We Are Regal Radio co-founder and former Los Angeles Dodger scouting personnel Sean Terry continues his in-depth analysis of the Chicago Cubs and their playoff chances
After a wild three weeks of October baseball, the Chicago Cubs find themselves on the brink of realizing their visionary riches built up over five years of destroying and rebuilding one of the most reliable story lines in professional sports – that of the lovable loser Cubs.
True to form this October, the Cubs’ last series against the Dodgers featured more strategy and personnel matching during the first three and a half games of the National League Championship Series as Cubs manager Joe Maddon and unheralded Dodgers 1st year skipper, Dave Roberts, went blow-for-blow with managerial wits until a bunt single by Ben Zobrist in Game 4 changed the tide of the series, and perhaps history, in the same breath.
The principal narrative regarding bullpen strategy and the arrangement of left-handed pitching arms in effort to neutralize the left-handed hitters on both sides, respectively, proved to play true to form as Maddon’s usual bullpen skullduggery took new shape with normal high leverage guys (Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop) giving way to lessor regarded bullpen mates (Travis Wood, Mike Montgomery) in pivotal moments leading to a series clinching moment with closer, Aroldis Chapman, on the mound.
While the fan inside of me would love to go the predictive route of declaring the Cubs a World Series champion, I’ll harness the urge and let the series play out a bit before getting too hasty.
Without going down the usual path of predictive hypothesis and “what to expect” we’re switching gears somewhat this week to give fans a little history lesson on the origins of baseball’s advanced statistical analysis and how it has factored into the Cubs birthing a new brand of baseball on the North Side.
Hendricks: It’s Not Just Hype Anymore
Next to clinching a World Series, no game brings more hype and anxiety than the clinching moment of a League Championship Series. With Cubs fans on pins and needles for a potential clinching opportunity during Game 6 versus the Dodgers this past Saturday, Cubs manager Joe Maddon placed the ball in the hand of Kyle Hendricks, aka “The Silent Assassin”.
When Hall of Fame pitcher, and Fox Sports color commentator, John Smoltz gives a player accolades they really mean something, especially when that player is a pitcher. No one had a better view of Greg Maddux’s exceptional pitching career than his teammate and rotational mate, Smoltz.
During Game 2 of the NLCS and for the first time on a national stage, it was John Smoltz who finally expressed what has been on the minds of Cubs fans all season: Hendricks has the stuff, IQ, and mentality to be the next Greg Maddux.
Hendricks didn’t win Game 2 but he excelled in his first start back after a line drive off the arm against the Giants in the NLDS shortened his outing, showing no ill effects and providing valid merit to Smoltz’ accolades. No other current baseball analyst breaks down detail during the game better than Smoltz and his discussion on Hendricks stuff reinforce the fact that his performance this season is not a coincidence.
During the Game 6 clincher against the Dodgers took his game to another level and solidified his trajectory as a starting pitcher qualified to carry the torch left by Maddux – successfully shutting down the Dodgers in a masterful performance by relying on the same arsenal that he’s used all season long.
A breakdown of Hendricks arsenal in 2016 reveals a 3-pitch pitcher who has experienced increasing success with the use of his change-up. Hendricks has mastery level command of this pitch and can throw it with 2-3 releases which give it the illusion of a 2-seam fastball at times, a curveball at others, and occasionally a sinker.
According to Fangraphs, at 21.1 runs above average (think runs prevented here), Kyle Hendricks’ utilizes the best change-up in baseball and the seventh best overall pitch in the game this season.
wCh: Changeup runs above average: 21.1
|Pitcher||Pitch||Runs above average|
|Jake Arrieta, Cubs||wFB (Fastball)||32.2|
|J.A. Happ, Blue Jays||wFB (Fastball)||30.1|
|Jose Quintana, White Sox||wFB (Fastball)||29.4|
|John Lackey, Cubs||wSL (Slider)||25.1|
|Jose Fernandez, Marlins||wSL (Slider)||24.3|
|Max Scherzer, Nationals||wFB (Fastball)||23.6|
|Corey Kluber, Indians||wCB (Curveball)||21.8|
|Kyle Hendricks, Cubs||wCH (Changeup)||21.1|
With a current salary of $541,000 and one more year under club control (2017) before becoming eligible for arbitration (2018), Hendricks ranks as one of the top bargains in baseball.
