I was able to talk to the Gregs about prospects and the Cubs future on the last Dreamcast, and everything from the various projections (including FanGraphs playoff odds and ZiPS), to the way the Cubs themselves are speaking to the press and whatever this damn slogan is, confirms what we discussed, which is that the Cubs are likely nowhere close to ready to sell out for contention just yet. This post is going to read like a cavalcade of BCB memes, but seriously, most of this is “prove me wrong” and “let’s see what happens”:
“I think there’s definitely years that the projections haven’t liked us or haven’t liked us as much as we might,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “But ultimately our job is to prove those wrong.”From Marquee
It may be a long road until “I can’t argue with you today,” but the various projections taken together suggest the Cubs fall somewhere between 75 and 85 wins, with a good shot of overtaking Milwaukee for second place but likely still behind the Cardinals for the division crown. Since the wild card likely won’t come from the Central, it’s division or bust for this year’s Cubs, and the bust is again more probable. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Cubs are significantly better than the Reds or Pirates as currently constructed, and I think they can definitely make the two teams above them sweat a bit, but while we are grounding ourselves in realism, there is the whole chaos and hope thing we can still hold on to.
AC asked a bunch of questions a while back that alluded to the amount of variance inherent in this team, which does mess with all the projection systems a bunch because due to the turnover rate over the past few seasons and the rawness of some of the personnel, there isn’t a track record to work with to train the projections. With this variance comes ways to do as Hoyer said and exceed those projections, and I think we’ve all been consistent with the 75-85 range (me at the higher end, and others like Mick probably a little more pessimistic on the lower end). If we compromise and say this is a .500 club right now, with balanced schedule already accounted for, then let’s say we need to squeeze 10-12 more wins out of this club to win the division. In the initial spell to resurrect the Hope Monster, let’s take a look at how the Cubs might be able to add wins at the margins.
The signings this offseason and the way this club is being built up suggests they are going to raise the floor through solid-to-elite defense. There are Gold Glove-winning or at least Gold Glove-caliber defenders at a minimum of five positions, six if Marcus Stroman is starting, and not counting multiple Gold Glove-winning first baseman Eric Hosmer (your mileage may vary with his defense). The other positions (again not counting Hosmer) can be manned by players who at least won’t trip all over themselves. This, coupled with contact management from the pitching staff (because they sure aren’t striking many batters out), could lead to better-than-average run prevention:
“I do think our game-planning infrastructure has been good for a long time,” Hoyer said. “That’s something that’s been a competitive advantage. But ultimately a ball in play has a certain percentage of being a hit. So the better our defense is, the more that will help that process. We think we have a lot of quality pitchers. But because we’re not going to strike out 30 percent of the guys, we’ll have to rely on good defense, good pitch mix and that’s something our infrastructure is good at. But it’s something that’s a challenge.”
The Cubs attacked this offseason with that in mind. They significantly upgraded their defense and know that they’ve often been ahead of the curve when it comes to finding ways to miss barrels. Despite falling behind in certain areas of player development, the Cubs were one of the first teams to take advantage of pitches that showed seam-shifted wake characteristics. While other organizations focused solely on up-in-the-zone four-seamers, the Cubs continued to value certain types of sinkers.Via The Athletic
The plan on this end is simple: if they’re not going to miss too many bats, at least miss the sweet spot and have the superb defense gobble up the balls in play and turn them into outs. Because this offense probably won’t score too many runs, giving up fewer runs would at least help the team out in the chaos department. And even with the shift restrictions, the elite defenders up the middle should be able to get to most of the balls in play, which will be good for the team in terms of results, and fun for us fans because of the action and athleticism.
Bending the Rules – Pitcher
I’m too lazy to hunt down where AC asked some of his questions or made me think, but there was a bit about how the pitcher and hitter might attempt to game the pitch clock given the wording of the rules, and also given the whole balk enforcement thing:
We know the pitcher must begin his motion before the timer expires. But the most interesting detail to emerge from Tuesday’s event was that MLB will be more strictly enforcing balks in conjunction with the arrival of the pitch timer.
The reason is that, in order to enforce the timer, the umpire on the field and the timer operator need a clear indication of when the pitch has begun.
“When the pitcher is bouncing on his foot,” Sword explained, “it’s not clear when you have begun your pitch delivery.”
In the windup, pitchers are allowed to take one step back and one step forward at the start of their delivery and no more. The clock stops when the pitcher steps back or laterally.
From the stretch, pitchers can still tap their feet prior to the delivery of the pitch, but they must come to a complete stop with their feet set at some point. The clock stops when the pitcher lifts his free leg after assuming and holding the set position.
MLB studied the deliveries of every pitcher in the league via video and reached out to those who will be affected by this more strict enforcement. Astros pitcher Luis Garcia, who has been known to take little “cha-cha” steps prior to his delivery, is one such pitcher.
“There’s a whole host of funky deliveries that are within the rules,” Sword said. “We encourage funky pitchers to be funky within the rules.”From MLB.com
I doubt many pitchers use the windup position with guys on base (unless the only runner is on third) but that was in the past. Now they cannot do any weird leg things to disrupt timing or else it might be called an automatic ball with nobody on, and a balk with guys on. I’d like to know what this does to the windups of guys with funky hitches in their step like Clayton Kershaw or Nestor Cortes (when he’s healthy again), as the way MLB describes it suggests they can’t do the stutter step, but that might just be a set position thing. Then again, if they try a pick off move, that counts as a disengagement so there’s another aspect we have to get into:
They’re a sure bet to forget they can’t just step off the rubber every time they get flustered.
