We Are Regal Radio co-founder and former Los Angeles Dodger scouting personnel member Sean Terry
At 91-51 thru 142 games played and with 20 remaining, the Chicago Cubs are gearing up for October. Can you feel the buzz growing?
Conversations around the water cooler may belong to the Bears on a day like this, but the September push is alive in Chicago as the Cubs shift into sprint-mode for the final stretch of the schedule, in advance of this year’s long awaited playoff run.
Before getting too deep into the meat and potatoes, let me preface this piece by stating it’s okay if you didn’t grow up a Cubs fan like me – there’s a well-documented torment associated with being a Cub fan so if you aren’t a die-hard who’s experienced more frequent years of October irrelevance than not, don’t worry about being late to the dance.
The realest of the real Cubs fans I know can all point to seasons where being a Cubs fan, following the wave from start to finish, only to end in disappointment have taken years off one’s life. That feeling only magnified by the rarest of moments of fall relevance, a semi-regular playoff berth, presence and opportunity on the big stage – only to experience the sinking nauseous sensation accompanied by a self-inflicted masochistic run that ends in caput.
IF that existence doesn’t sound like you, please don’t fake the funk when everyone’s checking for the Cubs October – but at the same time, by no means should you be afraid of hopping aboard and riding the wave.
The quintessential defining characteristic to Cubs culture is that relevance is everything, and there will always be extra room on the bandwagon.
The 2016 Push in Leaps and Bounds
By now, the Cubs ride since the Midsummer Classic has felt like cruise control largely due to the tremendous job Joe Maddon has done picking up where he left off with last season’s culture shift and Manager of the Year campaign.
With sizable roster change from last season’s team, Maddon’s crew has sustained the early season loss of Kyle Schwarber and managed to make tremendous jumps in nearly every expected category this season, PLUS realizing a few unexpected leaps, ala’ the arrival of Kyle Hendricks as a viable Cy Young consideration this season.
The proof is in the pudding when it comes to developing and ingraining a clubhouse culture. In terms of holding up the weight on the pitching staff, this year’s hacky sack pass from Arrieta to Hendricks has been seamless and clear example of the effect chemistry has on teams – it’s the stuff you can’t predict and often times the stuff that you can’t see readily equated to statistics that makes the biggest difference on winning teams.
That said, what Hendricks has done this season has been exceptionally impressive – expect to see his bio unfolded on the big stage come October. When it happens, fans should understand the evolution and arrival of Kyle Hendricks is real phenomenon that has humbled the most overzealous baseball minds.
Hendricks stands out on a Cubs pitching staff that boasts a cast of power arms. Despite having far less velocity Hendricks puts in work on the mound like a bespectacled magician named Harry Potter – commanding change of speed, silly movement, and spot on location that gives him the illusion of toying with hitters.
Hendricks’ yoda-like presence and modus operandi evokes the spirit of ’89 when the legendary career of Cy Young pitcher Greg Maddux first took hold in Cubs pin strips. To this day, I can recall the agony felt while riding along in a Ford Escort listening to AM radio only to hear the Braves signed Maddux in 1992. Fans like me who felt cheated when they let Maddux get away have found solace in getting behind the 2.0 version of “The Professor.”
Enjoying 1st Place…the Vibe is Real and So Are the Results
A couple themes have resonated this season.
The creation of the aura & confidence began in Spring Training when Maddon made a priority to introduce themed events to build team culture. It then made its way north, settling into a revamped ballpark & clubhouse outfitted with mood lighting to set the vibe in the right direction at Clark & Addison. The buzz is now a fully matured libation, bubbling and frothy, but not yet ripe for consumption.
Maddon has certainly made sipping the Cubby lean look cool, but it takes more than catchy clichés on T-shirts to effectively guide the ship across the grind of a baseball season. A traditionalist may question the viability of long term defensive efficiency in Maddon’s interchanging parts approach; however, Maddon’s style of atypical roster management somehow blends so well with modern day stadium amphitheater like sound.
