Cubs Conversation With MLB Network’s Ron Darling: Lester, Hendricks, Framing, and Messing with Javy’s Swing

Not long after his 13-year pitching career came to an end, Ron Darling made the transition into broadcasting and can now be seen as a co-host on MLB Network and a color man for national TBS broadcasts and for Mets games on SNY and WPIX.

Over tours with the Mets, Expos, and Athletics, the righty compiled a 136-116 record and 3.87 ERA. Along the way, he won a World Series (Mets, ’86) a Gold Glove (’89) and was named to the All-Star team (’85). Darling threw five pitches (slider, curve, changeup, splitter, fastball) and was lauded for his athleticism, glove, and excellent pick-off move.

Darling was also known as a “heady” pitcher, having attended Yale as a French/Southeast Asian history double major. He is now viewed by many as one of the best analysts in the industry.

I recently caught up with Darling to get his take on where the Cubs are from a pitching standpoint after the additions of Jon Lester and Jason Motte to a staff that already included Jake Arrieta and fellow Ivy Leaguer Kyle Hendricks. I was pleasantly surprised at Darling’s knowledge of and insight into the Cubs young roster.

TL: The first thing I wanted to talk to you about, obviously, is Cubs pitching, specifically Jon Lester. What does it mean, not only to the organization, but to the clubhouse, when you bring in an ace like that.

RD: Well, you know, Jon is a quiet person, who just, in the way that he conducts himself, inspires others to conduct themselves in the same way. You have some “rah-rah” guys. You have some guys that come in and are those kinds of leaders. Jon’s not like that. Jon, just through his hard work, his ability to do his job every day. Coming with a seriousness in what he does is only going to spread throughout, not only to the guys on the major league roster, but also throughout the minor league roster.

He’s going to set a precedent for how it is to be a pro. It’s only going to make Arrieta, (Jadon) Hammel, Hendricks, who’s an impressionable young kid too, and (Travis) Wood probably as well. It’s just going to, just by the way he conducts himself–he’s a pro’s pro–it’s going to make everyone better.

TL: Does this addition send a message to the rest of baseball that the Cubs are now getting serious? Does Lester become a pied piper for other players to say, “Hey, that’s a serious situation over there, now.”

RD: I think that the Cubs have been very serious since Theo Epstein got there. I’m thinking they’ve been very serious, but it just takes time sometimes to make [it happen]. If you do it right in today’s game, there’s not as many quick fixes. You can definitely have someone like a Lester, who’s going to kind of legitimize your team, because you’re talking about a Cubs team that, like every other team, wants to win the World Series.

Well, now you’re bringing in a guy that’s won two (World Series). I think that’s the legitimacy of it, is that we’re starting now to add to our young players, people who know what it’s like to hoist the trophy. That’s not happened for a lot of these young guys, none of them. I think that’s the legitimacy.

Also, I think it rejuvenates an unbelievable fanbase, maybe one of the most unique and great fanbases of all of baseball. You know, they’ve watched a lot of lean years. They’re starting to get a little excited because of all the young talent you have coming to the major leagues, but then when you add Jon Lester, you go, “oh.” We’re going from–on a scale of 1 to 10–a 5 1/2-6, to now we’re at 7 1/2-8, of trying to go to the postseason.

It was a great move by Theo. He certainly knew Jon’s reputation. That’s why he probably went after him so hard, and I applaud that. It would be something if Theo and Jon were part of history in Chicago, because I think it would be great for Chicago, it would be great for Cubs fans, and of course, it would be great for baseball.

TL: That seems to be something that Lester was interested in being a part of. When you hand out this kind of long term deal in free agency to a pitcher that is over 30 years old, obviously, there’s some concern, but lefties sometimes have a little bit more longevity. Do you see anything with Lester that gives you more of a comfort level, giving those types of years out?

RD: Well, you know, you get a lot of talk from the media about “what if he gets hurt?” Well, I mean, he could have got hurt when he was 22. You know, the kid’s been through cancer. I think there is concern, but that’s the price of doing business nowadays; to get the player you want, sometimes you have to go to years that, quite frankly, you probably think he’s not going to be productive.

The difference, I think, with Jon is that he’s always been a pitcher first. Even though he’s a power guy, and I think if you envision, like most pitchers, he’s going to lose 2 or 3 miles an hour on his fastball at some point, he’s got 3 or 4 pitches to get people out. That’s the difference. If you’re getting a guy that can only get people out because of how hard he throws, that, to me, is more concerning than if a guy has a real technical and intellectual knowledge on how to get people out.

Jon has that, so if he ever gets to the point where he’s not a guy that’s going to strike out 9 per 9 innings and gets down to 6 per 6 innings, I think he’ll make the transition similar to Mike Mussina. They’re just really highly intellectual pitchers and know how to get people out.

TL: The Cubs just also brought along Lester’s personal catcher in David Ross, who has been referred to as Lester’s “personal caddy.” Are there certain catchers that you’ve ever worked with, or really wanted to work with? Do you find it interesting that certain pitchers, like Lester, would like to work with a guy like Ross so much? That they have that kind of relationship?

RD: Yeah. Greg Maddux had his personal catchers, too. I think it’s funny. It’s not that pitchers don’t like someone to throw to, but you have to be of a personal stature, as a pitcher, to get your own personal catcher. You know what I mean? Clayton Kershaw will probably have AJ Ellis out in Los Angeles. Jon will have David.

The great thing that Ross brings to the team is, not only does he have a great relationship with Jon, but he’s a great clubhouse guy. He’s the kind of guy that is a winner. It’s just another move by Theo and his staff to bring in real quality, winning people. They’ve been winners at the professional level, at the major league level.

