Maddon knows nerves

At the time, I thought Maddon was overmanaging, but there’s something I might have been overlooking, something that was made vivid in the recorded conversation between Rizzo and Ross: the bad case of nerves that was afflicting the younger players like Rizzo but maybe not the more experienced ones like Ross. Maddon had to be careful to place most of the pressure on players who were veteran enough to handle it. Chapman was one of those players.

Rizzo’s voice was cracking while he tried just to talk about how nervous he was. We saw hints of shared nervousness on the field in various bobbles and weak underhand tosses plus several unaccustomed missed scoops throughout the postseason by Rizzo himself. By game seven, the Cubs were a great defensive team playing at about 75% efficiency. But the greatest display of nerves was by Carl Edwards, who got to two outs quickly, but then, one out away from being the guy who “catches the catcher” in his arms to begin the 108-years-deferred celebration, found it physically impossible to throw a ball over the plate above the knees, and had to be relieved. Maddon knows nerves, and tried very hard not to put Edwards in that spot in the first place. But Chapman was worn out. The immaturity/unreadiness of the rest of the bullpen is the reason he was worn out.

Edwards is a cool customer compared to Strop and Grimm, who cannot be given the ball in a save situation, let alone this one. Edwards had two saves this year, compared to zero by Strop and Grimm. Montogomery had looked tired and given up a walk and a hit in a one-inning appearance the day before. Rondon developed a sore triceps in August and needs the offseason to recover fully. Lester was himself tired by the eighth inning.

But what about the day before, when Chapman was summoned while the Cubs led by five runs? Two things: one, you go all out in elimination games, just to be sure you’re not saving someone for a game seven that never gets played; and two, you don’t actually want to watch two or three slumping Indian hitters break out with hits late in a game six. Let them continue to nap.

Maddon’s solution is a) win the Series anyway despite a tired and vulnerable closer, and b) let the nerves suffered this year cure themselves over time.

I thought, by the way, that Maddon was brilliant when he sent Chapman back out in the bottom of the ninth with instructions to throw mostly offspeed pitches. Not only was it brilliant but it actually worked. It’s hard to hit 103 even when you know it’s coming; but Chapman didn’t have 103 on Wednesday. So he resorted to what is commonly referred to as “pitching,” and was able to retire hitters easily with a mere 97 after softening them up with 89. Imagine Chapman having to pitch! I like my gods when they’re down-to-earth, with a touch of humanness, like Chapman (and Maddon) in game seven.

Guessing game

John Smoltz did a pretty good job of analyzing what everybody could see last night during game five of the World Series–everybody, that is, who wasn’t occupying a spot in the Cub dugout. What Smoltz diagnosed was Cleveland’s strategy with Baez at the plate. Throw him a first-pitch strike, Smoltz said, and then throw him chase pitches after that. After one strike, Baez would reliably swing at anything. That seemed to be Cleveland’s strategy, and Baez played true to form every time.

If Cleveland can tell its pitchers how to approach a hitter, then why can’t the Cubs say something to Baez? Why can’t they give him a script to follow? Here is a script that might have changed the odds at least somewhat in our favor: you, Javy Baez, may swing at the first pitch, but after that you must keep the bat on your shoulder for three pitches or one called strike, whichever comes first.

Whose job is it to rein in Baez, to curb his improvisational tendencies? I’ve heard Maddon say that he doesn’t give advice to his hitters. (He’s not Dale Sveum.) Not that he doesn’t have advice, but he doesn’t think it wise to get between a player and his skills coach, whether it’s hitting or pitching. The job of giving in-game instruction to Baez belongs to Mallee, the hitting coach.

I’ve been tempted to write about Mallee for several months now. I thought he should be fired, simply because the Cubs had a huge investment in Heyward and Mallee wasn’t helping him. Even if Mallee was giving helpful advice to everyone else in the lineup, Heyward was the one who mattered because he can’t be traded or benched. If the Cubs need to fire a hitting coach every season for the next seven years while they wait for Heyward to get back on track, so be it. Hitting coaches are fungible, expendable.

