"Why don't the Cubs work on fundamentals. It's the same old @#&% every year."
-- My dad, every season since 1974
It seems that no matter who was in charge, the Cubs never really excelled at the little things. That may be beginning to change this year. In case you missed it, Sahadev Sharma wrote a piece on Alfonso Soriano where he stated,
" Soriano admitted that this year was the first time he’s ever gotten instruction on how to play the outfield. First base coach Dave McKay routinely coaches all the outfielders on how to play defense."
I think the key phrase here is "instruction on how to play".
There's little doubt Soriano's defense has been addressed over the years, but any coach can tell you to work on things. A good coach teaches you how to do it. It's not just the amount of work you put in, it has to have some sort of direction. It's pin-pointing a specific issue to work on and learning how to do it the right way. If you're just telling a guy to put extra work in, he's likely to keep practicing to make the same mistakes. To me that was the case with Soriano and his defense up until this year.
The Cubs, however, have a new way of doing things and it's starting to look like a marked improvement over the old Cubs way. With that in mind, let's compare some of the old Cubs way of doing things with their new way of doing things..
Old Cub Way: Hee-Seop Choi
If you go back to old scouting reports, you might read something like this: "Excellent power from the left side, good plate discipline...but has trouble with lefties, swing gets too long and can sometimes be busted inside." We could well be talking about the 2011 Anthony Rizzo here, but that was the book on Choi back when he was the Cubs top prospect and future first baseman. Choi never did figure out lefties, hitting .151 and striking out over a 1/3 of the time in his career. He never shortened up his stroke and as a Cubs, never adjusted to pitchers who would work him up and in. The Cubs eventually traded him off for 1B Derrek Lee.
New Cub Way: Anthony Rizzo
After a disastrous debut with the Padres, Rizzo actually played well for the Cubs in the spring. The new Cubs weren't going to be fooled. They knew Rizzo needed to work on a few things. Rizzo was sent back to Iowa this year with specific goals: improve against lefties, shorten up his swing, and work on his defense. Check, check, and check.
Old Cubs Way: Shawon Dunston
Dunston was brimming over with natural, but unrefined talent when the Cubs drafted him first overall. You couldn't help but think that after polishing his skills in the minors, the Cubs would soon have a superstar SS on their hands. But that polish never came. It was almost as if Dunston made it to the majors as basically the same player he was in high school. His immense talent got him by, a rocket arm and outstanding range made up for some poor positioning in the field. Extremely quick hands helped him become a decent hitter despite a frighteningly bad approach at the plate, and track-star level raw speed helped him overcome some questionable instincts on the bases. The shame of it all was that Dunston was a humble kid who worked and played hard. He was ripe for good instruction. As it was Dunston was an exciting player, but he should have been a lot better than he was.
New Cubs Way: Starlin Castro
Castro is still a work in progress but the Cubs have wasted no time coaching him up this season. He has some quickness in the field with a strong arm, but up until this year, his range was sub-par and his throws were often short. The Cubs improved his positioning in the field and his footwork on his throws and he has become at least a solid average SS on defense this year. They've also dared to tinker with him at the plate. He's the Cubs most natural hitter but the Cubs have altered his approach and after a struggle, it's begun to pay some dividends. In addition to refining his approach, the Cubs have shortened his leg kick to help him generate more power. The old Cubs would have left him to his natural talents and let him hit .300 with an occasional spectacular play on defense. These Cubs want him to get on base more and hit for more power while also being a consistent asset in the field.
Old Cubs Way: Corey Patterson
We all have our lasting memories of Corey Patterson but one thing we can agree stifled his potential was his bad approach at the plate. He did not want to walk and he took a home run cut regardless of the situation, resulting in some maddening strikeouts with men on base when all he needed to do was make contact. It didn't help that he was stubborn and insisted on doing things his way, but I can't help but think this Cubs staff would have gotten through to him much better than the old one did.
New Cubs Way: Welington Castillo
They may play different positions but they are both short, physically strong hitters who take big swings -- and neither took a whole lot of pitches in the early minors. In fact, I had a Corey Patterson flashback the other day when Castillo struck out on a huge rip with the tying run on 3rd and nobody out. Dale Sveum talked to Castillo about it afterward. In the very next opportunity in the same situation: tying run on 3B, less than two outs and two strikes, Castillo cut down on his swing and went the other way. The result was a sacrifice fly to RF that scored Rizzo with the tying run. Unlike Patterson, Castillo has also greatly improved his discipline at the plate, seeing almost 4 pitches per AB and walking in nearly 10% of his plate appearances, both rank among the team's best.
The two players are/were also both gifted defensively from a physical standpoint, but Castillo has the challenge of playing a more mentally demanding position. He also had to change positions while Patterson had played CF his whole life. Castillo has worked hard to become a competent receiver behind the plate to go with his tremendous physical skills, particularly his throwing arm. In fact, Sveum singled Castillo out as the player who has developed the most this season.
Those are just a few anecdotes and I'm sure you guys will have a lot more, but I want to point out that it's not limited to the major league club. No longer is it assumed that a talented player can get by in the majors without making adjustments (i.e. Felix Pie). The Cubs have addressed them early and have been instrumental in the development of players such as Javier Baez and Dan Vogelbach. Rather than rushing them, the Cubs spent a lot of time with both players in extended spring training and the results have been outstanding. The Cubs are taking a similar approach with Jorge Soler and Albert Almora. Rather than remain agape after his HR in Kane County (as I have), the Cubs are addressing some slight flaws in Soler's swing this fall in instructs. I also expect the Cubs to work on getting Almora to take more pitches and tone down his leg kick as well.
There's also still some work to be done on baserunning. Ryan Theriot was famous for his baserunning blunders in his short time here. There's even an acronym (TOOTBLAN) named after him that some use to describe all gaffes on the bases. But after seeing bonehead mistakes by players such as Starlin Castro, Luis Valbuena, and Dave Sappelt this season, we'll have to chalk that up as an area to improve on for 2013.
Filed under: Analysis