Results tagged ‘ Travis Wood ’

From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs bullpen is uniquely deep and versatile

Warren_Cubs(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The 2016 Cubs are one of the deepest teams in baseball, but the thing that makes them so formidable is their versatility. And nowhere is that more evident than in the bullpen, where the Cubs have four swingmen capable of filling multiple roles. The following feature ran in the April issue of Vine Line.

Since the expansion of bullpen specialization in the 1950s and ’60s, most major-league relief corps have been constructed in a similar fashion. Teams tend to carry six or seven relievers, including a closer, an eighth-inning specialist, a seventh-inning specialist, a few set-up men and at least one long man. Often, that long man is a former starter no longer making the grade—the kind of arm teams feel most comfortable running out to the mound with a five-run lead or a five-run deficit.

But as Cubs fans discovered all throughout last season, the way manager Joe Maddon’s teams are put together is far from conventional.

The 2016 Cubs sprint into the regular season as one of the deepest and most formidable teams in baseball, with a unique mix of young stars at key positions and battle-tested veterans to help lead the way. But the thing that might make this group truly dangerous is its versatility up and down the roster—and that includes exceptional bullpen depth.

The Cubs do have an established closer in Hector Rondon and several talented set-up men with electric stuff, including Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm. But behind them, the club has a quartet of arms—Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren and Travis Wood—who can all start, relieve or do just about anything in between. All four pitchers came into professional baseball as starters, and they all have experienced success in that role. But each ended last season in the bullpen, and their versatility gives the Cubs a big weapon as the season wears on.

“It’s an unusual group in the most positive way possible in the bullpen, with the variety of multiple-inning guys that are also capable of closing games if you wanted them to and could also start games if you wanted them to,” Maddon said. “I think any manager would love to have those four guys to choose from, whether it be to fill the latter part of the rotation or to have at your disposal on a nightly basis. It’s all good stuff.”

GOING DEEP
Interest in versatility has been trending upward in baseball for years on the positional side. New Cubs acquisition Ben Zobrist became a legitimate major-league star by playing multiple positions and helped usher in the age of the super-utilityman. But until recently, there has still been a stigma associated with being a bullpen swingman. The typical narrative was that these pitchers couldn’t cut it as starters and didn’t have the stuff to be back-end relievers.

In recent years, big-league front offices have begun to see the value of versatility in the ’pen as well. Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Executive Vice President and General Manager Jed Hoyer have repeatedly spoken of needing eight or nine viable starters to feel comfortable heading into a season. Injuries and underperformance are almost inevitable, and teams need to protect themselves for those eventualities.

Now, in addition to an imposing starting five that includes 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, World Series champions Jon Lester and John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs have four pitchers who can easily slot into a starting role if necessary. And that doesn’t even include minor-league arms like Pierce Johnson, Dallas Beeler and others.

“If you look at this position just a couple of years ago, it had a totally different feel,” Richard said. “What people are starting to understand is that there’s value in the versatility. You see we signed Ben Zobrist, and people place so much value because he’s capable of doing so many things. That holds weight as a pitcher too, if you’re needed for a start or if you’re needed for multiple innings out of the bullpen or if you’re needed for a situational lefty with me or Woody. There’s value in that, and it’s neat to be a part of it.”

Plus, if the starter is shaky in a particular outing—and even Arrieta had an off day or two last season—the Cubs have several pitchers who can step in and provide long relief, without overtaxing the bullpen for the next day’s game.

The best example of this might have been the 2015 postseason. Going into the playoffs, both Hammel and Hendricks were struggling. The two pitchers made four combined starts between the NLDS and NLCS and didn’t last through five frames in any of them. Cahill, Richard and Wood all stepped up to log valuable innings and keep the Cubs’ hopes alive—and they were almost never used in the same situation twice.

“A team might be stacked and have the best rotation, and there’s always something that comes up, whether it’s a little nagging injury or a big injury,” Cahill said. “Depth helps out a lot. I think they figured out that starters can pitch out of the ’pen effectively. Me, Woody, Clayton, we’re all throwing harder out of the ’pen. It’s nice to have that versatility. I think we got more comfortable throwing in those later roles instead of just being a long guy when we first went to the bullpen. But if one of us is going well, you can just keep running us out there—one inning, two innings, three innings.”