So it was nothing personal against Mallee, although, watching Baez the last several games, it’s starting to get personal. I have an observation or two to add to Smoltz’s.

Baez does frequently swing at first pitches, and they are usually fastball strikes; but he doesn’t do much with them. Invariably, he swings late at first-pitch fastballs. I’m no hitting coach, and I can’t break a swing down and analyze its components. But hitting is not all physical; and pitchers are mostly taking advantage of a weakness in Baez’s “approach,” a mental component of his game.

I think you have a better chance of hitting a fastball–of not being late–if you’re “looking fastball.” This means that you guess a little, and maybe cheat a little. You sell out, with the result that the swing might be early and awkward if you guessed wrong and the pitch is a breaking ball. But so what, it’s strike one, the same as if you had swung late on a fastball. Baez is a natural, instinctive player who, on the defensive side, where events happen somewhat randomly and unexpectedly, succeeds by letting the game come to him. In the batter’s box, the pitcher is not behaving randomly, trying to throw strikes and missing by a little here and a little there. He may purposely throw a pitch in the dirt, outside, followed by another similar pitch. And then another. He is following a plan. Baez needs a plan, if only so that he can put himself in the pitcher’s shoes and ask himself, If you were the pitcher, would you throw Javy Baez a strike on oh-and-two (or one-and-two or two-and-two)?

Baez needs a counter-plan. He needs help. No one is giving it to him. He can’t hear Smoltz. If he’s hearing anyone, it’s Mallee: apparently the sound of silence.

This business of chronically being late on fastballs also applies to Heyward. That’s interesting, since they have the same coach. Unlike Baez, Heyward seems very bright, cerebral even; but that doesn’t mean he’s not hearing, and giving himself, bad advice. Let’s assume that Heyward’s problem, like Baez’s first-pitch problem, is that he’s not “looking fastball” and not timing fastballs as though they were flung by a pitching machine dialed up to 96. As a thought experiment, imagine Heyward selling out on fastballs for at least a couple of pitches per at-bat. Don’t you think, under those circumstances, this huge fellow would occasionally square up a fastball and hit a bomb? Heyward hit seven home runs this year, one each in July, August and September. His longest traveled 401 feet. You can see it here. It landed in about the fifth row above the 368 sign in left-center in Wrigley. In summary: in 592 plate appearances, Heyward hit one ball 400 feet.

Dexter Fowler is an interesting contrast to Heyward. He’s a stringbean to Heyward’s jolly green giant. Fowler knows who he is, what he’s trying to accomplish. Basically, he tries never to swing at a ball. Like Heyward a big target, Fowler walked 79 times in 2016 compared to Heyward’s 54 (in 41 more PAs). In order to do that, Fowler must never be caught guessing. He’s not looking fastball, so when he gets one he has to catch up to it, which he is often able to do with his very quick late swing. Against Kluber the other day, Fowler hit two fastballs about as well as he can, but just was able to drive them to medium right field. Even so, he hits twice as many home runs as Heyward, but the pitches I see him really getting his body into are breaking balls, where he simply has more time to get everything moving in the same direction.

Heyward is trapped somewhere between Dexter Fowler and the slugger everybody has always wanted him to be. Today he is Fowler without the quick swing. He refuses to “look fastball.” He could probably do some damage on an offspeed pitch if someone would ever put one in his wheelhouse, but why would that ever happen?

Hitting with power is not rocket science, but it is a guessing game. A hitter may need to be coached on how to think like a pitcher and make an educated guess about what’s coming.

Hitting prospects: looking toward 2017

Here is the list of Cub hitting prospects for 2017 based on full-season minor-league numbers.

The ranking looks at total bases, walks, steals and games played. It takes the sum of total bases + walks + SBs, adjusts it slightly, and divides by games played to arrive at a score. (Hitting prospects are starters, not pinch hitters or defensive replacements, so dividing by games is roughly the same as dividing by at-bats or plate appearances.)

The adjustment represented by the “adj points” column is Points minus Games. This adjustment rests on the idea that one total base (or walk or SB) per game is a baseline, required to get you to zero.

