Baseball

The start of the season continues to slog on as the Cubs continue to suck offensively and lose by multiple runs, just like the old days. The games are honestly hard to watch when other sports are going on — the Hawks were winning this week and there was even a no-hitter across town. But here we are with the summary of the games, in case you didn’t catch them, or if you did catch them and you wanted to relive it all.

Besides pitchers being sick or in COVID protocols, this was the Willson Contreras series, as the hit by pitch saga hopefully ends with his home run to win the game. There aren’t a lot of positives to take out of this series, but that’s one. Additionally, Justin Steele and Pedro Strop made their season debuts and looked pretty good — Strop even got the win on Tuesday. Let’s break down each game.

April 12, 2021
Cubs 3, Brewers 6
WP: Peralta (2-0) LP: Alzolay (0-2)
Box Score

Things don’t get any easier for the Cubs since their atrocious last series, as Jason Adam, Dan Winkler, and Brandon Workman got placed on the COVID-19-related injured list because the Cubs’ bullpen coach Chris Young received a positive test. This didn’t stop Adbert Alzolay from starting, however, trying his best to redeem himself after his horrendous first start that put him at a 7.20 ERA. Although he did get some contact on his pitches early, the Cubs defense behind him was able to field it so there were no hits through the 1st inning.

The Cubs, surprise surprise, got on the board first with a solo homer by Kris Bryant. Bryant leads the team in slugging percentage and OPS, and he came out of this game 2nd on the team with a .233 batting average and a .361 OBP. These numbers are all about average or below average compared to all MLB players last season, which just shows you how much the Cubs offense is currently suffering.

Alzolay seemed to feel more comfortable as the game went on, surprisingly, as he continued to keep the Brewers from staying on the board for the first five innings of the game. By the 6th, however, Alzolay abruptly unraveled, as he gave up two singles and a walk. Rossy replaced him with Andrew Chafin in a bases loaded situation, and on his first pitch Luis Urias immediately hit a double that scored three runners. Then Chafin threw a wild pitch and another runner scored. Then the Brewers tripled and hit another single and suddenly, after just 12 pitches, the score became 6-1 Brewers.

So now’s as good as time as any to bring out Justin Steele on his MLB debut. Justin Steele was able to throw three strikes to finish the inning. This was just the 2nd inning in 2 games in which the Cubs have given up 6 runs, an accomplishment that encompasses the true meaning of the Cubbie Way. Steele continued through the 7th inning to try his very best: strikeout, single, groundout, strikeout, walk, HBP, and groundout was the extent of his inning. (Brad Wieck also made his season debut, in which his fastball is now hitting 93 mph instead of 91 mph like last season. He was able to get the three outs eventually.)

Meanwhile, the Cubs decided that finally, during the 9th inning, they’d try to generate offense. Bryant singled, Pederson walked, a wild pitch sent them to 2nd and 3rd base, Baez doubled to score them both, and then Josh Hader was put into the game to end it quickly and mercilessly.

April 13, 2021
Cubs 3, Brewers 2
WP: Strop (1-0) LP: Suter (0-1)
Box Score

Now that one of the Cubs’ bullpen coaches has COVID-19, the story continued to evolve when we learned that Kyle Hendricks wasn’t going to start this game because he was exhibiting symptoms of congestion, which is a symptom of COVID-19, but also just the regular cold or flu. Although he ended up testing negative, they put him out of the lineup just to be safe and he was able to drive home to Chicago.

In his place they put Alec Mills, who came up on short notice and pitched four innings this game and gave up a glorious two runs, one of them being a home run that scored the two Brewers runs of the night. By the 5th inning, it was time to head to the bullpen, where faces new and old threw some innings for the Cubs.

First, Ryan Tepera came out in the 5th and had a pretty good inning. He walked a pitcher but the defense behind him was able to get him a double play after a ground ball hit. He then closed the inning by throwing behind Brandon Woodruff after Woodruff hit Willson Contreras by yet another pitch the inning before. Woodruff was understandably angry, and it seemed to get in his head because Tepera was able to strike him out — his only strikeout of the inning. Rex Brothers came in the inning after that and was able to record a strikeout of his own.

Kris Bryant, although he did not record a hit this game, had the sacrifice fly in the 4th to score Willson Contreras after he got hit. Bryant now leads the team in batting average and OPS at .243 and .936, respectively. Rizzo also had two hits on the game, leading the team, although he was stranded on base for both of them. His batting average is still a very abysmal .162, which only gives the Rickettses more of a reason to gear up to let him walk.

