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Arrieta stacks up well among the NL’s elite

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

The National League Cy Young Award was handed out Wednesday, with Clayton Kershaw capturing all 30 first-place votes en route to his third Cy in four seasons. In total, 12 pitchers—11 starters—received votes, including Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta, who tied for ninth with three fifth-place nods.

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Though the 28-year-old was well off the pace for winning the award—as was everybody else—the few votes he did receive put him in elite company. But after looking further into Arrieta’s 2014 numbers, his ninth-place finish might have been a bit of a snub.

Of the candidates receiving votes, the Cubs’ ace finished in the top six in ERA, WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and FIP (fielding independent pitching). Arrieta also finished fifth in wins above replacement, a number that indicates a player’s value over a replacement-level player. He also allowed just five home runs, fewest of any starter with at least 100 innings pitched in the National League.

Maybe the most interesting number is his FIP total. FIP attempts to gauge a pitcher’s performance by looking only at the factors he can control: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches and home runs. It removes extraneous factors such as defense and luck. FIP runs linear to ERA, meaning if a player’s FIP and ERA are similar, that ERA total is an accurate indicator of the pitcher’s performance.

In the case of Arrieta, he was one of just two pitchers receiving votes (Stephen Strasburg being the other) to have an FIP lower than his ERA. This likely means he was either a bit unlucky or that his defense let him down at times. With a difference of 27 points, it’s not a drastic falloff, but it also means a slightly better performance behind him could have resulted in better numbers.

All said, his innings pitched totals were likely his downfall. Though he struck out better than a batter per inning (167 K in 156.2 IP), he barely cracked the NL’s top 45 in innings. If Arrieta can up that total while maintaining his greater than 3:1 K/BB ratio, it’s not hard to imagine more praise coming the fireballer’s way in 2015.

Statistics according to Baseball-Reference

Cubs name 3B Bryant, RHP Tseng organization’s MiLB Player, Pitcher of the Year

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The Cubs named Jen-Ho Tseng the club’s 2014 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. (Photo courtesy of Kane County Cougars)

The Cubs named third baseman Kris Bryant and right-handed pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng the organization’s Minor League Player and Pitcher of the Year, respectively, on Monday.

The award should come as no surprise for the 22-year-old Bryant, as publications like Baseball America and USA Today have already named him their Minor League Player of the Year. The 2013 first-round pick dominated all season, batting .325/438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with a minor league-best 43 home runs in 138 games between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. He also tallied 34 doubles and 110 RBI and led the minors with 78 extra-base hits, 325 total bases, a 1.098 OPS as well as the aforementioned .661 slugging percentage. His 118 runs scored ranked second among all minor league players, while his RBI total was third, his on-base percentage was fifth and his 86 walks ranked eighth.

A right-handed hitting third baseman, Bryant began the season with Tennessee and batted .355 (88-for-248) with 20 doubles, 22 home runs, 58 RBI, a .458 on-base percentage and a .702 slugging mark in 68 games. He was named the Southern League Hitter of the Week three times, including in consecutive weeks (May 26-June 1 and June 2-8) when he combined to bat .447 (21-for-47) with five doubles, eight home runs, 12 RBI and 15 walks. Bryant was named a midseason Southern League All-Star and led the league in batting average, home runs and RBI at the break.

On June 19, the top prospect was promoted to Iowa following the Southern League All-Star break and went on to hit .295 (72-for-244) with 14 doubles, one triple, 21 home runs, 52 RBI, a .418 on-base percentage and a .619 slugging percentage in 70 games. He hit five home runs in his first six career games at the Triple-A level and went deep in consecutive games on five occasions.

Selected by the Cubs with the second overall pick in 2013, Bryant owns a .327 batting average (203-for-620) with 140 runs scored, 48 doubles, three triples, 52 home runs and 142 RBI in 174 career minor league contests. He has a .428 on-base percentage and a .666 slugging mark to contribute to a 1.094 career OPS. Named the Cubs second-best prospect heading into this season by Baseball America, Bryant owns a .942 fielding percentage at third base (27 E/464 TC), including a .963 mark (7 E/190 TC) with Iowa this season.

Tseng, 19, was a key component in Single-A Kane County’s run to a Midwest League title in 2014. The right-hander went 6-1 with a 2.40 ERA (28 ER/105.0 IP) in 19 games (17 starts), fanning 85 and walking just 15. Tseng limited opponents to a .204 batting average (76-for-373), a .241 on-base percentage and a .308 slugging percentage.

