Results tagged ‘ From the Pages of Vine Line ’

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Best Defense

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Kris Bryant has spent a lot of time working on his defense at third base. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Defense is often a forgotten element of baseball, yet many clubs find it just as important as a player’s offensive output. As an organization, the Cubs are working hard to ensure prospects become well-rounded players. The following story can be found in the December issue of Vine Line.

In an empty ballpark in Des Moines, Iowa, top prospect Kris Bryant walked over to the third-base bag, crouched down and waited for a coach to send another ground ball his way. Several hundred miles to the south, 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber put on his catching gear and blocked pitches in the dirt hours before his game that night in Daytona.

Both Schwarber and Bryant will likely be big leaguers in the near future—their ability to hit the ball all but guarantees it—but to become well-rounded players, and to help the Cubs win tight games in a pennant race, they know they must become just as proficient on defense.

“Improving your defense is about drills and repetition and having the aptitude and instincts,” said Cubs Director of Player Development Jaron Madison. “But it’s also about buying into doing the extra work needed to get better.”

Though heady offensive numbers still generate headlines and move young players up the ladder, minor league prospects must also focus on their glove work to succeed. This includes everything from making better reads on the ball to moving away from their “natural” positions.

The Cubs have specialized coordinators who lay out plans for the minor league coaching staffs. Anthony Iapoce and Tom Beyers handle the outfielders in the system, Jose Flores covers the infielders, and Tim Cossins oversees the catchers.

The process begins with Madison and his staff evaluating what each player can do naturally on the field. That goes beyond just looking at stats like errors and fielding percentage.

“Footwork for infielders and catchers is huge,” Madison said. “Athleticism and quickness off the ball are things you bear down on. You can help players become more mechanically sound with their footwork, but if a guy is slow off the ball, you know you can’t keep him at short or second base long term.”

Outfielders, meanwhile, need more than just speed and athleticism to chase down fly balls. They also must develop a sixth sense for reading the ball as soon as it’s hit so they can anticipate where they need to be, all while taking the shortest route possible.

“Plus, you need to read the spin on the ball,” Madison said. “It’s different on a ball hit to right field than on a ball hit to left. That’s why you can stick your best infielder out there, and he’ll still have a hard time just catching a ball because of how the spin makes it move.”

Many players ultimately can’t cut it at the positions they came up playing. Madison said he likes to give them as much time as possible to prove they can play their natural spot, but often a change must be made.

Middle infielders with good arms, soft hands and baseball smarts, but not enough range, tend to move behind the plate, where their skills and intangibles are a big asset. Catchers who struggle with game calling often get moved to the outfield or first base. Many scouts in the Cubs organization figured that’s what would happen with Schwarber.

“On draft day, the room was split 60/40, with the majority thinking he wouldn’t be able to stay behind the plate,” Madison said.“But Tim Cossins spent 10 days with him working on drills and talking about the nuances of catching, and he really made huge improvements right away.”

Schwarber, who has said he wants to remain at catcher if possible, has bought into the importance of defense. And if the Royals and Giants proved anything this year, it’s that defense still wins championships.

From the Pages of Vine Line: What will the Cubs do with their surplus of shortstops?

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

The Cubs may be only a brief stop away from their next destination. Or, perhaps, a shortstop. That is, if they are willing to trade one.

In his postseason address to season ticket holders, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said he expects the team to contend for a division title in 2015. And that was before marquee manager Joe Maddon first put on the pinstripes at the Cubby Bear.

With holes still to fill, the Cubs can’t stop short with their hiring of Maddon. In their quest to be the best, middle-infield depth could be the key to acquiring more pieces to the puzzle.

Since arriving in October 2011, Epstein and his front office mates have done a lot of heavy lifting to strengthen the organization—signing international free agents, making astute picks in the June amateur draft and trading for other teams’ top prospects. As a result, the Cubs’ system is rated among the consensus top three in the majors.

At this stage, moving surplus talent, notably at shortstop, could be vital to improving the major league product.

“I believe the Cubs potentially have three All-Stars in [Starlin] Castro, [Javier] Baez and [Addison] Russell,” said a top major league executive. “I watched Russell last year in the Arizona Fall League. This year in the minor leagues, he got a little thicker and stronger. This young man is going to be a fine hitter and could very well be an All-Star shortstop. I love his natural instincts. Nothing about his game is below average.”

The Cubs acquired Oakland’s top draft picks from 2012 and 2013—Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney—along with pitcher Dan Straily in a July 4 deal for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Athletics General Manager Billy Beane said he didn’t want to trade the 20-year-old Russell, rated the No. 5 prospect in the game by MLB.com, but succumbed to the urge to add pitching depth in hopes of making a deep playoff run last season.

Of the three shortstops in question, Baez has the greatest power potential. His lack of contact at the major league level—95 strikeouts in his first 213 at-bats—hasn’t tempered the club’s confidence in him. Epstein said Baez will start the 2015 campaign on the Cubs’ 25-man roster, “barring anything out of the ordinary.”

A top National League scout raved about the raw skills he sees in Baez, who turns 22 on Dec. 1.

“I love his power, and he really seems comfortable at shortstop,” the scout said. “He’s not a flashy fielder—just gets the ball and throws the runner out. Baez has less moving parts than Castro.

“Will he hit? I really think so. Remember when [Anthony] Rizzo first came up in San Diego? He struck out almost 40 percent of the time. That bat speed and the quick hands cannot be taught. [Baez] is 21 and struck out at every level a lot of times until he figured it out. I like him as a shortstop, second baseman or third baseman. And I see a lot of extra-base hits in his future.”

The Cubs’ third shortstop jewel is the young veteran Castro, already a three-time All-Star at just 24 years old. His recovery from a disappointing 2013 season was a boon for both him and the organization.

After landing a seven-year, $60 million contract in August 2012, Castro seemed to enter 2013 as if he had nothing to prove. He reported to camp 10 pounds heavier and never hit his stride, batting just .245 on the season (39 points below his current lifetime average).

In 2014, a rededicated Castro led the team in hitting with a .292 mark from the middle of the order and regained his All-Star status. Working with infield instructor Gary Jones, he also reduced his errors from 22 to 15—the first season in four he didn’t lead major league shortstops in miscues.

The question of what the Cubs will do with their surplus of middle-infield talent could be answered this winter. If so, Castro might be the likeliest to go. At least three major-market teams will be seeking a top shortstop, and Castro would seem the most marketable commodity as an already-established big league star.

Ultimately, the Cubs could elect to keep all three shortstops—each 24 or younger—and move two of them to different positions. Baez is currently scheduled to be the Opening Day second baseman, with Russell ticketed to play shortstop at either Double-A Tennessee or Triple-A Iowa.

Maddon’s arrival seems to accelerate the team’s timetable for winning. A blockbuster deal for a top young pitcher could be the next step.

In other words, don’t sell Epstein short. Not so long as he has shortstops to sell.

—Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig

From the Pages of Vine Line: An inside look at The 1060 Project

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

To strengthen the franchise and provide additional streams of revenue, the Ricketts family and the Cubs organization have broken ground on the most ambitious restoration and expansion of Wrigley Field in the ballpark’s 100-year history. The following story can be seen in the November issue of Vine Line.

Even by American standards, Chicago is a relatively new city architecturally speaking. When a raging inferno wipes out a town’s entire central business district in the late 19th century, it does force planners and architects to start fresh.

The landmark structures that define the Chicago cityscape are all of recent vintage. Navy Pier was completed in 1916, the Wrigley Building in 1924 and the Willis (née Sears) Tower in 1973.

That makes Wrigley Field, which first opened its doors as Weeghman Park on April 23, 1914, one of the most venerable and historic structures in one of America’s great cities. When you walk into the Friendly Confines today, the feeling of shared history and connection to the game’s glorious past is palpable. It’s easy to imagine Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown squaring off against Christy Mathewson or Billy Williams striding to the plate to face Bob Gibson.

“So much has happened in the last 100 years, but Wrigley is still the same,” said Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts. “It is the same ballpark your grandfather came to. It is the ballpark you’ll be able to take your grandkids to. It has a great history—the clubhouse where Babe Ruth got dressed, where Lou Gehrig played, where the Bears played for 50 years—it’s a building filled with 100 years of incredible memories.”

But the Wrigley Field Ruth played in is actually much different from the ballpark Williams played in. And that one is much different from the one Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Jake Arrieta call home today.

As the second-oldest facility in the major leagues—behind Boston’s Fenway Park—Wrigley Field is uniquely connected to its past. But while people think of Wrigley as constant and unchanging, and speak wistfully of its early days, it has actually undergone a series of enhancements and improvements over the years to keep up with the evolving game of baseball.

The ballpark Brown played in seated a little more than 14,000 people in one deck and had only a small section of bleachers. Williams experienced the modern bleachers and scoreboard, which were installed in 1937, but never played a night game at home.

Beginning this offseason, the world-famous ballpark, which just completed its 100th anniversary season, will take the next major step in its evolution, as the long-awaited restoration and expansion, known as The 1060 Project, is now underway. This privately funded, $575 million upgrade is designed to ensure the viability of the Friendly Confines for future generations of Cubs fans, while retaining the features that make Wrigley Field so special.

The four-year plan—which will include structural upgrades; improved player facilities; new fan amenities; outfield signage, including video boards in left and right field; expanded concessions; new and improved restroom facilities; and much more—will be rolled out in four phases, beginning this offseason.

RESPONSIBLE PRESERVATION
The goal of The 1060 Project—so named for Wrigley Field’s address, 1060 W. Addison St.—is simple: to preserve the beauty, charm and historic features of Wrigley Field that fans have cherished for a century, while upgrading the overall gameday experience.

“Wrigley is a special place because it’s organic,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “It’s a part of the neighborhood in a way that no other ballpark is. It’s very much unchanged over the last 100 years, so you feel a connection to previous generations and previous players. To be able to walk through the tunnel and know that that’s where Billy Williams and Ernie Banks—or on the visiting side, all the way back to Babe Ruth—walked. It resonates the same way that baseball does for me, which is that it connects you to your past and connects you to the next generation.”

