the lower-rated prospects may fall within their new organization.

40 FV is the lowest grade that shows up on these numbered team lists, with 35+ and 35 FV prospects mentioned in the “Others of Note” section, so I’ll give blurbs for the 40 FV or better prospects here. I’ve also linked to the post-trade prospect breakdown for the trades I was able to analyze individually, so click there for more information. Alternately, click on the player’s name to see his player page with all his prior articles listed if I didn’t write up his trade.

I opted to not numerically rank these players now, but I will once I’ve made the dozens and dozens of calls necessary this fall and winter to have that level of precision with this many players. Look for the individual team lists to start rolling out in the next month, with the 2016 Top 200 list coming in early 2016. Lastly, the players are not ranked within their tiers, so these aren’t clues for where they will fall on the Top 200.

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Cubs Look for Depth, Add Dan Haren and Tommy Hunter

During the winter meetings this past December, we heard about Dan Haren‘s fierce desire to stay in Los Angeles as a member of the Dodgers, with the right-hander even going so far as to say he would retire if he were traded. Dodgers’ GM Andrew Friedman called Haren’s bluff, shipping him to Miami with Dee Gordon in what turned out to be a chain of events resulting in the Dodgers nabbing Howie Kendrick from the Angels. With this trade deadline, there was no such threat of retirement from Haren: he’s now moving to Chicago to add depth to the Cubs’ rotation.

Though the Cubs kicked the tires on some of the better pitching help on the trading block, there was never really the sense that they needed to pull that particular trigger, as their rotation currently sits in the top five in baseball for ERA, FIP, and xFIP. With a starting four of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks — each of whom have made at least 20 starts this season while contributing at least 2.0 WAR — the Haren deal represents a depth move to fill innings in that fifth starting slot down the stretch. Given Haren’s impending free agency this winter, the move is also purely about 2015.

Haren should be an upgrade 0ver the Cubs’ current weak options for their fifth starting spot. Even though he’s dealt with a continued velocity decline (his average fastball velocity has fallen 4 MPH since 2011, down to 86 MPH this season), he’s found a way to make it work, relying on his curveball and cutter more to post numbers that, on the surface, look good (namely a 3.42 ERA in 2015).

The ominous news comes when we dig a little deeper: he currently owns the highest strand rate of his career (82.5%), the lowest BABIP (.248) and is showing extreme fly ball tendencies this season (he’s second-highest among qualified starters in fly ball rate, at 49.1%). That final issue could become a problem with the move to Wrigley, as he’s going from a very pitcher-friendly home park in terms of home runs to a more neutral home run setting. Giving up home runs has always been an issue for Haren, and they could pose a serious problem should that high fly ball rate mix poorly with a less forgiving environment.

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Kris Bryant Is Faster Than Everyone Thinks

Kris Bryant has a lot going for him: he’s second in rookie WAR this season*, he’s part of a long-term Cubs future that looks increasingly rosy, and he’s part of a positional rookie class that has produced the third-most first-half WAR (prorated to 600 PA) in the past 40 years. In short, he’s been everything the Cubs could’ve asked for, showcasing the power, patience, and stolen bases that were expected out of him once he hit the majors.

*All stats current as of Thursday.

That last tool — speed — might be translating to steals somewhat on the back of manager Joe Maddon’s coaching style, but Bryant’s stolen-base skills have never really been in question. He stole eight bases in just 68 games at Double-A and seven in 70 in Triple-A during 2014; this season, he’s produced right about on that level, with eight in 83 games, and that’s obviously a great return for a player with the potential to hit 30 home runs. No one seems to confuse Bryant with a speed demon, however, as he’s not a player whose skill set is based solely around his ability to run.

That final point is precisely why we’re here, because Bryant is currently leading a category you might not expect him to, and one usually reserved for those speedier players we just mentioned. The category he’s leading isn’t home runs, or ISO, or even K% (though he is close to leading that one). Instead, take a look at the top 15 this season for highest infield-hit percentage:

IFH_2015

Bryant doesn’t hit a lot of ground balls. Only about 34% of his batted balls are on the ground (relative to a league average of about 45%.) Bryant’s lack of propensity to hit grounder is just as much a driving factor here as his speed is, because infield-hit rate is simply infield hits/ground balls. However, when Bryant does hit a ground ball, it has resulted in an infield hit almost one in five times, which is something that warrants some attention.