I think that, I’m not going to say it’s overblown, but David is going to come in and catch Jon Lester because they have a great relationship. It’s also nice when you bring in a guy that’s not only going to catch a lot of Jon’s games, but also help your young players find their way through the light, because you have so many talented young guys that don’t know how to play the game of Major League Baseball yet. They’re learning. It’s certainly going to help their learning curve, having guys like David Ross around.

TL: One of the things I guess Ross is very good at is framing, and so is Miguel Montero, the other veteran catcher that the Cubs brought in. Was framing something that you took notice of during your playing days, or from other pitchers’ perspectives, was framing something that can add a little bit of an advantage from a pitcher’s standpoint?

RD: Yeah, what’s changed for me is that that’s a necessary part of the game. In my day, guys caught the way they caught. You had good defensive catchers, you had some that weren’t so good. As far as the catchers today, that is a part of the game. If they don’t do it well, they’re going to get their report card from the coaches. You’re lucky that Miguel and Ross are two guys who do it well. That’s going to permeate to the whole system.

I think when you’re building a roster, to have a right-handed and a left-handed catching tandem..that’s a huge thing, in my eyes. I just think that all the little things of preparing a game plan for the game, framing pitches, blocking pitches in the dirt, which has always been important. I think all of that stuff is even more important. There’s more put on catchers today than at any time in the game.

TL: Another recent addition the Cubs brought in was Jason Motte. I don’t know if you’ve seen a lot of their bullpen, but they’ve got some impressive young arms, Neil Ramirez and Hector Rondon to mention a few. Motte is a guy that could, obviously, bring a little bit more of a veteran presence and also give Joe Madden, who likes to tinker with his bullpen, another option in the late innings. How do you see Motte fitting in?

RD: It’s hard for me to talk about Jason Motte without a smile on my face. He’s a great American, this guy. He started the K Cancer campaign. He’s about as refreshing as you’ll ever get. He’s a kid that started as a catcher, then made himself into a reliever. He will–just like Ross, just like Lester–have such an influence on those young pitchers. That being said, he’ll only have influence if he’s healthy.

It’s hard to have any kind of influence on anyone unless you can go out there and do your job properly. I have no doubt that Jason will. I think he worked on a lot of the kinks late in the year in trying to get healthy. He’ll come to spring training healthy, and Rondon, and Pedro Strope, and Ramirez, Jason Grimm, all those guys on that bullpen, will really be lucky to be able to sit down there and have conversations with Motte. He can talk about pitching and getting the last out in the World Series and all of those things that they aspire to do someday.

TL: You mentioned Hendricks and Arrieta. Do you feel like Arrieta’s had kind of turned the corner, as far as maybe another top of the rotation arm the Cubs now can count on? What do you think the ceiling is for a guy like Hendricks?

RD: Well, I think Arrieta’s been one of those pitchers who had great stuff but never found it. Then he finally found it last year and he was one of the best pitchers in all of the National League. That being said, the league is probably going to make a couple of adjustments to him. He’s going to have to make them again as well.

Chris (Bosio), who’s underrated as a pitching coach in baseball, has done great work with [Arrieta]. I think Lester also being there is going to put a couple of new eyeballs on him. I see Arrieta even thriving more, because he won’t be asked to do anything in the number one slot. Lester will be in charge of that. He’ll be able to just go out and do his business.

As far as Kyle Hendricks, I saw him pitch a game in New York, and I couldn’t have been more impressed. He’s a guy that doesn’t blow up the computer like a lot of these guys. He doesn’t throw 95-plus, but he knows how to pitch. He reminds me a little bit of, I don’t want to say Greg Maddux, that’s a horrible thing to throw on a kid.

TL: He gets it a lot already, don’t worry.

RD: Yeah, he’s just a kid who, he doesn’t throw 95, but he moves the ball inside and out. He has great fastball command. He’s got a breaking ball, but he’s still working on it; and his changeup, I think, is just outstanding. I watched him without doing the game, I was just able to watch from the stands, and I was so impressed by how he went through the New York Mets lineup. Yeah, Hendricks is the real deal. Is he going to struggle at times this year? Of course, all young pitchers do. I think you’ve found a hidden gem in Kyle Hendricks.

TL: Last thing I’m going to ask you about is one of the young hitters, Javy Baez. Scouts have told me that he’s at that point where he’s still getting himself out, and he’s going to have to work on possibly shortening his swing at times but also his pitch selection. As a pitcher, what do you feel Baez needs to do to make adjustments and make a leap this year?

RD: Well, I hope they leave this thing alone. He generates so much bat speed. He reminds me very much of Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez in his prime. I hear a lot of that [talk about] shortening his stroke. If anyone shortens his stroke, I hope they get fired. I mean, what he needs to do is to have an idea on strike zone.

The intelligence part of the game–the recognizing the pitch, knowing what pitches he can handle–I know that’s going to come, but I think what happens over the course of time is that, people…It’s like taking a guy who throws really hard and saying, “You know what, I’m going to make him throw only 65%, 70%; that way he throws strikes.”

I wouldn’t do that with Baez. I would let him do what he does best, and that is that he’s real aggressive. When he makes contact, no one can hit the ball as far as he can. What he’s got to understand is strike zone recognition; that’s not different from any other younger player. Now, the strikeouts, are they alarming? Well, if you ask a lot of sabermetricians, they don’t care about strikeouts.

They care when it comes to the pitcher, but they don’t care so much when it comes from the hitter; they consider it just an out. I’m not of that school. I think he’s got to get better with two strikes. He was on a pace with just the small number of games he played last year to set a Major League record, if he’d played the entire season. Yes, he has to do some things with two strikes that are different, but I wouldn’t change too much on the first two strikes.

Follow Ron @Rondarling12

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