Archive for Cubs

Previewing the 2018 Home Run Derby

With apologies to the 1960 television show that became a staple of ESPN Classic, the Home Run Derby has been around since 1985, but it wasn’t until the last few years that Major League Baseball found a format that was vastly entertaining: a head-to-head single-elimination bracket setup with timed, four-minute rounds and 30 seconds of bonus time added for hitting two 440-foot homers, as measured by Statcast. In 2015, the first year of that format, Todd Frazier, then of the Reds, became just the second player in Derby history to win in his home park; the Cubs’ Ryne Sandberg was first in 1990. In 2016, the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton won at Petco Park, and last year, rookie Aaron Judge beat Stanton on his home turf in Marlins Park — a pair of ideal results that will be tough to top.

Indeed, one of the big drawbacks of the Derby has been its failure to attract a full complement of the game’s elite sluggers; to the extent that complaints about MLB’s failure to market its stars to full advantage rings true, here’s a very good example. Mike Trout has never participated, and Bryce Harper has just once, in 2013. With the Derby and the All-Star Game at Nationals Park in Washington, DC, Harper is back, but he’s the only member of the eight-player field who has participated in a previous Derby. There’s no Judge this year, no Stanton, and no J.D. Martinez or José Ramiréz either. In fact, according to the Washington Post, this is the first year since at least 2008 without a player from among the majors’ top five in homers participating. Just two of the current top 10, the Brewers Jesus Aguilar (sixth with 24, but leading the NL) and Harper (tied for seventh with 23) are involved, and of the eight contestants, just one is from an AL team, the Astros’ Alex Bregman. Let’s call it what it is: a comparatively weak field.

Perhaps that’s because the myth of a post-Derby curse persists; what fall-off there is generally owes to regression in players’ rate of home runs per fly ball, which can owe something to luck. Anyway, these dinger displays are still fun, even in this homer-saturated age, and the timed format is much, much, much better — so much so that I’d even be willing to call Chris Berman out of retirement to repeat that phrase — than the previous slog, during which a batter might take pitch after pitch looking for the right one, and an hour in the competition might go by before somebody was eliminated. That wasn’t compelling television.

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Kyle Schwarber Bunted With Two Strikes and the Bases Empty

So far, it’s been an exciting season of change for Kyle Schwarber. He showed up to camp in the best shape of his life, and while those stories are typically easy to dismiss, Schwarber has undergone something of a transformation. He’s sitting on what would be a career-high WAR. He’s walking more than he used to, and he’s striking out less than he used to. He’s hitting ground balls more than he used to, but he’s also still hitting for power, because he’s attempting to hit more line drives. Most impressively, Schwarber has turned himself into a pretty good defensive corner outfielder. His range is basically average, and his throwing arm is a weapon. The Cubs always said they believed in Schwarber’s future. We’re seeing the best version of him that there’s been.

There is an entire article to be written about appreciating Kyle Schwarber in general. This article is about appreciating Kyle Schwarber in specific. Because in the ninth inning against the Giants on Wednesday, Schwarber bunted for a single with two strikes and the bases empty. This is one of those plays that just can’t be ignored.

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Daily Prospect Notes: 7/11

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Andres Gimenez, SS, New York Mets (Profile)
Level: Hi-A   Age: 19   Org Rank: 3   FV: 50
Line: 3-for-5, 2B, 3B

Notes
Gimenez is a 19-year-old shortstop slashing .280/.350/.430 in the Florida State League. That’s good for a 107 wRC+ in the FSL. Big-league shortstops with similar wRC+ marks are Trea Turner (a more explosive player and rangier defender than Gimenez) and Jurickson Profar, who have both been two-win players or better this year ahead of the break. Also of note in the Mets system last night was Ronny Mauricio, who extended his career-opening hitting streak to 19 games.

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Daily Prospect Notes: 7/2

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Today is July 2, the first day of the new international signing period. Both our rankings and scouting reports on the top players signing today are available by means of this ominous portal.

