Results tagged ‘ From the Pages of Vine Line ’

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1950s—Ernie Banks

Banks_10-10

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the fifth installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, it’s Mr. Cub Ernie Banks’ time in the spotlight. During the 1950s, he put together one of the best stretches for a shortstop ever.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman
1940s – Bill Nicholson

1950s – Ernie Banks, 39.6 WAR

Seasons: 1953-59
AVG/OBP/SLG: .295/.355/.558
PA: 3,954
HR: 228
R: 582
RBI: 661
SB: 35

Ernie Banks’ 1950s WAR total is the sixth best among NL offensive players for the decade. It’s even more impressive when you consider he was active for only six full seasons during that stretch.

With segregation still impacting professional baseball, Banks didn’t join the major leagues until September 1953, when he played 10 games with the Cubs just before the season ended.

But by the latter stages of the 1950s, Mr. Cub was striking fear into the hearts of NL pitchers. In 1958 and 1959, he put up two of the most productive seasons ever—no shortstop has put up a similar WAR total in a single season since.

In 1958, he claimed two-thirds of the Triple Crown, hitting 47 homers and driving in 129, all while batting a career-best .313. The following year he slammed 45 homers and had a league-leading 143 RBI. He claimed MVP awards in both years.

For the decade, Banks averaged 33 homers versus just 62 strikeouts per season—and this was at a time when very little offense was expected of middle infielders. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 1954 and went to five All-Star Games in the 1950s, starting three.

Mr. Cub was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.

 

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1940s—Bill Nicholson

Nicholson

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the fourth installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, Bill “Swish” Nicholson provided the team with some necessary pop in the 1940s, especially during the early part of the decade.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman

1940s – Bill Nicholson, 36.9 WAR

Seasons: 1940-48
AVG/OBP/SLG: .271/.369/.472
PA: 5,371
HR: 200
R: 701
RBI: 795
SB: 26

Bill Nicholson was at his best in 1943 and 1944, when he won both the home run and RBI titles. He hit 29 homers and knocked in 128 in 1943, and followed that with 33 bombs and 122 RBI in 1944, when he was runner-up in the MVP voting. The right fielder also led the league in runs scored that year. But power was Nicholson’s game, as his 211 home runs in the 1940s (200 coming with the Cubs from 1940-48) rank second in the decade among NL hitters. All four of his All-Star appearances were with the Cubs during the 1940s, and he made starts in 1941 and 1943. Despite earning the nickname Swish for his swing-and-miss tendencies, Nicholson managed to draw more walks than strikeouts in his nine seasons on the North Side.

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1930s—Billy Herman

BillyHerman

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the third installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, the 1930s provided a second baseman who saw his fair share of All-Star Games and provided a boost at the plate.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander

1930s – Billy Herman, 37.6

Seasons: 1931-39
AVG/OBP/SLG: .312/.368/.422
PA: 5,505
HR: 32
R: 794
RBI: 520
SB: 52

In 1935, second baseman Billy Herman compiled a 7.3 WAR. To put that into perspective, Miguel Cabrera’s 2012 Triple Crown season was good for a 6.8 WAR. Known for his defense, Herman had 466 putouts at second base in 1933, an NL record that still stands today. But his offensive output from the middle infield was equally impressive. In eight 1930s seasons on the North Side, he hit .300 or better six times, including a .341 average in his most productive season of 1935. The second baseman went to an All-Star Game in each of the last six years of the 1930s and was named a starter from 1935-38. Herman was a part of three Cubs World Series teams in the decade and was top 10 in the NL in WAR three times. In 1975, he was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1920s—Grover Cleveland Alexander

Alexander

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the best Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the second installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, the 1920s saw one of the game’s greatest arms spend most of the decade on Chicago’s North Side.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn

1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander, 28.8 WAR

Seasons: 1920-26
Win-Loss: 110-71
Games-Games Started: 209-193
IP: 1623.1
K: 478
K/9: 2.65
ERA: 3.02

Grover Cleveland Alexander’s best days were already behind him by the 1920s. From his debut in 1911 through 1919, he averaged more than 300 innings per season and went 208-100 with a 2.09 ERA. Still, the Cubs got a pretty solid arm when they acquired Alexander from the Phillies in 1918. He won 27 games, put up a 1.91 ERA, made 40 starts, threw 33 complete games, logged 363.1 innings and fanned 173 batters in 1920. All of those numbers led the league for the year. In his seven 1920s seasons with the team, Old Pete’s ERA was never higher than 3.63, and he won 15 games or more five times. In 1938, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, receiving more than 80 percent of the vote on his third attempt.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Starlin Castro is back on track

CASTRO-S-041413-SG-03

(Photo by Stephen Green)

For anyone doubting whether Starlin Castro could still hit, for anyone fearing an “inevitable” career regression, for anyone thinking he didn’t have the talent or drive to justify his seven-year, $60 million contract, the last day of April served notice that those fears might be a bit premature.

On a cloudy, 70-degree night at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, the Cubs shortstop went 3-for-4 with two doubles, a walk, a run and an RBI, raising his season slash line to .308/.339/.471 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with four home runs and a then-team-leading 14 RBI.