Pedro Strop made his season debut, and although he recorded a walk and was the only bullpen pitcher to allow a hit, he also got the win for the day. He threw four different kinds of pitches: slider, cutter, sinker and fastball. His slider especially was his most popular pitch and had the highest whiff percentage of any of his pitches at 66.7%. That’s the same number as last year, and it’s definitely been his best pitch over time. I’m sure we’ll see more of it later this season.

The Cubs barely eeked out enough offense in this game to win it, but Willson Contreras was the hero of this game. Having three hit by pitches so far this year and after getting fined by the league for starting the bases-clearing brawl last series because of the COVID-19 protections in place, his home run at the top of the 8th that also scored Happ was what shut the Brewers up for good.

Since this is the first time in four games that the Cubs actually had a lead heading into the last few innings of the game, it was time to bring out Craig Kimbrel to get the save with one out to go in the 8th inning. And because Kimbrel seems to be back to his elite form, he didn’t disappoint. He walked only one batter and only had one strikeout. Even though the other three batters he faced made contact, the defense behind him was solid to win the game.

April 14, 2021
Cubs 0, Brewers 7
WP: Burnes (1-1) LP: Arrieta (2-1)
Box Score

Does anyone actually want to talk about this game? What a disaster, and a game that was a disaster early.

Compared to the previous game, the Brewers struck out 12 of the Cubs batters as opposed to 10. 10 of those 12 strikeouts came from their starter, Corbin Burnes, who currently has a 0.49 ERA after splitting his two starts. Burnes only allowed 2 hits and didn’t walk any batters.

Because Kyle Hendricks is still sick, Jake Arrieta took over the starter’s role. He allowed four hits, three runs, one home run, one walk, and 5 strikeouts for an ERA of 3.18. If the Cubs had any hitting ability at all they would’ve been able to overcome Arrieta’s completely average performance to at least be in this game, but that’s not what happened at all. After five innings, he was pulled for Shelby Miller for his season debut and that’s when things really went off the rails.

Miller immediately allowed the Brewers to load the bases after throwing just two strikes. Then he walked two batters to make it 5-0 Brewers. He didn’t even finish the inning after walking three batters total, allowing two hits, four of the seven Brewers runs, and recording no strikeouts at all.

Time for Justin Steele to come back out again, perhaps because Ross knew there was no getting out of this game with a win thanks with our .163 collective team batting average. Steele gave up a single immediately, scoring the 6th runner for Milwaukee, but at this point all hope was lost and nothing mattered anymore. He was able to strikeout the top of the Brewers’ batting order in Jackie Bradley Jr. and Daniel Robertson, so all in all he put on a pretty good performance and seemed to improve on Monday’s appearance.

The Cubs have a bad habit of leaving runners on base in scoring position. Joc Pederson was at 3rd base with one out in the 2nd inning, but David Bote struck out and Austin Romine flied out after him. In the 9th inning, Rizzo also found himself in scoring position after getting one of the very few Cubs hits this game, but David Bote once again was not able to deliver offensively, unceremoniously grounding out to end the game.

The Cubs have been too reliant on their home runs. Home runs are grand and all, but singles, doubles and triples are just fine too. Again, so is batting in those RISP. I have no idea how, or even if, this offense will ever get fixed. This team just seems completely broken on this end, putting in numbers that are far and away the ugliest in baseball. At this point, I’m fine blowing this all up and starting over, but can the Rickettses even be trusted to shell out money for exciting, offensively-talented players? I don’t think so.

The Cubs have a day off today, and then they will take on a three-game series against the Atlanta Braves, who have also struggled to live up to their preseason expectations. The Braves are 4-8, last in the NL East. They are also the 25th-ranked MLB team offensively. Don’t get excited, though — that puts them three spots ahead of the Brewers, who just crushed us offensively for most of this series, so take with that what you will.

Onward.

Baseball

How the entire weekend looked, down to the white spy having a hole in his bat

Game 1 Box Score: Nationals 9 Cubs 3

Game 2 Box Score: Nationals 7 Cubs 2

Game 3 Box Score: Nationals 7 Cubs 5 (11 innings)

So a couple weeks ago I run into Fels at a Cub game where the As just completely steamrolled the Cubs. Me, kind of missing writing, and also being in possession of spectacularly bad judgement, decide to tell Sam, “Hey, lemme know if you ever need anybody to write about the Cubs.” So he reaches out after Friday’s shit fiesta and asks if I’d like to recap. I figure, sure, I’m going Saturday anyway so why not?