Brailyn Marquez, LHP, Chicago Cubs (Profile)
Level: Short Season   Age: 19   Org Rank: 14  FV: 40
Line: 6 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 1 R, 8 K

Notes
Marquez has a 20:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Eugene. I saw him up to 96 last year, but he was 88-93 in extended spring training, and his body had matured and gotten somewhat soft pretty quickly. It didn’t affect his advanced fastball command, though, or his arm-side command of his breaking ball, which comprise a large chunk of Marquez’s current plan on the mound. He projects as a No. 4/5 starter with several average pitches and above-average control.

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Is Javier Baez Breaking Out or Is It Just Loud Noise?

Cubs manager Joe Maddon has claimed previously tha Javier Baez has a chance to become Manny Ramirez, the hitter, if he could just lay off the out-of-zone breaking ball. That’s a big claim for a player who had never recorded even a league-average line before this season. Maddon made this comp again after Baez blasted two home runs and recorded four hits against the Dodgers on Tuesday night.

“I have been saying for a couple of years, the moment he stops swinging at sliders in the dirt, he becomes Manny Ramirez and he’s getting closer,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Baez. “And I think he is a better defender than Manny was and baserunner. And Manny, I still love you.”

Baez is enjoying a breakout season. He dominated Dodgers’ pitching in the clubs’ recently completed three-game series. He left Los Angeles with a 130 wRC+ on the year. This is notable, as his top career mark before that was just a 98 wRC+. His 2.3 WAR already matches his season-best total of a year earlier. Baez has been a star for the first half of the season.

It’s easy to get swept up in making unfair comps after swings like Baez’s on Tuesday.

Like his grand slam in the sixth:

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Max Muncy’s Home Run Hit Albert Almora on the Head

Dodgers infielder Max Muncy is an instrument of the Absurd, nor is there much evidence to the contrary. He owns, for example, a name that has traditionally been the province exclusively of mid-century private detectives. He’s also a former fifth-round pick who entered the season with roughly -1 WAR and yet who, somehow, is currently leading his club by that same measure. Muncy’s bona fides wherein the ridiculous is concerned are beyond reproach.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Max Muncy has once again had a rendezvous with the improbable. Batting in the first inning tonight against the Cubs, Muncy drove a fastball from Kyle Hendricks to center field — over the center-field wall, in fact. Instead of remaining over the center-field wall, however, what Muncy’s home run did instead was to re-enter the field of play and strike innocent bystander Albert Almora on the head. Did it kill or even just injure Almora? Signs point to “No.” But did it cause him a moment’s indignity? Yes, not unlike the sort one experiences just by living.


Jon Lester’s High-Wire Act

On Tuesday, for the second time inside of a week, two of the NL’s top starting pitchers in terms of ERA — the Cubs’ Jon Lester (2.10, third in the league) and the Dodgers’ Ross Stripling (1.99, which would rank second if he weren’t 4.2 innings short of qualifying) — will square off, this time in Los Angeles. On June 20, Lester got the upper hand, throwing seven shutout innings in a 4-0 win, the latest strong outing for the 34-year-old southpaw, who’s been on quite a roll lately.

Indeed, Lester has surrendered a mere two runs and 13 hits in his last four starts (27 innings), both via solo homers by Cardinals in a June 15 game that the Cubs won, 13-5. Only once in his past 10 starts has he allowed more than two runs (four in six innings versus the Pirates in a May 29 win), good for a 1.58 ERA over 62.2 innings. Depending upon the schedules of Max Scherzer (10-3, 2.09 ERA) and Jacob deGrom (5-3, 1.69 ERA) as well as the preferences of their respective teams, it’s not completely farfetched that NL All-Star manager Dave Roberts could give Lester (who’s a gaudy 9-2 to go with that ERA) the start on July 17 at Nationals Park, though you can imagine the pressure will be on the Nationals to make Scherzer available, health permitting.

Despite those superficially glossy stats, Lester is nowhere near the top of the NL pitching WAR leaderboard. His 0.9 WAR ranks just 26th in the NL, somehow behind the WARs of the likes of the Marlins’ Jose Urena (2-9, 4.40 ERA, 1.4 WAR), the Phillies’ Vince Velasquez (5-8, 4.69 ERA, 1.4 WAR), and the Mets’ Zack Wheeler (2-6, 4.85 ERA, 1.2 WAR), none of whom are likely to make the NL All-Star team, let alone get consideration for the start.