“Maddon’s Musical Chairs” keeps the party rolling with brand of Cubs baseball that features booming bass, salsa-like flare, and clap-infused walk-up music. The only thing missing a new Cubby chant, but we’ll have to wait and see if that happens organically in October.
All whimsical narrative aside, this approach has not only kept guys physically fresh while maintaining the petal to the metal mental edge, but it also underscored Maddon’s superior understanding of the culture of his team and the pulse of the locker room and dugout at any given time, keeping the vibe rolling despite the mounting pressure of a looming October berth with the utmost of expectations.
The Cubs are 2nd overall among National League teams in runs scored and 1st in runs allowed per game. They are a very good team, sound in fundamentals and stingy on defense. The Cubs are a reflection of their manager and have a loose, yet firmly tuned handle on the vibe.
Understanding the moment and how it translates to baseball leverage is one of the intangibles that make great managers tic: it’s the ability to ride the moment and make the right in-game adjustments whether backed by statistical evidence, or simply a gut feeling.
We’ve literally seen Maddon, who looks just as comfortable in tie-dye and sunglasses as he does his Cubbie blue, tell his team, “No pressure mon.”
Perhaps it doesn’t feel much like pressure because Maddon does not call it pressure, it’s simply “leverage” in Maddon’s world and in its rawest baseball sense, Maddon has a mastery level understanding when it comes to managing that baseball leverage by keeping it real simple at its core: Runs Scored v. Runs Prevented.
For Maddon, conveying superior handling of leverage situations sees him look square into the eyes of his bullpen and commands full accountability. The defining moment of this year’s version of bullpen skullduggery occurred on June 28th, when Maddon used three different pitchers in left field during the later portions of a 15-inning marathon versus the Reds.
Feels like Weird Science
Beyond the bullpen wizardry, this year, Maddon has taken things one step further with his lineup – introducing new depths to his craft of baseball skullduggery. What began out of necessity to the loss of Schwarber has evolved into something entirely different thanks in large part to the arrival of one Javier Baez.
Baez, whom many pegged as mid-season trade fodder back in the spring training, has become Maddon’s go-to gloveman, capable of providing a week’s worth of ‘juice’ with just a few slick plays in the infield.
Baez is still a refinement in progress at the plate but he is instinctively superior to 95% of the players in the game today, and his tempo-defining defensive abilities translates across the diamond at any position. Baez is literally the 5-speed Porsche 928 from the 80’s cinema classic Weird Science – just as much fun in downtown traffic as it is on a private racetrack.
Double Up on Those MVP Chants
Most dominant seasons in baseball don’t occur without someone playing like an MVP. For what it’s worth, the Cubs have had two players in Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo who could easily take home the hard wear the undeniable choice is obvious for anyone who watches the games and can see statistical dominance in multiple categories.
While the Riz’ continues to define the grind by encroaching the plate and gripping the stick to mash balls silly, and occasionally scaling walls and infield tarps with a single bound, Kris Bryant is the Cub who will undoubtedly take home the 2016 MVP at season’s end.
Bryant’s season is dismisses the notion of statistical anomaly.
For a 30-something lifer like myself, Bryant’s game and impact looks a lot like the explosive impact to Ryne Sandberg’s 1984 season and then some. For what it’s worth, Sandberg was the engine to the ’84 season and the throttle to Bob Denier’s catalyst with the two forming the infamous: “Daily Double.”
Seeing Bryant’s effortless “mash and dash” approach has been eerily similar to that of a young Ryno and a joy to watch. It’s obvious why he donned the nickname “Silk” in his younger years.
While chicks still dig the long ball, scoring more runs than the opponent is the name of the game and Bryant ability as a run generator and complete offensive threat truly vibes well with Maddon’s approach. For Bryant, those majestic moon shot home runs are obviously impressive, but what resonates more is Bryant’s ability to scoot around the bases and plate runs scored.
