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Boys In Blue Try to Bounce Back Against Jake Westbrook - Sunday, July 31, 2011

In the wake of watching the Cubs miss what could have been a good chance at upgrading the future of the franchise, the team will focus on the present, and try to put a win on a record that doesn’t bear repeating. Pitcher Ryan Dempster will toe the rubber against a hungry St. Louis Cardinal team with a playoff berth in sight.

St. Louis Cardinal Jake Westbrook will pitch opposite Dempster tonight, at 7:05 Central Time. The sinker specialist is highly adept at pounding the ball down in the zone. He’s managed 32 ground balls, as opposed to seven fly balls in his past two outings. Westbrook isn’t a strike-out pitcher, throwing mostly fastballs and cutters, and he relies heavily on his defense to convert those ground balls into outs.

Ryan Dempster is coming off his best month yet, although if you look at ERA, you wouldn’t think so. Dempster has a 4.91 ERA in July, however he’s striking out more batters (10.23 K/9), while keeping his walks down (2.86 BB/9). Hits have been falling in against Dempster, leading to big innings. He’s pitching more like a ground ball specialist lately, so we’ll see if his defense picks him up. In his previous game against the Cardinals, he gave up six runs over five innings.

As for Cub batters, the main bats have been in a month-long slump. Starlin Castro has hit 50% worse than average. Carlos Pena has struck out over 30% of his at-bats. Alfonso Soriano has hit for a .183 batting average. Only Aramis Ramirez and Marlon Byrd have been above average contributors at the plate.

Still-Cub first baseman Carlos Pena has hit Westbrook the hardest, to a tune of .333/.395/.879. With some luck, Pena will be able to provide some RBIs out of the four-spot.

Considering the Cubs are currently on a five game losing skid, have a 1-7 record against the Cardinals, and are 17-34 on the road, things don’t look good for the Cubs tonight. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

No Jim Hendry, You’re Wrong - Saturday, July 30, 2011

It’s no secret to the world that the Cubs are having an awful season. As of right now, the Cubs’ record is the third-worst in all of Major League Baseball. Don’t tell Cubs manager Mike Quade that, since apparently he thinks the Cubs can make a push to “compete”–a word that has been out of the franchise’s vocabulary for the entirety of the 2011 season.

At least General Manager Jim Hendry isn’t nearly as irrational as his manager, however his philosophy at the trade deadline is proving he isn’t properly evaluating his team’s talent as much as one would like. Yes, Hendry traded away Kosuke Fukudome–getting more than he would if he simply let the former Cub right fielder walk away after the end of the season–but what about other players that are garnering trade attention?

Hendry told Gordon Wittenmyer that he doesn’t want to “blow the place up and start over and do it right.” Why not?

This team, no matter how you look at it, has contributed to a .396 winning percentage. Something is very, very wrong with that, so explain to Cubs fans: why not do it right?

Hendry cites the need to win now because the Cubs are a large market franchise. The fact is that much of this Chicago team isn’t going to be productive in three years. Why isn’t Ryan Dempster on the trading block? What about Marlon Byrd, who the Braves are apparently eyeing? Why not unload Carlos Pena, who is a free agent at the end of the year? Why not trade Jeff Baker to a contender?

All of the aforementioned players are either 30 years of age or older, so what’s the point of holding on to them? Hendry’s obsession with keeping expensive veterans on the team is frustrating to say the least, and it’s why the Cubs are in their present position.

Hendry has single-handedly handcuffed the franchise with poor contract signings like Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Pena, Carlos Silva, and John Grabow. Those players have combined to make up for 44 percent of the team’s payroll this season, yet have only recouped 20 percent of their value (according to FanGraphs).

Maybe Jim Hendry isn’t afraid to completely rebuild the team, maybe he’s afraid to admit he’s been wrong all these years.

Fallout From the Fukudome Trade - Thursday, July 28, 2011

Word out of Chicago is that the Cubs have traded Kosuke Fukudome to the Cleveland Indians for prospects Abner Abreu and Carlton Smith.

Chicago will certainly pick up most of the remaining portion of Fukudome’s contract, a reported $775,000 of the remaining $3.9M remaining. The Cubs also brought up Tyler Colvin, although Pat Sullivan is reporting that Tony Campana will start tonight’s game in right field.

The implications of this trade are broad, as the Cubs were able to shed an outfielder on the wrong side of 30 years old whose skill set is limited to drawing walks.