But perhaps the most important thing about that April 30 game—and possibly the whole first month of the Cubs’ season—was simply that Starlin Castro looked like Starlin Castro again. He was confident, aggressive and ready to swing the bat. When he saw a pitch he thought he could handle, he attacked it.

“I feel great this year,” Castro said. “I feel like I trust myself. I got a lot of positive things I’m doing. Last year, I didn’t have confidence in myself. That’s why I struggled for the whole year. I’m working a lot to just try to get those bad things and bad habits out of my mind and just be ready for this year.”

After two All-Star campaigns in 2011 and 2012, in which Castro compiled 390 hits and became the youngest-ever NL hits leader (207 hits in 2011), the Dominican native’s ascendant career hit a speed bump in 2013. Last year, he slipped to a .245/.284/.347 line, often looking indecisive at the plate, bereft of the trademark see-the-ball-hit-the-ball confidence that marked his first few years. That regression, coupled with some mental lapses in the field and on the basepaths, placed his every move under the microscope. Perhaps no player since Carlos Zambrano has been quite as scrutinized, dissected and parsed as the Cubs’ talented shortstop.

Opinions on Castro’s potential vary wildly, but it’s hard to deny he was one of the better natural hitters in the league for the first few years of his career. And the beginning of the 2014 season has provided significant hope that Castro hasn’t just returned to form, but might actually be better than before. It’s easy to forget that with four seasons under his belt, Castro is still just 24.

“Sometimes we assume that once a player has been in the big leagues for X amount of years, he’s finished completing his development,” said Cubs manager Rick Renteria. “I came up to the big leagues when I was 24 or 25, and I still didn’t know how to play the game. He got here when he was 20, and we assume he knows exactly everything he’s doing. I think he’s still learning.”

DOWN YEAR
Much of the conversation on the North Side this offseason centered around whether “core” players like Castro and Anthony Rizzo could bounce back after struggling in 2013. Though the year is still young, Castro’s early numbers at the plate and in the field, coupled with his improved confidence, are definitely cause for optimism.

“I know he had a really tough year last year, but I have known him from the minor leagues,” said Cubs catcher Welington Castillo. “I’ve been playing with him my whole career. I think it was good in one aspect that it happened to him last year because that will make him stronger. And whenever it happens again, he won’t fall like last year. He’s an All-Star. He’s a really good player. That’s why he’s playing like he is now. He’s playing with confidence. He’s enjoying what he’s doing.”

So what happened in 2013? Despite any shortcomings Castro may have had early in his career, he could always match bat to ball. But comparing his 2013 season to the previous year (which already was not his best), he had 20 fewer hits, 34 fewer RBI, and lost 38 points off his batting average and 39 off his on-base percentage, all while striking out 29 more times.

“It’s hard, it’s unbelievable,” Castro said of his 2013 season. “I don’t even sleep good. It’s really tough. I don’t even [want to] talk about it anymore. I don’t want to put something in my head—a bad habit like that—I just want to be good for this year.”

There are a number of theories to explain the down season—one of the most popular of which is that Castro simply didn’t mesh well with former manager Dale Sveum and his coaching staff, who wanted the player to hit for more power and to focus on seeing more pitches per at-bat.

Though the idea sounded good in theory, it seemed to take Castro out of his game. When he’s going well, he swings—and typically swings hard—at anything he can get to, regardless of pitch type, and has a propensity for making hard contact. By the eye test last year, Castro looked hesitant, and the numbers bear that out. His isolated power (ISO), a measure of a hitter’s raw power, was down 34 points from his career average, his line drive rate was down by a percentage point, and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was down 33 points. In other words, Castro was consistently making weaker contact.

“There’s definitely got to be an agreement with the player [about being more patient],” said Cubs hitting coach Bill Mueller. “I think that has to be a two-way street. It’s difficult to ask someone if they’re not fully committed into that. I don’t know what happened last year. I don’t know really what was asked or what was going on. I don’t really have any concerns about that. Basically, I’m concerned with right here, right now. And currently he’s a very good student, a great listener, a hard worker, and that’s what we’ve been seeing.

“Will there be times when he’ll make contact out of the strike zone and/or will miss out of the strike zone? Yeah. But he has that ability to put those balls in play at times. When he does that with a man on second in the bottom of the ninth, and he drives in a run, that’s a good feeling.”

It’s definitely an oversimplification to hang all the blame on a coaching staff just trying to do its job, but whatever the cause, it was clear the fun-loving Castro wasn’t having much fun in 2013. According to him, when he’s struggling, the underpinnings are almost always mental, not physical. Enter the unfailingly positive Rick Renteria and the Cubs’ 2014 coaching staff.

Renteria and Mueller’s goal from the beginning of Spring Training has simply been to get the All-Star back to his elite form—and if that means he swings at a few pitches out of the zone, so be it. Mueller has said he never tries to remake a hitter. He instead looks at what works for that player, and tries to maximize it.

“What we’ve tried to do is look at some of the stuff he was doing approach-wise from last year and just upgrade it and/or minimize it and/or ask him questions about it,” Mueller said. “We just tried to say, ‘In 2010 and 2011, you had a lot of success. I think what you were doing approach-wise was a very good approach, and that’s what we want to see. Will you consider or think about that type of way again?’ And he considered it, and I think it’s been working great so far.”