In his first professional season since he was signed by the Cubs as a non-drafted free agent in July of last season, Tseng allowed three or fewer earned runs in 16 of his 17 starts and surrendered two or fewer walks in 15 starts. He finished the regular season on a nice run, posting a 3-1 record and a 1.65 ERA (10 ER/54.2 IP) in nine games (eight starts) from July 6. The run included a seven-inning complete game in which he allowed just one run on three hits while walking none and striking out seven on July 13 vs. Beloit.

Bryant and Tseng will be honored during an on-field ceremony prior to the Cubs 7:05 p.m. contest this Wednesday, Sept. 17, against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.

Cubs continue decade-themed homestands by honoring 1920s

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The Cubs will continue their celebration of 100 years of Wrigley Field by honoring the 1920s during the May 2-6 homestand against the Cardinals and White Sox. The team’s throwback uniform, promotional giveaways, specialty food and beverage offerings, and entertainment will mirror the sights and sounds of the 1920s at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs and Cardinals will face off on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball May 4 at 7:05 p.m. CST. ESPN Baseball Tonight’s Sunday Night Countdown will broadcast by the Cubs Store at the corner of Clark and Addison for the hour preceding the game.

Throwback Uniforms:
On Sunday, May 4, the Cubs will wear a throwback 1929 uniform to honor their National League championship team. That year was the first time a World Series was played at Wrigley Field. The visiting St. Louis Cardinals will wear a 1929-inspired retro uniform as well.

Promotional Giveaways:
On Friday, May 2, the Cubs’ historic bobblehead series will feature Red Grange, the University of Illinois running back who ran for three touchdowns as a sophomore in a 29-0 win over Northwestern University on Oct. 27, 1923. The following day, the first 10,000 adults 21-and-over to enter the ballpark will receive a Cubs Fedora Hat presented by Budweiser. On Sunday May 4, the first 5,000 kids 13-and-under will receive a Cubs Yo-Yo.

Special Event:
The 1920s homestand concludes on May 6 vs. the White Sox, when Cubs Charities will team up with Advocate Health Care to “Pink Out” the Budweiser Bleachers. On the last Cubs home game before Mother’s Day, each fan attending the game in the Budweiser Bleachers will receive a Cubs Charities “Save 2nd Base” T-shirt to promote breast cancer awareness and celebrate moms and women everywhere who are cancer survivors. T-shirts will be distributed at the gates by players’ and coaches’ wives.

Fans throughout the ballpark are encouraged to wear pink that day. The Cubs Store, located across from Wrigley Field at the corner of Clark and Addison streets, will display a “Pink Out” section with pink Cubs merchandise and a 10 percent discount on engraved pink bats for fans interested in participating.

All fans in attendance on May 6 are encouraged to participate in the Cubs Charities 50/50 Raffle, as proceeds will benefit mammograms for under- and uninsured women through Advocate Charitable Foundation. For tickets and information, visit cubs.com/pink.

Specialty Food Offerings:
Levy Restaurants will continue its decade-inspired menu at the Decade Diner, located inside Gate D near Section 142. The 1920s homestand specials feature a Kraft Italian Grinder Sandwich with sliced capiocola, salami, mortadella, ham and Kraft Provolone Cheese served on a garlic butter-toasted hoagie roll, as well as a Crispy Chicken Po Boy with crispy chicken tenders on a toasted hoagie roll with crisp shredded lettuce, tomato and Cajun aioli.

The Decade Dogs stand near Section 123 is serving decade-themed specialty hot dogs this season, with the classic Chicago Dog representing the 1920s. The Chicago Dog is available all season long and features a Vienna Beef hot dog, tomato wedges, pickle spears, sport peppers, diced onions, mustard, neon relish and celery salt, served on a poppyseed bun.

Adults 21-and-over can enjoy a 1920s Upper Deck Gin Rickey, a refreshing cocktail made with Tanqueray Gin, lime juice and basil-infused club soda, served in limited-edition souvenir glasses from May 2-6 on the main concourse at Section 109 and the bleacher patio in left field.

Tickets for both the Cardinals and White Sox series remain available at cubs.com or 800-THE-CUBS (800-843-2827).