Thus far, Fukudome has generated 0.2 WAR (according to FanGraphs) much of his decline coming from losing his once prominent range in the field as he has aged. All of his offensive value has derived from his ability to draw walks, as he has posted a strong .374 OBP, however only a .369 slugging percentage. Needless to say, he hasn’t lived up to his $13M+ contract.

As for Colvin, he also has been poor at the plate, although we shall see if a full-time role, combined with more time in the minors will benefit his long-term development.

The prospects that the Cubs received aren’t world-class, blue chip prospects, although neither were the prospects brought back in the Mark DeRosa trade–and one of those turned into a pre-season top 50 prospect (Chris Archer).

Outfielder Abner Abreu was voted to have the best outfield arm in the Cleveland system before the year, according to Baseball America. Abreu, 21, remains raw at the plate as his .294 OBP will explain. In spite of that, he has some offensive tools you can dream on. Baseball America ranked him 23rd among Cleveland prospects before the season.

Pitcher Carlton Smith, 25, isn’t much more than a relief arm that the Cubs will bring up in case of an injury to the pen. It’ll be hard to see him as more of a seventh inning guy.

All in all, this trade is better than what the Cubs would have gotten for Fukudome had they let him just coast to free agency. He wouldn’t have garnered a Type-B free agent compensation in the offseason, so this deal, while the Cubs eat almost all of Fukudome’s contract, is a big win.

Matt Garza Needs a Rabbit’s Foot - Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cubs starting pitcher Matt Garza was acquired this past offseason to fill the shoes of the departed Ted Lilly, in hope that he would shore up the front of the rotation. Many Cubs fans thought that he would put up number one starter-worthy numbers, mainly due to his post-season success and former top-prospect status, although his number would suggest that he would be a solid number two starter due to his fly ball tendencies and average strikeout rate.

This season, Garza has given up a total of eight earned runs in only 12.2 innings (5.68 ERA), although there is evidence that he has just been simply unlucky.

Looking past his outstanding fielding independent number (0.59 FIP), Garza has more than doubled his strikeout rate (6.60 K/9 in 2010 to 14.21 this season) and ground ball to fly ball ratio (from .80 to 2.00 GB/FB), while lowering his walk rate – all keys for a dominating starting pitcher.

Garza’s struggles lie within his fielding-dependent profile. Hits are falling for a .541 average, more than 250 points than his career norm. This can be attributed to a spike in his line drive percent, although the way he is accumulating swings and misses should point to batters getting weaker contact against him.

The most obvious reason for the high amount of hard-hit balls is due to the fact that Garza has been too predictable this year. Garza is pumping first-pitch strikes at a 71% rate, a frequency far higher than his 57% career norm. In addition, he is throwing his fastball as his first pitch 81% of the time. Hitters are simply attacking the first-pitch fastball, knowing they can’t hit his off-speed offerings.

The key for Garza in 2011 is to change his philosophy. He needs to throw more of his 12-6 curveball in general, since he relies heavily on his four-seam and two-seam fastballs and sliders primarily. Mixing in his curve, which has been his third or fourth pitch offering for much of his career, would keep hitters off-balance and provide Garza an avenue to improve on his success.

Aramis Ramirez’s Approach At The Plate Thus Far - Saturday, April 9, 2011

Cub Third baseman Aramis Ramirez missed a total 20 days in 2010 due to a left thumb sprain; an injury which appeared to affect his bat control, as he posted the lowest contact rate and highest swinging strike rate in his entire career as a Chicago Cub. However, he smashed 25 home runs last season.

Hitting long, majestic homers have been Ramirez’s MO as a Cub, but as his age climbed, his swinging strike rate followed. Always known for a violent swing, Ramirez’s walk rate has steadily decreased the past three seasons, culminating last season, as he posted a .294 on-base percentage (for comparison’s sake, Alfonso Soriano had a higher OBP than Ramirez in 2010).

Ramirez has followed last season’s campaign with a completely different strategy at the plate, as he appears to have traded his 25-35 home run power in exchange for a more patient, contact-oriented approach to hitting.

This season Ramirez is yet to strike-out, and is drawing walks at a rate which stands more than twice his career norm . His swinging strike rate stands a career low 4.4%, as he is laying off tougher pitches to hit with what appears to be a more controlled swing.

Take a look at the offerings he’s laid off this season (as seen from the catcher):

pastedGraphic.pdf

Ramirez has laid off some tough pitches on the outside part of the plate, and below the strike zone.