Another major benefit of having so much versatility is that it offers Maddon more flexibility in how he can use his pitchers, which should reduce wear and tear on the starting rotation. The veteran skipper has always been cautious about overusing his arms, but with depth an issue last year and the team in position to make a deep postseason run, Maddon leaned more heavily on some of his guys than he might have liked.

In 2016, the Cubs should be able to go to the ’pen earlier if needed to preserve their starters and reduce the workload on some of their key high-leverage relievers, especially early in the season. As Maddon will be the first to tell you, he’s quite comfortable with any of his swing quartet closing a game or two in certain situations.

“We have a lot of talent, and that gives Joe a lot of flexibility with how he wants to use the bullpen,” Warren said. “He can say, ‘All right, I want to let this guy eat up three innings tonight,’ and we still have a long man the next night. You don’t have to make a move. It allows for that flexibility. You can throw just a matchup guy and then still have a long guy.

“I know in New York, we had a longer guy who pitched two or three innings. Once that guy pitched, it was almost like panic for the next day. ‘What if the starter goes down in the first? We’re screwed.’”

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS
Pitching from the rotation and in relief are very different jobs that require different preparation. Just because someone has been a solid major-league starter doesn’t mean he’ll make an effective reliever, and a reliever who excels in one-inning bursts won’t necessarily remain effective in a second turn through an opposing lineup. To be able to do both well is an acquired, and impressive, skill.

“There are four days as a starter that you know you’re not going to pitch,” Warren said. “So you’re like, ‘OK, I got this. I’ve got running and lifting today. The next day I’ve got a bullpen.’ You have a set routine, whereas coming in from the bullpen, it’s ‘OK, I might have to pitch today, so I have to get up and have the same routine.’ You have to prepare yourself to pitch every day.”

You also can’t discount major-league egos. Most pitchers would rather start or throw in high-leverage, late-inning situations. That’s where the glamour—and, let’s be honest, the money—is. All four of the Cubs swingmen have spent most of their lives in a starting role.

In 2010, Cahill went 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA in 30 starts with the Athletics, earning a spot on the All-Star team. He’s logged six seasons as primarily a starter. Richard has two 14-win seasons under his belt in six years as a starter with the White Sox and Padres. Wood logged five seasons in the rotation with the Reds and Cubs and made the 2013 All-Star team before being moved to the ’pen in 2015.

Warren’s background is a bit different. He was a starter at the University of North Carolina and in the Yankees’ minor-league system, but pitched mainly in relief after getting his first real big-league shot in 2013. Injuries in New York forced Warren back into the rotation for parts of the 2015 campaign, and he made 17 starts, going 6-6 with a 3.66 ERA in the role.

When pressed, all of the Cubs swingmen say they prefer starting. But what makes them—and many other Cubs players—special is that their first priority is winning, and they’re willing to do whatever is asked of them in pursuit of the ultimate goal. Each took the move to the bullpen well, worked hard to master the new routine and came out firing.

“[Being willing to move around] goes with the background, the makeup on the individual,” said Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio. “That has a lot to do with the people we’re looking to pick up.”

Each pitcher also admitted to struggling a bit at first with moving back and forth and not being in a defined role, but that all comes down to personal preference. Cahill said going from a reliever to a starter is more difficult, while Warren said the exact opposite. Ultimately, it’s about mastering the different mentality needed for each job and making your pitches.

“Initially [going back and forth] can be difficult,” Richard said. “But you can’t think about it too much because when you do that, you put undue pressure on yourself. At the end of the day, it’s still executing pitches. If you’re going to be successful either as a starter or as a guy out of the bullpen, you have to execute pitches.”

Or, as Wood said: “It’s still 60 feet, 6 inches.”

MIXING IT UP
One thing that does—or can—change coming out of the bullpen is pitch mix. While most starters use three or four pitches to keep hitters off balance, top relievers really need only two plus pitches. One of the best closers in major-league history, Mariano Rivera, threw his cutter almost 90 percent of the time by the end of his career. Some relievers work with a larger repertoire, but most are fastball-slider guys.