Historic Moments:
Wrigley Field hosted several milestone moments in the 1920s that will be recognized as some of Wrigley Field’s 100 Great Times presented by Budweiser. These include Oct. 10, 1920, when the Chicago Tigers played the Racine Cardinals for the first professional football game at then-Cubs Park. In 1921, the Chicago Staleys (now Bears) made Cubs Park their new home. Cubs Park would be renamed Wrigley Field in 1926 and would host its first World Series game in 1929. To learn more about the historic moments that took place at Wrigley Field, visit www.wrigleyfield100.com.

Cubs prospect Baez tops projected ZiPS ranking

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Prospect rankings generally spark great debate and are subjected to a significant level of scrutiny.

Last week, ESPN insider Keith Law unveiled his top 100 prospects in the game, which included six Cubs. Fellow insider Dan Szymborski decided to put Law’s rankings to the test, utilizing Szymborski’s projection system, known as ZiPS.

As described on fangraphs.com, ZiPS attempts to project a player’s numbers using weighted averages from four years of data and adjusting for aging by looking at similar players and their aging trends. Szymborski ran his system for all the players on Law’s list, and found that Cubs top prospect Javier Baez is projected to have the highest career Wins Above Replacement total.

As its top pick, ZiPS selects Javier Baez of the Chicago Cubs. Part of the projections calculated by ZiPS involves translating minor league statistics and comparing those to previous players’ numbers. ZiPS translates Baez’s 2013 performance in the minors at .248/.293/.472, and while that OBP is slightly on the low side, that’s a phenomenal offensive season for a 20-year-old shortstop. ZiPS compares Baez to names such as Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, Tony Batista, and Danny Tartabull.

Cubs prospect Kris Bryant also cracks the top 10 in ZiPS projections, coming in at No. 9, six spots higher than where Law ranked him.

One of the biggest discrepancies between Law’s list and Szymborski’s related to five-tool Cubs infielder Arismendy Alcantara. While Law ranked him at 72, ZiPS projections moved him all the way up to 13.

Going down the ZiPS rankings, you see the first large disagreement in ranking in the form of another Cubs infield prospect, Arismendy Alcantara. A 21-year-old shortstop/second baseman putting up an OPS north of .800 in Double-A would have gotten a lot more attention if he was not in the same organization as Baez and a boatload of other prospects. ZiPS sees Alcantara regularly hitting in the .260s with 15-20 home runs a year, but with hitters like Michael Young, Barry Larkin, and Robin Yount high up in his offensive comp list, there’s the possibility that he’s even better.

There’s also a section discussing first base prospect Dan Vogelbach, whose player comparison is John Kruk, who had a similar build.

Vogelbach doesn’t have the body of someone seen as a prospect, looking more like Bartolo Colon, but he also more than held his own in a full-season league just two years out of high school. Vogelbach’s top ZiPS comp? John Kruk.

Below are the Cubs prospects in the top 100 ZiPS projections, with Law’s ranking in parenthesis:

1. Javier Baez, SS (7)
9. Kris Bryant, 3B (15)
13. Arismendy Alcantara, 2B (71)
24. Albert Almora, CF (28)
40. Jorge Soler, RF (26)
53. C.J. Edwards, RHP (67)
97. Dan Vogelbach, 1B (NA)

Former Cubs great Greg Maddux elected to the Hall of Fame

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

The career numbers speak for themselves—a 3.16 ERA, 355 wins, 18 Gold Gloves, eight All-Star appearances and four consecutive Cy Young awards. And those are just the glamour stats.

So when the 2014 Hall of Fame class was announced Wednesday, it was no surprise Greg Maddux topped the inductee list, receiving a remarkable 97.2 percent of the vote. Maddux was picked on 555 of 571 ballots submitted by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, the eighth-highest total in voting history and the third-highest for any pitcher.

Despite a wiry 6-foot, 170-pound frame, “The Professor”—as he was known for his vast understanding of the game and ability to dissect the plate with pinpoint accuracy—was one of the most dominating pitchers of his era, and one of the best of all time.

Maddux is the 51st former Cubs player, manager or executive to earn induction. After 23 big league seasons, he retired in December 2008 as the eighth winningest pitcher in the history of the game with 355 wins, 133 coming in his 10 seasons on the North Side. He won the first of his four Cy Young awards with the Cubs in 1992, going 20-11 with a 2.18 ERA in 35 starts.

A second-round pick in the 1984 draft, Maddux went 133-112 with a 3.61 ERA in his two stints with the Cubs (1986-92, 2004-06). Two of his eight All-Star appearances were in a Cubs uniform, as were six of his 18 Gold Glove awards.

