(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.
(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)
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.
(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.
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.
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.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Despite what we now know about PED usage, the 1998 season will forever be remembered as one of the most exciting in major league history, as two heavyweights “saved the game” by engaging in a titanic home run battle for the ages.
Fifteen years ago, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire slugged it out to see who would surpass Roger Maris to become the game’s single-season home run champ. While the Cardinals first baseman ultimately was the first to celebrate home run No. 62, June was all about Sosa.
The Cubs slugger blasted balls out of major league parks one after another, compiling an MLB-record 20 home runs in the month. Over the 30-day stretch, he recorded four multi-homer games, including a three round-trip affair against the Brewers on June 15.
Detroit infielder Rudy York set the record, hitting 18 home runs in August 1937. Sosa surpassed that total on June 25 and added No. 20 in his final plate appearance of the month.
“It was a great time for baseball, especially if you lived in the Chicago area,” said current Cubs outfielder Scott Hairston, who was a high schooler living in Naperville, Ill., at the time. “I remember coming to those games, when Sammy was hitting all those home runs. It was fun to see.”
Though McGwire’s 70 home runs earned him the title of home run king (until Barry Bonds blew past him in 2001), Sosa was crowned the NL MVP, hitting .308/.377/.647 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 66 home runs and a league-best 158 RBI. The Cubs went on to win a one-game playoff against the Giants to advance to the postseason.
Actor Joe Mantegna will be throwing out the first pitch and singing the seventh-inning stretch on Sunday, June 23. (Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs are at home this weekend for a quick three-game set with the former division rival Houston Astros. If you’re headed out to Wrigley Field, here are your first pitch and seventh-inning stretch lineups:
Friday — 6/21
Joel Murray (Actor and emcee for the 2nd Annual Hot Stove Cool Music Chicago benefit concert at the Metro)
Saturday — 6/22
Christian Madsen, Ben Lloyd-Hughes and Amy Newbold (Cast members from Divergent, an upcoming film release currently shooting in Chicago)
Sunday — 6/23
Joe Mantegna (Actor, Chicago native)
(Art by Jerry Neumann)
The following can be found in the Short Stops section of the June issue of Vine Line.
Sure, there will always be three strikes per out and three outs per half inning in baseball, but the strategies for success are constantly evolving. To keep pace, broadcasts have to change as well.
The 2003 book Moneyball, and the success of teams like the A’s and the Red Sox, have brought advanced statistics to the forefront of the game. Though most baseball insiders are well-versed in WAR, WHIP and VORP, many old-school baseball folks—White Sox broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson included—don’t subscribe to the numbers game.
That’s why Cubs broadcasters Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies, both believers in sabermetrics, try to work the new stats into most broadcasts.
“We’ve found better ways to evaluate performance than the old-school batting average, RBI, runs,” Kasper said. “Counting stats can sometimes not really tell the whole tale. [Advanced stats] allow you to pull a player out of his team context and evaluate how he might be in a generic vacuum.”
As baseball moves away from traditional stats that don’t carry as much weight as they used to, it’s often up to the broadcasters to bring new ideas to the viewers’ attention—without being overbearing.
“We don’t want it to be a math class,” Kasper said. “I think always remembering the narrative of a baseball game is important, keeping the focus on what’s happening on the field. You can extrapolate some interesting notes about a player or a team without necessarily giving them raw numbers”
Though Kasper, who has been calling Cubs games since 2003, is all for the game’s evolution, he tries not to get carried away with new concepts.
“Sometimes [stats people] maybe overthink some of these situations,” Kasper said. “Sometimes guys are just good.”
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Travis Wood’s 2013 campaign has been nothing short of incredible. On the mound this season, the 26-year-old southpaw is 5-3 with a 2.75 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 72 innings. But it’s what he’s done in the batter’s box that has really captured Cubs fans’ attention.
The right-handed hitter owns a .292/.320/.583 (AVG/OBP/SLG) line with a pair of homers and seven RBI. In the fourth inning of Thursday’s tilt with the White Sox, Wood ripped a Jake Peavy cutter into the left-field stands for a grand slam, propelling the North Siders to an 8-3 win.
The grand slam was the first by a Cubs pitcher at Wrigley Field since Burt Hooten accomplished the feat in 1972.
And Wood isn’t the only pitcher on the staff who’s having success at the plate. According to Elias, the 19 RBI by Cubs pitchers in May is the most in a calendar month since the 1940 Tigers drove in 20. Wood (7) and fellow starter Scott Feldman (6) alone each have more RBI than any other pitching staff. Also, the pitching staff has produced more RBI this month than the Cubs No. 3 hitters (17), and they have matched the total from the No. 4 spot (19).
(Photo by Jason Wise)
It has been a good week for Cubs’ 2012 first-round draft pick Albert Almora. After missing the early portion of the year with a broken hamate bone in his hand, Almora made his 2013 debut for the Class-A Kane County Cougars on May 22 and got off to such a fast start he was named the Midwest League Player of the Week.
In 26 at-bats, the 19-year-old outfielder hit .538 with five doubles, 14 hits, two walks and only two strikeouts. He logged four multihit efforts in his first seven games.
The Cubs made Almora the sixth overall selection in the 2012 draft. He spent the second half of last season with the Arizona rookie team and Short-Season Boise, where he combined to hit .321/.331/.464 with 12 doubles and two home runs in 140 at-bats.