One of the challenges of playing half of your games at Wrigley Field is that not only does it play so differently from any other ballpark, it also can be a very different ballpark itself whether it is warm or cold or depending on how the wind is blowing. It is hard enough to build a team that can adapt to Wrigley from month to month, much less a team that can compete consistently in the different parks around the league.
But I think instead of looking that as a disadvantage, it can present a challenge with the result being a chameleon team that can change according to the setting.
The team has gotten off to a poor start in all 3 seasons since the Epstein administration has taken over. We can blame much of that on unsettled bullpens, something that figures to change this season. But we can also blame it on fielding teams that were unable to adapt to difficult hitting conditions.
Wrigley tends to play like a big ballpark early in the season. With their power somewhat neutralized, they found themselves with few alternatives. They didn’t get on base enough and, outside of Emilio Bonifacio, couldn’t do much once they did get on base. They didn’t have speed nor did they have enough contact hitters to safely put runners in motion.
The Cubs have a manager in Joe Maddon who would like to utilize that,
“I can see speed – including using it creatively – becoming a more important part of the game. I think the trend might be going back to the way the game had been before the unrealistic home run numbers arrived and walks became prominent. I really don’t know.”
But as Red Sox manager Ben Cherington notes in the same article,
“Offense has changed. Power, at least in terms of home runs, is down. Even on-base percentage is down. There are all sorts of reasons for that. We know we need to build a better offense, but we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. If we can see pitches and get on base, and still hit for power and hit with runners in scoring position, I still think that’s a formula to score runs.”
So maybe a combination of the two? That seems to be the best fit for their ballpark and it looks like the direction the Cubs are heading…
Make no mistake, though, the Cubs have drafted power and have done much to acquire better OBP skills both at the major and minor league level, so that will always be the biggest part of their game. And the simple fact of the matter is that OBP correlates to winning, simply because base runners translate to runs which, in turn, translate to victories. Power is a way to get those runs in bunches, since it is unlikely any team is going to be able to keep the line moving one at a time with walks and singles. Eventually, you have to get those bases and those runs in chunks. It helps you get the most out of your base runners. Power creates efficiency in that respect.
But what happens on days and in parks where that power is a little harder to come by? As Maddon also notes, power is already down across the board after the PED era and as new information seems to benefit pitchers and defense. What else can you do?
Obviously you still have to get on base, but I think you also have to be more creative about moving them — hopefully without creating too many outs in the process with sac bunts and getting caught on the bases.
I believe the Cubs have begun to shape their roster to be flexible depending on the environment. On days when the wind blows in maybe you’re better off with guys who put the ball in play, get on base, and can create on the bases. Maybe that is a day Tommy La Stella gets a start and Baez gets a breather. Maybe on days when you need more speed, you work Alcantara and Fowler into the lineup, and maybe you utilize Castro and Soler on the bases more.
But when the wind is blowing out and a breaking ball dependent LHP is on the mound? Well, by all means you stack the lineup with RH power like Baez, Soler, Castro, Alcantara, Olt, and eventually Bryant and neutralize their strength by making them go to their fastball and change-up more often. Conversely, when a tough righty is on the mound, you can insert some combination of Fowler, Coghlan, La Stella, Coghlan and Montero to combat that pitcher’s strengths and tendencies.
And what about a team with a bad bullpen. why not stack the lineup with guys who can grind out ABs, get the pitch count up, and get the starting pitcher out of the game early?
The Cubs have the kind of data to go beyond all of this as well and focus on what type of pitchers against which young Cubs hitters match-up better in terms of their strengths/weaknesses as hitters vs. the pitchers strengths/weaknesses. That is, in addition to adapting to their environment they can put players as individuals in situations where they can succeed.
I believe that, in addition to the kinds of general upgrades we have spoken of in the past, this is what Maddon and the front office are thinking. The point I am trying to make is the Cubs are on their way toward building a roster that can adapt to different environments as well as match-up based on who the opponent is and what their strengths are. When they spoke about lengthening the lineup, it is as much about avoiding the one size fits all team they’ve been forced to be based on not having enough talent to mix and match. It seems especially important early in the season when the Cubs haven’t been creative or flexible enough to overcome the quirks of early season baseball at Wrigley. It is important for the Cubs to get off to a good start this season if they expect to contend and perhaps even be buyers at the trade deadline. And to do that they have to have the kind of roster that gives them the best chance to win on any given day.
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