Now let’s take a look at the pitches he’s swung at:

pastedGraphic_1.pdf

Every pitch that he’s swung at has been in the general vicinity of the strike zone, with exception to a fastball and change-up six inches off the plate. He’s basically attacking the inside part of the plate, and laying off pitches on the outer part, limiting his vulnerability to the slider low and away.

As I mentioned, Ramirez looks to have swapped this more patient, controlled approach with his infamous power. While he did just hit a two-run homer in a loss Wednesday against Arizona (located on the inside part of the plate), Ramirez’s line-drive percentage is more than half of what he has averaged for his career. Those line-drive hits have basically turned into ground balls, which have less of a chance to fall in for hits than liners. His batting average on balls in play stands at .245, which would signal for his .280 batting average to rise a bit, but with the small amount of liners comes a depressed BABIP.

WIth this year being the last on Ramirez’s contract, the third baseman has a lot to say in terms of a future contract. His 2011 season could prove to be a big one if he plays up for a big contract this upcoming offseason. Ramirez doesn’t have to hit 38 home runs like he did in 2006 to get a long-term deal. If he hits roughly for a .300 batting average and near a .400 on-base percentage to go with 20 home runs, he will walk to the open market, leaving the Cubs a Type-A draft pick compensation.

Ron Santo’s 1967 Is The Reason He Isn’t In The Hall of Fame - Friday, March 18, 2011

Hometown bias aside, Ron Santo’s exclusion from the National Baseball Hall of Fame is one of the biggest absurdities in the sport. Playing in what was largely a pitcher’s era, Santo posted above-average numbers for a decade, with Gold-Glove defense to-boot, so why does Ron Santo’s bust not grace the hallowed Hall of Fame?

Ron Santo certainly has hall-worthy numbers; he ranks second among Chicago Cub position players in career Wins Above Replacement with 80, second to Cap Anson (81) and 17 WAR more than Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg. From 1963-1972 he averaged 6.3 WAR, including a peak from 1964 to 1967 when averaged 8.5 WAR per season.

Never-mind that he ranks eighth on the all-time third basemen list, Santo held a career during what was considered the Golden Age of third basemen. Perhaps overshadowed by legends Brooks Robinson, Eddie Mathews, and Harmon Killebrew, Santo was a consistent superstar on Cubs teams that sported stars and scrubs teams for much of his career, which led to lackluster team performances year in and year out.

Cubbie teams in the late sixties featured mainstays such as Randy Hundley, Billy WIlliams, Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins, and of course, Ron Santo. You would figure such a team led by those players would provide several division titles, but to say their supporting cast was poor would be a complement.

The Cubs never once made the playoffs in Ron Santo’s career.

Surely, this has had some weight as to how Santo’s career has been viewed. Santo’s Hall of Fame support has picked up steam with the rise of sabermetrics, but old-school writers look at awards and base-line counting statistics (career hits, RBI, home runs), which could ultimately be the reason Santo hasn’t been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Santo doesn’t have great baseball card statistics (2254 hits, 342 HR, .277 AVG), but there is reason to believe that if he could have had a shiny MVP award on his resume, he would certainly be already in the Hall.

That award should have been doled out to Santo in 1967. The perfect storm of a World Series-winning St. Louis Cardinals team and the Cubs’ year-to-year futility resulted in significant voters bias to vote on the “winning” St. Louis players such as Orlando Cepeda (7.6 WAR) and Tim McCarver (6.6 WAR) over Santo, who posted 10.2 WAR that year.

Ron Santo’s 1967 season was only second to Hall of Fame Red Sox left fielder Carl Yastrzemski in total WAR, and nearly two full wins more than Pittsburgh Pirate Hall of Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente.

Santo was never again able to post a season such as 1967, however he put up several above-average seasons into his early 30‘s. Santo was eventually traded to the White Sox, where he posted a -0.9 WAR as a designated hitter, and retired at the age of 34, essentially ruining his legacy, and putting a sour taste in Hall voters.

A casualty of diabetes, Ron Santo lost his life this past December.

If Santo had claimed that MVP award in 1967, he surely would have made his way into the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, winning as a team has a great deal of weight in Hall of Fame voting.

Rest in peace Ronny.