Hendricks has shown no sign of letting up anytime soon, and with the Cy Young performances continuing and a bargain contract to match, rest assured that national media coverage will use the World Series platform to begin the conversation around Hendricks’ next payday.
Not to fan the flame on a negative narrative but the decision for Cubs on an imminent payday for its front line pitching may come down to a choice between Hendricks and Jake Arrieta. Based on his age and what has emerged this season from Hendricks on the bump, fans can rest assured that Theo & Company will take care of Hendricks – when that time comes, we’ll call that move making things right for the one that got away (Maddux).
In thinking ahead to the type of payday fans can expect Hendricks to receive, I have to credit Shane A. Piesik’s: The Monetary Mound, and its reference to Gerald Scully’s 1974 article, Pay and Performance in Major League Baseball.
As they relate to Hendricks, the main premise of these two references is the evaluation used for measuring pay by performance and looks at a couple key metrics for pitchers: strikeout-to-walk ratio (SOW), innings pitched, and experience.
Pitchers with more experience provide higher levels of play and/or an intangible asset of knowledge of the opponent’s tendencies, situational play, and productive habits, which contribute to team performance. In addition, the CBA imposes maximum annual salary reductions, which leads to downward wage rigidity.
These metrics detailed by Scully’s work have the potential to reflect favorably for Hendricks impending pay day, as the cerebral pitcher seems to get better with time and understanding of the hitters he faces. As he gets more comfortable, we can only expect to see his SOW numbers increase, inching him closer to Maddux territory while his next start very well could be the next biggest start of his career in World Series during a Game 3 start at home on Friday.
Revolutionary Thinking Behind Maddon’s Math
Understanding baseball history plays a small yet important role in understanding Maddon, a self-described baseball historian.
A deep dive into the statistical analysis would require a much longer post – perhaps we can get to that this off-season while sipping the Cubby lean in celebration of visionary riches realized, but for now I’ll distill things a bit while breaking the perceived impact history has had on the Cubs this season.
Earl Weaver & Bill James: Their Impact on Today’s Cubs
Baseball was trending in the direction of statistical analysis long before the term sabermetrics was commonplace, and let any manager today tell it, everyone in the game owes a great deal of credit to the late great Baltimore Orioles skipper Earl Weaver for trailblazing the use of statistical analysis to front load those great Orioles teams of the 1970’s and 80’s, creating a winning formula that relied on the core pillars of pitching, defense, and timely extra base hits.
It was Weaver who led anti-small ball sentiment during a time when the majority of the sport embraced the concept of manufacturing runs, with Weaver insisting “If you play for one run, that’s all you’ll get.”
Instead, the preferred approach by those revolutionary O’s ball clubs was built around patient at bats and waiting on key hitter situations for a pitch to drive with authority.
Long before there were websites and analytics software specializing in baseball analysis, Weaver’s baseball reasoning was assisted by an unending archive of notebooks and rolodex of index cards that synchronized advantageous head-to-head splits for his hitters and pitchers alike. Not only did this approach help with capturing rare anomalies that saw Mendoza line hitters shape shift into Ruthian-like figures, but it also helped Weaver brand another unique characteristic to the game still used today – the use of positional platoons.
Those 70’s – 80’s era Orioles clubs were wildly successful under Weaver’s Continental Marine battalion brand of baseball, and during a 17 season career saw Weaver’s teams rack up 1,480 regular season victories and five trips to the World Series, including two championship clubs (1970, 1983).
Somewhat similar to those Weaver-led Orioles clubs of yesteryear, these modern era Cubs clubs have been constructed similarly around the premise of grinding at-bats and forcing pitchers to make mistakes, while the front office has fully entrusted Maddon to make full use of his bench depth and secondary fielding positions by players to create a seemingly limitless boundary of substitution opportunities for the Cubs.
The Skullduggery Continues…
To know of Bill James is to know of the term most associated with modern era baseball analysis, sabermetrics.
By definition, sabermetrics is the search for objective knowledge about baseball.
For one George William “Bill” James, it was his devotion to the objective knowledge of baseball that led him to write a number of books on baseball history and statistical analysis, along the way branding a new way of regression-based analysis to deduce effective win – loss strategy that was officially recognized by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).