Bryant quite simply has not let up since Opening Day playing with a controlled reckless abandon that is rarely seen in baseball, along the way taking his game to another stratosphere that is inhabited by only the rarest of company. Bryant’s voluminous pace (113 runs and counting) leads baseball and with 22 games to go puts him on pace with some of the most impressive MVP seasons there’s been.
Do your YouTube homework if you weren’t around to witness the following players, but these slash marks compare favorably to Bryant’s pace and lend well to the trajectory he’s on as a soon to be MVP:
- Robin Yount, 1982 season (1st time MVP)
- .331 avg./210 H/46 2B/12 3B/29 HR/114 RBI/129 R
- Cal Ripken Jr., 1983 season (1st time MVP)
- .318 avg./211 H/47 2B/27 HR/102 RBI/121 R
- Ryne Sandberg, 1984 season (1st time MVP)
- .314 avg./36 2B/19 HR/19 3B/114 R
- Jose Canseco, 1988 season (1st time MVP)
- .307 avg./34 2B/42 HR/124 RBI/120 R
- Barry Bonds, 1990 season (1st time MVP)
- .301 avg./32 2B/33 HR/114 RBI/104 R
- Bryce Harper, 2015 season (1st time MVP)
- .333 avg./38 2B/42 HR/99 RBI/118 R
A Final Hurrah In Time for October
September equals hoody and letterman jacket time as the summer breeze gives way to the fall leaves. In baseball, the teams that seem to have the best October runs are those that have the ability to manufacture runs in small ball fashion, particularly in low scoring games when ball fields tend to play much larger in the cooler weather.
The Cubs offense has been a consistent run producing machine all year long, banging the ball around the park but unlike relevant Cubs teams in the past this current blend has also shown the ability to play small at times.
With September call ups in place, expect to see Maddon’s wheeling and dealing continue with a new mix of toys capable of jumping right in the mix of the game in substitution scenarios during critical moments of the game.
Clutch hitting is the name of the game for pinch hitting wizard and locker room monastic, Tommy LaStella, but for a player like Albert Almora who has already proven his worth and gained the confidence of Maddon; or a Matt Sczur who can hit behind runners, or a ground ball hitter like Munenori Kawasaki, or even an offensively underachieving Jason Heyward, expect to see Maddon push buttons intentionally play the small ball game at times in order to strategically manufacture leverage situations to help prepare his team with an eye on October.
You can also expect to see more of veteran catcher David Ross, who is in a self-imposed swan season, as this year’s campaign is expected to be his final one in the majors – although given the way Ross has played this year, it wouldn’t surprise many to see the 38 year old catcher return next season in a player/coach capacity.
It quite simply has been a pleasure as a Cub fan to watch Ross work this season. For many of my earlier years as a fan that came up during the steroid era, aspects of the game like game calling, pitch framing, throwing out baserunners and overall defense took a back burner to offense.
David Ross may not supply substantial offensive numbers, but he checks out all the above in every one of the aforementioned categories and shows it quite demonstratively between the lines. According to probable Game 1 playoff starter Jon Lester, “David Ross knows how to push my buttons.”
Ross’ total command of the staff works symbiotically with Maddon’s command on the pulse of his team, providing a calming influence that helps harness the electricity for a team that will have expectations and the buzz continue to mount as we get closer to October.
September is the time of the baseball season when the marathon becomes a sprint. If you haven’t watched much baseball this season, this Cubs season has lived up to expectations so far, a fact that lends well to the prospects of success come October.
The closer we get to the month where everything is decided, the more we’ll hear about the longest championship drought in sports. Embrace that fact, but don’t let it blind the moment. Now is the time to tune in and turn up because with the most daunting drought in modern sports at hand, positive energy and electricity is what’s needed most. Don’t stop the clap.
Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under Regal Radio; Sean Terry is a co-founder of We Are Regal Radio