(Photo by Stephen Green)
The first two weeks of the season were a struggle for the Cubs relief corps. Despite strong efforts from one of the NL’s best rotations in the club’s first 12 games, the bullpen blew four save opportunities, compiled a 5.82 ERA and repeatedly failed to secure victories in winnable games.
But the ‘pen’s performance in the last two weeks is making those early-season woes look like a thing of the past. In the last 13 games, the relievers have compiled a 1.85 ERA, third in the NL during that stretch. Though they still walk too many hitters (9.5 walk percentage, second highest in NL since April 16), the bullpen has found a way to get out of jams, leaving an NL-best 92.4 percent of runners on base.
The Cubs have been in every game this season—all but three have been decided by three runs or fewer and none by more than four—which means a strong bullpen is often the difference between winning and losing. What the team looks to have gained in recent weeks is a “give me the-ball” type finisher. Though manager Dale Sveum has not named a closer and prefers a bullpen-by-committee approach, the North Siders acquired veteran late-innings reliever Kevin Gregg, who was released by the Dodgers at the end of Spring Training. Since making his debut on April 19, Gregg has been lights out, surrendering no earned runs in his first six appearances and racking up four saves.
Despite Opening Day closer Carlos Marmol’s early failures, surrendering five earned runs in his first 1.2 innings pitched, he hasn’t given up a run since April 6. He has still walked eight batters in those nine innings, but he’s managed to miss a lot of bats in that time too, striking out nine.
The most consistent relief pitcher all season has been southpaw James Russell. The 26-year-old has leaned heavily on his 80 mph slider, throwing it 45 percent of the time, while mixing in a fastball and change-up. So far this season, his strikeout totals have improved dramatically. He’s now fanning 10.6 batters per nine, three K/9 better than last season. In 11 innings, he’s walked just one batter and hasn’t given up an earned run. He’s been so effective that his 0.6 wins above replacement (according to fangraphs.com) is tied for the best among relief pitchers in baseball.
To round things out, Shawn Camp looks like he might have rediscovered his 2012 form after struggling early, and waiver pickup Kameron Loe has been reliable in his five innings since being claimed off waivers from Seattle. Though the relievers’ .269 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) might indicate they’re pitching a little above their ability (an average BABIP is around .300), a solid effort from these pitchers all season long could make a big difference in 2013.
Opening Day is just two days away. As Cubs fans prepare for pitcher Jeff Samardzija and the rest of the squad to kick off the regular season, we here at Vine Line are counting down the days in a unique way. For every day remaining until the season starts—today’s number is two—we’ll commemorate some of the best players to wear that number for the Cubs.
Gabby Harnett is arguably the organization’s best catcher of all time. The Hall of Famer and 1935 NL MVP wore the No. 2 from 1937-40 and had 19 successful seasons as both a player and manager of the Cubs. Hartnett amassed 231 home runs in his Cubs career and tallied 1,153 RBI. He also carried a batting average of .297 with the franchise.
From 1938-40, Hartnett was also a player/manager. He took over the club midway through the 1938 season and led them to a pennant.
During his long career, Hartnett wore a few different Cubs jerseys, including Nos. 7 and 9.
Other Notables to wear the No. 2 include:
Billy Herman, Leo Durocher and Rick Wilkins. Third baseman Ian Stewart currently sports the number.
After the 1986 season and 11 major league years playing at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, Andre Dawson was tired of the wear and tear the merciless artificial turf was placing on his knees. While working on a deal with former Cubs General Manager Dallas Green, Dawson and uber-agent Dick Moss visited Cubs Spring Training camp in Mesa, Ariz., with a proposal. Dawson ignited a media firestorm when he presented Green with a signed contract and said he would play with the Cubs for whatever salary the GM felt was appropriate.
On March 6, 1987, the North Siders inked a deal with Dawson worth $500,000, well below market value for a player of his caliber. The outfielder went on to win the NL MVP, a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger that season, leading the league in home runs and RBI. The Hawk spent the next six years with the Cubs, making five All-Star appearances during that stretch.
In 2010, the eight-time All-Star was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Any baseball fan has made at least one attempt to do their best Harry Caray impression. But nobody could excite a crowd like the man himself.
Monday marks the 15th anniversary of the beloved Cubs broadcaster’s death. Best known for singing the seventh inning stretch as well as openly rooting for the home team, Caray will also be remembered for his quirks up in the booth including unintentionally botching players names. His infamous “Holy Cow” home run call is still used today on the right field scoreboard.