These are intended to be rough-and-ready, uncomplicated numbers.

Players included here are at South Bend (“sbn”) or higher. I include Eugene (half-season league) numbers and even Arizona League (“cbz”) numbers if a player has advanced to South Bend (A ball) or above.

Number-driven rankings work for me because they eliminate the BS factor. I would love to read scouting reports by professionals who are paid by major-league teams, but those reports are closely held. If you want to know what pro scouts really think, you might have to wait until amateur players are drafted in June or minor-leaguers are traded for, mostly in late July and during the offseason. Probably the most reliable ranking we ever see of baseball players at any level is the draft order in June.

If you go to Baseball Reference and click on Minors, NLB, Japan,…, and then select Chicago Cubs for the year 2016, you can click on the OPS column to get a ranking of all Cub minor leaguers by OPS. The ranking will be about the closest thing you’ll find on the web to my ranking. The difference will be that I factor in stolen bases where OPS does not. Stolen bases reflect speed and quickness, including on the defensive side. Andreoli is 3rd on my list, but only 18th by OPS. Hannemann gets a big bump up for SBs, from 24th by OPS to 4th in my ranking. And while total bases are counted in SLG which is included in OPS, I seem to put more weight on total bases than OPS does. Look at Ryan Kalish, for example. Nobody with a mere 29 total bases in 21 games could make it near the top of my ranking, unless he was super-fast. Yet Kalish is #4 in OPS. I rank him #17.

In terms of using WAR instead of OPS–well, they don’t calculate WAR for minor-league players. I don’t know the reason. My guess is that WAR relies on arcana (like ballpark adjustments) that are not available for minor-league games. Is it fair to say that the statistical community is bolder when predicting the past–a player’s MVP or HOF worthiness, for example–than when it is asked to weigh in on the ML-worthiness of young players? (If so, what does that say about the scientific pretensions of advanced stats?)

A few comments:

Vogelbach (232) and Eloy (230) have the highest number of total bases, followed by Belaguert, Candelario, Happ and Dewees.

Leaders in steals are Adams(44), Andreoli (43), (Jeffrey) Baez (38), Dewees(31) and Hannemann(26).

(Baez is one of my favorite sleeper prospects in the list. Think 22-year-old Marlon Byrd.)

Contreras is well beyond the prospect phase, and Vogelbach and Gleyber are gone. The first ten hitting prospects in this numbers-based list, then, are Andreoli, Hannemann, Eloy, Rice, Happ, Zagunis, Dewees, Bote, Candelario and Crawford. The surprises here–in that I don’t think we’ll be seeing them in other top-ten lists–are Andreoli, Hannemann, Rice, Bote and Crawford. Rice, in particular, will be a strange name to most fans. He’s a catcher out of U. of Houston last year, taken in the 29th round. Just know that he walks a lot and has some pop (15 home runs in 97 games in his first professional season).

The numerical ranking should be taken as a prediction that the top scorers will at least get a good shot at the majors. That might seem a bold prediction regarding Andreoli and Hannemann, but let’s wait and see.

Pitching prospects: looking toward 2017

The minor-league numbers are in for this year, so this is our final ranking of pitching prospects going into 2017.

Prospects are ranked according to the formula K9-(H9+BB9). That’s strikeouts per nine innings minus the sum of hits-per-nine and walks-per-nine. Thus we only look at four numbers–innings, hits, walks, strikeouts. What else is there? Well, age is a factor. The lower the age, the higher the upside. The years work against you when you’re 25 and over, because you won’t get better and thus won’t be as good in the majors as you are now. But in the spirit of keeping things simple, I would rather not try to quantify the age factor. The reader will be expected to keep two balls in the air, the player’s age and my rightmost-column number based on innings, hits, BBs and Ks.

According to this ranking, the ten top starting pitchers on the Cub farm are Matusz, De La Cruz, Paulino, Clifton, Morrison, Kellogg, Twomey, Bloomquist, Miller and Zastryzny, in that order. Matusz was mostly in rehab this season, and thus his numbers are drawn from four minors levels, so his name near the top of this ranking should probably appear with an asterisk (and not just for being a southpaw). Next year he’ll be thirty.