The 1060 Project isn’t just about modernization, though better food and amenities do require that. It also includes restoring Wrigley Field to its mid-1930s glory, when the ballpark was at its peak. The entire project team brings local and national experience working on historic facilities and respects its responsibility to maintain the park’s unique atmosphere. To get the details right, they have spent years studying and researching historical minutiae. This has required everything from poring over old photographs to studying soil samples.

“The ballpark always was designed to be very light and transparent,” said William Ketcham, principal at VOA, the architect of record on the construction drawings. “As we go back in time, the bottom register of the ballpark will be back to its original finishes of stucco and brick and terracotta with windows in it. The upper register will become iron and transparent grillage again. So the wind will blow through the park, and the light will come into the park in a way that is more historic. The way that it presents itself to the street again will be more delicate, a little lighter. The additions that we’re putting on the outside of the building will be of a vocabulary that is respectful of that tradition of the ironwork that was here in the ’20s and ’30s.”

It’s easy to be inspired by the one-of-a-kind experiences Wrigley Field provides: walking up the stairs and seeing the lush, green field for the first time; tracking the game’s progress via the hand-operated scoreboard; measuring the time of year by the amount of ivy covering the brick outfield walls. Leaving those features untouched while updating the ballpark so it’s prepared to last another 100 years presents its share of challenges.

“We’ve had engineers and contractors looking at every aspect of this building for the last two years documenting existing conditions and how the building is today, and utilizing that intelligence that we’ve learned in the design process, but there are still things that we haven’t been able to uncover,” said Michael Harms, senior vice president of Icon Venue Group, the project management team for the restoration. “We’re going to expose almost every square inch of this building in the phases we’re going to do, and we know there are surprises out there. The solution to that challenge is that we’ve hired a great group of professionals who are going to solve those problems and keep the project moving forward.”

To ensure the integrity of the Friendly Confines is maintained throughout the restoration process, the design team visited a number of iconic, older sporting venues—including Fenway Park, Dodger Stadium and the Rose Bowl—that recently underwent major renovations. No modern sporting facility would be designed like Wrigley Field was—the ballpark was constructed 100 years ago—so everyone working on the project wanted to be as prepared as possible before breaking ground.

“Our experience thus far in working with the Cubs organization and the Ricketts family is they want to do this right,” Harms said. “That’s, frankly, the best thing we could ever hear because we want to make sure everything we do in this ballpark improves the fan experience, restores the ballpark back to history and restores the ballpark for generations to come.”

To help fans better understand the scope of the project, which will be rolled out in four phases, here’s what you can expect at the corner of Clark and Addison in the coming years.

PHASE ONE  (2015 SEASON)
The primary focus of the first phase of The 1060 Project will be structural work to prepare Wrigley Field for enhancements and improvements over the course of the construction plan.
During Phase One, major structural steel and deep foundation work will be performed in the concourse on the third-base (left-field) side of the ballpark from Gate K to home plate.

“It’s striking that so many things about the ballpark haven’t been addressed over the years,” Ricketts said. “I think we had decades where the stewards of the ballpark just did not address enough, particularly in the infrastructure of the ballpark. We’re going to address that. We know what we have to do, and we’re excited to get started on it.”

Phase One will also focus on expanding and improving the left- and right-field Budweiser Bleachers. Before the 2014 season ended, the team purchased more sidewalk space behind the ballpark on Waveland and Sheffield avenues to accommodate the expansion. The outer walls of Wrigley Field will now extend to the edge of where the sidewalk used to be.

The plan calls for an additional 300 seating positions in the left- and right-field bleachers and 300 more standing room positions in the bleacher deck. There will be new concession areas under the bleachers as well as group terraces where fans can congregate to enjoy Cubs games and other events.

The Friendly Confines will also get new outfield signage, including a 3,990-square-foot video board in left field and a 2,400-square-foot video board in right field. These will provide fans with real-time stats and information about the Cubs and their opponents during games.

“Wrigley has a very special vibe. It’s a special place,” Ricketts said. “We respect that. We think we understand what makes it so special. All the things that people associate with this beautiful ballpark will be preserved. It will just have better amenities and better services.”

PHASE TWO (2016 SEASON)
To win at the major league level, the Cubs must do much more than draft, sign and develop the right mix of players. They also must provide those players with the kind of best-in-class, off-the-field facilities needed to train players, rehabilitate injuries and prepare for the season. Phase Two of The 1060 Project will feature the improvement and expansion of the home clubhouse to give the team the best facilities in the game. The new clubhouse will be located directly west of the stadium beneath the new plaza, the current site of the Purple and Red parking lots.

“We want our players to have every possible advantage to compete on the most competitive stage there is night in, night out and to put themselves in a position to stay healthy and effective for 162 games, which is increasingly difficult in this modern era,” Epstein said. “It’s hard enough to get yourself ready to play and do it 162 times, but when you have dated facilities that are falling apart and that are limited—we don’t even have a batting tunnel to get players ready for the game—it’s really hard for players to get physically prepared, fundamentally prepared and mentally prepared for the game.

“It’s a good feeling for us to know that the players are going to have the best possible support to go out and compete. That, to me, is the most important part of a new ballpark.”

The current 11,000-square-foot clubhouse will be replaced by a state-of-the-art, 30,000-square-foot space, giving the Cubs one of the largest clubhouses in the game. This new area will include a locker room for players and coaches, a strength and conditioning center, training and hydrotherapy areas, a media center, team offices and a player lounge.

The former clubhouse area will be redeveloped into a new, larger dugout, two underground batting tunnels, an auditorium and additional office space for team officials.

Phase Two plans also include the development of a new home-plate club and a third-base club for premium and season ticket holders. The third-base club will be adjacent to the batting tunnels so fans can get a glimpse of Cubs players taking their practice swings prior to at-bats.

To enhance player safety, the home and visiting bullpens will be relocated from the field of play to an area underneath the expanded Budweiser Bleachers. New seats will be added in the old bullpen areas.

The new Wrigley Field will also have dramatically improved concession options for fans. A new, 30,000-square-foot concessions prep and staging area will be built below the plaza to ensure service levels are best in class and provide for the delivery of quality, fresh food.

The seats and most of the concrete from the left-field foul pole to the main gate under the marquee will all be replaced, and the third-base-side concourse will be completed. Plans include new concessions and bathrooms in the area.

Phase Two also calls for enhancements to the upper level in right field, including a new outdoor concourse along the south and west roofline with additional concessions and bathrooms.

“It would be really wonderful if all of the support we put into the infrastructure makes the gameday experience better for the fans,” Ketcham said. “They can spend more time in their seats watching the game, enjoying it, with better food delivered more comfortably, and be able to look around and say, ‘Yeah, it’s still the neighborhood ballpark I remember from 50 years ago.’”

PHASE THREE (2017 SEASON)
For Phase Three, much of the work will move to the first-base side. This will include a new umpires’ room and an improved visitors’ clubhouse, in addition to improvements to the first-base-side concourse to create a better fan experience.

“My first time here with a visiting team was 1996, and I remember being shocked at the visiting clubhouse—just how small it was,” Epstein said. “I thought it was a joke. I thought someone had walked me into the utility closet and told me it was the visiting clubhouse.”

Clark the Cub will get a new home on the first-base side, and there will be a first-base club space for season ticket holders.

Enhancements to the upper level will shift to the left-field side. The new outdoor concourse along the south and west roofline will be completed in this phase as well.

By the conclusion of Phase Three, the goal is to have the majority of work in the main concourse completed.

“As fans come back to the restored Wrigley Field over the next few years, they’ll see some changes, but what you won’t see is a wholesale difference,” Ricketts said. “You’re going to feel like this is the ballpark you know and the ballpark you love. But what you will see are shorter lines for everything, you will see more information during the game, you will see a cleaner, more open concourse, you will see easier exits and entrances. It will be a much better fan experience.”

The Cubs will also add an upper-deck club for season ticket holders and improve and expand the luxury suites. As an added bonus, suite-holders can now customize their space by choosing from several design options.

PHASE FOUR (2018 SEASON)
Phase Four will finish any remaining work in the main concourse along the first-base line and add a two-story retail and entertainment complex of at least 9,000 square feet in the right-field corner to replace the existing street-level restaurant.

Work will also be completed on the middle portion of the upper level. This will include a renovated press box, new seats, new concessions and new bathrooms.

By Phase Four, the Ricketts family’s neighborhood development project should also be completed. Plans call for an open-air plaza outside the ballpark for Cubs fans, visitors and families in the community to enjoy year-round.

The development will incorporate an office building at the north end of the new plaza space to house Cubs offices, a conference meeting space and retail shops.

Finally, the plan features a premium Starwood hotel across the street from the ballpark. This will include 175 rooms, a 40,000-square-foot health club, retail spaces, and food and beverage options for fans and the community.

“This restoration of Wrigley Field is extremely important,” Ricketts said. ”It is Wrigley-ville.

People move here because they want to live near the ballpark. Businesses open and thrive here because of the ballpark. It’s an important part of this community. But it is bigger than that. It is really the beating heart of the North Side of Chicago. It is the place where the people gather. And so we think the renovation of Wrigley and the preservation of this wonderful ballpark means an incredible amount to the city and its people.”

FINISHING TOUCHES
Though it will be some time before The 1060 Project is completed, the Cubs organization and the project team have already done years of groundwork to ensure Wrigley Field remains the jewel it has always been. It has been said before—and often—but the closest comparison for a project of this scale is Fenway Park. It’s the only baseball facility that can match Wrigley Field in terms of age and historical relevance. Following the work in Boston a few years ago, it would be hard to argue that Fenway Park doesn’t still feel like Fenway, despite more modern touches and advertising signs. It’s just a better ballpark experience for fans and players.

“I got to experience the transformation of Fenway Park in Boston, really witness how that was a win for everyone,” Epstein said. “For the fans, it just improved the experience where it was still the same old traditional, wonderful venue, but just enhanced with modern amenities. It’s a more comfortable experience without sacrificing any of the traditions that made it great for generations upon generations.”

By the time fans stream into Wrigley Field in 2018, the ballpark will look a bit different.

Among other improvements, the bleachers will be enhanced, there will be video boards and advertising signs in the outfield, the concourses will be cleaner and more accessible, and an open-air plaza will take the place of the old Purple and Red parking lots. But the bricks and ivy will still be there, as will the hand-operated scoreboard and iconic marquee.