Prior to working with the Cubs in 1981, Caray worked in the booth for the White Sox, the Athletics, and for the Cardinals and Browns in St. Louis.
Caray was awarded the Ford C. Frick Award by the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989 for his contributions to baseball. He was also inducted into both the American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame as well as the National Radio Hall of Fame.
The Cubs still honor the broadcasting icon by having a guest sing the stretch at every home game. He died at the age of 83.
Cubs second baseman Ken Hubbs was known for his solid glove.
In his rookie season of 1962, the 20-year-old racked up a then-MLB record 78 games and 418 chances without an error. That effort earned Hubbs a Gold Glove Award, making him the first-ever rookie to claim the prize. He was also steady at the plate that season, hitting .260 with 24 doubles. He received 19 of 20 NL Rookie of the Year votes to easily take home that honor. Though his numbers dipped the following season, he was still viewed as a solid player who would stick with the Cubs for a long time.
Ken Hubbs was also known for his fear of flying, which he was afraid would hinder his career as a professional athlete. Ron Santo discussed it in his autobiography, Ron Santo: For the Love of Ivy.
To overcome his fear, Hubbs decided to tackle it head-on. The infielder learned how to fly a plane and earned a pilot’s license in the winter prior to the 1964 season. On Feb. 12, 1964, he planned to fly his friend Larry Doyle from California to Provo, Utah, to surprise Doyle’s wife who was visiting her mother.
A snowstorm came across Utah the morning of the 13th, but Hubbs and Doyle decided to go anyway in the second baseman’s Cessna 172. Just minutes after the plane took off from Provo Airport, it crashed into a nearby lake. Two days later, the plane was found, and both men were dead. Hubbs was just 22 years old.
On this date in 2005, after receiving 76.2 percent of votes, Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg was voted into the Hall of Fame. It was Ryno’s third year of eligibility. Joining him in the 2005 class was former Red Sox and Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs, who got in on his first attempt.
Sandberg, the 1984 NL MVP, was a 10-time All-Star, a nine-time Gold Glove winner and a seven-time recipient of the Silver Slugger award. Of his 282 career home runs, 277 came while playing second, a then-record at the position.
The Cubs acquired the Hall of Famer in a deal now seen as one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. With an already crowded infield in Philadelphia, the Phillies traded middle infielder Larry Bowa and Sandberg—a player many in the Phillies organization viewed as a utility man at best—for Ivan DeJesus.
In Ryno’s MVP season of 1984, he hit .314/.367/.520 (AVG/OBP/SLG), had 200 hits, stole 32 bases, slugged 19 home runs and had 36 doubles. He also had a league best 114 runs scored and 19 triples. That season also included the famous “Sandberg Game.” On June 23, with the Cubs hosting the rival Cardinals in a nationally televised game, Sandberg had what many view as his breakout game.
With the Cubs trailing 9-8 in the ninth inning and facing shutdown closer Bruce Sutter, Sandberg ripped a solo home run to left to force extra innings. In the top of the 10th, St. Louis managed to score a pair. But with a man on in the bottom of the inning, Sandberg hit another home run to tie the game. The Cubs would go on to win in the 11th inning.
Defensively, he owned a career .989 fielding percentage, the highest of any second baseman in history. Sandberg also set a positional record for a single season (1989) when he went 90 straight games without committing an error. He extended that streak to set another record with 123 errorless games over two seasons (1989-90).
In Sandberg’s 16-year career, he had a .285 average, 1,061 RBI, 2,386 hits and a 64.9 wins above replacement total.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
On this date in 2001, the Cubs came to terms with corner outfielder Moises Alou on a three-year deal worth $27 million.
Alou had three solid seasons on the North Side, including a 2004 All-Star campaign, in which he hit .293/.361/.557 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 39 homers, 36 doubles and 106 driven in. The slugger’s 335 total bases were good for fourth in the NL that year, and he finished 14th in MVP voting.
In his three seasons with the Cubs, the veteran hit .283 with 76 homers, 258 RBI, 94 doubles and a .353 on-base percentage. In his first year with the organization, Alou had the highest fielding percentage among NL left fielders. He was granted free agency in November 2004 and signed with the Giants in January 2005.
Despite his success on the field, many best remember Alou for his involvement in the Steve Bartman incident. In Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, Bartman, a fan, reached over onto the field, preventing the left fielder from making the catch.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Whether you’re all about the tryptophan-induced football coma or you prefer bowling away the holidays with your family, we’ve got a bonus, Thanksgiving-themed edition of Cubsgrafs for you.