“I join my family, the Cubs organization and Cubs fans in congratulating Greg on this tremendous honor,” said Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts. “He is one of the greatest pitchers of all time and a tremendous competitor who earned the nickname ‘Mad Dog’ whenever he took the mound. Greg’s near-unanimous selection to Baseball’s Hall of Fame is the ultimate salute to an extraordinary career.”

On May 3, 2009, the Cubs retired Maddux’s No. 31 jersey, making his number (which he shares with fellow Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins) the fifth to be retired by the organization.

Joining Maddux in the 2014 class were former Braves teammate Tom Glavine and White Sox slugger Frank Thomas.

Rizzo states his case for NL Gold Glove

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

As the 2013 season comes to a close, it’s safe to say slugger Anthony Rizzo was probably hoping for a better offensive campaign. His 22 homers and 39 doubles were solid for a middle-of-the-order bat, but his .230 average was 55 points lower than his half-season average from 2012. But while he might not have produced what many were hoping for in the batter’s box, the 23-year-old made tremendous strides defensively—so much so that he should be one of the front-runners for the NL Gold Glove.

With just a series left to play, Rizzo is at or near the top of just about every meaningful defensive category measuring NL first basemen. Not only is his Ultimate Zone Rating (a defensive metric that uses play-by-play data to estimate a fielder’s defensive contributions) nearly two full points higher than the next-best first baseman, but his 15 defensive runs saved are top 10 of all players in the National League—and best for his position.

The first baseman was always viewed as a slick fielder, but the strides he has made—even from his rookie 2012 campaign—are impressive. Along with a jump of nearly a point in UZR, Rizzo’s Revised Zone Rating (the proportion of balls hit into a fielder’s zone that he successfully converts into an out) jumped from .809 to .867 this season, the highest mark among NL players at first. He even converted 42 plays from out of his standard defensive zone into outs, a solid increase from his extrapolated 2012 total of 29 at this point last season. And he had to handle 188 balls in his zone this year, the third-best in the NL.

Even looking at old-school defensive stats like errors and fielding percentage, Rizzo still is top three in both categories. Below is a full breakdown of how he has fared thus far, in comparison to some of the other NL first baseman.

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(BIZ- Balls hit within player’s defensive zone, OOZ- Successful plays made when ball was hit out of player’s standard defensive zone—All stats according to fangraphs.com)

29 Years Ago Today: Cubs clinch NL East

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Leon Durham (left) celebrates with Rick Sutcliffe.

It had been a while—a few decades really. Thirty-nine years after the Cubs lost a seven-game series to the Tigers in the 1945 Fall Classic, the North Siders finally made it back to the postseason in 1984.

Twenty-nine years ago today, Chicago powered past the host Pirates 4-1 behind starter Rick Sutcliffe’s two-hit complete game, clinching the NL East title. Gary Matthews scored Ryne Sandberg on a single in the top of the first; Sutcliffe helped his own cause in the second, singling to right to score Larry Bowa; Keith Moreland scored Sandberg on a bunt single in the third; and Matthews scored on a Jody Davis double-play in the fifth.

The game is best remembered for Sutcliffe’s utter dominance. He was in control the whole game, fanning nine batters and walking none to pick up his 20th win of the season. Aside from a Joe Orsulak triple in the bottom of the fourth—he’d later score on a groundout—no Pirate reached second base for the duration of the game.

Sutcliffe picked up 16 wins—and an NL Cy Young Award—as a member of the Cubs in 1984 after being dealt from Cleveland in June.

The postseason run lasted another week, with the North Side falling to San Diego in five games in the National League Division Series.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Banks and Baker, Game Changers

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(National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Every year, MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson’s 1947 breaking of the color barrier, but the Cubs organization made some history of its own six years later.

Sept. 22, 1953, marks the 60th anniversary of the day the North Siders fielded baseball’s first African-American double play combo: shortstop Ernie Banks and second baseman Gene Baker. Though Robinson and others had already integrated the game, racism was still rampant throughout the country, keeping many qualified African-American players out of the big leagues. The talented Baker, who played eight seasons for the Cubs and Pirates and made the 1955 NL All-Star team, was a victim of this prejudice.

Baker signed with the Cubs as an amateur free agent in 1950, but despite three-plus successful seasons in the minors, owner P.K. Wrigley opted to wait to bring Baker up until the team acquired another major league-ready African-American player. Wrigley figured because the two could stay in the same hotel rooms and eat at the same places, it would reduce the pressure on them.