This is one of the characteristics that makes the Cubs’ talented foursome unique.

“I think the advantage for us as a staff is that most of the guys who have been starters are three- or four-pitch guys,” Bosio said. “We’re bringing another pitch in there that normally a lot of hitters wouldn’t see—a third pitch or possibly even a fourth.”

Richard continued to use all of his pitches out of the ’pen, but in a much different ratio. Last season, throwing in relief for the first time, he used his fastball at an 81.3 percent rate, according to Fangraphs. That’s nearly a 20 percent increase over the previous season when he was a starter. He also gained a little velocity on his heater, as most pitchers do going from throwing multiple innings to a single frame.

“You’re a little more fresh,” Richard said. “The workload isn’t as heavy as a reliever, so naturally your intensity is able to kick up because you’re not throwing the sheer quantity of pitches. I think that’s where the velocity comes from is just having a rested arm.

“I’ve always leaned on my fastball pretty heavily. It may have been a little bit more this past year making that transition into the bullpen, making sure they’re seeing my best pitch, kind of feeling out, ‘Well, I don’t want to get beat with my third- or fourth-best pitch when I’m only facing one hitter.’”

Warren throws a fastball, slider, curveball and change-up, and he’ll use them all in about the same ratio whether he’s starting or relieving. For him, it’s more a matter of strategy. As a starter, he might hold a pitch back the first turn or two through the order, so he has something new to go to later in the game. As a reliever, he’s using all four pitches immediately because he likely won’t see batters a second time.

“I’ve always had a good feel for all my pitches,” Warren said. “I feel like that builds my strength because most hitters are used to seeing a reliever with two or maybe three pitches, but never really four. Most relievers usually have a really good fastball or a really good slider or breaking ball. I don’t have a put-away pitch, but I can use all my pitches to keep hitters off balance. I feel like it gives me an advantage if I can throw them all.

“Now, there might be one day where maybe I’m casting my curveball or something, so for one inning, I might get rid of my curveball and stick with fastball, slider, change-up. That happens, but the hitters don’t know that.”

The other thing pitchers moving from the rotation to the bullpen need to prepare for is the hike in adrenaline. Starters get a chance to ease into games and aren’t necessarily pitching in high-leverage situations all the time. Coming out of the bullpen, anything can happen. You might be called on to start a clean inning, but you also have to be ready to come in with the bases loaded and the game on the line.

In Game 3 of last season’s NLDS versus the Cardinals, the Cubs took a 5-2 lead into the sixth inning with the series knotted at 1-1. Arrieta quickly gave up two runs on a Jason Heyward homer and then struck out two Cardinals hitters before plunking Brandon Moss. Maddon called to the bullpen for Richard, who quickly induced Kolton Wong to ground out on a 93-mph fastball to end the threat and maintain the Cubs’ lead.

Richard was followed by Cahill and Wood, who combined for a scoreless seventh inning before turning the game over to Strop and Rondon.

“I kind of like not knowing because you’re always on your toes,” Cahill said. “You’re always into the game because you just don’t know.”

Of course, there are some drawbacks to coming out of the bullpen, especially for a well-rounded player like Wood.

“I do miss hitting quite a bit,” said Wood, who hit .215 with seven home runs and 22 RBI in his first three Cubs seasons as a starter. “I don’t get the same opportunities to come in and pinch-hit. I don’t get the at-bats on starting days, so that was a big thing. I do miss it. I still enjoy it, so I work on it. I don’t want to let it slip away. I keep it toned in case it’s needed.”

If the Royals proved anything with their World Series title run in 2015 it was that the postseason is all about powerful bullpen arms. Last year, they had the ability to shorten games with their dominant back-end pitching. While the Cubs ’pen is constructed differently, it could be similarly effective. One thing is certain: Few teams, if any, can match the depth and versatility the North Siders have in their relief corps. And for a manager who loves to get creative with the way he utilizes his players, it could be a perfect match.

“It’s got to be great for Joe having those tools to be able to use in different situations,” Richard said. “When you’re only able to do one thing, it really makes decisions a little bit more difficult for your manager. If you look through the pitchers, we have so many guys who are talented on so many levels and that can be used in different situations, it’s got to help.”