If we only looked at Zastryzny’s 81 innings at Iowa, he would place sixth (at -2.33) behind four low-minors prospects plus Matusz. So Zastryzny’s late-season call-up was earned. Zastryzny is the first Cub hurler selected in the annual June draft in the Epstein-McLeod era (2012-present) to pitch in the majors, and the first prospect at any position to play in the majors who was drafted lower than number 6 overall.

The top ten relievers on the list are Patton, Rivero, Leathersich, Pena, Farris, Araujo, Cheek, Sarianides, McNeil and Malave. Patton and Pena ended the season on the parent club. Leathersich is still rehabbing from TJ surgery. Rivero’s not getting a call-up could be due to his age, 28.

Pitching Prospects–thru 8/20

With under three weeks left to the minor-league regular seasons, these are not final numbers, but they’re close.

This is an updated list (through August 20) of Cub pitching prospects ranked according to the formula K9-(H9+BB9). That’s strikeouts per nine innings minus the sum of hits-per-nine and walks-per-nine. Thus we only look at four numbers–innings, hits, walks, strikeouts. What else is there? Well, age is a factor. The lower the age, the higher the upside. The years work against you when you’re 25 and over, because you won’t get better and thus won’t be as good in the majors as you are now. But in the spirit of keeping things simple, I would rather not try to quantify the age factor. The reader will be expected to keep two balls in the air, the player’s age and my right-column number based on innings, hits, BBs and Ks.

According to this ranking, the ten top starting pitchers on the Cub farm are De La Cruz, Matusz, Paulino, Clifton, Morrison, Twomey, Bloomquist, Kellogg, Miller and Zastryzny, in that order. Matusz has a small data sample and is currently on the DL. If we only looked at Zastryzny’s 81 innings at Iowa, he would place sixth (at -2.33) behind four low-minors prospects plus Matusz. So Zastryzny’s recent call-up was earned.

The top ten relievers on the list are Patton, Leathersich, Rivero, Pena, Araujo, Farris, Cheek, Sarianides, Eregua and Griggs. Patton is already up, Leathersich is still rehabbing from TJ surgery, and Rivero is 28, so Felix Pena was the logical recent call-up.

Where are the Samardzijas and Cashners?

The Eugene Emeralds won their 13th consecutive game last night.

The Cub system is solid–first-place solid–at the lower levels (Eugene, South Bend, Myrtle Beach) while Tennessee and Iowa are second-worst in their respective leagues.

Go figure. All I would say is that to win at the upper levels, you need starting pitching. For example, Myrtle Beach won the Carolina League last year, but they did it with a corps of relief pitchers–Garner, Markey, Berg, Farris and others–that kept them in games every night. But you cannot build success around minor-league relievers. At some point they will re-acquaint you with the reasons you didn’t consider them starting prospects to begin with. Only Farris (still a reliever) has pitched well at Tennessee. With Pierce Johnson, Tyler Skulina and Duane Underwood having fizzled, there is a dearth of pitching talent at double- and triple-A. Blackburn was pitching decently at Tennessee, but he went to Seattle with Vogelbach for relief pitcher Mike Montgomery. Unless Johnson or Underwood comes back strong, Zastryzny might be our only shot at promoting a starter to the majors next year.

The situation might be improving. Myrtle Beach is finishing strong, but this time they are doing it with two starters, Trevor Clifton and Jake Stinnett, who should begin next season at Tennessee, and a third, Preston Morrison, who will not be far behind. There are four interesting starters I could name at South Bend. That organization has a won-lost record (75-46) almost as good as the big-league club’s.

The Cub brass knows how to obtain what it needs. The organizational void in pitching prospects, therefore, though glaring, is probably temporary. There is enough non-pitching talent to bring back more arms like Hendricks and Edwards. (I hope Jeimer Candelario makes the expanded roster in September, so he can have a sort of farewell tour of Wrigley.) Check back here in January, by which time the starting rotations in Chicago and certainly in the high minors will have gotten a little younger.

