CHICAGO – The Cubs’ offensive attack finds itself in familiar territory. That is, at or near the top of the National League in most of the key categories.
There is one exception: home runs.
As they awoke on their much-needed off-day Monday, Cubs batters found themselves ranked first in runs scored, batting average and on-base percentage and third in walks taken. That’s been par for the course over the past three seasons, except for batting average. They ranked sixth in average in their world-championship season of 2017 and again last year.
But after ranking third in home runs last year and fifth in 2016 and 2015, the Cubs entered Monday ninth in the NL in hitting the long ball. Part of that is because of the lower power numbers being put up by injured third baseman Kris Bryant (nine homers) and by first baseman Anthony Rizzo (12). Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber share the team lead in homers with 16 apiece.
All of this seems perfectly fine with manager Joe Maddon, who has voiced his distaste for the “launch angle” revolution that has taken baseball by storm.
“I’d rather that we continue with this approach,” Maddon said. “When the ball’s in the right spot and we can drive it out of the ballpark, we shall. And when it’s not, we’re able to do these other things that create runs and create some damage on the bases and really gives the other team a lot to think about.”
Perhaps some of it is that the Cubs are buying into the philosophy of first-year hitting coach Chili Davis, who held a hitters meeting in Los Angeles on the last road trip.
“It’s something we’ve been after for a bit,” Maddon said. “I know recently Chili had that meeting to re-emphasize. Sometimes when the student is ready, the teacher does appear. You say it, you say it, you say it, you say it and finally it hits home. Then, all of a sudden, it blossoms.
“I really would love that we would never lose this mentality. This is a mentality that’s timeless. Beyond that, be able to filter it back into the minor league system also. Hit the homers you’re capable of. Hit to the batting average you’re capable of, and balance your walks versus strikeouts. Thus you’re going to score runs. Thus you’re going to be able to drive in more runs by moving the baseball as opposed to swinging and missing so much.”
The Cubs scored a total of 35 runs in the three-game sweep of the Twins. They put 11 on the board in the series against the Dodgers leading into the weekend.
The players seem to be enjoying the approach.
“We’re not going out there trying to slug our way,” Schwarber said. “The other day, we had nine runs with all base hits (singles). That was great. We’re just going out there trying to make hard contact. It’s paying off. If we keep doing that on a consistent basis, good things can happen.
“There’s rhythm. There’s just good at-bats all around.”
Right fielder Jason Heyward has enjoyed a renaissance at the plate, with a line of .285/.342/.431.
“Just good at-bats,” he said. “Just keep building, regardless of the result of the at-bat. Maybe the next guy will get it done. We trust each other in that sense. We do know the next guy can get it done.”
Keeping them fresh
Maddon often draws the ire of some fans on social media for his ever-changing lineups.
Some of Maddon’s method is based on matchups. Another aspect is based on giving players rest, something he believes will pay off in August, September and October if the Cubs advance to the postseason for a fourth straight year.
“The one thing I want to believe if I try to do something annually to maybe promote, that would be to rest people,” he said. “I intentionally try not to run people into the ground in the first half of the season, position player-wise and on top of that, relief pitcher-wise. I really try.
“I think that’s the magic bullet right there. You want a fresh body and a fresh mind in September. We always talk about the dog days of August. It’s true. I’ve always believed that September creates its own energy. So if you’re in the hunt, you’ve got a good spot when you get to September, you might feel fatigue a little bit. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel is attached to the playoffs.”
One thing Maddon doesn’t want to hear is that young players are immune to fatigue.
“That’s always been a real horrible argument for me,” he said. “That’s something that’s been passed around from generation to generation. I don’t understand why a birth certificate should either erase fatigue or one should create more.
Look at (veteran Ben) Zobrist. Last night I get done, I’m ready to leave. I’m walking through to go grab something really quick to eat, and Zo’s in the weight room, after that game (Saturday in extreme heat), doing whatever he does. I wanted to know, ‘Zo, how do you feel for [Sunday]?’ Here’s a guy that’s, what, 35? (He said): ‘I’m good. My body feels good.’ I listen to Zo. If he had said anything about no, he’s out.
“The machismo part of this game, the testosterone part of this game – ‘Give me the ball, I’ll take the ball. No, I got to play.’
“Please don’t go there. We don’t need that.”