ON THE UPSWING
After experiencing almost nothing but success for the first three years of his career, the 2013 campaign was Castro’s first real career crossroads. And he responded exactly how you’d want a young player to respond—with a fierce determination not to let it happen again.

He spent much of the offseason at the renowned private training facility IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The goal wasn’t just to get his swing back, but to improve his defense, agility and fitness.

Castro came into Spring Training 2014 looking decidedly more muscular and said he was in the best shape of his life. Unfortunately, an early-spring hamstring injury forced him to miss most of the Cactus League season.

Never one to take a day off—since his first full season in 2011, Castro has missed a grand total of five games—he jumped into the Opening Day lineup with almost no live Spring Training at-bats. Not surprisingly, he came out of the chute struggling, going 2-for-17 with five strikeouts in his first four games.

But from that point on, he picked things up to the tune of .302/.344/.506. The key, Castro said, is that he has his confidence and aggressiveness back and feels he can hit any pitch. So far this season, his line drive rate is up to 22.3 percent, and his strikeout rate is down to 16.3 percent, both better than his career averages. The more times a player makes hard contact, the better the outcomes are likely to be.

“You can tell a guy like me that always swings, ‘Hey, take some pitches,’” Castro said. “It’s not easy for me. … That’s why the guys on top they tell me, ‘Hey, be the player that you always be. Do whatever you know how to do. Be aggressive at the plate like you always be.’ And that’s what I’m doing now.

“I lost some aggressiveness last year. I’m going to feel really aggressive this year. If I strike out, that’s OK. I’ll get another at-bat. That’s the confidence that I didn’t have last year. If I strike out last year, next at-bat, strike out again. This year, I feel more comfortable that I can go to home plate and have a great at-bat.”

PERCEPTION VS. REALITY
In the countless ruminations on Castro and his future, the one point that often gets missed is what a hard worker he is. There’s a common misperception that he is checked out of games because of his occasional mental lapses. But the view of Castro in the clubhouse is much different.

“He’s one of those guys who’s the face of the team,” Castillo said. “I know a lot of people got on him last year, but that’s in the past. We have to move forward. It brings a lot of confidence for the team when he’s playing like this, when you see Starlin on the field. That’s a guy that never wants to be out of the lineup. He wants to play every day, no matter what. So he brings a lot of energy and a lot of positivity to the team.”

In his five big league seasons, Castro has played for four different managers, and each has taken a different approach to try to get the most out of him. But no coach has had issues with his work ethic, passion or coachability.

This year, Castro immediately connected to Renteria, Mueller and assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley. Much has been made of the fact that Renteria speaks Spanish, and thus can better communicate with Latin players, and there’s definitely something to that. But the new regime also believes in positive reinforcement and in helping players maximize their individual strengths, and that seemed to click with Castro. Renteria said the staff spends a lot of time talking to the young shortstop, even during games, to reinforce their messages.

Another seldom-mentioned positive is that Castro has been willing to do whatever the Cubs have asked of him throughout his career. Aside from rarely taking a day off, he’s batted almost everywhere in the lineup. This season, he’s hit second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth, and last year he got some at-bats from nearly every spot in the order.

He said he tries to model himself after players like Derek Jeter and fellow Dominican Miguel Tejada, and learned a lot about how to be a professional from former mentor Alfonso Soriano.

Castro shocked many critics this offseason when he quickly defused concerns about a brewing animosity between him and shortstop prospect Javier Baez, who many expect to make his debut with the Cubs this year. When Castro was asked if he would switch positions to accommodate the power-hitting phenom, he said he would because his primary focus is on winning. He even acted as a mentor to the game’s No. 6 prospect (MLB.com) throughout the spring.

“Me and him, we’re good friends,” Castro said. “We don’t have anything bad because he’s a shortstop and I’m a shortstop. You play baseball, I play baseball. You’re good, I’m good. Whatever spot they put me, whatever spot they put you, if we be together, we’ll be all right. Our job is to win games.”

Of course, despite Castro’s success in 2014, one month does not a season make. In order for him to prove he’s truly a cornerstone player for the organization, he needs to find consistent success—on offense and defense—over 162 games. But at a time when the Cubs desperately need their young veterans to step up, especially as their top prospects get nearer to the major leagues, Castro is looking better in every facet of the game. He’s hitting to expectations, throwing his body around on defense and having fun on the field again.

“The run of the season will give a real indication of how he’s done and how he’s moving forward,” Renteria said. “You can’t really know what a season is in a week. You have to give it a season. But are we moving in the right direction? I think so.”

That’s great news for Cubs fans—and terrible news for opposing pitchers.

—Gary Cohen

From the Pages of Vine Line: Stretching out with Jeff Garlin

Garlin

The following can be found in the Short Stops section of the June issue of Vine Line. (Photo by Stephen Green)

Comedian. Actor. Cubs fan. That’s probably the best way to describe Jeff Garlin (though maybe not in that order). He is such a big fan of the team, he even enjoys hanging around the Friendly Confines when the Cubs are out of town. Vine Line caught up with the funnyman during the opening series to discuss why he keeps coming back to Wrigley and how little he likes seeing Ryne Sandberg in a Phillies uniform.