The disconnect for Lester is that his FIP (4.19) is almost exactly double his ERA, ranking 28th among the 43 pitchers with enough innings to qualify and 37th out of 59 with at least 60 innings; his 104 FIP- tells us that he’s actually 4% worse than league average on that front. The 2.09 runs per nine differential between his ERA and FIP isn’t just the majors’ largest this season, it’s the largest from an ERA qualifier since 1901. Even if you drop the innings threshold to 90 (Lester’s total), he’s just a whisker away from the lead:

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Jason Heyward’s Latest Change Is Making a Difference

One could argue that, during the 2015-16 offseason, Jason Heyward was my hill. If that’s the case, I am now mostly dead. After producing almost six wins in his final campaign with the Cardinals, the outfielder recorded just a lone win in each of his first two seasons with Chicago.

I say mostly dead, though, because Heyward’s bat is showing some signs of life: since coming off the disabled list a month ago, he’s hitting .307/.347/.489 with a 124 wRC+. While that represents a hot streak for the Cubs version of Heyward, it pretty closely approximates what the team probably expected from Heyward when they signed him. Whatever the case, it is the best run he has produced since the joining the team.

Heyward’s swing changes have been frequent over the past few years. He has altered his mechanics nearly every season of his career. The Cubs hoped to unlock more power out of Heyward after he posted a 121 wRC+ for the Cardinals in a 2015 campaign during which he took a bunch of walks, limited his strikeouts, ran the bases well, and exhibited slightly below-average power. The Cubs weren’t wrong to try and unearth that version of Heyward. With his defense, baserunning, batting eye, and contact skills, the addition of a bit more power might have made Heyward an MVP candidate.

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Anthony Rizzo’s Dramatic Turnaround

It’s been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding his overly aggressive slide into home plate against the Pirates on Monday — a slide ruled legal by the umpires and replay officials at the time but later deemed interference by Major League Baseball, and dissected here by Craig Edwards — but Anthony Rizzo has turned the corner. Following a frigid March and April, he’s put together one of the majors’ hottest performances in May. In fact, he’s made one of the most drastic month-to-month turnarounds of any hitter thus far this year. His performance is worth a closer look.

Before we go there, though… to these eyes, Rizzo was in the wrong on the aforementioned slide into catcher Elias Diaz, just as he was last year, when he slid into Austin Hedges. I don’t have anything substantial to add to Edwards’ detailed breakdown of both plays, except to say that the three-time All-Star is going to wear the black hat for a spell as one of baseball’s villains. Perhaps he’s unpopular at the moment, but one play shouldn’t prevent us from noticing the other 99.9% of his season.

Though he homered off the Marlins’ Jose Urena in his second plate appearance on Opening Day, Rizzo went just 3-for-28 with a walk in the season’s first six games. After a bout of lower back tightness forced him to the bench for three straight games, the 28-year-old first baseman was placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career. He took an 0-fer in his return on April 17 against the Cardinals, and while he collected three hits in his second game back, the slump persisted. He finished April hitting a ghastly .149/.259/.189 for an NL-low 32 wRC+ in 85 plate appearances. The homer off Urena was his only extra-base hit for the March/April period (which I’ll hereafter refer to just as “April”), and he walked just four times (4.7%) while striking out 15 times (17.5%) — that from a player who walked more than he struck out last year (13.2% to 13.0%).

Inserted into the leadoff spot by manager Joe Maddon in an attempt to jump-start a flagging offense that had scored just 13 runs in its previous six games, Rizzo flipped the calendar to May in dramatic fashion, homering on the first pitch he saw from the Rockies’ Jon Gray on May 1. He homered again versus the Rockies the next day, and added another, against the Cardinals, on May 5. After an 0-for-5 on May 6, he entered Wednesday having reached base safely in 18 of his last 19 games, with four more homers and an active 11-game hitting streak.

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Anthony Rizzo, Joe Maddon, and the Dangerous Play

Over the last decade, Major League Baseball has taken steps to make the game safer for players on the field, not only instituting a seven-day disabled list for concussions but also crafting a pair of somewhat nuanced rules in order to avoid unnecessary collisions both on the pivot at second base and also at home plate.