The Mariano Rivera Effect on the Cubs - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The acquisition of Kerry Wood was seen as an under-the-radar hometown discount for the Cubs, as he signed for a below-market value for the team that drafted him fourth overall in the 1995 amateur draft. Wood’s value may prove to be more important beyond a simple dollars and cents mindset, as he is showing he is translating his experiences with the best closer ever towards mentoring younger Cub pitchers in a big way.

pastedGraphic.pdfKerry Wood was acquired by the New York Yankees at the trade deadline of the 2010 season, a buy-low move for the Yankees in need of bullpen help. After the move, Wood put up a solid season on the surface (0.69 ERA), but struggled with his command (6.23 BB/9). He showed he was utterly dominant at times, limiting batters to a .157 batting average, and sporting a 10.73 K/9 ratio.

Looking at Wood’s pitch-type values, there is evidence that he sustain his successes as a Cub. After the trade to the Yankees, Wood dropped his fastball usage to a career low 53% (64% career average). He started throwing a lot more cutters (a 10% increase) in place of his fastball. Following his application of the pitch, his effectiveness of the cutter also rose, becoming his most effective pitch in his arsenal.

It’s easy to speculate that legendary Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera has at least some influence in his improvement of Wood’s cutter, Rivera’s bread and butter pitch. Anyone can guess, but it’s too difficult to mark this up as sheer coincidence.

As Rivera may have taught a thing or two about his cutter, it appears as if Wood may also have some things to teach about the pitch to some of the Cub pitchers. Jon Heyman speculated that he could provide some guidance with the pitch in the future (toss-up to Captain Obvious for the assist), but it appears as if the future is now.

Carrie Muskat reported that Andrew Cashner has been working on a cutter this spring. Could Wood be a driving factor in Cashner’s usage of the pitch? One can only wonder, but again, it can’t be chalked up to pure coincidence. It could be a reason as to why Cashner has struggled with is control in the spring.

2011 offers many interesting story lines to follow, and it will be interesting to see which Cub pitchers follow suit and pick up the cutter.

Andrew Cashner’s Spring Training Mirage - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Small sample sizes are a big reason as to why baseball fans and analysts scoff at any positive performances in spring training. Andrew Cashner’s spring doesn’t offer any exception, as his 3.97 ERA is certainly good enough to be the Cubs’ fifth starter on the surface, although his peripheral statistics offer evidence that he should return to Triple-A for more seasoning.

Cashner has had a spring training that offers some things to improve, while also other areas that he can sustain moving forward into the 2011 season. His WHIP is a horrendous 1.59, elevated mostly due to his high walk rate. He currently has walked seven batters, with only six strikeouts.

Cashner does sport a modest .262 batting average against, and if he can continue that success, he could see a modest 2011 campaign. He is also making hitters pound the ball into the ground, as evidenced by his excellent 3.00 ground-out/air-out. If Cashner could focus his 2011 campaign towards pitching to contact, rather than the strikeout, he may see some success in the year. He can then build upon this year, and progress towards limiting contact with his pure stuff in the coming seasons.

His poor K/BB ratio helps elevate his fielding-indpendent pitching (FIP) statistic, which is currently a 5.08 this spring. Cashner could simply be focusing on his third pitch – a change-up – which would diminish his K%. He is throwing about eight pitches per inning, so this could be the reason for a limited amount of strike-outs. If he continues to be economical with his pitches, and work on his free passes, he could see a lot of innings in his first season as a starter, while also suppressing his pitch count.

While 11.1 innings certainly isn’t the statistical sample you want to garner sufficient evidence towards a conclusion, the performance that Andrew Cashner has shown thus far in spring training gives a hint as to how he can improve moving forward into 2011.

How Will Andrew Cashner Fare as a Starter? - Tuesday, March 1, 2011

As of right now, the only certainties are that Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, and Matt Garza are guaranteed their place in the starting rotation, with Dempster being the Opening Day starter (one of the most overrated things in baseball).

With two starting spots being up for grabs, Spring Training will bring a lot of excitement for how things will shake out come April.

Of the competitors, veterans Carlos Silva and Randy Wells have a supposed leg-up, while youngsters Casey Coleman, James Russell, Andrew Cashner, and Jeff Samardzija, along with prospect Chris Carpenter all have a bid in those two spots.

Also, the Cubs will keep their eyes open on dark horse candidates that emerge from solid Spring Training play, similar to how Sean Marshall and Randy Wells earned their spots in the rotation.