Vine Line: What’s it like for you to spend an afternoon at Wrigley Field?

Jeff Garlin: The idea that you’re here for a game is amazing. But when I come by here, on a day when the Cubs are even out of town … I remember once even being here, eating an ice cream bar—it was 10 degrees outside—eating an ice cream bar with my friend right by the entrance to Wrigley, just because. It makes me happy.

VL: Who’s your all-time favorite Cub?

JG: Well, I have a bunch—Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger. The point being I just love the Cubs. … But I guess my favorite all-time Cub if I were to pick one would be Ron Santo. When I met him—I met him quite a few times, singing and being here—every time I left the booth, he stood up to shake my hand. Mind you, that’s a guy with no legs standing up to shake my hand. So from that moment on, I always get up. Always.

VL: In addition to your other jobs, I’ve heard you enjoy photography. How did you get into that?

JG: I was watching Colin Greenwood. He’s the bass player for Radiohead. I was hanging out with him, and he just loved taking pictures. I sort of had started a little bit, and he inspired me more. Then, over the years, I’ve gotten more and more into it. I don’t show anybody my pictures though. I’m not good enough yet. Someday I’ll have a book, do an exhibition.

VL: How does it feel seeing Ryne Sandberg in a Phillies uniform?

JG: I’ve ignored it, which means I’m not looking for it. I don’t want to see it. I don’t like the way it feels … just knowing he’s the manager of the Phillies. I’m happy he’s got a gig, but I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. It really makes me nuts, more so than I even thought. I thought I’d be cool with it. I’m not cool with it. The manager, [Rick] Renteria, seems like a great guy, a really good manager. But I just love Ryne Sandberg. He’s Ryno, gosh!

VL: If you were allowed to take one souvenir from Wrigley Field, what would it be?

JG: The scoreboard. [I’d put it] in the front of my house, put it on the ground, lean it back. That’s where it would be. I’d lay it on an angle, and I’d clean it. But I’d let things grow on it over time.

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs’ recent draft trends

BryantMcLeod

Kris Bryant visits Wrigley Field shortly after the Cubs made him their top pick in 2013. (Photo by Stephen Green)

Major league scouting directors tend to be vague when asked about their draft strategies leading up to the big day in June. They generally offer some variation on the same theme.

“It is the simple answer of picking the best guy available,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ senior vice president of player development and amateur scouting. “We’ve made no bones about trying to get as much pitching as we can. But in the last two drafts, we’ve taken position players with our first picks, because we felt Albert [Almora] and Kris [Bryant] were the most impactful guys for us at those draft positions.”

The 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft will take place next week, from June 5-7. Though McLeod and his staff have consistently gone after the best available players with their top picks—regardless of need—they have shown a few common tendencies that might inform their decisions this year.

Since 2011, the year before the current front office took over, the Cubs have trended toward college selections. That year, 40 percent of the players the team picked came out of college. Last year, 55 percent of draftees played college ball. Meanwhile, the percentage of high school players drafted has decreased from 42 percent in 2011 to 27.5 percent in 2013.

Second, right-handed pitchers have dominated the draft board. Nearly 40 percent of the players selected by the Cubs in each of the last three drafts were righties. Under the Epstein/Hoyer regime, the Cubs have picked 38 right-handed arms, 20 of them from college and seven from junior college.

But the Cubs’ right-hander-heavy drafts may be less a function of preference than of consistent depth at the position. And this year is no exception. According to Baseball America, there are 19 right-handed pitchers among the top 50 draft-eligible players for 2014.

McLeod also added that pitchers in general are easier to project.

“You walk into a ballpark and see someone with fairly clean mechanics who’s throwing 90-94, and you’re pretty comfortable recommending him,” McLeod said. “Hitters, especially high school hitters, take more investment. You have to see them on multiple occasions and in the right circumstances before you can say that, yes, you think this guy will hit at the next level.”

Of course, drafting players is only half the battle. Signing them takes just as much work. A year ago, the Cubs signed just 60 percent of their draft picks. The prior season, the team had better luck, inking 81 percent of players selected.

The good news is the organization has gotten better at signing premium talent. In 2011, 17 of the club’s first 20 picks signed, followed by 18 of 20 in 2012 and 19 of 20 last year. Plus, the Cubs signed every one of their top 10 draftees in 2013—a crop that includes hot prospects Bryant, Tyler Skulina and Jacob Hannemann.

The team has also shown a knack for getting quick returns on draft investments. Seven of the organization’s top 20 prospects, according to MLB.com, were selected in 2012 or 2013.

“The last few drafts have had a few no-doubt guys,” McLeod said in late April. “This year, the draft is deep, but we’re still waiting on players to step to the forefront. We’re pretty wide open in terms of who we’re looking at for that top pick.”

History and the current talent pool may suggest the Cubs will take a right-hander with their top pick. But the only certainty is McLeod’s assertion that the front office will select the best players available when they are on the clock.

—Chris Gigley

From the Pages of Vine Line: Scouting the mental game

Moyer

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

Before every start, former Cubs pitcher Jamie Moyer prepped for the task at hand. He had already watched video of his opponents, mentally digested a quarter century of notes and done a final crosscheck with his battery mate. Now it was time for the journeyman to get in the zone.