Trade an all-star, not a question mark

My list of Cub untouchables would be the guys who could be crazy-great, you’re just not sure (and the GM on the other side knows it), and so you’re liable to sell a little low and conclude a trade that you will regret later on. Schwarber is in that category, partly because of the injury and also because of uncertainty over his position. Baez is another, since he is still being refurbished as a hitter. Happ is a third.

Happ swings as hard as Baez, and connects more frequently. His toolset features power from both sides, something that comes along once or twice a decade (and has never actually come along to the Cubs). Superior organizations like the Yankees and Cardinals are always on the lookout for switch hitters. The Cub organization is rising, so fittingly they have two switch hitters in the regular lineup plus a top prospect with that elite tool.

Schwarber also fits into one of baseball’s prized categories, the lefty slugger. Naturally Brian Cashman covets Schwarber; but no relief pitcher is worth a top lefty-hitting slugger. Schwarber cannot suit up and help the team right now, so many Cub fans feel like they would be getting something for nothing, which is obviously short-sighted.

I don’t know why you would trade Rizzo or Bryant but I wouldn’t call them untouchable. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to trade an MVP candidate. How does that make you better? But at least you would not be trading a question mark, and you would be assured of getting a boatload of talent back. Same (more or less) with Russell, Contreras, Almora, all of whom have gotten off on the right foot in the majors and shown that they can handle challenging defensive positions, as Bryant did last season when he demonstrated that he could play third.

This is not a recommendation, necessarily, but have they thought about trading Russell? He still has a high enough ceiling that we don’t really grasp how good he is going to be. Something about Russell’s body from the shoulders up (including his face) always reminds me of a certain all-time great. So, yes, I’m actually contemplating the trade of a 22-year-old all-star shortstop who reminds me of Willie Mays.

Russell would bring back players–pitchers, presumably–who would keep the turnstiles at Wrigley spinning into the last week of October. The day after the trade, Baez would take over at short, with Gleyber Torres next in line in case Maddon can’t resist utilizing Baez as a plug-and-play device. I just wonder if the Cubs couldn’t go forward confidently at shortstop with Baez and Torres, and never look back.

young Mays
Russell

Pitching prospects — thru 7/9

This is an updated list (through July 9th) of Cub pitching prospects ranked according to the formula K9-(H9+BB9). That’s strikeouts per nine innings minus the sum of hits-per-nine and walks-per-nine.

Note that the eight top-ranked starting pitchers are all from the lower minors, either class A South Bend (Casey Bloomquist, Kyle Miller, Preston Morrison, Ryan Kellogg, Kyle Twomey) or A+ Myrtle Beach (Trevor Clifton, Jake Stinnett, Eric Leal).

With four of the five Cub starters at the major-league level having gone into a swoon recently (with Lester the last of the four pins to fall), and with the bullpen always suspect, a young starter who happened to be pitching well at Tennessee or Iowa could have helped the parent club; but Pierce Johnson, Duane Underwood and Tyler Skulina were busy establishing themselves as the worst starters on the farm, according to this ranking. Paul Blackburn and Ryan Williams have slightly better numbers but chronically low strikeouts-per-nine rates–5.8 and 6.1, respectively; so they haven’t earned a call-up.

It is well known at this point that a pitcher chosen by Jason McLeod in five Cub drafts has not thrown a pitch in the major leagues thus far, save for Zack Godley, whom they traded to the Diamondbacks and who is on the staff there. Meanwhile, Vizcaino is alive and well in Atlanta and Tony Zych is alive (though not well: he’s on the 60-day DL) in Seattle. But less well known is that McCleod’s drafts have not produced a major leaguer at any position (except Godley) who was drafted later than sixth in the first round.

The Cubs won’t be seeing that high a pick for a while. Any blue-chipper that they trade for pitching later this month will be difficult to replace.

Excellence–sustained or even fleeting–will require drafts that yield better pitching talent.

Hitting prospects

Here is the first iteration of the list that will become the Cub hitting prospects for 2017, based entirely on minor-league numbers.