On Monday, Anthony Rizzo seemed possibly to violate those rules, barreling to the plate in order to prevent Pirates catcher Elias Diaz from throwing to first to complete a double play. Rizzo ultimately succeeded: his collision with Diaz caused an errant throw, allowing two runners to score and turning a likely Cubs victory into a sure thing as the team went up 5-0 in eighth inning.

Did Rizzo actually do anything wrong, though? To answer that question, we actually have to consider two separate rules. To begin, let’s go with MLB’s slide rule first. The rule addresses the allowable — or, as they call it, bona fide — slide, which requires that a runner:

  1. Begins his slide (i.e., makes contact with the ground) before reaching the base;
  2. is able and attempts to reach the base with his hand or foot;
  3. is able and attempts to remain on the base (except home plate) after completion of the slide; and
  4. slides within reach of the base without changing his pathway for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder.

Here is Rizzo’s slide.

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Jose Quintana Is Finding His Level

Jose Quintana’s season is a little difficult to figure out. In three of his first four starts, he allowed 17 runs combined; in that fourth appearance, he pitched six shutout innings. Over four of his past five starts, meanwhile, he’s conceded one run total; he allowed six runs in the other.

Is he improving as the season goes on? He struck out 16 batters against 11 walks in 19.2 innings in those first four starts and struck out 29 hitters and walked 14 in 28.2 innings over the past five outings. His ERA is much lower in the latter of those two periods, but his FIP hasn’t moved a great deal, going from 5.15 to 4.37. These samples are small enough that it would be fair to conclude little to nothing had changed at all, but given his excellent track record, there has to be something to Quintana’s struggles.

A year ago at this time, there were some questions about Quintana’s trade value for the White Sox after the left-hander started slowly. Over his first 11 outings last season, Quintana had authored a 5.60 ERA and 4.40 FIP. Most of Quintana’s issues in terms of ERA stemmed from an increase in homers and a poor left-on-base percentage. After investigating Quintana’s numbers, I felt that most of Quintana’s issues were probably luck-based and unlikely to continue. Brushing off those concerns looks pretty good in hindsight, as Quintana put up a 3.30 FIP and 3.40 ERA and allowed just under one homer per nine innings the rest of the way, eventually helping a Cubs teams desperate for quality starter innings. This season, Quintana’s issues aren’t as easy to brush off.

While Quintana’s current FIP might resemble last year’s figure at roughly the same point in the season, his 4.68 FIP is nearly 20% worse than league average after accounting for the change in league and park. Additionally, there isn’t a gap in contact quality that suggests perhaps Quintana is just getting unlucky. So far, Quintana is giving up home runs because he has deserved to give up home runs. He’s striking out fewer batters than he did a year ago while his walks have gone way up. These are all bad things.

If there’s any cause for hope, it is twofold. One, Quintana has shown some flashes of being the very good pitcher he was before the season started, putting up four starts of at least six innings and zero or one run with at least five strikeouts. The second reason for optimism is that Quintana is still tinkering.

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Checking in on Tyler Chatwood

One of the more interesting deals of the most recent offseason was the Cubs’ three-year, $38 million pact with former Rockies swingman Tyler Chatwood. On the one hand, Chatwood had some virtues as a pitcher. On the other, in an offseason during which nearly every free agent received less than expected, Chatwood got $8 million more than Dave Cameron projected in his examination of the 2017-18 class.

Back in December, Eno Sarris wrote for this site that Chatwood, despite his apparent flaws, might be an adjustment or two away from a Rich Hill-type breakout.

You’ve heard of “spin-rate guys,” right? Well, Chatwood is absolutely a spin-rate guy. What’s interesting, though, is that he hasn’t converted that high spin into plus movement. Why? Well, it might have something to do with useful spin. Over time, Chatwood has dropped his arm slot to get more movement on his sinker and more ground balls, probably because he pitched in Coors. That robs his fastball of ride, though, and his curveball of downward movement.

An easy fix might be to just throw the curveball more. He only threw it 11% of the time in 2017. It got over 70% ground balls and above-average whiffs. Batters had a .164 slugging percentage against it last year. And that fits with the spin and movement on the pitch.

With about a quarter of the season in the books, now seems like a good time to check whether that adjustment has come and how the Cubs have fared on their investment.