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Testing Dexter Fowler and the Hitter Strike Zone

Just because of the sheer number of taken pitches in a season, hitters will frequently disagree on a call with the judge standing behind them. A certain number of disagreements are to be expected, but from the sounds of things, Dexter Fowler feels like he’s been disagreeing more than usual. Fowler doesn’t think his approach is worse, but his numbers are worse, so he identifies some iffy calls as a factor. This is what Fowler looks like after an iffy strike call:

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Anatomy of an Ejection

Let’s go ahead and get this out of our systems: Wednesday night, some Cardinals got ejected for complaining in a game the team won. Some people might call that the very most Cardinals thing. Those same people are just people who don’t like the Cardinals, but, whatever, everyone’s entitled to his or her own feelings, and we should get this out of the way before proceeding. All right, it’s out of the way! So let’s unpack a picture:

molina-argue-play

What you see is a play in progress. It’s a bases-clearing double, that put the Cubs ahead. As the Cubs were in the process of rounding the bases, and as the Cardinals were in the process of retrieving the baseball from the outfield, Yadier Molina argued with home-plate umpire Pat Hoberg. We see Molina with his back turned to the plate, even though there might soon be a play right there. (There wasn’t.) Arguments are common; arguments during plays are less common. Molina was shortly ejected. The same went for his manager. The game had been leading up to this moment.

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Wrapping Up Jon Lester’s Hit

A little over a month ago, I asked which player would get a major-league hit first: Jon Lester, or Kyle Schwarber. Lester had just set an all-time record for the longest hitless streak to begin a career. But, it’s not like the Cubs were about to remove Lester from their rotation. Schwarber, meanwhile, was a hell of a hitting prospect, but he was in the minors, so that was a hurdle. By nearly a 3-to-1 margin, the audience voted for Lester. By nearly a 3-to-1 margin, the audience was wrong. Schwarber was briefly promoted, and he registered a hit. Then he registered another seven. Lester continued making outs.

Until Monday! Monday, Lester recorded his first-ever knock, off John Lackey in the second inning of a game in which Lester, for a time, had more hits than his opponent. For Lester, it was career at-bat number 72, and career plate appearance number 79. The hitless-streak record still belongs to Lester, and there’s nothing about that to be done, but now he’s officially no longer an o’fer. And while Lester himself would’ve preferred a win to a single, just because he won’t dwell on it doesn’t mean we can’t. Here’s to dwelling.

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FanGraphs Audio: Cubs Broadcaster Len Kasper

Episode 576
Len Kasper is currently in his 11th year as the play-by-play announcer for Chicago Cubs telecasts. He’s also the very patient guest on this edition of the program.

Don’t hesitate to direct pod-related correspondence to @cistulli on Twitter.

You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or other feeder things.

Audio after the jump. (Approximately 15 min play time.)

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Play

The Most Unlikely Home Run

It seems like a simple question to ask. Which recent home run was the least likely?

You could flippantly answer — the one Erick Aybar hit this year, or the one Melky Cabrera hit this year — and because they’ve got the lowest isolated slugging percentages with at least one homer hit, you would be right. But that doesn’t control for the quality of the pitcher. Aybar hit his off of Rick Porcello, who is having some issues with the home run right now.

A slightly more sophisticated approach might have you scan down the list of the worst isolated powers in the game right now, and then cross-reference those names with the pitchers that allowed those home runs. If you do that, you’ll eventually settle on Alexei Ramirez, who hit his first homer of the year off of Johnny Cueto earlier this year.

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Cubs Promote Kyle Schwarber… For Now

It’s raining prospects. Every time I check Twitter, it seems, I catch wind of yet another player who’s been summoned to the majors. The latest player to get the call is Kyle Schwarber, the power-hitting “catcher” in the Cubs organization. Schwarber made his big-league debut on Tuesday night as a pinch-hitter, and struck out in his lone plate appearance. Last night, he made his first major-league start, serving as the Cubs designated hitter. Schwarber made the most of this opportunity by going 4-for-5 with a triple.

Word from the Cubs is that Schwarber’s promotion is only a temporary one. The Cubs play their next five games in American League ballparks, which means they’ll need a designated hitter. The Cubs would be hard-pressed to find a better designated hitter than Schwarber. Although he lacks a real defensive position, he hit .320/.438/.579 in the minors this year. Schwarber’s 192 wRC+ in Double-A is the highest among qualified minor-league batters.

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Anthony Rizzo, Now Featuring an Elite Strikeout Rate

The 2014 version of Anthony Rizzo would be great enough for just about any team out there: lots of walks, power, and contact. If you were trying to build him into the model of a superstar, the only knock against him would be that he basically didn’t run, but he’s promptly taken care of that this season. Through the first two months of 2015, he’s also shown another remarkable improvement: he’s cut his strikeout rate by a third while slightly increasing his power output. Take a look at his ISO and K% since he was called up in 2011:

Season K% ISO
2011 30.1% .102
2012 16.8% .178
2013 18.4% .186
2014 18.8% .240
2015 12.4% .249

Rizzo’s 2015 is the equivalent of making a Ferrari go a little faster while using less gas; it’s rare we see that sort of development. Recently, strikeouts have become something of a necessary evil with power hitting, so Rizzo’s current strikeout level is a bit of an exception to that relationship. Over the past 15 years, qualified hitters around his ISO (.250) and K% (12.4) make for some pretty great company: Rafael Palmeiro (2003), Albert Pujols (2002), and Bernie Williams (2000) are just a few of the names that come up.