The ranking is based on total bases, walks, steals and games played. It takes the sum of total bases + walks + SBs, adjusts it slightly, and divides by games played to arrive at a score, according to which the players are ranked. (Hitting prospects are starters, not pinch hitters or defensive replacements, so dividing by games is roughly the same as dividing by at-bats or plate appearances.)

The adjustment represented by the “adj points” column is Points minus Games. This adjustment rests on the idea that one total base (or walk or SB) per game is a baseline, required to get you to zero.

Players included here are at South Bend (“sbn”) or higher. I include Eugene (half-season league) numbers and even Arizona League (“cbz”) numbers if a player has advanced to South Bend (A ball) or above.

Number-driven rankings work for me because they eliminate the BS factor. I would love to read scouting reports by professionals who are paid by major-league teams, but those reports are closely held. If you want to know what pro scouts really think, you might have to wait until amateur players are drafted in June or minor-leaguers are traded for, mostly in late July and during the offseason. Probably the most reliable ranking we ever see of baseball players at any level is the draft order in June.

If you go to Baseball Reference and click on Minors, NLB, Japan,…, and then select Chicago Cubs for the year 2016, you can click on the OPS column to get a ranking of all Cub minor leaguers by OPS. The ranking will be about the closest thing you’ll find on the web to my ranking. The difference will be that I factor in stolen bases where OPS does not. Stolen bases reflect speed and quickness, including on the defensive side. Andreoli is 6th on my list, but only 16th by OPS. Hannemann gets a big bump up for SBs, from 20th by OPS to 8th in my ranking. And while total bases are counted in SLG which is included in OPS, I seem to put more weight on total bases than OPS does. Look at Ryan Kalish, for example. Nobody with a mere 29 total bases in 21 games could ever make it near the top of my ranking, unless he was super-fast. Yet Kalish is #4 in OPS. I rank him #15.

In terms of using WAR instead of OPS–well, they don’t calculate WAR for minor-league players. I don’t know the reason. My guess is that WAR relies on arcana (like ballpark adjustments) that are not available for minor-league games. Is it fair to say that the statistical community is bolder when predicting the past–a player’s MVP or HOF worthiness, for example–than when it is asked to weigh in on the ML-worthiness of young players? (If so, what does that say about the scientific pretensions of advanced stats?)

A few comments:

Eloy has the most total bases. Vogelbach is second, Happ third. Happ could be traded, or he could be playing on the Cubs next year. One or the other. A switch-hitting power guy is a nice-to-have.

Cub fans will feel good about a trade later this month, at least partly because it will involve the loss of a prospect they never heard of. Ian Rice will be that prospect. Now you can’t say you never heard of him. He’s right at the top of this ranking, just below Contreras. He’s a catcher out of U. of Houston last year, taken in the 29th round. Just know that he walks a lot and hits home runs. His 13 homers are second only to Vogelbach’s 15 in the Cub minors.

Javy Baez and Dan Vogelbach, the Cubs’ first and second picks in 2011, are certainly looking like major leaguers lately. Good on Tim Wilken.

Angry (Red)Birds

Tough series with the Cardinals, but the Cubs were breaking in a new catcher, a new CF and two new relievers. The Cubs are in a strong position for the postseason this year, but they won’t stand pat. I don’t know if Concepcion and Patton are the answer to what is wrong with Richard and Grimm, but at least we caught a glimpse of what has been working for Patton at Iowa.

By the way, why are Cardinal hitters allowed to get in an ump’s face after a called-third strike, like Matt Carpenter did in the eighth inning yesterday? I thought hitters got tossed for that. Or does the rule apply to every team except one? Against the Cubs last week, the Nats’ Anthony Rendon was ejected just for showing anger/frustration, without having said a word to the ump.

The plate umpire yesterday (Quinn Wolcott) is on the young side, just turned thirty and in his second full season as a full-timer. I guess the Cardinals are still grooming him.

Matheny displays the harshest glare and fiercest scowl since La Russa. The Cards generally do a few things well, but umpire-intimidation is right at the top.

Remember this classic Cardinal moment from last July? Watch Molina in the video, beginning at 45 seconds in. The game is less important than the head game.