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Yu Darvish and the Good Fastball

Yu Darvish has gotten off to a rocky start with the Cubs, and for the better part of 23 excruciating minutes on Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati, the 31-year-old righty’s struggles appeared to be more of the same. Facing the NL’s worst team, and having failed to last five innings in either of his two previous starts this month, Darvish needed 39 pitches to escape the first inning. Fortunately for the Cubs, he avoided a meltdown and more or less dominated over his final five innings, notching his first win as a Cub and perhaps turning a corner.

Darvish entered the game sporting a 5.56 ERA and 5.12 FIP in his seven previous starts with Chicago, totaling just 33 innings, fewer than five per turn. He had been chased with one out in the fifth inning in his March 31 debut against the Marlins and was pulled from the fifth in three of his next five starts, the exceptions being a pair of six-inning, one-run outings against the Brewers. On May 7, the day before he was to make his first start following a three-homer, six-run outing against the Rockies — a start that drew boos from the Wrigley Field crowd — the Cubs placed him on the disabled list with parainfluenza virus.

The timing of Darvish’s return drew scrutiny from the hot-take-osphere, as manager Joe Maddon could have started him against the Braves at home on May 14, a makeup game for an earlier rainout, but instead opted to give him “one extra day” and start him against the same opponent in Atlanta a day later. Maddon dismissed the notion that the team had a potentially hostile Wrigley Field crowd in mind, but Darvish’s departure after four relatively sharp innings and only 61 pitches added fuel to the fire, at least until the manager revealed that the pitcher departed due to a calf cramp. Nonetheless, the perception of Darvish as mentally soft is in danger of taking root in Chicago, bad news for a pitcher who’s just one-quarter of the way through the first season of a six-year, $126 million deal, even one who owns the kind of career numbers — a 3.50 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 11.0 strikeouts per nine — that testify to his talent and outstanding stuff.

So it felt like a lot was riding on Sunday’s start against the Reds, and it didn’t go well — not to begin, at least. A six-pitch walk to leadoff hitter Alex Blandino was followed by a six-pitch foul out to catcher by Eugenio Suarez and then a single by Joey Votto on the fifth pitch. Seven pitches later, Darvish hit Scooter Gennett in the left foot with a 91 mph cutter, loading the bases. While he tidily ended a four-pitch encounter with Adam Duvall via a strikeout on a high 95 mph fastball, the Reds got on the board when Scott Schebler hit a hot grounder — with an exit velocity of 100 mph, the fastest he allowed all day — to Javier Baez on Darvish’s seventh pitch, a ball that the shortstop could only knock down. Infield single. After a visit from pitching coach Jim Hickey, with the bases still loaded, Darvish managed to put the inning to to rest by inducing Tucker Barnhart to foul out to third baseman Ian Happ, limiting the damage to one run.

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The Rarest Sight in Baseball

On May 12th, in the first inning of the Cubs’ game against the White Sox, Jon Lester did something a little bit unusual: he swung at a 3-1 pitch. Now, if Jon Lester were not a pitcher, that wouldn’t be all that unusual. Since 2011, non-pitchers (another word you might use for these people is “hitters”) have swung at 3-1 pitches about 56% of the time — 55.9% of the time, to be precise. But Jon Lester is a pitcher, and he still swung at a 3-1 pitch. And the thing is, over the same time period — that is, from 2011 (when our data starts) to present — pitchers faced with 3-1 counts have swung at the next pitch just 38.3% of the time. Of those swings, just one in five was at a pitch outside the zone, like the fastball on the outside edge at which Lester swung and missed. It’s just not something you see that often.

That’s because, if you’re a pitcher, swinging at a 3-1 pitch is usually not a very good idea. If you swing at such a pitch, you might get a hit (pitchers did hit 27 home runs last year, after all!), but you might also put the ball in play and record an out. If you don’t swing on 3-1, you definitely won’t record an out. You might still get a strike called against you, which would put you that much closer to recording an out, but you might also walk or get hit by the pitch — and a walk or hit by pitch, for a lot of pitchers at the plate, is a very good outcome. Last year, pitchers took 5,277 plate appearances. They recorded outs in 4,522 of those plate appearances (85.7%). I think it’s fair to say pitchers are looking for any means to reach base available to them. Swinging at 3-1 pitches is not a good way to do that. And so, two-thirds of the time, pitchers don’t.