So what do we mean by that? Under the new pitch-timer rules, pitchers have a newfound word to worry about: “disengagement,” which will no longer be something that applies just to various Kardashians every time they break up with their celebrity significant others. In this context, a “disengagement” is a potentially game-changing development that occurs every time a pitcher “disengages” from the rubber in a couple of different ways.
One would be a pickoff throw. That’s easy enough to grasp. What’s harder to remember is that every time a pitcher steps off the rubber, even if it’s merely to gather his thoughts, that is also considered a “disengagement.” And for those who haven’t followed this closely, here’s why that matters:
After two “disengagements,” a pitcher can no longer throw over to first base — or any base — unless he then picks off the runner. If the runner isn’t out, it’s a balk. And that is going to dramatically alter pitching, base-stealing and the art of controlling the running game.Via The Athletic
If you haven’t had a chance to yet, check out Jayson Stark and Doug Glanville on Starkville on the Athletic’s MLB podcast, it was very fun and informative. But Stark has a point here, not only do pitchers have to deal with the clock now, they also have to remember that they can’t step off to clear their heads, which means they have to extra prepare a game plan before the game even starts because they don’t have time to mess around anymore with the time ticking down. As someone who can’t even remember all the signs (which probably isn’t a problem now with the PitchCom), having even more to think about is probably no fun, but perhaps we aren’t giving these literal professional baseball players enough credit to adjust quickly. But how can Cubs pitchers try to use the new rules to gain advantage?
Given that batters must be alert to the pitcher by eight seconds remaining on the timer, a pitcher who can reset and throw within seven seconds (bases empty) or 12 seconds (runners on) might have a quick pitch advantage, but that’s asking a lot to recover and be prepared to throw by then. The way the rule was explained is that the batter just needs both feet in the box and look at the pitcher and that’s enough for the pitcher to fire, so a batter knowing that this pitcher is prepared to fire at will is under additional stress. My theory is that pitchers who have conviction in their plan before the batter even steps into the box (particularly those who decide to just call their own pitches instead of waiting for Tucker Barnhart or Yan Gomes to press their button) might be able to sneak in this advantage and steal a strike or a bad contact swing. It does help that
Regarding the disengagement issue, I wonder if, even though he’s on the shelf for the moment, Kyle Hendricks can teach the guys his elite pickoff move. Many of the Cubs pitchers can shave a few seconds off their pace and incorporating an above average pickoff move (even if not as good as Hendricks) could help them hold runners better and take advantage of their limited disengagements. Since the Cubs catchers have at least average pop times, a pitcher working faster regardless of the pitch clock ticking down can help control the run game and continue to keep opposing batters off balance.
On the other side of the pitch clock, a batter who studies the game plan well and understands better how the opposing pitcher will attack will be able to avoid the quick pitch because he’s already in the box ready to go rather than adjusting his batting gloves 700 times (seriously, Franklin or Mizuno or whatever company needs to figure out their velcro technology). And with the shift being restricted, maybe more hits come?
“Those are going to be hits again. Those should be hits. That’s a more appealing game than a guy smashing a ball and it looks like nothing because the guy in right field eats it up.”Ian Happ, from Sports Illustrated
It should be noted, as many others including the Gregs on the last Dreamcast did, that the shift rules don’t preclude a shortstop or second baseman from still positioning just to the side of the second base bag, as I illustrated in a previous post.
Perhaps the lefties are correct, that even if a guy can be just to the side of the bag (and umpires will be looking at this to make sure they don’t straddle that no-man’s land up the middle), if they know there’s an extra hole and no guy on the grass, all they have to do is try to hit the piss out of the ball and there’s a better chance than before that turns into a hit. The middle infielders not getting an extra few feet of reaction space, no matter if they’re elite like Dansby Swanson or Nico Hoerner, will make it that much harder for them to snag a 120 mph ball on the ground or a liner, but I guess we will take a wait and see approach as players and managers adjust their strategies on either side of the ball. Aside from this, the Cubs having some contact hitters in the lineup producing more balls in play could lead to a greater level of chaos which hopefully means more guys on base and opportunities to get some runs. Or they could try to get guys to go the other way or whatever, but that isn’t exactly easy and we all know nobody’s going to try to lay down a bunt all the time anyway.
The other rules change that has been talked about because of the myriad pictures posted on the socials is the larger bases. All sports are ultimately a game of inches (or centimeters if you’re into metric), and having three to 4.5 inches shaved off between bases makes a lot of difference for speedy guys and savvy baserunners, and also challenges catchers who don’t have the best arms or pop times, as well as pitchers continuing to adjust to the pitch clock and disengagement rules. The team with the personnel who can best adapt to the new timings and incentives to run wild may be able to literally steal an extra base and/or run here or there, and the pressure could elicit more balks to get that free base anyway.
The exciting part is that the Cubs are already trying to do this anyway, as we saw last season with lots of steals and also TOOTBLANs. With added speed from this offseason’s signings, I do wonder whether the Cubs can put some dudes on and then put them in motion, although I’m not a huge fan of TOOTBLANs but they need to do something with inconsistent-at-best power in the lineup right now.
It’s Sort of a Plan?
I guess the plan of attack this year is pretty simple in theory:
- Keep batters off balance within the pitch clock
- Throw lots of strikes that induce poor contact
- Let the defense convert lots of outs and reduce runs against
- Get on base and steal a bunch
There’s so much chaos baked into this team with uncertain projections, variance, and intangibles that you can almost see this working. Will it snag those 12 extra wins? I’ll take a wait and see approach.