Preserving the past while still modernizing the ballpark will take considerable time, effort and resources, but it’s also essential to ensure a 100-year-old facility can survive and thrive in the modern era.

“There’s really no way to describe the amount of work that has gone into getting just to this point, where we’re beginning the process of restoring the ballpark,” Ricketts said. “There’s a lot of people who have dedicated their lives over the last several years to be ready for this moment, and they’ll be dedicating their lives going forward for four more years. But when it’s done, it’ll all be worth it. For everybody.”

—Gary Cohen

From the Pages of Vine Line: Hitting the off switch, how players adjust to the offseason

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

As the calendar turned to late September, the crisp fall winds whisked through the Wrigley Field grandstand, signaling the nearing end of another long and winding year for the Chicago Cubs.

After 162 games, countless hotel stays and a punishing travel schedule, major league players are understandably drained after the last out of the season is recorded. It would be more than understandable if most were eager to walk out of the clubhouse doors and forget about baseball for the next few months. But talking to Cubs players about the offseason was revealing—in that not many were genuinely ready for it.

“I’ve seen players get traded every year, and I’ve moved around to different organizations,” said catcher John Baker, who’s played for three teams over his seven big league seasons. “In this game, you become an expert at saying goodbye.”

But, Baker added, saying goodbye to his teammates this offseason was still a difficult transition. That’s because players on professional sports teams are uniquely bonded, and no sport puts its athletes through the wringer like baseball. In addition to the forge of 162 high-stress games, the men share countless hours of practice time, clubhouse chatter, practical jokes, plane rides, hotel stays, meals, movies and much more—and it’s all rigidly scheduled, regular and repetitive.

Athletes often talk about their teammates as brothers, and that’s not really much of a stretch. During the baseball season, which spans from February at Spring Training to late September, players likely spend more time with their teammates than with anyone else. So what do they do once the routine and the camaraderie go away?

The men in the Cubs clubhouse said the shift to the offseason always feels sudden, as if a practical joke were being played on everyone, and they’ll wake up the next day either in a hotel room or in Chicago with another game on the near horizon.

“It’s pretty hard because it feels like you’re upsetting your whole rhythm of your life,” said infielder Javier Baez. “You’re playing baseball every day and then—then you just stop.”

It felt even stranger this year because the Cubs closed out the regular season on the road. Many players didn’t even bother flying back to Chicago after the final game in Milwaukee. They just caught the next flight home—wherever that was. Clubhouse attendants had already boxed up their personal effects and shipped them off.

“My least favorite part is packing and unpacking,” said starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, who makes his home in Austin, Texas. “I feel like we live out of a suitcase all year, never really keeping track of where things are. Getting home and having to rearrange everything is kind of a pain.”

There is also a strange feeling of finality when players unpack their things and get settled in for the winter. It hits home that the season really is over, and there is no game to look forward to the next day.

For righty Kyle Hendricks, that feeling of suddenly having a void in his life is the worst part. After a week at home in San Juan Capistrano, California, which lies about halfway up the coast between San Diego and Los Angeles, he begins to get antsy.

“I’m just sitting around doing nothing really,” he said. “That’s what makes the transition tough. After having your days kind of mapped out for you, you have to find a way to keep yourself busy.”

Most players try to take a month or so off before they even start thinking about baseball again. Between working out and taking a vacation or two, it helps to have some hobbies. Left-hander Travis Wood is an outdoorsman. Right-hander Jacob Turner, whom the Cubs acquired in a trade with the Miami Marlins in August, said golf keeps him from going stir-crazy.

“I like to play golf a lot, so I try to get out and play as much as I can in the offseason,” he said. “I’m from St. Louis, so we can play until the end of November and occasionally into December if it gets into the 50s.”

Though Arrieta feels restless at the beginning of the offseason, he said his boredom usually passes after the first week or so.

“As you settle in, it’s nice to finally be able to wind down, sleep in if the kids will let you, get out in the garage, and play with the kids outside,” he said. “Then it’s not a tough transition at all. It’s a much-needed break.”

Though it feels like a vacation just being home, Arrieta still gathers up his family and tries to get away somewhere with no cell phones and little contact with the outside world.

“Just kind of hit the refresh button and kick off the offseason in a good way, in the mountains or on a beach somewhere,” he said.

Left-handed reliever Wesley Wright, on the other hand, said he embraces the offseason relaxation from the start.

“The first two weeks of the offseason is the best time of your life because you can kick back and relax,” he said. “You’re active, but nothing is set in stone. If something comes up, you do it. But most guys like to take vacations and do whatever they want to do. You reflect on what the past season was like and decide what you’re going to do to be better next year.”

Wright, who lives in Montgomery, Alabama, said he doesn’t care where he goes or what he does, so long as he’s in front of a TV on Saturdays.

“Weekends are dedicated to football for me, especially Saturdays,” he said. “I’m a big college football fan. But, generally, for the first month, I like to do nothing at all—just mentally take a break from all the stress of games and different things that go on during the season.”

This period is also a time to reconnect with friends and family. Wright and his wife, Sherell, have a 3-year-old and a newborn at home.

“When you go from being a professional player to a full-time dad, it’s a different experience,” Wright said. “It definitely takes a lot more patience. But you get energy from seeing the look on their faces every time they see you. They’re so happy I’m there. It makes a world of difference.”

And those idle days spent with family are precious to ballplayers because once the season starts, there is little time for anything but the game.

“It’s important for me to just hang out with family, just enjoying my time with them for as long as I can,” Hendricks said. “You have to try to not think about baseball. As much as you want to start getting ready for the next season, you have to try to put it off because during the year, it’s such a grind. You know you’re going to have to focus 24/7.”

Baker said he treasures the downtime too, albeit for different reasons. Sometimes the closeness teammates achieve during a season can get a little too close.

“A lot of people don’t realize that showering and going into the bathroom and all that other gross stuff is always with someone else,” he said. “I know when I go home, I cherish the moments of being in the bathroom by myself. Sometimes my wife gets mad at me because I’m in the shower for 45 minutes at a time, but I tell her this is the only time I get to shower by myself. As soon as I go back to Spring Training, it’s prison showers again.”

One thing most Cubs players have in common is the habit of creating structured schedules—even though they’re not necessary in the offseason. Daily routines are so ingrained for athletes, most players can’t help planning out their time.

“You have to learn how to focus that routine-oriented nervous energy into a different kind of routine,” agreed Baker, who fills his time back home in Danville, California, by walking his dog and playing with his two kids, Brooklyn and Fiona.

Sometimes, it’s not the players setting the routine. Arrieta said that at least early in the offseason, his kids dictate his days.

“My routine starts with getting up when my 3-year-old son starts beating me up,” Arrieta said. “The day starts when my kids want it to. Then I’m either cooking breakfast or running down the street to get coffee. From there, it’s playtime for the next three to four hours or so until the kids take a nap.”

Without any children of his own, first baseman Anthony Rizzo said he keeps his routine pretty simple at the beginning of the winter. And he sleeps in. A lot.

“It’s nice because for eight months, it’s a grind, and your body eventually breaks down,” he said. “After a week or two, I’m in complete shutdown mode. I relax and hang out for about a month, month and a half before I start to work out again.”

That’s also when the players tend to get a little antsy and start texting and calling their teammates more often. Baker said the reason is pretty simple. Everyone misses hanging out together.

“You spend so much time traveling around with these guys, you consider all of them family,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where they’re from or what language they speak. You are with them every day, 12 hours a day, for seven and a half months straight. You care about them a lot.”

They also miss sharing all the inside jokes and general locker room banter they have to keep a lid on all winter.

“There are certain things you do in the clubhouse that you just can’t do at home, you know?” said Rizzo, who insisted on leaving it at that.

This is all part of being with a close-knit group of guys for so long. Though players value time with their families more than anything, they do develop a bond and a comfort level with their teammates that’s almost as intense.

“I don’t think there’s really any other job or situation that brings a team of guys as close together as professional baseball does,” Turner said. “Obviously, these are not just teammates but your friends, so you enjoy being around them. I definitely miss that.”

Once November hits, most of the Cubs hook up with trainers and with other professional ballplayers who live in the same area and throw themselves into a training regimen. Then their days have a more familiar structure to them. Many run in the wee hours of morning, train with weights before and after lunch, and, once the calendar flips to the next year, start doing some light baseball activity in the run-up to Spring Training.

“You’re basically working on the specific areas where you want to gain strength, and you’re trying to improve on your weaknesses from the last season,” Wright said. “I think the most important months for baseball players are December and January. That’s when guys get their bodies ready for the grind of a full season.”

By then, the vacation is essentially over. Unlike the beginning of the offseason, the end is a gradual process. Players may still be home in January, but their minds are already on the year ahead.

By the time the Cubs start filtering into the team’s Mesa, Arizona, training facility as early as the end of January, the offseason feels like a distant memory.

Make no mistake, all players need and cherish the break. But after that, they’re more than ready to return to what they love most—being back with their teammates and playing ball.

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Sandberg Game changed it all

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Photo by Stephen Green

Thirty years ago this month, the Cubs played in their first postseason series in nearly four decades. In the October issue of Vine Line, we look back at a game during that season that gave the organization the spark it needed to reach the playoffs.

Impressive single-game performances by unproven players should generally be taken with a grain of salt. Over a long season, even the most below-average hitter or spottiest of spot starters occasionally has his day. Mario Mendoza, whose name is synonymous with offensive mediocrity, had one four-hit game in his major league career.

Sometimes, though, there is a perfect storm of circumstances that make a single-game performance stand out above the 162-game grind—a performance that launches a Hall of Fame career and helps define a player’s legacy.

On June 23, 1984, Ryne Sandberg had such a performance. His 5-for-6, seven-RBI outburst certainly looks impressive on paper, but his day was about much more than the stat sheet.

Start with the fact that he took the game’s elite closer deep twice, tying the game in both the ninth and 10th innings. Throw in the setting (a beautiful Saturday at Wrigley Field) and the matchup (an afternoon showdown against the NL East rival Cardinals). Consider the game’s viewership as NBC’s nationally televised Game of the Week. Finally, pile on the fame it brought Sandberg, the playoff boost it gave a struggling organization, and the sustained steady bump in attendance at Wrigley Field, and the Sandberg Game was a seminal moment in both his career and in the enduring popularity of the Chicago Cubs.