Everything I’ve just said applies doubly to 3-0 counts. Even regular hitters don’t swing at those pitches all that often — just 8.2% of the time since 2011, in fact. With two strikes still available, it just doesn’t make any sense not to give the pitcher a chance to walk you, and so upwards of nine times out of 10, hitters will let the pitcher prove he can find the zone on a 3-0 count. And when it’s a pitcher at the plate, the odds of a swing on 3-0 are even smaller. Vanishingly small, in fact. Thanks to a database query performed by my colleague Sean Dolinar, I’m able to report to you now that a pitcher swing on a 3-0 count has happened only seven times since 2011, or about once a season. Seven times, out of 578 opportunities. About 1 in every 100 times. Almost never. And — here’s the fun thing about this story, I think — six of those seven swings were taken by just two men, and all seven came in the span of just three seasons. Let’s investigate the history of this strange baseball phenomenon together, shall we? Come with me on a journey back to May 20th, 2014.

Whoops! I jumped ahead in the story a little bit. That there on your screen, right above this text, is Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants swinging at a 3-0 pitch in the fifth inning of a game against the Colorado Rockies. Now, Bumgarner can hit a little bit — at least as well as the worst big-league hitters can hit, that is. His career wRC+ is identical, for example, to Drew Butera’s. And he was behind in this game 1-0 in the fifth, with two runners on base and an out in the inning to spare. Perhaps he felt that his cause would be best served by a Very Large Home Run against Franklin Morales, who at this point in the game was pitching a gem (those of you who are familiar with the life and work of Franklin Morales may not be shocked to discover it did not end that way, though it wasn’t a terrible start, on the whole).

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Mike Clevinger, Ben Zobrist, and When Shoes Aren’t Just Shoes

Mike Clevinger is a pretty great pitcher. He throws 94 mph. He’s cut his walk rate in half since last year. He’s been the best starter so far this season in one of the league’s best rotations.

Mike Clevinger also has pretty great shoes. They’re designed by by artist Jonathan Hrusovsky. Look at these things.

Ben Zobrist is a pretty great player himself. In his age-37 season, he’s recorded a batting line about 15% better than league average. He still plays multiple positions well. He’s the eighth-best player by WAR over the last decade.

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Job Posting: Cubs Player Development Analyst

Position: Analyst, Player Development

Location: Chicago, IL

Description:
The Chicago Cubs are seeking an analyst to join the Research and Development group in Baseball Operations. This role will focus on the management and analysis of data gathered on players in the Chicago Cubs minor league system and will work closely with the both the Player Development and R&D departments. Succesful candidates will bring a background in analytics, a strong interest in evidence-based coaching and development, and the communication skills to work effectively with player development personnel to apply analytics and improve the effective understanding of data to optimize prospect performance and progression.

Responsibilities:

  • Research, develop and test methods and models for the purpose of player assessment and developmentIdentify technologies, analyze data and translate into tangible coaching and skill development objectives.
  • Effectively present analyses through the use of written reports and data visualization methods to disseminate insights to members of baseball operations and player development personnel.
  • Handle analysis requests from and conduct studies to support player development personnel, coaches, and players.
  • Conduct in-depth evaluations of Cubs prospects.
  • As needed, travel to minor league affiliates to support player development initiatives.
  • Identify, diagnose and resolve data quality issues.
  • Examine and implement sports science technologies that may offer innovative data solutions.

Required Qualifications:

  • Bachelor’s degree in an quantitative field such as statistics, engineering, applied math, physics, quantitative social sciences, computer science, operations research.
  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills
  • Proficiency with SQL
  • Working knowledge of advanced baseball statistics
  • Experience with programming languages (e.g., C, Python or R)
  • Experience or strong interest in using baseball data to support coaching or skill development

The Chicago Cubs are an Equal Opportunity Employer.

To Apply:
Please visit this site to apply.


Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 7

Pitchers learn and develop different pitches, and they do so at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, or a changeup in A-ball. Sometimes the addition or refinement is a natural progression — graduating from Pitching 101 to advanced course work — and often it’s a matter of necessity. In order to get hitters out as the quality of competition improves, a pitcher needs to optimize his repertoire.

