Series Win in Arizona Provided Several Examples of How Cubs Are Following Through on Offseason Goals
It didn’t start out looking like a prototype for what the “New Cubs” should be, but the winning weekend in Arizona ended up providing several examples of exactly that. All winter we heard about regaining drive and edge, fostering veteran leadership, and implementing more structure without losing fluidity. That may have led to some pressing out of the gate, but the Cubs seem to be running smoothly after initial sputters.
The slow start also led to a re-framing of the notion that the Cubs lacked urgency or that they needed to play as though the Sword of Damocles was dangling above them. They claimed the message had gotten muddied along the way, though that’s largely because the team kept raining it down throughout the offseason.
“There have been a few small tweaks with the way we get ready every day,” Theo Epstein explained earlier in the month. “Taking a little bit more batting practice, for example. But that storyline has long since passed. It was kind of over the first day of spring training. It was an offseason thing. We set the tone and the guys have taken it and run with it.”
While one anecdote from the weekend stands out above the rest, I found myself pulling at several different threads that were actually woven together. So let’s look at a few of them with the full realization that the whole tapestry won’t be revealed for quite some time.
Zobrist gives up spot to Bote
Despite the adamant protestations of one Twitter user yesterday, Cubs veterans approaching Joe Maddon to convince him to put David Bote in Sunday’s lineup was not tantamount to insurrection or mutiny. As was stated from the start, the implementation of series-by-series lineups was not a function of rigid authority. Rather, it was simply a way to let players know their roles in advance.
But as with anything, a change in circumstances may necessitate the alteration of a plan. Such was the case after Bote hit two tanks Saturday night and was not scheduled to be in the lineup Sunday afternoon. Recognizing the situation, Ben Zobrist rallied the troops and gave up his spot to Bote.
Some of social media may have misinterpreted the scene as Zobrist and others going in angrily to force Maddon’s hand, but that’s not the way it went down. As the team’s elder statesman said after the game, it was just another example of a collaborative effort in which players work together with their manager to get the best results.
“It was the right team thing to do,” Zobrist told The Athletic‘s Patrick Mooney ($) after the game. “You don’t want that guy sitting on the bench after a game like that. That’s the kind of stuff that’s hard for guys to understand. (Bote) would have understood because of the fact that it was made ahead of time, but you just want to be able to play the hot hand if you can. That’s kind of one of the constraints of making the lineups ahead of time.”
Wouldn’t you know it, both Bote and Zobrist played a hand in the marathon victory, with the latter knocking the big hit late to put the Cubs on top. From the sounds of it, that’s exactly how Maddon drew it up. Not the actual results of the game, of course, just the way the players came to him and spoke up.
“The process worked well,” Maddon said of the lineup change. “I had him listed to not play, but he’s had a couple really good games. I had a discussion with a couple of the veteran guys and they kind of agree with me. Actually, one of the veteran players instituted it. And I liked it.”
Unlike in lower levels of the sport, a major league manager’s job is not to dictate every single action with unquestioned authority. Doing so would see him drummed out of the league in no time. And even if he had wanted to, swapping Bote for Zobrist on his own might not have played well to the veterans. So by allowing the players to make the decision, Maddon built trust and maintained that “sense of today” he’s talked about.
Bryant and Schwarber look better
Kris Bryant hit two home runs in three games and Kyle Schwarber raised his OPS by 79 points, not a bad weekend. Both players looked much more comfortable at the plate and were jumping on pitches rather than hitting defensively.
Bryant seems to be seeing the ball much better and is putting together the kinds of plate appearances we’ve been spoiled by these last few seasons. Some of that has to do with adjusting to the changing approach of opposing pitchers, some is mechanical in nature. Bryant’s hand path had gotten out of whack, leading to his top hand dropping and creating too steep a vertical angle with the bat.
One of the pervasive fallacies when it comes to launch angle is that hitters are trying to uppercut the ball. While some may be doing that, the goal is simply to create an attack angle with the bat that produces hard-hit balls in the air. The pitch is coming at you on a downward plane, so a slightly inclined swing plane keeps the bat in the hitting zone longer.
Bryant was getting the bat head too low and was swinging through hittable pitches as a result. But would you believe that his strikeout rate (19%) is now lower than in any previous season and his swinging-strike rate is near a career low? Because that’s what’s going on.
Schwarber’s numbers aren’t quite as rosy, but he still exemplifies the patience of this Cubs team. Overblown or not, the urgency thing is about how you set yourself up to win each day. Both Schwarber and Bryant have sought to understand their flaws and have worked to correct them.
Darvish gets out of trouble
I already wrote about this separately, so I’ll not bore you with it too much further, but Yu Darvish working through trouble both early and late was great to see. It all goes back to Maddon having trust in his veterans and letting them do their thing, which he did with Darvish Saturday night.
Chatwood saves the day
Absent hindsight, how would you have felt seeing Tyler Chatwood coming into a tie game in extra innings with the bases loaded on the road? Probably not great, Bob. Not only did the righty coming through with a big strikeout, then another three outs the following inning, but he roped a double to trigger the Cubs’ game-winning rally in the 15th.
Chatwood pulled up lame as a result of running the bases, though, a notable drawback of having so many #PitchersWhoRake.
The whole idea here is that the Cubs are not the 2-7 tire fire that prompted talk of a sell-off earlier in the season. They’re far from perfect, of that there’s no doubt. But armed with little more structure that still allows ample room for improvisation, they’re able to perform at nearly as high a level as ever.
The Cubs never sought to legislate any fun out of their players, though there was absolutely a call to be more intentional each day and to go about their business with increased focus. That’s actually been on display for quite some time and this recent series in the desert really put a spotlight on it.
If they keep this up much longer, people might even start forgetting about all those things they said when the Cubs were 5.5 games out in the division with 153 games left to play.