* * * *

“While the performance was great, the reason it resonates was that the context was so different,” said broadcaster Bob Costas, who was in his third year on NBC’s baseball broadcast team when he called the Sandberg Game in 1984.

The broadcast landscape was dramatically different in the mid-1980s. Sports on TV were not the 24-hour, 365-day-a-year industry they are today, and cable had not yet taken hold, so most viewers had limited options when it came to what they watched. The National Game of the Week on NBC was a big deal to both baseball and its fans. Every Saturday, the network arranged a premier game to be broadcast in an afternoon time slot, which meant it was often the only matchup going, as most clubs played their weekend games at night.

“The Game of the Week really was the Game of the Week then,” said Costas, who admitted the Sandberg Game was his favorite regular season broadcast of his illustrious career. “No matter how well a game is telecast today, there’s no one game outside of the postseason that rivets everyone’s attention.”

This combination of factors lent Wrigley Field a Monday Night Football-type atmosphere, with a huge audience tuning in and ratings reaching as high as 10, a number today’s postseason games struggle to match. Even with the WGN Superstation broadcasting Cubs games to viewers across the country, there was still reason to get excited about the weekly NBC tilt.

“There’s only one National Game of the Week on Saturday,” said former Cubs catcher Jody Davis, who started behind the plate that day. “Of course, you didn’t get to play in many every year, so you’re lucky to get into one.”

Sandberg shared similar sentiments and said he relished the idea of the national spotlight shining on him and his teammates for an afternoon.

“Every game on television was a big deal to me,” Sandberg said. “I knew that everybody back home was watching. That really got me fired up to play every game. It brought the most out of my abilities.”

* * * *

This particular Saturday was one of those picturesque afternoons that happen only a few times a summer. With temperatures in the low 80s and a slight breeze off the lake, Wrigley Field was made-for-TV perfection.

A series of roster moves—including the addition of right-hander Rick Sutcliffe just 10 days prior—was doing wonders for a team that hadn’t exactly lit up the decade. On the morning of  June 23, 1984, the Cubs sat 1.5 games out of first place and were in striking distance of their first postseason berth in 39 years, further raising expectations for the 38,000 fans in attendance and the millions of people tuning in across the nation. It didn’t hurt that the rival Cardinals, the 1982 world champs, were in town.

Steve Trout toed the rubber for the Cubs, but it wasn’t one of his better outings. The right-hander lasted just 1.1 innings and was on the hook for seven earned runs, spotting St. Louis an early six-run lead.

“You mean to tell me that because of me, [Sandberg] became [a key] in one of the most famous games ever,” Trout said with a laugh, reflecting on his start that afternoon.

Momentum temporarily shifted when the Cubs got two runs in the bottom of the fifth, but they promptly gave them both back in the top of the sixth. Trailing 9-3 entering the bottom of the inning, the North Siders injected some much-needed excitement into the stadium when they plated five behind a run-scoring single from Richie Hebner, a two-run double from Bobby Dernier and a two-run single from Sandberg.

Leading 9-8 with two outs in the seventh, St. Louis called out the big guns, enlisting lockdown closer Bruce Sutter to carry them the rest of the way. The eventual Hall of Famer, who would amass 300 saves in his stellar career, was the elite back-end arm of his generation, earning a Cy Young Award for his efforts in 1979 as a member of the Cubs. Sutter relied heavily on a split-finger fastball, a devastating pitch that was still new to players at the time.

“It was just a pitch that nobody had seen before,” Davis said of the splitter. “He brought [it] out, and nobody knew what it did. And he was the best at it. It was just really tough facing him, and he was a true competitor.”

Sutter fanned Gary Matthews to wrap up the seventh and set the Cubs down 1-2-3 in the eighth, putting an apparent damper on any comeback hopes. The outcome seemed a foregone conclusion as Sandberg stepped into the box to start the bottom of the ninth inning with the first and third basemen guarding the lines and the infield shifted slightly to the left side.

Sandberg was having a great season in 1984 and was already 3-for-4 on the day with four RBI. After two-plus major league years, he was seen as a good player with a solid glove at second, having claimed his first Gold Glove Award in 1983, but few had him pegged as an eventual Hall of Famer.

“Though he had already emerged as a very good player, he was still early in his career,” Costas said. “That one just propelled him onto the national stage.”

The first pitch came in low and away for ball one. Sandberg took the second pitch on the outside corner for a strike. But the third pitch was on the inner third of the plate, and Sandberg didn’t miss it, sending the ball screaming into the last row of the left-center-field bleachers.

Tie game. Extra innings.

“I said, ‘You know what this is, Tony? It’s a telephone game,’” Costas said, referring to his broadcast partner, Tony Kubek. “It’s the kind of game where as a baseball fan, you pick up the phone and call your baseball buddy, and you go, ‘Are you watching this? Put on NBC.’”

Cards outfielder Willie McGee was having quite a day himself, with a homer, triple and single to his credit. He’d already compiled five RBI and two runs heading into extra innings. The eventual 1985 NL MVP would complete the cycle with a run-scoring double in the top of the 10th and score two batters later, giving the Cards a two-run lead and shifting momentum back into the visitors’ dugout.

After two quick outs in the bottom of the 10th, Dernier took all six pitches he saw to record a full-count walk. As Costas and Kubek thanked the sponsors and crew for their day’s work, up stepped Ryno.

On the third pitch of the sequence, Costas bellowed: “He hits it to deep left-center. Look out! Do you believe it? It’s gone!”

With Sandberg’s bomb, Wrigley Field was up for grabs. The broadcast duo went silent for nearly a full minute to capture the jubilation of the ecstatic crowd.

“I’m sure there was a lengthy period where I called it as ‘gone,’ and we went quiet because the crowd and the pictures said everything,” Costas said. “We had just seen something that almost defied words. And I think the way the second home run was called, it was not just excitement, but amazement.”

* * * *

Just like that, Sandberg became a household name. Few remember that Dave Owen drove in the winning run an inning later on a bases-loaded single to complete the comeback and give the Cubs a 12-11 win.

“I went inside [the clubhouse], and I could barely get to my locker because there were so many people to talk to,” Sandberg said in the book Banks to Sandberg to Grace. “That was the start of my first experience with the media. It was pretty cool.”

With his talent on full display for the nation to see, Sandberg soon became a marquee attraction in Major League Baseball. The first example of his enhanced reputation came with the 1984 All-Star voting. In a matter of days, Ryno surpassed Steve Sax, who had been the leading vote-getter at the keystone position.

“That game really told me that I could do that,” Sandberg said. “It was really a different mind-set that game gave me, and it’s something I wanted to live up to—not only the rest of that year … but it also brought new standards for me each and every year, as far as winning a Gold Glove, a silver bat and an MVP.”

When the ’84 campaign came to a close, Sandberg was a nearly unanimous choice for National League MVP, capturing 22 of 24 first-place votes. According to FanGraphs, he compiled a Wins Above Replacement rating of 8.0, hitting .314/.367/.520 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 19 homers and a league-best 114 runs, all while playing a key middle-infield position at an elite level.

* * * *

The dramatic win didn’t benefit just the Cubs’ now-star second baseman. The team was showing signs of ending a 39-year postseason drought and used the comeback as a rallying cry for the season.

“That was kind of our exclamation point,” Davis said. “It was still early enough in the season. We were off to a good start, [and we were] in the pennant race, which fans weren’t too used to [us] being. The excitement was starting to build, and that day made all of the fans start to believe that we did have a chance.”

The team went 59-34 the rest of the way, including an 18-10 record in July and a 20-10 mark in August. They finished 31-24 in one-run ballgames and won 11 games in walk-off fashion en route to an NL-best 96 wins. The North Siders were fun to watch, and, for the first time in a long while, Wrigley Field became the hottest ticket in town, as more and more fans flocked to the North Side to see the miracle Cubs and their soon-to-be MVP second baseman.

“In ’84, the fans came alive, and you saw the first fans on the rooftops,” Sandberg said. “Just to see that whole transformation and see it be a tough ticket here for the rest of my career [was exciting].”

According to Baseball-Reference, the Cubs hit the 2 million mark in attendance for the first time ever that season. Individual game sales were up nearly 8,000 from the previous year and nearly 11,000 from 1982. At least 2 million people have attended games at Wrigley Field in all but three seasons since.

In that single game, a future Hall of Famer emerged from the shadows into full-fledged stardom, a dormant franchise was catapulted to its first postseason berth in nearly four decades, and the fan base was energized for decades to come.

—Phil Barnes

From the Pages of Vine Line: Strength in Numbers

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Javier Baez got his first taste of major league action this summer. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

When Theo Epstein sat in front of the assembled media last October and announced, “The story [around the league] is that the Cubs are coming fast, and the Cubs are coming strong,” many had trouble stifling laughter. How could Epstein suggest a team fresh off its third-consecutive 90-loss season was on the rise—especially during a press conference announcing the firing of the club’s manager, Dale Sveum?

It seemed preposterous at the time, but Epstein was hardly joking. He knew what he and his staff had built over the previous two seasons, and he believed it wouldn’t be long before that lofty statement was accepted as fact—even by those not paying close attention to what’s been happening in the Cubs system.
Sure enough, while the 2014 season didn’t produce a dramatic increase in wins, the media and fans finally got a chance to see what the Cubs have been building, as the first wave of prospects finally funneled into Wrigley Field.

It all began with Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks, two somewhat under-the-radar prospects, but intriguing players nonetheless. Next, one of the best power hitters in the minors, Javier Baez, arrived in the big leagues—along with the corresponding media maelstrom. Finally, the Cubs called up Cuban slugger Jorge Soler toward the end of August.

Not every one of these young players immediately took the National League by storm. There have been ups and downs. But each has provided a spark and shown the potential to be a big contributor to the next Cubs playoff run—which is exactly how the front office drew it up.

“It’s a lot of fun, and there’s definitely a lot of energy,” Hendricks said. “I’m just glad a lot of us have been able to perform well. I think that’s a testament to the coaching we have in the minor leagues. The guys got us ready for this level.”

Epstein understands that this process, which has included many losses, has been tough for both the players and the fans. That’s why finally being able to display the fruits of the front office’s labor has been so rewarding.

