Last year’s postseason provided a hard lessons for Manager Joe Maddon and the Chicago Cubs. The question is have they learned anything?
The calendar is filling to August and many states send their students back to school this week. Kids will walk into their new classes with new clothes and backpack, excited for a new year to start. Discussions will take place about what activities people enjoyed over the summer and how things will go this year. The same could have been said for the Chicago Cubs coming into the 2016 season.
There were changes in personnel, bringing in Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey. The celebration of senior member David Ross began as he announced his retirement. Jon Lester came back looking to rebound from his poor play last year. And Dexter Fowler returned like that dear friend we all thought was leaving town. Praise for the line-up and rotation permeated the print and digital media. And the staff was prepared to bring success to this year’s team and improve the previous year’s performance on the test against the New York Mets.
The Chicago Cubs started the season off with a bang. A major bang. They ran out to the best record in the league, outscoring opponents by 150+ runs, and generating a massive lead in the NL Central. It was the best of times.
Then, it was the worst of times.
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The calendar turned to June. Losses started to pile up. Injuries to Fowler and Jorge Soler forced Maddon to rotate players. Batting order changed more times than Kardashians change boyfriends. Nine different plays have lead off the game. Compare that to four players for the MLB’s best offense in the Boston Red Sox. Kris Bryant has played six different positions. Javier Baez, five. Zobrist, three. You can see it on the faces of the players. The recent struggles are wearing on them. Maybe it is time for the Cubs to settle into place.
When you dig into the Chicago Cubs lineup a bit more, it is easy to point out that Fowler’s absence was a huge issue. This I have discussed at length in other articles. But the offense has been missing the “OH!” that we witnessed in April in May, when Bryant and Anthony Rizzo were batting third and fourth, respectively. The number do not lie. In Bryant’s 239 at-bats when third in the order, he is batting (.282/.380/.534) with 49 runs, 15 HR, and 50 RBI. While the batting numbers are better at (.318/.427/.545), Bryant has 25 runs scored, 6 HR, and 11 RBI. That is in 110 at-bat. The numbers are not bad, but there has been a noticeable decline in RBI situations. The same can be said about Rizzo. In 255 at-bats when batting fourth, Rizzo’s numbers are (.290/.410/.573), with 45 runs, 18 HR, 57 RBI, plus a 1:1 walks to strikeout ratio. Batting third, that changes to (.283/.347/.585), 16 runs, 6 HR, and 22 RBI, and a 1:3 ratio.
Proof is in the numbers. When there are people on base ahead of “Bryzzo,” they score. Bryant and Rizzo protect each other and those around them in the line-up. And, they get on base which has allowed Zobrist and Addison Russell to knock them in. Yes, Zobrist (51) and Russell (61) are solid RBI performers. The solution to the Chicago Cubs’ offensive woe’s appears simple: get more runners on base ahead of Bryant and Rizzo. Give them a chance to knock in some runs and keep the line moving with Zobrist and Russell. This also means putting someone between Fowler and Bryant in the lineup. The best on-base percentage of all current roster members: Willson Contreras. Could he be the answer? Possible.
The biggest issue that Maddon learned last year in the playoffs was pitchers need rest. With that in mind, he has used a sixth starter already, and will again tonight. All the starters, except Hendricks, have already started 20+ games. Jake Arrieta and Lackey have pitched 130+ innings. The sixth starter could help provide a break for the starting rotation. Add to this the trade for Aroldis Chapman, and now the starters only need to go six innings per game.
Here is the problem with all of this: baseball players are notorious for being creatures of habits. Many players have routines or superstitions they incorporate into their lives. Whether it is not stepping on the chalk or eating a bucket of chicken before the game, routines are important to players. Baseball player are extremely intuitive and simple changes can throw off everything. Everything.
When I was in school, I studies music. A daily routine was required of my time in order I could practice my craft and maintain my studies. As one of my teachers would say, “constant contact with the subject matter brings true knowledge.” In other words, for the Chicago Cubs, the more you regularly perform in specific roles, the better you will perform overall. Keeping player in regular spots in the line-up produces a rhythm and consistency that leads to success.
The Chicago Cubs have played 103 games thus far. There are 59 regular season games left. As the calendar turns to August, it is time for Joe Maddon to settle the players into their regular spots. Give them time to find their routine and make a run to the playoffs.