—Gary Cohen

Cubs Lineup: 4/10/15

Wood_TravisTravis Wood takes the mound for the Cubs first road game of the season. (Photo by Stephen Green)

Cubs vs. Rockies – Coors Field
First Pitch: 3:10 CST
Cubs Starter: Travis Wood, LHP
Cardinals Starter: Tyler Matzek, LHP
Broadcast: WGN-TV (local), Listen Live at WBBM 780

Cubs Lineup
1. Dexter Fowler, CF
2. Jorge Soler, RF
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Starlin Castro, SS
5. Mike Olt, 3B
6. Matt Szczur, LF
7. Welington Castillo, C
8. Travis Wood, P
9. Arismendy Alcantara, 2B

1000 Words: Wood is a one-man wrecking crew

Wood-Wrecking-Crew

(Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty)

In what was probably one of the easiest Player of the Game decisions of the young season, Cubs starter Travis Wood took matters into his own hands on a rainy Monday night, almost single-handedly propelling the North Siders to a 5-1 victory over the Diamondbacks. In seven innings of work, Wood gave up one run on six hits and notched nine strikeouts. But the Cubs lefty didn’t stop there. He also blasted a three-run home run high into the left-field bleachers off of D-backs starter Bronson Arroyo in the second inning and plated another run in the fourth with a double over center fielder Tony Campana’s head. Wood’s nine strikeouts and four RBI were both career highs.

Wood was so formidable with the bat that Arizona manager Kirk Gibson actually pulled Arroyo in favor of reliever J.J. Putz when the Cubs pitcher came to the plate with the bases loaded in the sixth. Putz got Wood to ground into a 1-2-3 double play.

Now Playing: Cubscast Mesa, The Definition of Success

After nearly two months of preparation, Cubs spring camp is coming to a close, and the team is getting ready to head north to Pittsburgh for the season opener.

In the final installation of our Cubscast Mesa video series, we asked Cubs players to state their definition of success for 2014. Though most pundits don’t expect much from the team, the players are definitely setting their sights high.

Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:

Cubscast Mesa: Positive Energy in Cubs Camp
Cubscast Mesa: Inside Cubs Park
Cubscast Mesa with Rick Renteria and the 2014 coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa with the top prospects
Cubscast Mesa: Meet the new guys
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part One
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Two
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Three
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Four
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Five

Now Playing: Cubscast Mesa, Positive Energy in Cubs Camp

Spring is a time for hope, optimism and new beginnings. This season, the Cubs are welcoming a new manager, several new coaches and a host of new players to the fold.

We talked to Cubs personnel, new and old, about the feeling in camp this year and how things are different under skipper Rick Renteria.

We’ll be posting videos and stories from Cubs Park throughout the spring, so watch the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.

Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:

Cubscast Mesa, Inside Cubs Park
Cubscast Mesa with Rick Renteria and the 2014 coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa with the top prospects
Cubscast Mesa: Meet the new guys
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part One
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Two
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Three
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Four

Now Playing: The Lighter Side of the Cubs, Part Three

Everyone who has ever played baseball has had it happen—a misjudged pop fly that lands one foot behind you, a weak grounder that goes right through your legs or a moment of indecision on the basepaths that makes you look foolish. Major leaguers are no different.

In Part Three of our Lighter Side video series, we ask Travis Wood, Nate Schierholtz, Justin Grimm and others about their most embarrassing moments on a baseball field.

We’ll be posting videos and stories from Cubs Park throughout the spring, so watch the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline. Later this week, we’ll give you an inside look at the new Cubs Park facility in Mesa.

Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:

Cubscast Mesa with Rick Renteria and the 2014 coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa with the top prospects
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part One
Cubscast Mesa: Meet the new guys
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Two

Hot Off the Presses: November Vine Line featuring GM Jed Hoyer

VL1311_Cover_JM_newstand

How do you evaluate a 96-loss season? It depends on how you look at it.

Are you evaluating just the major league team or the organization as a whole? Your answers would likely be very different.

On the surface, things don’t look too good. For the second straight year, the Cubs languished in the basement of a stacked NL Central that sent three teams to the 2013 postseason. The offense consistently struggled to put runs on the board, the bullpen faltered early in the season, several key players failed to develop as expected, and manager Dale Sveum was released after two seasons at the helm. To hear General Manager Jed Hoyer tell it, that’s simply not going to cut it.