“These are players who have been part of our plan, part of our vision, for a while now,” Epstein said. “Now that they’re up here, people can get excited about it. It creates a little bit of momentum, which is nice to have around the organization.”

MASTER PLAN
So what exactly is the Cubs’ vision, and what has the organization been doing to realize it?

When Epstein was first introduced as president of baseball operations in late October 2011, he laid out his plan for how he wanted to rebuild an organization that had gone from being the toast of the National League to 91 losses in just three years.

“Our goal will be to build the best scouting department in the game—one that makes an annual impact in the draft and internationally,” Epstein said at the time. “As far as player development goes, we will define and implement a Cubs Way of playing the game, and we won’t rest until there is a steady stream of talent coming through the minor league system trained in that Cubs Way making an impact out here at Wrigley Field.”

Epstein didn’t waste much time in following through with those promises. A week after his introduction, he sat in front of the media yet again, this time introducing Jed Hoyer as his new executive vice president and general manager and Jason McLeod, a man Epstein referred to as the “rarest commodity in the industry—an impact evaluator of baseball talent,” as his senior vice president of scouting and player development.

The three men spent the next year evaluating what they were working with from the bottom of the organization all the way to the top. After a year, they made a few tweaks to the scouting department, and completely revamped the player development side. Brandon Hyde was brought in as the farm director, but has since moved on to become manager Rick Renteria’s bench coach, while Jaron Madison has transitioned from amateur scouting director to Hyde’s old position.

Under Hyde, the Cubs hired four new minor league coordinators and had one of their better developmental seasons throughout the system in 2013.

Of course, it certainly helped that so much talent had been added to the mix—and continues to be added to this day—through astute trades, the amateur draft and international signings.

“In order to have success in this game, the foundation has to be through scouting and player development,” Hoyer said when he was introduced as general manager. “There’s no shortcut. There’s no magic bullet. All three of us believe in the philosophy wholeheartedly.”

Hoyer acknowledged the ultimate goal is to win a championship, so the baseball operations department first had to build a team that went into Spring Training every season with a realistic shot at making the playoffs. Less than three years later, it appears the Cubs are on the verge of achieving that goal.

And it’s not just the players who have reached the majors this year that have so many people both inside and outside the game optimistic about the Cubs’ immediate future. While the influx of top-notch talent is undeniable, it’s quite likely the best is yet to come.

Last year’s top draft pick, Kris Bryant, dominated every level of the minor leagues, making it all the way to Triple-A Iowa in his first full professional season. His otherworldly stat line of .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 43 home runs and 110 RBI has pushed the third baseman to the top of the national prospect rankings. Shortly after the season, he was named both USA Today’s and Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. Addison Russell, a consensus top 10 prospect in the game, was acquired in early July via trade and has continued to excel, hitting for both power and average while playing strong defense at shortstop.

Kyle Schwarber was the fourth pick in June’s amateur draft and has already shot up two levels in the Cubs system. So far, he has displayed an impressive combination of power and patience at the plate and appears to be on the fast track to the majors.

And that’s not all. The regime’s first draft pick from 2012, Albert Almora, made it to Double-A at the tender age of 20, and the international scouts flexed their muscles in 2013, as the Cubs spent more money than any other organization. Thanks to those efforts, they added big-time prospects like Jen-Ho Tseng, Eloy Jimenez, Gleybar Torres and Jefferson Mejia, all of whom are proving advanced for their age and are ranked as top 20 organizational prospects by MLB.com.

The system is not only loaded with talent, it’s also deep, ensuring that as the Cubs continue to graduate players to the big leagues, the cupboard won’t suddenly be left bare. It looks like Epstein and Hoyer have built the scouting and player development “machine” they promised to work toward when they were first brought into the organization.

CALL TO ARMS
Of course, since the majority of the Cubs’ young players grabbing headlines are bats, there are still questions about where the organization is going to find the right combination of arms to lead the charge. But even on that front, the team is better off than most people realize.

The front office has now divested the organization of the many onerous contracts from the Hendry regime—meaning there is money to spend—and has proven quite adept at identifying and acquiring undervalued pitching talent. Names like Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel, who all excelled under the tutelage of pitching coach Chris Bosio, have been used to acquire players who fit into both the short- and long-term plans.

Feldman, in particular, netted a huge piece in pitcher Jake Arrieta. A former top prospect, the 28-year-old underwhelmed during parts of four years in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles. Though Arrieta was perhaps at his lowest value at the time, the Cubs were bullish about the struggling righty. After missing the first month of the 2014 season with shoulder soreness, Arrieta went on to make the move look like a stroke of genius, putting together a season that rivals those of some of the best pitchers in the game.

Hendricks, acquired from the Rangers in the 2012 Ryan Dempster deal, also opened eyes with a strong run of starts to begin his major league career. Though many had the 24-year-old pegged as a fringe major leaguer and back-end starter at best, his poise and control are making some wonder whether he can exceed expectations and become a big part of the rotation’s future.

“He’s doing exactly what he did in the minor leagues,” Epstein said. “He’s as polished and prepared as you’ll see with any rookie. We speculated that he might even take it to another level when he got to the big leagues because he uses all the tools available to him as well as anybody.

“We have video in the minor leagues, but we don’t have this much video. We have scouting reports in the minor leagues, but we don’t have scouting reports this extensive. He just attacks the video and attacks scouting reports. They’re a huge weapon for him. You see the confidence he has. No matter how good a hitter he’s facing, he’s likely to have identified one area he can attack and put [himself] in a good position to have a chance to get him out. I think that’s been big for him. We’re awfully proud of how he’s adjusted.”

Epstein has acknowledged that while he doesn’t think the Cubs’ position player group is a finished product, he certainly feels great about the nucleus the organization has built. Even with Arrieta, Hendricks and the surprisingly impressive Tsuyoshi Wada (who will be 34 next season, but could still find himself competing for a spot in the Cubs rotation), the obvious focus becomes how to build up the front five.

“I like some of the pitchers we have coming along in the minor leagues, and I think our big league staff has done sort of an underrated job this year,” Epstein said. “There are some bright spots. But we’ve been open about the fact that it would be nice to add an impact pitcher or two. When you look over the next 18 months or so, that’s certainly a priority for us. Whether we develop one from an unlikely spot like might be happening with Arrieta or acquire someone who’s already at those heights remains to be seen.”

FINISHING THE JOB
Surprise success stories like Arrieta and Hendricks, coupled with bounce-back years from Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, have certainly boosted the optimism around the team as the prospects are rising to the big leagues.

“It’s good for the fans,” Hendricks said. “They’ve needed some winning the last few years, and unfortunately we haven’t been able to give it to them. I think with a lot of us young guys coming up—a lot of young hitters especially—they’re doing an unbelievable job. And there’s more to come.”
While the narrative may have recently changed as far as the media and average fans are concerned, nobody within the Cubs organization considers the work done.

“Our fans deserve to get excited. I’m happy for them,” Epstein said. “Ultimately, the only thing that matters is winning. That’s what’s on our mind, and we’re working hard to get there. Having young players that are worth following and at-bats you can’t miss, we’re human and that makes us feel good that our fans have something like that in their lives at this point, because certainly there’s been some tough times that they’ve had to endure.”

Epstein and company know they’ve still got work to do. They’re aware that pitching is a need, as is a veteran presence in the clubhouse to lead by example. But they strongly believe they’re on the right path and have felt that way for some time now. Still, the ultimate goal has yet to be accomplished.

“We’ve felt really good about it for a period now, and we also feel like there’s so much more work to do that we don’t deserve any kudos or pats on the back,” Epstein said. “On the other hand, we’re all human, and we feel the optimism of our fans and our players. It only makes us want to work harder and finish it off. We’ll feel like it’s finished when we win the last game in October.”

—Sahadev Sharma, Baseball Prospectus

From the Pages of Vine Line: Top pick Schwarber impressed in his rookie campaign

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(Photo by Aldrin Capulong)

The first thing you notice about Cubs 2014 No. 1 draft pick Kyle Schwarber is that no one will say a bad word about him. And it takes all of about 30 seconds to understand why.

On a rainy July day, Schwarber’s Kane County team had just lost a 3-2 affair in gut-wrenching fashion, after Tyler Marincov smashed a two-out, two-run, ninth-inning homer to give visiting Beloit the victory. It was a frustrating day all around, and the fourth-overall selection in this year’s draft had probably the worst showing of his nascent professional career, logging an 0-for-4 that included an ugly three-pitch strikeout.

As members of the media entered a quiet clubhouse filled with players licking their wounds, Schwarber stood with a plate of food in his hands. After a few seconds, the newest of the Cubs’ elite prospects realized the media scrum was there for him. He politely put down his tray, walked over to the gathering and ushered them into a small storage room outside the clubhouse so as not to disturb his teammates—most of whom he’d known for less than three weeks.

Even though he’d been a pro for only a short time, the Indiana University product was surprisingly poised, professional and conscientious. He has always been comfortable in his own skin, and he just wanted to make sure everyone else was comfortable too.

“It happens—0-fors can happen,” Schwarber said, shrugging his large shoulders. “I’ve got to realize that. You can’t be too negative on yourself because that can happen sometimes. … It’s a long season. You’ve just got to keep grinding each and every at-bat.”

The next thing you notice about Schwarber is how polished he looks at the plate. The Cubs rated the 21-year-old left-handed slugger as the best hitter in the 2014 draft, and he’s more than justified their confidence in him since he made his professional debut with Short-Season A Boise on June 13. In the Northwest League, Schwarber hit .600 with four home runs and 10 RBI in just five games. After that scorching start, he was quickly promoted to Low-A Kane County, where he played another 23 games, compiling a .361/.448/.602 (AVG/OBP/SLG) line with four homers and 15 RBI. In mid-July, he was bumped up to High-A Daytona, where he finished the season hitting .302/.393/.560 with 10 homers.

But when people are asked about Schwarber, the thing they generally rave about is not his powerful bat—it’s his selfless team-first attitude and the presence he brings to the clubhouse.

“We’re really happy with the quick adjustment he’s made to pro ball,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “The on-field stuff takes care of itself with how he’s handled things mentally. He’s been through a lot this past month, and he’s been consistent, steady, and he’s off to a great start.”