The Cubs have had this habit all year of turning Wrigley Field into their own ivy-covered death star, obliterating teams that have the audacity to come in with any idea of winning games or series, using homestands to lift them into first place, and making us all think they’ve finally turned the corner, and all the talent they have would finally start translating into wins, before shattering those illusion on the subsequent road trip. I guess winning the last two games away from the Friendly Confines threw the schedule off, because they spent this weekend being perfectly generous hosts to the Washington Nationals, up to and including letting them have the last beer and slice of pizza.

Let’s…

Baseball

Game 1 Box Score: Phillies 4, Cubs 2

Game 2 Box Score: Phillies 11, Cubs 1

Game 3 Box Score: Phillies 7, Cubs 5

If you’ve come here for a rant and rave…well, you might get one. I’m not sure. I don’t really plan on it, but it might just happen. Once you start talking about this team, the anger and bile just tend to flow.

Let’s get one thing straight, no matter what you’re thinking about Joe Maddon, any selection of brain-addled morons should be able to get six outs with a five-run lead. I was actually with Joe after seven, thinking that pulling Yu there with an extra day of rest will leave him full tank for his next couple starts after that. And hey, it’s five runs. If you think he should have left Yu in for the 8th, I don’t think you’re wrong. There shouldn’t be a wrong answer, because it’s a five-run lead with six outs to go. There are tons of ways to get those.

The one problem I would point out is that once you hit Kemp for Darvish, then he should stay in the game. He’s your best second baseman defensively, and that’s what matters. Happ has no range and no hands. I don’t want to get too upset with Bote, because he’s not really supposed to play short but has to once a blue moon.

So yeah, I’m not advocating for him to be on the team ever again, but all those who kept wailing about why Addison Russell was still playing even though he was going up to the plate with a toothbrush, it’s defense. He was good at second, despite the errors you remember and were looking for. It’s hard to remember too many other games that the Cubs lost because they were simply bad defensively, but aside from mistakes. Sure, they’ve made errors and bad decisions, but that came from everyone. Just being unable to actually play the position…well here you go.

And Joe even has his hands tied with the pen. Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick have probably the ones you can count on most there lately. They couldn’t get it done. Now you’re into the clown’s mouth, literally. Strop’s fastball has been missing to arm-side all season, and he had no business trying to throw it inside because of that. He doesn’t have the control. Start it above the zone in the middle. But no, that’s too simple.

Six outs. Anyone should get six outs with five runs to play with. You have to actually work to blow that. And all the Cubs did.

As for the rest, I’ve seen enough of Albert Almora Jr. for my life. Tuesday’s loss pivoted on him trying to yank another hairball that human sweat-stain Jason Vargas coughed at the outside corner, when it’s all he can do. Almora shouldn’t be playing, which is weird to write after just complaining about the defense. He can play late in games then, but Happ’s bat is probably more needed, especially with Heyward and Baez at least ailing.

You have to do better than two runs off Jason Vargas, with his jersey yellowing by the third inning. Is that on Joe? Can they blame another hitting coach? Or maybe it’s that Theo and Jed filled out the lineup with players who aren’t any good? Just a hunch.

I thought about writing something today about the home and road splits, except on the ground it’s basically the starters have been much better at home than the road, and Wrigley has played to the pitchers more this year. That’s the big number you see. They score the same amount of runs, basically. The bullpen sucks just about anywhere. So whatever.

Still, maybe it’s because they lose on the road all the time now, but maybe it’s because they just don’t like being around each other. Sure feels that way. At home they get to go to their own homes. On the road they’re stuck with each other. But that’s a stretch. A guess. I don’t really know. No team looks like it’s having that much fun when they’re getting their dick kicked in on the road night after night.

The easy call is to say it’s Maddon’s fault. I don’t see it. I think this team is maxed out. He has had no bullpen to work with, whatever missteps there have been in games here and there strategically. Everyone he turns to out there is either terrible or hurt or both. I don’t know what he’s supposed to do.

Is it his fault that his starters seem to share the belt of “Tonight’s my night to get turned into dog vomit?” It seems like they do that at least once per turn through the rotation. It’s not his fault that he wasn’t provided any depth that this team had enjoyed the previous four seasons. You can blame the front office. You can blame ownership. They’re both at fault.