Let’s define a new toy stat—a “turkey”—based on the nickname given when a bowler rolls three strikes in a row. For baseball, we’ll tally a turkey each time a pitcher records a three-pitch strikeout. The results for the 2012 season, limited to Cubs with at least 20 innings, are below.
So who are the Cubs’ 2012 turkey champions? The answers may surprise you.
It turns out three relievers—Scott Maine, Shawn Camp and Alberto Cabrera—stood above the rest with more than 6 percent turkeys per batter faced. But it’s Camp who deserves special recognition for being so efficient with the strikeouts he did rack up. Nearly four out of every 10 of his K’s took the minimum three pitches. It turns out that, while Camp may have been a fair bit below the team’s average strikeout rate, he also had the bullpen’s highest strike percentage (64%). It’s a definite boost for the Cubs that they’ve re-signed Camp for 2013.
Similarly, Travis Wood may have been only average with his strikeout rate, but he established himself as the rotation’s leader in three-pitch K’s. He and fellow lefty Paul Maholm were pretty efficient when they did rack up strikeouts, while the actual K kings Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster were a little less direct to the end goal.
Now, there’s not much reason to think that’s a bad thing. Many times you want a pitcher to bury his secondary offerings and get batters to chase. But for tonight’s feast, we’ll hand out the drumsticks to Camp and Wood and let the rest work their way through some sides first.
Though the season hasn’t been as bright as many hoped, Cubs fans do have a few things to hang their hats on from the 2012 season. Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood both look like reliable arms for the future, Anthony Rizzo is playing as well as anybody could have asked, and some young players are getting valuable experience at the big league level.
But one of the quieter stories from this season has been the exceptional defensive play of second baseman Darwin Barney. The infielder has committed just one error in 2012 and should get consideration for a Gold Glove. Below is how he stacks up with some of the other elite second basemen in the NL.
Lefty reliever James Russell proved the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when he picked up his first major league save yesterday against the San Diego Padres. In a 14-year major league career, James’ father, Jeff, compiled 186 saves, leading the AL with 38 in 1989 when he was with the Texas Rangers. Over the years, 57 Cubs major leaguers have been part of MLB father-son combinations—recent Cubs call-up Casey Coleman is actually a third-generation major league pitcher.
In the June issue of Vine Line, we celebrate Father’s Day by looking at some famous father-son pairs in the Cubs system, including the Russells. The following excerpt is from our “Like Father, Like Son” feature.
Cubs reliever James Russell always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, and so far their career paths have been remarkably similar. Jeff Russell spent 14 years in the major leagues, beginning as a starter with the Reds and eventually notching 186 career saves with the Rangers, A’s, Red Sox and Indians. These days, he does some work with the Rangers and gives lessons on the side.
James pitched as a starter for the University of Texas before being drafted by the Cubs in the 14th round in 2007. In 2009, the Cubs moved him primarily into relief work, and his career took off. Although he still has his sights set on starting, he’s been a key cog in the Cubs bullpen since 2010.
James practically grew up in major league clubhouses, something Jeff said gave James an advantage over other young players. James not only got to witness the work ethic of professional athletes, he also got to see how players prepared themselves mentally.
“It was awesome,” James said. “You get to run around the clubhouse and see all the guys you watch on TV—and learn from them. Being around them and seeing how they do things and how they carry themselves was really important.”
James said nearly everything he knows about pitching he learned from his dad. Although their styles are a bit different—Jeff threw harder and is right-handed—they are still able to share trade secrets. Jeff watches every game (he admitted it’s hard for him to sit still when James is pitching) and is happy to offer advice from his years as a closer.
“After every time I throw, usually the first person I call is my dad,” James said. “He’s right there watching or has it taped on DVR. And he goes over the pitches and tells me what he thinks I did and what he thinks I should do. We just kind of chit-chat about it and see how to right the wrongs.”
Jeff said while he’s happy to impart advice to his son, he’s not sure how much James really needs it. Jeff, who said his proudest moment was when his son made the Cubs’ big league roster, has been impressed by how fast James picked up the game.
“He’s well ahead of my career right now because he understands how to pitch. It took me maybe four or five years to really learn how to pitch,” Jeff said. “At this point in his career, if he stays healthy, he can pitch for as long as he wants to.”