TEAM FIRST
For former Indiana University coach Tracy Smith, it was virtually love at first sight. After hearing of a hulking catcher from Middletown, Ohio, who was posting huge numbers and consistently making hard contact, Smith figured he’d check it out. Though Schwarber was also recruited on the gridiron as an All-State middle linebacker, his first love was always baseball.

“I went to see a game, and he was facing a high school guy that ended up being drafted that year, a left-handed pitcher,” said Smith, who recently accepted the head-coaching job at Arizona State University. “The game I saw him, Schwarber took him out to left field, center field, right field. So that [scholarship] offer came on his way home.”

Indiana is generally known as a basketball school, but the baseball program has transformed into a national power in the past three seasons, largely behind the play of Schwarber.

From 2012-14, the catcher and outfielder hit .341/.437/.607 with 238 hits, 40 homers and 41 doubles, all while drawing 116 walks and striking out just 91 times in 180 games. He was named to multiple All-America teams, and Perfect Game, an amateur scouting company that hosts top-level national baseball showcases, named him the best college catcher in the country in 2013 after he bashed a school-record 18 home runs. That same season, Schwarber and his teammates reached baseball’s elite eight, advancing Indiana to the College World Series for the first time in program history.

All the while, the Cubs were watching.

At first, all eyes weren’t necessarily on Schwarber. The 2012 Indiana roster included eight players who eventually got drafted by major league clubs. But for Cubs scout Stan Zielinski, just knowing that the big catcher was batting second piqued his interest.

“Freshmen aren’t supposed to hit at the top of the order of a [Division 1] program. If they’re trusting a guy to top an order as a freshman, then they must think he’s pretty good,” Zielinski said. “Then he’s squaring up balls, hitting line drives, just playing with a lot of tenacity and just loving the game.”

The longtime scout came away impressed and decided to schedule some time in Bloomington during the ensuing seasons. While there may not have been a signature on-field moment that sold Zielinski on the collegiate star, he said it was a “series of blows” that made him a believer.

After identifying a potential draft pick, the next step the Cubs take is to try to gain a better understanding of that person off the field. Scouts and front office personnel talk to the player, coaches, family and any other influential voices. As Zielinski did his research, it became clear Schwarber’s mental toughness was just as potent a tool as his powerful bat.

When it came time for Zielinski to deliver his report, the scout sold the slugger hard to the Cubs front office—and the decision makers listened. Even though most teams had Schwarber as a mid-first-round talent, the Cubs felt strongly enough about him to take him fourth overall.

“He’s just a genuine All-American kid,” Zielinski said. “To know him is to like him. You can’t walk away without liking the kid. He’s just a fun-loving kid. If the team is too tight, he tries to loosen them up. If the team is too loose, he tells the guys to get their focus back.”

During Zielinski’s time on campus, he and the IU coaching staff had numerous conversations, many of them about Schwarber’s personality.

“Everybody talks about what a great player he is and all that, but he really is … a better person,” Smith said. “I’ve always thought you don’t have a good ballclub unless your best players are the hardest workers, and that’s something Kyle brought to the field every day. He’ll outwork everybody.”

GETTING DEFENSIVE
If there’s one knock on Schwarber, whether it’s justified or not, it’s about his ability to stick behind the plate. The Cubs front office admitted they selected the slugger primarily for his advanced bat. Catchers often require more time in the minor leagues to refine their skills, but team representatives said they didn’t want Schwarber’s defensive development to slow down his offensive process. In other words, if his bat is big league-ready, they might not hold him back waiting for his receiving skills to catch up.

“I love catching, but if they want me to do something else, I’ll do something else,” Schwarber said.

The one thing that is repeated by everyone you talk to about Schwarber—from Cubs front office personnel to college coaches to scouts—is that he is, first and foremost, a team-oriented guy. As such, he’s willing to pass on catching in the long run and make the full-time switch to a corner outfield spot. But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to hang up his catcher’s mitt just yet.

“I want to be able to help the team down the road, when it comes, if that opportunity does come,” Schwarber said. “I feel like if I can get better defensively, [catching] could be in the best interest of the team.”

The argument, for what it’s worth, is that he’s relatively new to calling his own games, and his release on throws is a little long. Those who have seen him play on a more consistent basis, however, say much of that criticism is unwarranted. While he might not ever be a top-tier glove man behind the plate, people who know his work ethic believe he could backstop at the major league level.

“As far as pro ball, there are some things he needs to learn, and he’s so open to it,” said Kane County manager Mark Johnson, who spent parts of eight major league seasons as a catcher. “He wants to learn, he wants to get better, and he busts his butt every day. That’s all you can really ask for.”

From a scouting standpoint, the pieces are there too. It’s evident Schwarber has spent the majority of his life being the field captain. He just needs to hone his game to make it major league-ready.

“Everybody knocks his defense … but everyone is a little afraid to make their own opinion on it,” Zielinski said. “I actually think he can catch. I think the ingredients are all there to make the cake. He needs some refinements and coaching.”

Schwarber spent most of his time in Daytona manning the outfield and logging a few games each week behind the plate. It remains to be seen where he’ll end up defensively, but it will certainly be a topic of discussion this offseason, when it looks like some questions might get answered.

“We’re going to sit down at the end of the minor league season and see whether it’s an appropriate time to make a call,” Epstein said. “That’s a good time of the year, because you can decide then that if catching is something we really want to pursue, we can get him a lot of work daily in the instructional league—a lot of focused attention on his defensive fundamentals.”

Schwarber admitted the first few months of his professional career have been a whirlwind. Wrapping up a college career, getting drafted, signing a multimillion-dollar contract and jumping through three professional levels would be a lot for anybody to handle. But Schwarber said he appreciates how supportive everyone in the organization has been since he signed, which has helped make the transition from amateur to pro ball as seamless as possible.

“I thought it was going to be a lot different being the new guy, especially being the guy that got picked first by them,” Schwarber said. “It’s a different story for everyone. But these guys … they brought me in. It’s like I haven’t missed a beat with these guys.”

Based on the stories, getting along with Kyle Schwarber hardly sounds like a difficult task. His natural personality, combined with the effort he gives on the field every day, makes it easy for coaches and peers to call him a good teammate.

The comfort level is already there, and everyone around him can feel it.

—Phil Barnes

From the Pages of Vine Line: Jake Arrieta and the evolution of an ace

JakeArrieta

(Photo by Stephen Green)

The following can be found in the September issue of Vine Line.

Jake Arrieta has been in this position before. Call it being the ace of a pitching staff. Call it being an Opening Day starter. Call it being a team leader.

He was all that a few years ago with the Baltimore Orioles. And he’s all that again now with the Chicago Cubs.

A lot has happened in the intervening years, of course, including a trade from Baltimore to Chicago and some time in the minor leagues, as Arrieta attempted to add a little more polish and command to his outstanding pure stuff. It’s all led to a dramatic career renaissance that once again has Arrieta acting as the No. 1 starter on a big league pitching staff.

Circumstances dictated part of his ascendance, to be sure. The Cubs set off some big fireworks this year on the Fourth of July when they traded their top two arms, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, to the Oakland Athletics for three high-ceiling prospects.

But Arrieta’s performance had a lot to do with it too. Even if the Cubs had kept Samardzija and Hammel, it’s becoming clearer with every outing that Arrieta might still have been the ace.

The 28-year-old hurler began the season on the disabled list with a shoulder ailment that accompanied him to Spring Training. He returned to the active roster in early May and quickly showed he was not only healthy, but that he was also becoming everything the Cubs were hoping for when they acquired him from Baltimore last July.

“I don’t really think that the shoulder issue to start the year out has much to do with my change of expectations or things of that nature,” Arrieta said. “It’s satisfying to be at peace with a team that’s going through some changes and [to be] able to have success on a consistent basis. All those things are good. I just want to keep building off every positive, and even the negatives, because there are things that are hard to learn from successes. It’s the complete opposite with your failures.

“When Rory [McIlroy] won the [British] Open, he brought that up. The top-echelon guys of every sport, whatever it might be, they have that same type of mindset, and I think it’s a good one to have.”

The Cubs obtained the fifth-round draft choice out of Texas Christian University on July 2, 2013, along with reliever Pedro Strop, from the Orioles for pitcher Scott Feldman and catcher-infielder Steve Clevenger. In Baltimore, Arrieta was supposed to assume the ace mantle—he was even the O’s Opening Day starter in 2012—but, despite top-level stuff, he could never find the consistency to cement a spot in the major league rotation. Over parts of four AL East seasons, the hurler went 20-25 with a 5.46 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) in 69 games, including 63 starts.

After the trade last season, Arrieta was assigned to Triple-A Iowa to sort things out, but when the Cubs needed another starter after dealing Matt Garza to Texas at the deadline, Arrieta got the call to Wrigley Field. He spent one more short stint at Iowa, but finished the season with the Cubs, going 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA in nine promising starts.

At the outset of the 2014 season, it looked like Arrieta would slot in nicely behind Samardzija, Hammel, Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson until the shoulder injury derailed his spring.

But when Arrieta finally did return to action, he did so with gusto, going 8-5 with a 2.82 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP. Included was some serious flirtation with a no-hitter at Boston’s Fenway Park on June 30, when he went 7.2 innings without giving up a hit and earned appreciative applause from the Red Sox faithful when he was lifted for a reliever.

In the start directly before that, Arrieta was perfect through six innings against the Reds at Wrigley Field.

So that run of success naturally raises the question of what has changed. While many athletes deflect those sorts of queries and stubbornly insist they’re not doing anything different, Arrieta addressed the subject in his typically candid manner.

“Almost all of it is beyond the physical aspects of this game,” he said. “It’s more of the mental preparation and just the rearranging of certain thoughts—what’s important and what’s not. A lot of self-reflecting continuing to come to fruition. Things that you need to reiterate with yourself, positive things, negative things, and [then using] those to your benefit.

“If you can find out how to do that, how to bounce back, how to keep things rolling in a positive direction, regardless of success or failure, that’s what it’s all about. I think I’m slowly starting to figure it out and continuing to learn every day.”

No one knows a pitcher quite like his pitching coach does. Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio cited maturity as a big reason for Arrieta’s rapid progress—and he said it’s much more than just being a year older and wiser.