In the seventh installment of this series, we’ll hear from three pitchers — Jakob Junis, Kyle Ryan, and Chase Whitley — on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.

———

Jakob Junis (Royals) on His Slider

“It’s technically a slider, although sometimes it has more of a curveball break because of the way I release it. I’ve always looked at it as a slider, because I also throw a curveball — a traditional type of curveball — with a different grip. The grip I came up with for my slider is fairly new.

“I started throwing a slider in Double-A, and it really wasn’t a very good one. It was with a standard, trying-to-learn grip. That offseason I went home and said, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ I knew that I needed a new grip to get more shape and to throw it a little firmer.

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Kris Bryant Is Now a… Contact Hitter?

One of the great questions about Kris Bryant early in his career — actually, one of the only questions — was if he would make enough contact to become an impact player.

He struck out in 30.6% of his plate appearances as a rookie in 2015 and had K’d in at least a quarter of his plate appearances in stops at High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A as arguably the game’s top prospect.

There was no doubt about his power. Bryant crushed ball after ball out of Cactus League stadiums in the spring of 2015, creating a stir about just how the Cubs could justify keeping him off their Opening Day roster. The home run played a large part in his Rookie of the Year and MVP campaigns in 2015 and 2016.

But early this season, accelerating what was a gradual trend, Bryant has made a remarkable change, having recorded a better-than-average strikeout rate. Is it possible that Kris Bryant is now contact hitter?

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Launch Angle Isn’t for Everyone

You could almost be convinced that hitting is easy. Or, at least, you could almost be convinced that getting better at hitting is easy. What can a hitter do to improve in this day and age? Aim up. Try to hit the ball in the air. Elevate and celebrate, and everything. So much contemporary analysis is built around identifying a player or players who are hitting more fly balls than they used to. And, without question, for some players, this has been the key. For some players, aiming up has unlocked potential that could never get out. Especially in the era of aggressive infield shifts, a ball in the air is more valuable than a ball on the ground.

But the important equation isn’t so simple. We went through the opposite of this 10 or 15 years ago. There was a time when we all fell in love with ground-ball pitchers, because, after all, grounders can’t be homers. But there are processes that lead to someone getting grounders, and there are processes that lead to someone getting flies, and fly-ball pitchers have their own upsides. Moving to the present, with hitters, it’s not about whether a fly is better than a grounder. It’s about the swing. What specific kind of swing can allow a hitter to become his best self, overall?

The answer isn’t the same for everyone. The answer could never be the same for everyone. Some hitters, for sure, have gotten better by steepening their swing paths. Kyle Schwarber and Joc Pederson are two hitters attempting the opposite.

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You Can’t Blame Tanking for the Lack of Competitive Teams

Tanking is a problem. Professional sports like baseball are built on the assumption that both sides are trying to win. Organizations putting forth less than their best efforts hurts the integrity of the sport and provides fans with little reason to engage. That said, the perception of tanking might have overtaken the reality of late. Competitive imbalance is not the same as tanking. Sometimes teams are just bad, even if they are trying not to be.

Tanking concerns are not new. Two years ago, just after the Astros and Cubs had turned their teams around, the Phillies were attempting to dismantle their roster by trading Cole Hamels. The Braves had traded multiple players away from a team that had been competitive. The Brewers, who traded away Carlos Gomez, would soon do the same with Jonathan Lucroy after he rebuilt his trade value.

The Braves, Brewers, and Phillies all sold off whatever assets they could. Two years later, though, those clubs aren’t mired in last place. Rather, they’re a combined 54-37 and projected to win around 80 games each this season in what figures to be a competitive year for each. While the Braves and Phillies could and/or should have done more this offseason to improve their rosters, neither resorted to an extreme level of failure, and the teams are better today than they would have been had they not rebuilt. While accusations of tanking dogged each, none of those clubs descended as far as either the Astros or Cubs. None came close to the NBA-style tank jobs many feared.

One might suspect that I’ve cherry-picked the three clubs mentioned above, purposely selecting teams with surprising early-season success to prop up a point about the relatively innocuous effects of tanking. That’s not what I’ve done, though. Rather, I’ve highlighted the three teams Buster Olney cited by name two years ago — and which Dave Cameron also addressed — in a piece on tanking.

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