On Sept. 8, the Cubs purchased the contract of 22-year-old shortstop Banks from the Kansas City Monarchs. He made his major league debut on Sept. 17, and Baker made his three days later as a pinch-hitter. Then, on Sept. 22, the duo made big league history when Banks started at shortstop and Baker moved over to second base.

—Phil Barnes

60 Years Ago Today: Ernie Banks makes his Cubs debut

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Ernie Banks embodies Cubs baseball. A fan favorite since he broke into the big leagues, Mr. Cub was a supremely talented, maximum-effort shortstop who simply loved to be on the diamond.

Today marks the 60th anniversary of his Cubs debut. Banks would go 0-for-4 in a 14-6 loss to the Phillies at Wrigley Field, but it was the beginning of the first-ballot Hall-of-Famer’s 19-year MLB career, all of which was played on Chicago’s North Side. With his initial Cubs game on Sept. 17, 1953, Banks also became the first African-American to play for the organization.

Prior to his time with the Cubs, Banks played for the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs, where he debuted as a 19-year-old infielder in 1950.  After two years in the Army, he returned to the Monarchs, where he became one of the league’s brightest young stars.

His play only improved once he made the transition to the National League. The 11-time All-Star totaled 2,583 hits, a .274/.325/.572 line (AVG/OBP/SLG) and became the ninth member of the 500 home run club, finishing with 512. His finest seasons came in the back-to-back MVP campaigns of 1958 and ’59, in which he compiled WARs (wins above replacement) of 8.7 and 9.7, respectively.

In the ’50s and ’60s, most teams were happy to employ a weak-hitting player with a solid glove at the shortstop position. But Banks excelled at both, adding a Gold Glove to his resume in 1960.

ESPN’s Law ranks Cubs prospects among game’s elite

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Cubs prospect Kris Bryant has emerged as a top 15 prospect in baseball, according to Keith Law. (Photo courtesy of the University of San Diego)

ESPN Insider Keith Law knows his way around the minor league ranks. Since the 2012 season ended, Law has been very complimentary of the Cubs system, going so far as to rank the Cubs the sixth-best farm system in baseball back in February. And based on his recent midseason Top 50 MLB prospect rankings (subscription required), that number is likely to improve.

Recent first-round draft pick Kris Bryant, 2012 Cuban signee Jorge Soler, 2012 first-round pick Albert Almora and 2011 first-round pick Javy Baez are all in Law’s top 27. While this is Bryant’s first appearance on Law’s list, the three others have all improved their rank. It’s also worth noting infielder Arismendy Alcantara was one of eight players in the honorable mention section. Here’s what Law had to say about the quartet.

15. Kris Bryant, OF | Chicago Cubs (age 21)
Current level: Short-season Class A (Boise)
Preseason ranking: Ineligible

Signed to the biggest bonus in this year’s draft (as predicted in this space), Bryant has huge raw power from the right side, a rare and valuable commodity in and of itself, and profiles as a middle-of-the-order bat whether he’s at third base or in right field. He’s yet to play a game as of this writing.

20. Jorge Soler, OF | Chicago Cubs (age 21)
Current level: High Class A (Daytona)
Preseason ranking: 42

Soler would have been in the Futures Game and likely in Double-A were it not for a stress fracture that has him on the shelf until at least early August and possibly until instructional league, although he could pick up some needed at-bats in the Arizona Fall League.

He remains a high-ceiling player, with a quick bat, easy power and running speed, but losing a half-season of reps doesn’t help.

25. Albert Almora, OF | Chicago Cubs (age 19)
Current level: Low Class A (Kane County)
Preseason ranking: 33

The irony of one of the game’s most prominent sabermetrically inclined front offices overseeing a farm system of guys who walk once a month deserves more attention than it’s gotten. I wonder if Bryant, who walked a ton in college this spring, will become an unrepentant hacker the moment he gets to Daytona.

Almora doesn’t walk much, but he has great feel for the bat, making a lot of hard contact, and plays plus defense in center.

27. Javier Baez, SS | Chicago Cubs (age 19)
Current level: Double-A (Tennessee)
Preseason ranking: 31

The player with the best bat speed in the minors should be higher on this list, in theory, but Baez operates under the strong belief — not entirely unfounded — that he can hit anything within a foot of the strike zone, which results in low walk rates and a tendency to give away at-bats when he doesn’t get a pitch he can crush right away.

He continues to play solid defense at shortstop and the power is insane, but it would be nice if someone in this farm system would walk more than twice a month.

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