“I think it’s his routine,” Bosio said. “I think he’s found it. He understands what he’s got working for him on that day in his warm-up. As pitchers, we all tend to force the issue at times. But the awareness that he has—and I think that’s what we mean by the maturity as a pitcher moving forward—he knows what his weapons are. He’s able to read the hitters now.

“He made the statement to me that he feels stronger than he’s ever felt. To me, the biggest thing that really tells you in a nutshell [how someone is doing] is confidence—his confidence in all these things: how he feels, how his pitches are coming out, what he’s bringing every fifth day. He’s got an excellent workout in between his starts.”

At 6 feet 4, 225 pounds, with a blazing fastball, Arrieta is certainly a power pitcher, but not in the traditional sense. He features an interesting and somewhat mysterious repertoire. He has a 94-mph fastball, and a slow 79-mph curveball. But the pitch that’s really been turning heads—hitters’ heads in disbelief and Cubs’ heads in awe and admiration—has been referred to alternately as a slider-cutter or a cutter-slider. Nuance with various pitches comes from grip, finger pressure and the speed at which the pitch is thrown, but no one seems willing to definitively classify Arrieta’s out pitch.

According to the website FanGraphs, Arrieta has increased the use of his cutter from 6.1 percent to 28.6 percent and decreased the use of his fastball from 65.1 percent to 46.6 percent from last year to this year.

“He changes pitch to pitch,” Bosio said. “That’s the one thing that makes him so unpredictable as a power guy. One time, he’ll come with one pitch one speed, and it might be 83 or 84 (mph), and the next time he’ll throw it at 90 or 92. He keeps you guessing. The biggest thing with pitchers is we don’t want to be predictable. Being able to locate on both sides of the plate is pretty unpredictable when you’re able to change gears like that.”

For his part, Arrieta shrugs off all the fuss surrounding the mysterious pitch. He said it all goes back to that maturity and being able to confidently harness his stuff.

“I’ve always had it,” he said of the slider-cutter. “I’ve always shown it. I just never really showed command of it. I never showed enough command of my fastball to use that pitch in the situations where I can now use it comfortably in pretty much any count.

“I can change the break. I can change locations. I’m not perfect with it. I’m still working to become better with the pitch just as I am with all my other pitches. But it’s something I have a comfort level with. I’m able to trust it and let it go.”

It’s safe to say Arrieta is one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2014 season—not only for the Cubs, but in all of baseball. Getting over the command issues and recovering from the Spring Training injury both contribute to that, but Arrieta also possesses supreme faith in his stuff, despite his previous failures in Baltimore.

“His stuff is playing very, very well,” said Cubs manager Rick Renteria. “I know he’s commanding the zone. His ball is showing a lot of life. He’s able to control the movement, basically where he wants it to be. I think those are things that are starting to come to him more comfortably just because of his experience.

“Every year, your hope is that a player is able to take away something good from failure, so to speak,  but continue to grind out and learn and just basically execute, and that’s what he’s been doing.”

One person not entirely surprised by Arrieta’s newfound success is Strop, who has watched his teammate grow as a pitcher in two separate organizations.

“I just think he’s been more consistent with the strike zone, with his command, because stuff-wise, he always had good stuff,” Strop said. “He’s using more of his cutter now than before, and I think that’s been a huge key in the difference. I always thought he could be a No. 1 starter on any team because of the stuff he has. Sometimes he’ll come out for an outing unhittable. It was something that was obvious. You could see that he could be that kind of pitcher in the future. He can be a leader of this rotation and this team. He’s a great kid and a hard worker.”

So what’s different for Arrieta? For the second time, he is getting a chance to be the ace on an up-and-coming team, but this time, he believes he has the skills to turn that opportunity into a consistently winning hand.

“It’s a situation, it’s a position that I’ve become comfortable with,” he said. “I haven’t been in this situation in a couple of years, but I know what it feels like. I know what it means. I know the importance of it to my teammates, the other guys in this clubhouse, to be a leader by action and also by demonstrating the will to help your teammates get better on and off the field. Those are all important aspects of being a leader based on performance and by being a guy in the clubhouse guys can go to.”

Arrieta once again finds himself at the top of a major league rotation, and he has no plans to relinquish that spot any time soon.

—Bruce Miles, Daily Herald

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Chicago Bears at Wrigley Field

Bears

The following can be found in the August issue of Vine Line.

Playing football at Wrigley Field always presented its fair share of challenges. First, there were the shorter-than-regulation end zones and the wooden boards covering the Cubs’ dugout entrances. Add in the tilted field, mercilessly beaten-up turf, tiny locker rooms and other quirks, and the gameday experience was far from perfect.

But that didn’t stop the Chicago Bears, one of the most storied franchises in football history, from calling the Friendly Confines home for a half century. Legendary players, from Dick Butkus to Mike Ditka to Gale Sayers, all graced the field, and the Bears brought the beloved stadium its most recent championship in 1963. If anything, the now-100-year-old ballpark’s quirks only added to the lore.

Of course, the substandard field conditions didn’t faze Butkus. The rough and rugged Hall of Fame linebacker said he enjoyed playing at Wrigley Field more than at Soldier Field, where the Bears moved on a permanent basis in 1971, during the latter stages of his career.
The Bears legend recalled an episode during his rookie season in which he was sitting in the crowded clubhouse awaiting instructions on the next day’s opponent, but couldn’t hear a word coach George Halas was saying.

“I don’t know what the deal was, but all the veterans would bring their dogs to practice and have them in the room there,” Butkus said. “The old man’s trying to talk, and the dogs are barking, and I’m thinking, ‘Jesus.’ One had a pit bull. [Ed O’Bradovich] had a Great Dane. But to me, that was the pros.”

Welcome to football at Wrigley Field. It might not have been the ideal situation, but it was never dull.

* * * *
Back when football was first played at Weeghman Park—as the stadium on Clark and Addison was known at the time—it wasn’t really done with the fans in mind. Getting spectators into the stadium was obviously a priority, but the new sport was primarily concerned with finding its footing in the muddy ground of expansionism. Football games were played at Weeghman simply because teams needed a venue, and the park’s owners felt it would be a good way to make a little extra cash. The stadium was sitting dormant for half the year anyway.

But the baseball-first facility presented a number of challenges when it came to laying out a 100-yard football pitch without risking player safety—especially after the renovation that added an outfield wall and reshaped the bleachers in 1937.

The field ran north and south from left field to behind home plate. The north end zone ended just 18 inches in front of the solid brick left-field wall, while the southeast corner of the south end zone extended into the first-base dugout. To even out the surface, the grounds crew filled the dugout steps with sand. This also meant that corner of the end zone was smaller than the regulation 10 yards.

These hazards might sound ridiculous given the way the modern game is played, but according to Cubs historian Ed Hartig, there were hardly gifted wide receivers, let alone fade routes leading players into the corners of the end zones, during that era.

“Back then, it was supposed to be a running game,” Hartig said. “You didn’t run to the back of the end zone to make a catch. This is a time when the goalposts were still on the goal line.”

* * * *
In the ballpark’s early football days, it mainly drew high school, military and semipro squads. Sometimes as many as four games per day were scheduled on the field. Starting in 1919, independent teams like the Hammond All-Star Football Club, which signed a six-game lease, wanted to test the sport’s popularity in the city.

With a roster that included players like Olympic great Jim Thorpe and Northwestern standout Paddy Driscoll, the Hammond squad managed to draw upward of 10,000 fans at some games that season. The potential of the new sport sparked the interest of a few more Chicago-based teams and quickly led the Decatur Staleys to the city’s North Side.

In 1920, former University of Illinois standout George Halas was put in charge of a company football team funded by food starch conglomerate owner A.E. Staley. In his inaugural season at the helm, Halas came up from Decatur to play a few neutral-site games and then led his Staleys to a de facto championship game at Cubs Park, where the team battled the Akron Steel to a 0-0 tie in front of 12,000 fans.
Halas believed the game might have an audience in Chicago, and, coincidentally, Staley was looking for an out.

“After a couple years, Mr. Staley said, ‘We’re a starch company. We’re not a sports team,’” Hartig said. “‘I can’t keep supporting [the team]. I will for one more year, if you can get an opportunity to find your own supporters.’”

With the temporary backing of Staley, Halas took the team from central Illinois to the big city in 1921 and quickly found a home—albeit one with a field that fell a few yards shy of regulation. Halas reached out to Cubs President and Treasurer Bill Veeck Sr. about using Cubs Park.
The two sides reached a handshake one-year agreement in just minutes. The Cubs received 15 percent of the gate (20 percent when the receipts exceeded $10,000) and the concessions, while the Staleys retained all rights to the game programs. According to the coach’s autobiography, Halas by Halas, the deal would remain unchanged for the remainder of the partnership.

“The deal they got at Wrigley in terms of concessions and that type of stuff was very, very favorable to the team,” Hartig said. “The Wrigleys weren’t looking to make a big amount of money off the Bears.”

In conjunction with the move, the team was renamed the Chicago Staleys. One year later, with the contractual obligation completed between Staley and Halas, the new owner changed the moniker to the Chicago Bears, noting that his football players were larger than the Cubs baseball players with whom they shared the stadium.

The Bears would call Wrigley Field home for the next 50 years, enjoying seven NFL titles, franchise-defining superstars and incredible individual performances. The field conditions were rarely pristine due to the team’s heavy practice load—the grass was usually gone so the team would paint the playing surface green—but some former players wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“Even though it was a baseball field, I just felt it was great playing there because that was the essence of being a pro,” said Butkus, who called Wrigley home from 1965-70. “A pro should be able to play at a prairie on the South Side if need be.”

Off the field, the locker rooms were also far from ideal. The Cubs clubhouse back then was a smaller version of the cramped quarters the North Siders call home today. But imagine that room with more people, bigger pads and larger human beings. Butkus joked the rooms were probably too small for a basketball team. Still, he believed it was a better situation than what the visiting teams had to deal with.

“I don’t think they were too happy with the field when they played here,” Butkus said. “I really don’t think the opposing team liked walking down from their locker room, with those screens there [and] with everybody yelling and throwing [stuff] at them.”
That’s home-field advantage at its Chicago best.

* * * *
Despite the stadium’s shortcomings, there was no shortage of great play on the field. One of the best individual performances in NFL history occurred at the Friendly Confines on Dec. 12, 1965, when Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers tied an NFL record with six touchdowns in a single game. All day long, he wove in and out of a hapless 49ers defense that had a difficult time keeping its footing in the heavy mud.