Many players can’t reach the proper psychological place without some screaming, chest bumps or high-octane heavy metal. But as Moyer’s on-field demeanor might indicate, that wasn’t really his style. The ageless southpaw with a fastball that might have last reached 90 miles per hour sometime during the Clinton administration had a milder approach—one you might expect from somebody who threw his last major league pitch only six months shy of his 50th birthday.

Just before every game, Moyer would sit at his locker, concentrating on a small series of laminated 5×7 notecards. The text contained nothing directly related to the game or that day’s opponent. For Moyer, however, those cards had everything to do with the fast-approaching tilt.

One 5×7’s big, bold header read: “After making a mistake, make an adjustment.” Below that, there were three questions: “1. What was I trying to do? 2. What went wrong? 3. What do I have to do next time?”

The second card carried a similar bold headline that read: “Problem Solving.” Below that, in bullet points: “1. Awareness (define the problem). 2. Forming a strategy (what has to be done?). 3. Act it out (do it).”

For a large portion of Moyer’s career, these were the final items to be checked on a lengthy to-do list before he took the mound. This is what pumped him up and got him focused.

“To me, it almost became part of putting my uniform on,” Moyer said. “If I didn’t do it, it felt like I was missing a shoe.”

Beyond Statistics
It’s probably safe to say the days of having an advantage through Moneyball philosophies are over. Advanced statistics have evolved into standard practice for the majority of baseball organizations. Now teams that don’t use The Bill James Handbook or some variation of it to gain an advantage over the other 29 clubs are viewed as outsiders. Even the common fan has access to much of this information through avenues like Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs.

So the multimillion-dollar question might be, what’s next?

The bottom line is all professional baseball players have physical talent. Most minor leaguers were perennial All-Stars in Little League and prep or college standouts. The goal for major league front offices is to find the thing that separates the cream of the crop—the characteristics that allow a player to succeed in high-leverage situations where others fail. That’s why clubs are going to great lengths to find guys who are ready to perform at an elite level psychologically as well as physically.

“I think now we’re at a point in time where 30 clubs have analyzed and done pretty in-depth research, so I’m not sure how much of an advantage [advanced statistics are] in that area,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ senior vice president of player development and amateur scouting. “So now I think a lot of clubs are looking at physical health and mental health, trying to get an edge in those areas.”

Looking into an athlete’s mental state is nothing entirely new. The most recognizable example takes place around the NFL’s spring draft, as football hopefuls are asked to take an examination known as the Wonderlic Test to gauge their problem-solving abilities.

Dr. H. David Smith, a professor at Northwestern University and an expert on sports psychology, said major league clubs have been using tests like the Athletic Coping Skills Inventory and the Athletic Motivation Inventory for years. These exams attempt to ascertain a player’s motivation and preparation, and determine how they’re likely to perform under pressure.

“You have to think and plan and predict to be successful in sports—and baseball in particular,” said Smith, who has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. “I think there’s a huge mental aspect, in part because there’s so much inaction. Because of the amount of time between plays, there’s a lot of thinking that happens.”

Sports psychologists try to educate athletes on the mental preparation necessary to do their jobs, including how to perform well under pressure. It’s easy to overlook the fact that professional baseball players routinely work in front of 40,000 screaming fans and a media contingent eager to point fingers after every miscue.

Mental relaxation training might consist of putting the person in a high-pressure situation for an extended period of time and instructing him on how to prioritize the task at hand, rather than be crippled by emotion. It should come as no surprise everyone operates differently.

“Sports psychologists … are figuring out under what circumstances [athletes] have succeeded and under what circumstances they failed, and trying to figure out with them how best to prepare them to succeed in the mental aspect,” Smith said.

Draft Day
One of the main places big league teams are working hard to win the psychological battle is in the MLB amateur draft. Prospects are located across the country, and they play against varying levels of talent. That makes evaluating a player’s skill level even more difficult. By getting to know their personalities, clubs can get a better grasp of who the prospects really are. And any additional information is a bonus when deciding whether to hand an 18-year-old a multimillion-dollar contract.

“At the major league level, everybody’s on the same field—everybody’s at the major league level,” said Jason Parks, the director of scouting and player development for Baseball Prospectus. “Looking at advanced statistics at the minor league level, or even the amateur ranks, I think that because of the different context involved, advanced statistics start to get a little thin. And that’s when you have to try to rely on more scouting. I think the psychological element is becoming even bigger. The makeup component is becoming more vital and important.”

When scouting a young player, the Cubs try to dig up as much information as possible. They’re not just looking to see what a player does on the field, but also how he interacts with others. Scouts visit with the potential farmhands’ families and ask questions that aren’t always directly related to the player’s physical abilities.

“We challenge our scouts in the draft to get to know these guys as well as we can and find out as much information as we can [about] what makes them tick,” McLeod said. “Anything that might prohibit them from being the player they can be.
“What kind of upbringing does this guy have? How involved are his parents? Does he lean on his family? If not, who does he go to?”