I would say one of Maddon’s strengths, and a bigger portion of a baseball manager’s job than we think, is to create a comfortable atmosphere and keep players loose. Well, the front office decided he can’t do that anymore, so what’s left? A bunch of players on edge with not enough talent to just stroll through the regular season and ease those fears through wins they just accrue because they’re that good. The talent base isn’t Maddon’s problem.

Me, I’m curious to see if this is the breaking point. If this is the finally the point in the season where someone like Rizzo or Bryant (not his style) or Baez (old enough?) closes the doors to the clubhouse and tells everyone to get their head out of their ass and start playing like it. Would it matter? With this pen in this condition? I guess we could find out. They can either look at this as the bottom and decide it’s time to knock it off, or they can use it as an excuse to quit.

But if they quit, it won’t be on Joe. At least not completely. It’ll lie with the front office that failed to buttress a roster that wasn’t the sure thing they wanted you to believe it was. A front office that bought into its own products far too much, and ones that haven’t helped. It’ll be the fault of ownership that for reasons they have yet to explain to anyone decided it couldn’t spend to secure the bullpen and maybe a bench player or two. And maybe the players that are here felt just a tiny bit abandoned by those above.

There’s been a malaise to this team. If you want to use those intangible reasons for tonight’s and this week’s performance, I won’t stop you. Or you can simply look at a pen that is missing its three top arms and simply doesn’t have enough after that. Maybe both are right.

Onwards…

 

Baseball

Generally I would leave this kind of thing for a series recap, but the heat from last night’s loss–which definitely had the feel of one you’ll look back on in September and kick something (or this team will make it moot and prove to be worth something, but we’ll see)–probably warrants more. You say things after that kind of loss that after any kind of thinking you know isn’t true. But damn it feels good, doesn’t it? So let’s try and get to the real, except in a non-MTV fashion.

One is the idea that Strop has pitched himself out of high-leverage situations. And there certainly are enough examples now that you could make that case, except they’re not all in a row. The first high-profile cock-up, and one that Sox fans are likely to be citing for years to come, came to Eloy of course. But Strop followed that up with three straight scoreless and hitless outings, and four scoreless outings (giving up just one hit in the fourth outing after). He gave up three hits in an inning in Pittsburgh next, and you may remember that inning as the one Willson Contreras cut down Melky Cabrera at home to keep it scoreless.

After that, he put up another spotless inning before giving up a three-run homer to Starling Marte the next trip out there. Two more spotless outings before he gave up a tying homer against the Padres on Friday (a scorching hot day where everything was leaving), but rebounded the next day. And of course, last night.

So yes, taken as a whole Strop’s record of late doesn’t suggest someone who should be getting the 8th over Kintzler (whether Kintzler was available last night is another question, though). But it hasn’t been a “streak” per se, and you could see if you squint where Maddon could just as easily conclude Strop had some momentum to ride. Strop certainly has earned the most amount of leash as anyone.

Secondly, the idea that Strop isn’t getting whiffs, one I suggested in the aftermath. Again, this just isn’t true. Overall, he’s getting the same amount of swinging strikes as he always has. Broken down by pitch, his slider is getting the same amount of whiffs-per-swing it did in previous seasons, his four-seam is only down a tick, and a split he’s featured this year gets whiffs on a third of the swings it sees.

But the problem area is obvious. It’s his two-seam or sinker, depending on what site is calling it what. It’s only generating 3% whiffs-per-swing. It was the culprit in the homers to Jimenez, Marte, and Naylor. Hitters are managing a .556 average against it (that’s batting average, not slugging), and a slugging 1.556. That’s…unholy.

Still, it’s hard to separate Strop’s two-seam from his four-seam, because they’ve basically both been the same speed his whole career. And both are down a tick in velocity, to 94 MPH average. Strop has never had pinpoint control, but he could miss his spots at 95 or 96. He can’t at 93 or 94, which is what’s obvious.

Still, last night is a touch on the weird side. Pablo Sandoval has made a career of hitting pitches he shouldn’t be swinging at, and that slider was nearly on his shoelaces. I mean, come on…

So that’s just rotten luck. Crawford’s single was just a well-placed grounder, and if it’s two feet to the right it’s a double play and the whole inning is basically over. But both Slater and Panik teed off on fastballs, though the one Panik hit was outside the zone and if it there was a problem it was just a little high. Still, probably not where Strop wanted it.

Another idea I’ve had that isn’t really the truth is that Strop needs to throw his slider more. Well, he is, at least compared to last year. He’s throwing it 40% of the time, compared to 30% last year. However, the two seasons previous, he basically threw it half the time. Those were two of his best seasons as a Cub, though his best came the year before when he threw it about as much as he does now.