That said, Cubs fans should be especially paying attention to the pitching of Andrew Cashner, who pitched exclusively out of relief in 2010. As Bleed Cubbie Blue noted, Jim Hendry said that Cashner will start in 2011, be it for the Cubs or Triple-A Iowa.

Cashner, drafted out of Texas Christian University, was TCU’s primary closer before being drafted by the Cubs with their first-round draft choice in 2008. Cashner successfully made the transition to the rotation in the Cubs farm system, scaling every level of the minors to the Chicago parent club in three years.

Cashner demonstrated frontline starter stuff, although his control gives question to whether or not he profiles as a big-league closer instead. His physical attributes (6-6, 210 lbs) scream starting pitcher, although it will ultimately be his development of a third pitch, a change-up, that will determine his role.

Cashner’s fastball sits in the mid-90’s, and he works it low in the zone, typically. He locates his fastball low and away to righties, occasionally running it inside, while primarily keeping his fastball away from lefties, as seen here:

Fastball Use: Righties vs. Lefties (as seen from the catcher)

pastedGraphic.pdf                pastedGraphic_1.pdf

Cashner also features a wipe-out slider/curve that is used as a strike-out pitch against right-handed batters.

Slider Use vs. Righties (as seen from the catcher)

pastedGraphic_2.pdf

Ultimately, Cashner’s fate will lie in that change-up, which he tried to employ against lefties with some success in terms of location.

Change-up Use vs. Lefties (as seen from the catcher)

pastedGraphic_3.pdf

Personally, I would like to see Cashner go back to Triple-A for a bit more seasoning, and develop his change-up into a Major League-average pitch that he can mix in with his other two plus pitches. Looking at the Cubs’ bullpen, it doesn’t make much sense to continue working Cashner into the mix, as Sean Marshall, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Marmol headline the back end.

Cashner’s long-term value ultimately depends on whether or not he can contribute as a Major League starter. If he cannot, he will be destined for a closer or set-up role, depending on the long term success of Carlos Marmol. Either way, Cashner will be a Major League contributor for many years to come.

The Carlos Marmol Contract - Thursday, February 17, 2011

As you may have heard, Carlos Marmol and the Cubs recently agreed to a three year deal worth $20M. This deal not only avoided a potentially nasty arbitration hearing, but also bought out the final two seasons of arbitration eligibility, as well as his first season of free agency. So let’s look at how this deal shakes out in terms of value, and what it means for Marmol and the Cubs.

Carlos Marmol put up pretty darn good numbers, to say the least. Marmol put up a total value of 3.1 WAR as the Cubs closer in 2010, more than his previous three major league seasons combined. His increase in value stems primarily from a major increase in strikeout rate, from 11.31 to 15.99 (!), along with a combination of limiting walks and home runs and his usual dominance over limiting contact.

As Marmol typically does, he threw more sliders than fastballs in 2010, but where he progressed heavily is in his ability to throw the first strike, something that was lost on him in previous seasons. He threw the first-pitch strike 62.7% of the time, a marked improvement over 2009-10, where he threw first-pitch strikes around 49% of the time.

Undoubtedly, this threw hitters far off-balance, as they made only 61% contact (~80% league average), and generating swinging strikes 14.4% of the time.

Along with the inability to make contact on Marmol’s offerings came the inability to get on base via hit, as hitter’s only batted a .147 average against him, a 20 point drop from the previous season.

The area Marmol struggles in is giving free passes, to no shock to Cubs fans. Marmol walked 6 batters per nine innings pitched in 2010, far below league average.

Moving forward, as Marmol (a converted catcher) learns greater feel for his pitches, and how to pitch, his walks should regress even more from 2009 (7.91 BB/9).

The question regarding Marmol is that how much longer can he throw all those sliders without his arm falling off?

He’s never had shoulder or elbow issues, and his limited history as a pitcher surely helps him limit those types of injuries.

As for Marmol’s contract itself, he gets paid a peasant’s salary of $3.2M in 2011, with a bump to $7M in 2012, and again to $9.8M in 2013 – again, what would have been his first year of free agency.

Assuming that the fair market value of a win is roughly $5M, if Marmol produces an average of 2 wins per year for the next three years (an under-estimation of what he should produce), this deal will provide roughly $10M of value for the Cubs.

With the financial security given to Marmol, and the expected value that he should provide to the Cubs, it seems like a win-win for both sides of the deal.

Cubs fans just have to hope that his arm doesn’t fall off in the process.

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