“One of the things about this job is that your report card is in the paper every morning,” Hoyer said. “Obviously, that report card tells us we’re not good enough. We’re not talented enough at the major league level, and we have to improve that.”

Despite the struggles in Chicago—and both President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Hoyer are quick to admit they’re disappointed by the win-loss total—the front office has never wavered from its initial blueprint for building a consistent winner.

When Epstein and Hoyer took over in October 2011, there was a severe talent deficit in the minor league system, and the major league team was saddled with expensive, aging players. The goal was to stockpile as much young talent as possible as quickly as possible and create payroll flexibility to ensure that the next time the team is competitive, it has a chance to remain competitive for years to come.

On that front, things don’t look bad at all. In 2009, Baseball America ranked the Cubs 27th in its annual organizational talent rankings. By the start of 2013, they had moved up to 12th. Thanks to shrewd trades, some aggressive international signings and a strong 2013 draft, headlined by overall No. 2 pick Kris Bryant, most experts agree the Cubs system is firmly in the top five heading into 2014. And 11 of the organization’s top 20 prospects, according to MLB.com, were acquired since the new front office took over in 2011. That’s a lot of progress in a few short years.

This month, we sat down with the Cubs’ GM for a frank conversation about the state of the organization. There is great reason for optimism, but the wave of young standouts developing in the farm system has yet to crest at Wrigley Field. Until that top-notch talent arrives, it’s imperative the Cubs find a way to improve their bullpen and generate more quality at-bats.

“The amount of talent and the athleticism we have [in the system] is a long, long way from where it was when we first got here, and we’re excited about that,” Hoyer said. “But all those things don’t hide the fact that the goal is to get better at the major league level, and we need to improve on what we’ve done in 2012 and 2013.”

We also talked to one of the key pieces Hoyer acquired last offseason that fits this new organizational philosophy—outfielder Nate Schierholtz. The 29-year-old veteran finally got a chance to play regularly in 2013, and he had a breakout season, with career highs in plate appearances, home runs and RBI. Everybody, from the front office to his teammates, says the same thing about Schierholtz: He’s a professional ballplayer who fights for every at-bat and brings his best effort every day.

Finally, despite the win-loss total, there were plenty of positive developments at the major league level. The Cubs strengthened their pitching depth behind the emergence of lefty Travis Wood, ace Jeff Samardzija continued to miss bats with the best of them, Junior Lake made a surprisingly successful major league debut, and the left side of the infield was as strong defensively as any in baseball. We examine several impressive stats from the 2013 campaign that should bode well for the organization’s near future.

If you want to get to know the future of the organization now, follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline. All winter long, we’ll be following the Cubs’ top prospects in the fall and winter leagues. And pick up the November issue of Vine Line today.

1000 Words: Wood does it all in Cubs win

WoodHR

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

It’s all in a day’s work for Cubs All-Star Travis Wood (7-7, 2.79 ERA). The left-hander notched his 18th quality start of the season Sunday, pitching 7.0 innings and giving up only four hits and no earned runs, to lead the Cubs to a 2-1 victory over the Giants. He also went 2-for-3 at the plate to raise his batting average to .293 and blasted his third home run of the year. The Cubs finished their 10-game West Coast trip against the Rockies, Diamondbacks and Giants 6-4.

1000 Words: Travis Wood, All-Star

Travis-Wood

(Photo by Stephen Green)

Left-handed starter Travis Wood will represent the Cubs in the 2013 All-Star Game Tuesday night. Even though Wood threw on Sunday, Cubs manager Dale Sveum said the 26-year-old is available to pitch tonight at NL manager Bruce Bochy’s discretion.

Wood, who has a 6-6 record this year, has quickly emerged as one of baseball’s toughest left-handers. He’s compiled a 2.79 ERA with a 1.04 WHIP—both good for top 10 in the NL—and a league-best 17 quality starts over 122.2 innings pitched. It’s Wood’s first All-Star selection.

Cubby Blue: Name that Cubs facial hair

Facial-Hair.rev

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