“It was my game, it’s as simple as that,” Sayers said. “I’ve always said, and I’ll continue to say, ‘God gave me a gift to go out there and run with the football,’ and that’s what I did. I probably could have scored 10 touchdowns that day, but, hey, the time ran out. It’s just a day that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Another notable performance on the Wrigley Field turf occurred in December 1963, when the Bears—led by quarterback Billy Wade and standout tight end Mike Ditka—wrapped up the NFL championship with a 14-10 win over the Giants. It marked the last time a Chicago team claimed a title at Wrigley Field.

Eventually, as the game grew, football became too big for the cozy confines of a baseball stadium. Attendance continued to soar, and the small ballpark was unable to expand to meet demand. In 1970, it was announced that the next fall’s season would be the last at the facility. While Wrigley Field generally held slightly less than 37,000 fans for baseball, the Bears drew at least 40,000 to each of their final 56 games there, a stretch that began on Dec. 16, 1962.

“There are a couple of reasons why they left,” Hartig explained. “The NFL wanted bigger stadiums, and the park just couldn’t do it. In addition, the NFL … got more into television coverage. They wanted cameras in the end zone, and there wasn’t really room for it [at Wrigley Field]. And the end zone was dangerous.”

On May 13, 1971, the Bears announced Soldier Field would become the organization’s new home. The bigger stadium held 52,000 fans—8,000 more than Wrigley held at capacity—and was much more prepared for the NFL’s massive growth. Despite the new venue, it wasn’t a hit with all the players.

“I really enjoyed playing [at Wrigley Field]. I thought it was better than going to Soldier Field the first couple years,” said Butkus, who spent three seasons at the Bears’ current home. “They put in the damn Astroturf, and in the locker room over there, you can see the beams holding up the stadium. It was ready to cave in at any moment, it looked like.”

The Bears have long had a reputation as a gritty, smashmouth football team. And while Soldier Field is packed with its own history, much of the dirt and grit that defined the organization’s early years first manifested at the corner of Clark and Addison.

“I enjoyed playing here at Wrigley Field,” Sayers said. “I’ve always said it was 50 yards wide and 100 yards long, and that’s all I needed.”

From the Pages of Vine Line: Cubs Rizzo showing power and patience

RIZZO_Feature

(Photo by Stephen Green)

The following story can be found in the August issue of Vine Line.

Of course Anthony Rizzo has seen the video. Like so many others who saw it happen live or viewed the highlight replay with mouths agape, Rizzo has watched the home run he hit off the Reds’ Alfredo Simon on June 23.

The blast (pictured on our August cover) was ridiculous—and nearly impossible. Simon threw Rizzo a high, hanging breaking ball that was so far off the plate the Cubs’ first baseman almost needed the proverbial 10-foot pole to reach it. But he did more than just reach it. He hit it well out over the left-field wall at Wrigley Field.

If Rizzo was impressed with himself, it wasn’t for the reasons you might think. Sure, it was a home run, but more important for the slugger, it was a piece of hitting that summed up how things have been going for him this season.

“The biggest thing is if I was trying to hit a home run there, I would have rolled over to the second baseman,” he said. “I just saw the pitch and went with it. That’s really all I need to do is just put a good swing on the ball. Good things have been happening. Fortunately enough, it was lifted in the air.

“I saw the ball well. I saw it up, out.”

At this point, bells should go off, heads should nod, and hallelujahs should be sung to the rafters, for therein lies the key to Rizzo’s success. Despite the fact that he is one of the Cubs’ veteran players, he just turned 25 years old this month, which means he’s still learning to be a major league hitter. And this season, it seems like he’s taken a big developmental step forward. Though he hasn’t necessarily altered his approach, the results have changed dramatically for the better.

As Monday’s 4-1 win over the Mets—one where he ripped a go-ahead home run—Rizzo’s on-base percentage was nearly 40 points above his career norm. His .376 OBP ranks ninth in the NL.

Through his first 122 games, Rizzo had a hitting line of .276/.376/.507 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 28 home runs, 67 RBI, 64 walks and 100 strikeouts. If you extrapolate those numbers over an entire season, they’re pretty darn good, which is why some are now grouping the 2014 All-Star in with the elite first basemen in the game.

But before you start talking about him having a bounceback season after “struggling” in 2013, know this: Anthony Rizzo carries a quiet defiance about the kind of season he had last year, when he hit .233/.323/.419 with 23 home runs and 80 RBI.

“I think last year was a good year,” he said. “I drove in a lot of runs. I walked a good amount (76 times). I had a lot of doubles (40). But the average obviously wasn’t there, and some people look at average. Some people don’t. In my opinion, it wasn’t a bad year. It wasn’t a great year, but it was kind of a baseline year.”

CORE IMPROVEMENT

That said, this year has felt completely different from last year for both Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, the spotlight has been laser focused on the Cubs’ young cornerstone players. If the team plans to contend soon, it needs both—each signed to team-friendly, long-term contracts—to show better than what they did last year.

To help that along, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer hired new manager Rick Renteria to surround the Cubs’ young players with an aura of positivity and encouragement. Along with the new manager came a new hitting coach in Bill Mueller. While Renteria and Mueller knew all about Rizzo, they arrived with fresh perspectives and no preconceived notions.

“Coming in, you just go on what you’ve seen from video watching or from when they came in and played the Dodgers, seeing a glimpse,” said Mueller, who was with Los Angeles’ front office last year. “So there was nothing I had really built up until getting here and getting to know the guys personally and then seeing them before that relationship [started] to grow.

“He’s a very talented player, first off. I think with the new breath of fresh air with Ricky and the staff, that’s been a nice complement to come into the season. The whole staff has handled this group in a very positive way. That type of atmosphere has led some of these guys to have good starts.”

Renteria said he noticed the positive vibes emanating from Rizzo from the beginning of Spring Training. The new skipper also had time to visit with his first baseman during the Cubs Caravan and the Cubs Convention in January.

“He came into this season—to the spring, actually—with an idea that he wanted to improve on using a little bit more of the field, having better at-bats, not chasing pitches in off the plate,” Renteria said. “He’s done a really nice job of adjusting to doing that. I think he made a very big, conscious effort of working on his approach.

“When you have guys that are learning how to hit and have power, I think your approaches can pay big dividends because when you start squaring up the ball, the strength, in and of itself, gives you an opportunity to drive the ball out of the ballpark. That’s been really, really good. We’re really happy with the way he’s progressing, and hopefully it continues.”

THE PROCESS

Unlike the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto—a player many compare Rizzo’s abilities to—who is willing to talk swing mechanics and hitting all day long, Rizzo is generally content to let others analyze his approach. In fact, he doesn’t really appear to like talking about himself when it comes to hitting.

“I kind of have the same mindset every year,” Rizzo said. “I work pretty hard in the offseason with my trainer. Really, it was no different this past year. [It was] the same things we’ve done the last five or six years in the offseason. It was getting ready for the season. At the same time, I didn’t hit more or less. I just stayed with it. I came to spring and wanted to get confident again.”

The comparisons between Rizzo’s combination of power and patience and Votto’s might be more apt than people realize. This winter, Rizzo was able to spend some quality batting-cage time with the 2010 NL MVP while the pair, along with Padres pitcher Casey Kelly, worked out together in Florida.

Like Rizzo, the Reds’ standout is a left-handed batter—and if there’s anyone a young player should want to emulate, it’s stat geek darling Votto, who gets on base at a dizzying rate. Given Major League Baseball’s grinding schedule and a rash of injuries, Votto hasn’t been able to watch much of Rizzo in 2014, but he likes what he has seen.

“I haven’t been able to see him enough, but I definitely see improvement in performance—more home runs, obviously, and a guy who seems to be walking a little bit more,” Votto said. “He’s a cool guy. He’s a nice guy. He’s a very, very easy guy to get along with. I can see why he’s having the type of success he’s having. He’s very talented.”

It can be difficult at times for left-handed hitters to hit left-handed pitchers, but that’s been another marked improvement for Rizzo this year. After going .189/.282/.342 with just seven of his 23 homers against left-handed pitchers a year ago, Rizzo put up a .302/.407/.516 with eight homers against lefties.

“For me, it’s just seeing the ball,” he said. “It’s never comfortable facing left-handers, especially the relievers who are just nasty. I just focus on seeing the ball. I feel if I see it, my hands will be good enough to put the bat on it.”

Generally, when left-handed hitters have success against left-handed pitchers, it’s because they try to go with the pitch, and by doing so, they “see” it longer on its path to the plate. But for a hitter as naturally gifted as Rizzo, it also has a lot to do with confidence.

“The general key might be that you have a lot of confidence in yourself right against left, and when you have things in your mind that you can attach your confidence to when you get in that box, those things sometimes translate,” Mueller said. “I think that’s what’s happening to Riz. He’s very confident in spots, and those translations are happening whether it’s a lefty or a righty, whether it’s a starter or a reliever. He’s putting together some really good approaches and some good at-bats. Sometimes when things are really starting off on the right foot, that carries over a little bit. You can gain some momentum with that.”

Given the preponderance of advanced stats and information available these days to even the casual fan, it’s easy to analyze—and overanalyze—a player’s performance. Whether or not you think Rizzo had a down year last year, whether or not you think his new approach is here to stay, whether or not you think he’s on pace to become a perennial All-Star, it’s important to remember failure is a big part of the sport, and the best players are able to learn from their struggles. Ultimately, baseball is a game, and it should be fun.

“I always tell myself, even now when I struggle, that it’s a process,” Rizzo said. “You look at guys throughout the year who have progressed every year and have gotten better, and that’s all you really want to do is just get better every year. The more at-bats you get, the more you feel like you’re going to learn in this league. It’s just a process.

“It was fun last year. It was. What’s fun about it is you put all this work in and when you do get results, it’s nice and rewarding. But it’s still fun. It sounds weird, but when you struggle, you appreciate the game too because it’s so hard. You have to have fun here. It’s too long of a season not to have fun whether you’re going good or bad. It’s about staying even-keeled whether you’re going good or bad. You have to come in and be the same person.”

—Bruce Miles, Daily Herald

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