Like everyone else, the contact numbers against Strop are getting worse. But his ground-balls are up significantly from last year and in line with his heyday as a Cub. Still, the added FIVE MPH on his exit velocity and the barrel % nearly tripling is a real problem. It’s beyond a problem. It’s an air raid siren.

Health is never far from the discussion with Strop now, because he’s missed time the past three or four seasons. One wonders if he’s getting the push from his legs that he needs considering it’s been leg trouble almost every time he’s landed on the IL.

Another issue is there just aren’t many options. Thanks to Carl Edwards Jr. finally giving fully in to his mental-turtle ways, and Brandon Morrow not actually existing, and Brad Brach’s terminal case of being Brad Brach, you can understand why Maddon is going to wait until he has no choice but to not trust a pitcher who has given him five seasons of plus service. If Kinztler was down, who else do you go to last night after Cishek was used? You tossing Rowan Wick there already?

Going forward, wherever he is used, Strop probably needs to ditch the two-seam fastball, use his slider half the time, and maybe see if he can also play his split off his fastball. But he is 34, and one wonders if this isn’t just time catching up. It better not be, because the Cubs need him. They can’t get three more arms before the trade deadline. Even two is going to be tough. Some answers are going to have to come internally. It’s hard to see a scenario where Strop isn’t one of them and this team going where it needs to.

Baseball

As I watched the Cubs bullpen fritter away another lead last night, the second game in a row they’ve done so even if it came on a collection of bleeders and excuse-me’s, I have to admit I get the fans’ angst. I might not be there with them, but I can’t tell them they’re wrong. And you know how I love telling people they’re wrong, especially when I’m from the same side. The bullpen this year is perhaps the biggest spot of neglect the Theo Epstein regime has infected the team with since they slammed back into relevance in 2015.

And it of course comes back to this winter. They kept telling us they didn’t have the money for Harper or Machado, and you didn’t have to squint all that hard to see the arguments about why signings like that didn’t make sense for the Cubs. I may not agree with that assessment, but I can understand the argument. However, fixing a bullpen is far cheaper, and for the Cubs to turn their pockets out at the thought of adding the cheapest part of a baseball team was as bewildering as it was infuriating.

And yet, as the winter dragged along and the Cubs made nary a move outside Brad Brach and casting a net to find whatever various flotsam would fall into it, there wasn’t a peep out of the Cubs front office. For a team as savvy with the media (at least on baseball matters) as the Cubs are, surely there would be a leak somewhere or a nudge that Theo and Jed were as surprised with the budget closing as we were. They talked of major changes in the wreckage of a two-day slump last October, and then nothing. Surely if things had changed between then and when the markets opened up, someone somewhere would know. And yet nothing. No whispers of fidgeting anywhere.

That doesn’t mean to cast the front office as perfect. Far from it. No matter their plans, they were counting on Brandon Morrow, which was a poor choice. Perhaps they couldn’t have predicted that Carl Edwards would run farther from competence than toward it, given his age, but he wasn’t in a position to be counted on either. You can’t account for Pedro Strop getting hurt…except he has the last three seasons. While this front office has had its problems identifying and collecting pitching, this seemed an egregious error. It is not like them to stock a complete component of a team with hunches and wildcards. And yet, here we are.

Which I guess perhaps lends credence to this story from Patrick Mooney about the Cubs and Marquee. Now, no one is going to buy this hook, line, and sinker, and nor should they. There are still more than enough variables to fuck it all up, like if no one actually picks up Marquee which Crane Kenney seems so sure of. And anything Crane is sure of you best bet you should take with a whole shaker of salt.

Still, perhaps the lack of any itching or antsy-ness from the front office over the limitations this winter stems from knowing it was a one-year deal? That they would simply have to grit their teeth through this winter knowing with the money coming off the books in the form of Hamels and Zobrist, combined with greater income would turn next winter around? Perhaps they knew with the room they’ve left for midseason acquisitions they’ll be fine? We’re essentially talking about two arms here. And if Kimbrel is going to wait until after the draft to drop the compensation, a prorated salary for half a season is probably only $5 or $6M, no? Half of a Ken Giles will cost $2M. Alex Colome a little over that. I guess I shouldn’t worry.

I don’t want to be that guy who blindly trusts what he’s being told, especially by the uber rich. Still, the complete lack of agitation in the front office, apparently, makes me think something is afoot. And the Cubs being on top of the division only buys them more time. But the answers need to be relatively soon.