Because most other organizations ask similar questions, McLeod said the Cubs try to come up with different angles to keep repetition to a minimum while still getting accurate answers.

For Parks, who spends much of his time at high school fields and minor league complexes, there are some on-field mannerisms he likes to look for that help him determine a prospect’s mental stake in the game. One is how a batter fares the second time up against a pitcher who struck him out on a questionable called third strike. Parks likes to see how that hitter adjusts, to both the pitcher and the expanded strike zone.

“Remember how you got beat, but don’t carry it over emotionally,” Parks said. “Understand that you’re not going to get that call and adjust accordingly.”

With the new collective bargaining agreement capping the dollars an organization can spend on amateur and international prospects, identifying the right players is becoming even more important. In previous years, big-money teams could stock up on talent by overpaying prospects. If they missed on a few, it was simply money lost.

That all changed in 2012. The CBA leveled the playing field and made it essential for teams that want to build through youth to succeed in the scouting department.

Cubs 2012 first-round draft pick Albert Almora is the perfect example of a player who excels both mentally and physically. He is known as a talented athlete with a plus hit tool and a plus glove. But the biggest asset the 20-year-old brings to the table might be his baseball savvy.

“You can tell Almora has been playing baseball since he was born,” Parks said. “What Almora does, it seems like he’s been going through these motions his whole life. Now everything is just muscle memory, and it’s just easy for him.”

Almora’s case is well documented. The Cubs’ No. 3-ranked prospect (according to MLB.com) grew up with a makeshift training facility—complete with a batting cage—in his backyard and played on a record six U.S. National teams. He’s a natural leader, his instincts are off the charts, and he spends hours after games signing autographs and meeting fans. It’s hard for scouting experts to stop raving about him—even a seasoned baseball vet like McLeod.

“Intangibles—[he’s] wired so well that he has confidence,” McLeod said. “Players that are with him, he’s going to get them better just because of the way he approaches the game.”

And finding more players with that approach might be a key component of future scouting.

“I think that is going to be a wave with scouting,” Parks said. “The Almoras are the ones who wind up making it to the major league level, instead of just being the dreams, and you look at their physical gifts and say, ‘I wonder what.’”

The Mental Game
This brings us back to Moyer. A sixth-round pick in the 1984 draft, the 51-year-old Phillies TV broadcaster threw his last big league pitch in May 2012. He said he prepped with those notecards starting in 1991, after he spent two and a half days with mental skills coach Harvey Dorfman. Dorfman served as the Oakland Athletics’ mental performance coach and later spent time with the Marlins and released a series of books, including The Mental Game of Baseball.

In their time together, Moyer gained a better grasp of positive thinking.

“When you think negatively, you talk negatively. When you talk negatively, you’ll respond negatively,” Moyer said. “And when you tell your body negative things, usually negative things are going to happen. ‘I don’t want to hang this curveball.’ Well, you do, because it’s your last thought, so you hang the curveball.”

Ridding himself of negativity was a large factor in Moyer’s remarkable 25-year baseball career. Never one to overpower his opponents, he instead found success with his ability to locate pitches while keeping a constant focus on the game—even though he knew failure was inevitable.

“If you succeed three out of 10 times, you’re considered quite successful,” Moyer said. “For a starting pitcher, if you get your 33 or 34 starts a season and you win 15 games, you’re considered very successful. But that’s still [losing] some 50 percent of the time.”

Most players who sign a professional contract aren’t all that used to failure. At a very competitive high school, Cubs top prospect Javier Baez hit .771 his senior season. Front office members are very aware of how a player’s growth can be stunted at the first signs of failure. On the other hand, they see how much a player can learn from overcoming early issues.

“I think we’ve all seen those players who we say, ‘Wow, this guy should have been better than he was’ or ‘Wow, this guy really gets the most of his ability,’” McLeod said. “Most of the time, that has to do with how that certain person is wired, how they prepare themselves, how they deal with success and failure.”

Moyer was a clear-cut example of the latter. Over his lengthy career, he managed just one All-Star Game (in 2002, at age 40) and was likely never the anchor of any rotation despite two 20-win seasons.

But it’s probably a safe bet that if he was on the bump five days after a defeat, he had those 5×7 cards in hand and was ready to make the necessary adjustments.

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs are giving 100 Gifts of Service

100-Gifts

(Illustration by Jerry Neumann)

Most people looked at the Cubs Convention as the official kickoff to the Party of the Century, but the festivities actually began a few days earlier at the annual Cubs Caravan, when the team launched their new 100 Gifts of Service initiative.

Cubs associates, players, alumni and corporate partners will celebrate the 100th birthday of Wrigley Field by performing acts of service and volunteer projects in the community throughout the 2014 calendar year. So far, activities have included visiting hospital patients, serving lunch to active military at the USO and volunteering at local schools.

“The 100 Gifts of Service give everybody in the organization the opportunity to get out and interact with our fans and with families and kids in the community and see the result of having an impact on their lives,” said Jennifer Dedes Nowak, manager of Cubs Charities programs.

The Cubs are no strangers to community service. Every year, the team and Cubs Charities fund about $2.4 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and programs serving youth and families in need. They also donate thousands of autographed items and tickets to charitable organizations supporting health, fitness and education.