The early 2000’s was a different era for strikeouts, however, so if we just look at the past five years, we see only four qualified hitters who have posted ISOs higher than .250 with strikeout rates below 13%: Adrian Beltre (2011), Edwin Encarnacion (2013), and Pujols twice (2009 & 2010). Quickly, let’s take a look at where Rizzo fits into that ISO vs. K% connection among qualified hitters in the past five years (2009-2014), with those other four players mapped. Rizzo is the red dot, the other four players the blue dots:

ISO_vs._K%_2009-2014

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Stanton, Altuve, and Another Warning About Defense

Over the last calendar year, there are 139 qualified major-league hitters. Prorating their plate appearances to 600 per person, one finds that Mike Trout has the highest WAR at 7.2, followed by Russell Martin, Buster Posey, and Anthony Rizzo. None of that should come as much of a surprise, but the hitter right behind that group and just ahead of Josh Donaldson, Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper could provide a bit of shock. Over the last calendar year, Kevin Kiermaier has been worth six wins per 600 plate appearances.

Kiermaier, who has worked to improve his offense, is incredibly reliant on his fantastic defense for his great WAR numbers. While Kiermaier is a valuable player, it is possible that his WAR total is inflated by defensive numbers that are likely to come down over time. Kiermaier has logged roughly 1200 innings in the outfield and has a UZR/150 of 42.1, but only six active outfielders with at least 2,500 innings have a UZR/150 greater than 15, with Lorenzo Cain, Ben Zobrist, Peter Bourjos, Brett Gardner, Josh Reddick, and Jason Heyward falling between 16 and 22 — that is, roughly half Kiermaier’s current rate. Although he’s been good, Kiermaier is probably not the fifth-best player in baseball over the last year, and his defensive numbers should serve as a reminder that defensive statistics take some time before they become reliable.

Yesterday, I covered some players whose current WAR was potentially undervalued due to lower than normal defensive numbers in an article titled Heyward, Pedroia, and Your Annual Reminder About Defense. The present article renders yesterday’s title false as the articles together are now daily reminders, but this post should be the final one in this series with few, if any, more reminders coming in the near future. The caveat regarding small sample size from Mitchel Lichtman and our FanGraphs library is quoted more fully in yesterday’s piece, but to summarize: use three seasons of UZR when being conclusory about the defensive talent of any given player.

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Who Gets a Hit First?

Hello, and welcome to a post where you do the answering. Usually, in the course of writing our content, we try to offer something conclusive. We tackle a subject, and toward the end of the article, we discuss what might lie ahead for the player, or the team, or the policy. None of that here. What’s offered below is relevant information, but then there’s a poll, where you decide which answer suits you better. The question being asked: of the following two players, which one do you think will sooner record his first-ever major-league hit?

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A Far-Too-Early 2015 MLB Mock Draft

I wrote yesterday about the uncertainty surrounding the #1 overall pick, but that doesn’t keep scouts from trying to figure out who will go in the subsequent picks. It’s way too early to have any real idea what’s going to happen beyond the top 10-15 picks, but the buzz is growing in the scouting community about how things will play out and you people are sustained by lists, predictions and mock drafts. You’re welcome.

I’d bet it’s more telling on draft day to make judgments using the buzz and all the names I mention, rather than the one name I project to be picked, but you guys already don’t read the introduction, so I’ll shut up. For reports, video and more on these players, check out my latest 2015 MLB Draft rankings, or, if your team doesn’t pick high this year, look ahead with my 2016 & 2017 MLB Draft rankings.

UPDATE 5/11/15: Notes from this weekend’s college games: Dillon Tate was solid in front of GM’s from Arizona, Houston and Colorado. Dansby Swanson was even better, in front of decision makers from all the top teams, including Houston, who may still be debating whether they’d take Swanson or Rodgers if given the choice (Rodgers’ season is over). Carson Fulmer did what he usually does and probably has a home from picks 7-17 depending on how things fall on draft day, with an evaluation similar to Marcus Stroman and Sonny Gray as previous undersized righties with stellar track records and plus stuff.

Andrew Benintendi went nuts at the plate again (I’ll see him and Fulmer this weekend). And, finally, Jon Harris was excellent, rebounding from a not-so-great start, so, at this point, I would make Harris the 9th pick to the Cubs and slide Trenton Clark down a few picks, but still comfortably in the top 20. I also updated the 2016 MLB Draft Rankings as a few top prospects came off the DL and impressed, further strengthening the top of that draft, which is far and away better than this year’s draft.