From 2004 – 2008, James would serve in the role of Senior Baseball Operations Advisor/Special Assistant to the GM for the Boston Red Sox, followed by serving as Senior Advisor for the club from 2009 – 2011.
Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, this period of time glaringly overlaps the period of time which featured the Theo Epstein & Company brain trust. The Bill James approach to statistical analytics have deeply influenced Theo & Company’s approach to player development, talent acquisition, and performance analysis.
The revelation of this now embraced Cubs approach is principally rooted in some of James’ research and tutelage. Among his earliest work, the series Baseball Abstracts featured publishings that relied on sabermetrics, leading to the discovery and recognition of many statistical innovations that have been embraced in today’s new era baseball: Range factor, Defensive Efficiency Rating, Win shares, Secondary average, and Power to Speed Ratio.
Such innovations and the analysis behind many of James’ findings have been relied upon as the prerequisite intelligence for a number of today’s baseball analysis websites.
Always a fan of the most athletic and explosive brand of baseball, my personal favorite of the Bill James innovations is the later, Power/Speed Number which uses a simple formula: (2x(Home Runs)x(Stolen Bases))/(Home Runs + Stolen Bases) to rank explosive offensive threats and was the principal statistical metric behind baseball’s milestone clubs: 20/20/20/20 club (home run/doubles/triples/stolen bases), the 30/30 club (home runs/stolen bases), and the mythical 40/40 club.
To put things in perspective, the later tilt (40/40) is comprised of a short list of four players: Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Alfonso Soriano.
Oddly, none of these players listed are in the Hall of Fame; however, it was Alfonso Soriano who leveraged a 46 home run/41 stolen base campaign in 2006 to net the most lucrative deal in Cubs history at that time.
Soriano aside, the 40/40 club is mythical baseball milestone was largely fueled by fabricated bio-chemistry infused abilities – one that likely we’ll likely never see replicated again in baseball.
Today, it’s the more illustrious yet less ballyhooed 20/20/20/20 club that appears to be the direction today’s game is heading back towards, with clubs once again embracing five-tool talent over homogeneously induced, one-dimensional power hitting.
A former Cubs player from a far bygone era headlines a short-list of players to ever achieve 20/20/20/20 status.
In 1910, the 104-win Cubs saw a new team offensive catalyst emerge in the form of 22 year outfielder, Frank Schulte. Using modern statistical analysis, the 1910 season campaign would see Schulte amass a 3.5 WAR while leading the Cubs to their 1910 World Series appearance (eventually losing 4-1 to the Philadelphia Athletics).
The 1910 season was only the beginning for Schulte, as the following season saw him continue along a highly productive trajectory, capturing the MVP in a season where he batted .300 while amassing 21 HR/30 2B/21 3B/23 SB. Numbers of this kind are mind-boggling, albeit achievable if one were so inclined to play with the type of reckless abandon I’d imagine Schulte played with.
In today’s pool of talent, a growing list of usual suspects and newbies come to mind when thinking about the probability of anyone mimicking Schulte’s 1911 numbers; fortunately, a couple of those who come to mind don Cubs blue – Kris Bryant and Javier Baez.
Not to get ahead of ourselves with talk of next season, but a forthcoming full season of everyday at-bats for Javier Baez has the potential to mirror Schulte’s slash marks, while its pretty safe to assume this year’s forth-coming MVP for Bryant is just one of many to come.
And there you have it – so goes modern thinking in baseball… suppose that Algebra Trig course paid off after all.
There’s no time like the national stage of October baseball to dissect some of the quiet undertones and influential business moves for an organization on the cusp of greatness.
As fans of the Cubs and more importantly the game of baseball, we cannot celebrate the analytical approach taken by Maddon and Theo & Company to reconstruct a club of historical losers into a relevant juggernaut without throwing a few accolades in the direction of baseball forefathers Earl Weaver and Bill James.
More than just background narrative, the byline to the drama that is October baseball is crash course for fan on the business of sport and helps lend perspective to why Theo’s regime was rewarded with contract extensions to continue making the tough decisions for the Cubs for many years to come.
Tonight’s Game 1 is the final stage in a four step process for the writing of a new history. Don’t stop the clap…
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