The Cubs are tracking their 100 Gifts of Service progress on the WrigleyField100.com website and through social media. The goal is to perform 100 hands-on projects—both large and small—in 2014, but the Cubs hope to surpass that number before the year is out.

Future gifts include renovating Chicago playgrounds with Friends of the Parks and the Chicago Plays! program, helping get kids active with the Cubs on the Move Fitness Trolley, and hosting a summer camp cookout at the Lakeview YMCA.

“We’re all part of this monumental year,” Dedes Nowak said. “We just want to come away with a great story and leave a legacy that we made an impact on the community in 2014.”

From the Pages of Vine Line: Jason Hammel is making his dreams come true

Hammel1929

(Photo by Stephen Green)

Cubs starter Jason Hammel is enjoying his first season on the North Side. The 31-year-old is 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA in six starts. He’s also enjoying his opportunity to pitch at Wrigley Field, something the veteran hurler had never done prior to this season. The following can be found in the May issue of Vine Line.

Everyone has a wish list—places they want to see, things they want to do. For pitcher Jason Hammel, that list has always included pitching at Wrigley Field. That’s part of the reason the veteran free agent wanted to sign with the Cubs this offseason.

Remarkably, in eight previous major league campaigns, including three with the Colorado Rockies, Hammel made only 21 starts against NL Central opponents and never threw a pitch at the Friendly Confines. Now, he hopes he gets the chance to throw a lot of them.

“I love the fact that it’s a stadium in the middle of a highly residential area,” Hammel said. “I’ve never been to Lambeau Field [home of the Green Bay Packers], but I’ve heard so many things about it. That’s why they have such a great following, because it’s so accessible. Wrigley’s the same. It’s a neighborhood.

“The Cubs have so much history in their own franchise, going way back. There are so many stories about so many big names and Hall of Famers who have come out of this franchise, it’s a bucket list [item] for players. You want to go there at some point. Now I get to go there, and it’s a dream come true.”

The right-hander, who signed a one-year, $6 million contract in February, knows there’s a chance he could be traded this season. He also knows Cubs history doesn’t include many World Series championships. But that doesn’t concern him. His goal is to help turn the franchise around and have a long, successful run on the North Side.

“Obviously, we haven’t won in a long time,” he said. “But we’re going to change that.”

Hammel brings some much-needed experience to a relatively green starting staff. He joined Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva in the Cubs Opening Day rotation, and, at 31, he’s the oldest of the bunch.

“And I’m longer off the tee than all of them,” he said, laughing.

Over the years, golf has been a good way for Hammel, now with his fourth major league club, to get to know his teammates.

“All the teams I’ve played on before, all the guys say, ‘Oh, I love golf, we’ll play,’” Hammel said. “You come into the season and go on the road, and most of the guys sleep. I’m getting to that stage in my life where I need to get up and get moving, go do something to get the body moving, and it’s always been golf.

“All the guys—Jeff, Woody, [James Russell]—play a little. It’s fun having guys around with the same common interest and also goes to the baseball side of it. They’re all pushing in the same direction. They want to win. We want to continue to get better. Winning seasons are based on starting pitching.”

Though he’s the newest member of the rotation, Hammel has worked hard to forge a bond with his fellow starters.

“It’s a new team for him, and, as the new guy, he wants to get to know everyone. A lot of times that’s what the conversation is about,” Samardzija said of their talk on the golf course. “Ham’s great. He’s a great dude.

“He enjoys talking baseball, which is always an important attribute for a ballplayer. You learn so much more from talking than playing sometimes.”

So who’s the best golfer? According to Hammel, it’s Russell.

“He just bangs it out there,” Hammel said of the lefty reliever. “He’s really good with his irons.”

WINNING WAYS
The Cubs are hoping Hammel can provide the kind of veteran leadership the club has been lacking since the departures of players like Ryan Dempster and David DeJesus. And Hammel knows a thing or two about winning. He was on the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 when they reached the World Series (though he didn’t pitch), and was part of the 2012 Baltimore Orioles team that shocked the baseball world by winning 93 games and reaching the American League Division Series.

A 10th-round pick in the 2002 draft by Tampa Bay, Hammel was traded to the Rockies in April 2009 for Aneury Rodriguez, and then traded to the Orioles in February 2012 along with Matt Lindstrom for Jeremy Guthrie.

“I’ve always wanted to be a one-team guy—that’s everybody’s dream,” Hammel said. “I’ve learned about the business side of baseball through [my transactions]. As much as it’s tough and sad, it’s also more opportunity. Every team I’ve gone to, I’ve had a better experience than the last.”

He’s also gotten the opportunity to learn from different pitching coaches and players, and discovered new things about himself and how to be a big leaguer. Now, he’s taking that accumulated knowledge and using it to mentor the Cubs’ young players.

“His first year with us in Baltimore was 2012,” said Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, who was Hammel’s teammate with the Orioles. “My first impression was that he was turning into that veteran-type guy, a guy who really understood himself. He understood what it takes to be successful at a high level on a consistent basis and [was] a guy who exuded a lot of confidence. I really liked that and respected that and those aspects about the way he carried himself. It really showed, especially in 2012.

