Yesterday we got both a moral victory and the real deal. Not only did the Cubs get a win but they got a big performance from the core and a couple of relief pitchers who could join that group by season's end.
What made last year so difficult was not just that the Cubs struggled once again -- most of us expected that. But it was the regression of the core -- specifically Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo that was of greater concern.
I tried to give then manager Dale Sveum the benefit of the doubt for as long as possible. I did this despite a run differential and a Pythagorean record that suggested they should have been better. But those things aren't as important as the development of the young core and that was Sveum's biggest failure.
Despite the Cubs front office desire to bring in a more new school type manager, Sveum was cut out of an old school, tough guy cloth. He is the kind who believes that players today are too soft and that his main job was preparation, particularly from a mechanical, nuts and bolts standpoint. Sveum had the managing style of an auto mechanic, keep the parts well-oiled, make an occasional adjustment, tinker around with the engine, and then the car should run fine by itself.
And what's more, he didn't appear to be a particularly good mechanic. The bunting tournaments, while fun, did nothing to prepare the team during the season. The mechanical adjustments he made to Anthony Rizzo created more pop-ups than base hits and the heavy handed approach to changing Starlin Castro made the young shortstop more tentative than disciplined.
In some respects, Sveum was right, but his style was far too dispassionate, too disconnected from the realities of today's game. It's not a one size fits all environment. You have different players that come from different backgrounds, different cultures -- they aren't machines that come with the same instruction manual. Managers like Joe Maddon and Tony Francona understand that, Sveum did not.
Rick Renteria seems to understand that as well.
While you may not like his lineups or strategic moves, that stuff is secondary to getting the core back on track. That is why Renteria is here. What you hope is that he gets Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo going again, while also developing some new core players. That is more important right now than whether he should have bunted here or put the wrong guy in relief.
As far as getting Castro and Rizzo back on track, so far so good. Castro is not just hitting, but he's hitting the ball with authority again. The tentative swing is gone, the little dinks and dunks to RF have become more of a plan B then his main plan at the plate. Castro is doing less thinking and relying on those instincts that made him such a promising hitter early in his career.
I would be thrilled if Castro could just maintain the .308/.339/.471 line he holds today. I believe he can maintain that .340 ish OBP because he's done it before (in 2010 and 2011). He doesn't have an outlandish BABIP right now, it's at .322 -- about 20 points lower than it was in his best two seasons, so I don't think this is a fluke. And while you may think a .340 BABIP is high -- I disagree. It comes with the territory for .300 hitters because they tend to make hard, line drive contact (Castro's line drive percentage is up to 24.2% from 19.9% last year) and some, like Castro, have the bat control to hit it to all fields, making it difficult to position the defense and anticipate where those batted balls are going. As an example, the top 10 hitters in the NL last season averaged a .362 BABIP. Castro is nowhere near that and he's putting up great offensive numbers.
As for Rizzo, he has dispelled fears that he cannot hit LHPs. He's hitting ,387/.474/.613 against them so far. And like Castro, Rizzo is hitting more line drives again, up to 25.7% compared to 19.6% this year. When it came to Rizzo, Sveum tinkered with his swing, lowering his hands to try and get him to generate more power -- but it also caused him to pop-up with much greater frequency, not to mention an increase in strikeouts. The punchline here is that Rizzo's ISO stayed constant and his slugging went down by about 50 points. So much for that adjustment. It did some harm and it apparently did no good at all.
Rizzo appears to be going back to his old style and hitting the ball with authority again. His natural strength will ensure that he hits HRs in the 25-30 range this year and it won't cost him in terms of more strikeouts and a lower batting average. He doesn't need to cheat to have power, just let the kid's talent for hitting take care of those things.
I also like the way Renteria has used his bullpen. The Arizona game aside, he has slowly increased the responsibility for his young power arms. Hector Rondon is the new closer, Justin Grimm is getting high leverage innings as well, and Renteria even put rookie flame thrower Neil Ramirez in a key situation last year. Ramirez responded with a 1-2-3 8th with a one run lead, displaying a 95-96 mph fastball and a hard 86-87 mph slider, both of which were located well and generated lots of swings and misses. The fact that he quickly responded when given the opportunity likely means Ramirez will get more chances to pitch in those high leverage situations. Renteria has also brought Wesley Wright back after a slow start that had me doubting the signing (I'm happy to be wrong here). Wright is getting the high leverage appearances right now that used to go to James Russell. The Cubs cannot afford loyalty for the sake of loyalty here -- they have to improve their bullpen and if that means displacing Russell and Jose Veras from their roles, then so be it.
Of course the one criticism you hear most is that you would hope that he would take the same approach with Mike Olt and Junior Lake -- but really, is it any different? Like the relievers, Renteria has brought them along gradually, trying to build their confidence before placing the burden of central roles on them. If Rondon and Grimm can play their way into increased roles over veterans, why shouldn't Lake and Olt? Despite the insistence that they should play everyday, I have yet to see one bit of evidence that proves that is the best or only way to develop players. And I feel this is especially true of players who still have holes in their games the way Olt and Lake do -- why set them up to fail? I applaud Renteria for trying to put them in positions where they can succeed and not playing them just because the other guys are struggling too. They seemed to do just fine in spring training without playing everyday -- now suddenly it's hurting their development because they're struggling now? I don't buy it. If they hit the way they did in the spring, they'll be playing everyday soon enough.
So while the Cubs had a horrible April, I'm pleased overall with Renteria. Yes, he's made questionable decisions. Rookie managers will do that, but when it comes to developing the core players, he's light years ahead of his predecessor. There's no way around it right now, Dale Sveum was a mistake and a bad fit for the Cubs. Renteria may not have them winning yet, but he has the young core back on track. And he's doing it by showing confidence in them as ballplayers. He's making baseball fun again. Nothing is more important right now than development of the core. That is how this team can most quickly take that step forward in the near future. And Renteria has taken the approach that the best way to take those first steps toward respectability is to treat all his players with respect.
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