1. Diamondbacks – Dansby Swanson, SS, Vanderbilt
I wrote about this more in depth yesterday, where I wrote it’s down to CF Garrett Whitley, C Tyler Stephenson and CF Daz Cameron with some chance RHP Dillon Tate is still in the mix and SS Dansby Swanson possibly involved. After writing that, I heard that Arizona is definitely considering those prep players, but teams don’t think they’ll pull the trigger on a way-below-slot prep option and they are leaning college, with Tate and Swanson the targets and SS Alex Bregman also getting some consideration as a long shot.

I’ve heard Arizona wants a hitter here and GM Dave Stewart was in to see Vanderbilt last night. I had heard they were laying in the weeds on Swanson, so, for now, I’ll go with Swanson here. To be clear, Arizona hasn’t made any decisions yet, so this group could still grow or they could change course. One scouting director told me yesterday when asked what he thought Arizona would do that “it sounds like they are going to do something crazy.” Until a few hours before this published, I had Arizona taking Whitley, so this is still very much in flux. There’s also some thought that Tate or Swanson were the targets all along and the rumors of cut-rate high school options have just been a ploy to get the price down–you can pick your own theory at this point.

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JABO: Making a Thief of Anthony Rizzo

The Cubs are a running team, now. Wasn’t always that way. Wasn’t that way even one season ago. One season ago, the Cubs finished with just 65 stolen bases, seventh-fewest in the majors. This year, they already have 25, second-most in the majors. If you fold unsuccessful steals into the mix, last year the Cubs were the worst stealing team in baseball. So far this year, fourth-best. No one ever wins the World Series because of the running game, but improvements are improvements, and this is a legitimate change.

And, well, this year’s Cubs have a bunch of new players. They also have a new manager, so maybe it’s not the most surprising thing in the world that they’ve become more aggressive with their legs. Joe Maddon liked to put the game in motion in Tampa Bay, and in spring training with Chicago he made baserunning a priority. On the other hand, here’s Anthony Rizzo, also from spring training:

“We don’t steal much on this team anyway.”

Rizzo, perhaps, wasn’t yet used to playing with Dexter Fowler. Fowler’s already stolen six bags. That’s good enough to tie him for eighth in the majors. But let’s keep that figure in mind. As of this writing, 15 players have stolen at least six bases. That’s a somewhat arbitrary line, but I chose it for a reason. Here are the 15:

It’s worth going over the stolen-base history of these guys. Generally speaking, guys who steal will steal, and guys who don’t steal will not steal. You know how stealing is. Let’s ask of each player a very basic question: Has the player ever before stolen 20 bases in a major- or minor-league season?

  • Hamilton: yes, obviously
  • Marisnick: yes
  • Gordon: yes
  • Altuve: yes
  • Ellsbury: yes
  • Springer: yes
  • Polanco: yes
  • Trout: yes
  • Fowler: yes
  • Davis: yes
  • Aoki: yes
  • Gardner: yes
  • Martin: yes
  • Cain: yes
  • Rizzo: no

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Lucius Fox Throws A Wrench Into July 2nd Signings

As I tweeted yesterday, Bahamas-born and recently but shortly American-educated shortstop Lucius Fox was declared an international free agent by Major League Baseball. He won’t be eligible to sign until July 2nd when the 2015-16 signing period opens and the team bonus pools reset, but he would’ve waited until then to sign anyway, since most of the 2014-15 signing pool money had been spent.

Fox was always seen as likely to land as an international prospect since he was born in the Bahamas and moved back home, but it wasn’t a slam dunk because MLB is very aware of player moving out of the U.S. to potentially get more money by ducking the draft. Many elite domestic prospects have investigated this process and found the red tape to make it nearly impossible to work through.

As I wrote last week, the 2015 international signing markets, which opens on July 2nd, is already mostly shaken out at this point. I currently project 25 players to get $1.2 million or more and it appears that 22 of them have deals already. Of those three, the highest bonus should be about $1.5 to $1.7 million while the five top bonuses in the class range from $3.0 million to $4.4 million.

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Projecting Addison Russell

Just as we were all finally getting over our Kris Bryant Day hangovers, the Cubs gave us something else to celebrate. As you’ve likely heard by now, the Cubs summoned Addison Russell to the major leagues yesterday. He started at second base last night, and went 0-5 in his big league debut.

Russell’s promotion came as something of a surprise. Although he’s a very talented player, and is one of the most highly-regarded prospects in the game, he’s had very little exposure to high-minors pitching. He’s played all of 77 games above A-Ball, and only 14 of those games came in Triple-A. Due to this relative lack experience, most anticipated that Russell wouldn’t make it to the majors until late 2015, if not sometime 2016. Yet here we are. It’s April 22nd and Russell is playing major league baseball. Read the rest of this entry »