“I think he’d agree that he had a down year [last year] and wasn’t happy with it,” Arrieta said of Hammel’s 7-8 record and 4.97 ERA with Baltimore. “In 2012, we got a good look at what type of guy he really can be. It was fun to watch. He brings a lot to the table. He’s got a lot of insight and knowledge that a lot of guys in the clubhouse can utilize. I think he’ll have a good year for us.”

In that magical 2012 season for the Orioles, Hammel went 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts, including a one-hit shutout of the Braves on June 16. Though he struggled last year, Hammel certainly knows how to bounce back from adversity. In his first big league season in 2003, he was 0-6 with a 7.77 ERA in nine starts with the Rays.

He also knows what’s ahead of him in Chicago. He’s seen teams rebuild—and rebound—beginning with Tampa and then again with the 2012 Orioles.

“[The rebuilding] was something I was able to learn and go through, and it helped give me my personality in baseball,” he said. “You see a lot of that here with the Cubs—a lot of young guys finally starting to reach their peaks. They’ve got, from what I can see, the right amount of veteran leadership and the right amount of young guys who are really starting to pull their weight and getting an idea of how to be a big leaguer, and the guys in the middle who are doing well. There are a lot of positive things.”

During Spring Training, Hammel got a glimpse of the Cubs’ future watching top prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora make their mark on the Cactus League. Hammel said he would like to stay and see those players develop.
“Staying with the same group of guys, that builds winning teams,” Hammel said. “If you have guys coming in and out, it’s tough to gel and mesh and find that comfort zone with everybody around you.”

BUSINESS SENSE
Hammel is also well aware of what’s happened with the Cubs roster over the last two years at the trade deadline. In 2012 and again in 2013, the Cubs front office dealt two of their starting pitchers by July 31. One of those was Scott Feldman, who was traded to Baltimore for Arrieta and Pedro Strop.

“When he came over at the trade deadline last year, I immediately liked him, and we meshed well,” Hammel said of Feldman. “He said it was a great experience over here, and he had a lot of fun being part of the Cubs franchise. He said they treated him very well. It was very family oriented and just a bunch of great guys.”

Feldman gave Hammel a little advice when he became a free agent this past offseason.

“[Feldman] said, ‘Give [Chicago] a good thought, and I bet you’ll like it if you end up there,’” Hammel said.

Hammel listened, but he also understands he could be gone at the deadline, like many veteran pitchers before him. The Cubs are still trying to stockpile young talent in the minor leagues, and if a team is out of contention coming into the All-Star break, moving veteran players is one of the fastest ways to accomplish that task. Previous trades have yielded prospects like C.J. Edwards, Mike Olt and Arodys Vizcaino.

“Anybody can be flipped during the season, whether you have a long-term contract or you’re just a rookie,” Hammel said. “I’ve seen it all happen. It’s part of the game, but my job is to come over here and win baseball games, and it doesn’t matter what uniform I’m wearing. I’m excited to be here, and I want to win here. If further down the road, something happens, it happens. I can’t be thinking about that.”

Instead, he’s focused on finally pitching at Wrigley Field. Prior to the season, Hammel’s teams had come to the ballpark, but it was never his turn to pitch. He thought he’d be the starter for the home opener on April 4, but Travis Wood landed that assignment

Even before he threw his first pitch at Wrigley, Hammel already knew about the quirkiness of the wind. But he said it shouldn’t bother him too much because he’s a sinkerball pitcher.

“I want to get ground balls, so I’ll try to stay in the bottom of the zone,” he said. “Sometimes my four-seamer will end up [in the zone], but if you make good pitches, you should get the product of the pitch that you want. I’m not going to worry about what the wind is going to do. Yeah, the wind can dictate certain ways to pitch guys. It will tell you if you want to challenge a guy who’s a pull hitter, and he’s going to hit right into the teeth of the wind. That’s fine. Overall, it’s not going to change my game plan.”

Despite the fickle winds, Hammel knows his wife, Elissa, and 2-year-old son, Beckett, are excited to be in Chicago. Elissa was a social worker and was associated with an adoption agency when the couple was in Tampa. It’s something she wants to pursue again onceHammel’s baseball career is over. Right now, the couple is expecting their second child, a girl, around mid-September.

“Hopefully, she’s a playoff baby,” Jason said.

Fans can stay connected with Hammel through his blog, HammelTown, on cubs.com. He started it a year ago to promote some of his off-the-field activities and recently posted a photo from Opening Day at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

“It won’t be an everyday thing, but it’ll be something we’ll go in and out on,” he said.

While on the golf course, Hammel has talked to other Cubs pitchers about the direction the team is headed and what they want to accomplish this season. He sees a lot of similarities between his career and Samardzija’s, as both have moved between the rotation and the bullpen.

“He throws a lot harder than I do, but there are similarities,” Hammel said. “We talk. I’m not a guy who’s going to force myself on someone. I try to make that feeling for young guys that if they want to approach me, I’m there.”

Arrieta and Hammel became close through their wives, and both have sons about the same age.

“He’s a good friend of mine,” Arrieta said. “I’m glad to call him a teammate again.”

And Hammel is glad to call Wrigley Field his home.

—Carrie Muskat, MLB.com

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,917 other followers