Getting defensive: Cubs trying to shift the odds in their favor

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Getting defensive: Cubs trying to shift the odds in their favor

CINCINNATI These plays wont make the highlight reel, and will never draw as much attention as Starlin Castro making an error.

You may not have noticed if youve been tuning into the Bulls, or listen to the noise about Castro changing positions. But watch enough of the Cubs and youll see balls that look like base hits, except a defender is already there.

This isnt a reason to print playoff tickets, and no one is saying this is a great defensive team. Front offices not to mention media types and casual fans have struggled to measure defense.

But these defensive shifts and calculated positioning offer insight into the type of organization team president Theo Epstein and manager Dale Sveum are trying to build.

Its a 90 percent rule, Sveum said Wednesday. If a guys going to hit a ball here 90 percent of the time, then why dont you play there?

Its like playing blackjack. You dont hit on 16. If you have a 10, you better hit on 10. Its the same factors sometimes. Youre just playing the odds. And if the odds are in your favor to do something, then you need to take advantage.

Scan the field during the second inning on Wednesday night at Great American Ball Park. Jay Bruce, a powerful left-handed hitter in the middle of the Cincinnati Reds lineup, steps to the plate.

Castro shifted to the other side of second base. First baseman Bryan LaHair moved close to the line. Second baseman Blake DeWitt played in between them. Third baseman Ian Stewart almost moved to short.

Everyones on the same page, second baseman Darwin Barney said. It gives us all something to work on together and develop a game plan. (Its) just feeling prepared. There were sometimes in the past where I felt like we were out-prepared. This year I dont feel like thats the case at all.

Sveum really got into the B.A.T.S. video system as the third-base coach with the Boston Red Sox in 2004 and 2005. As a high school quarterback, he was good enough to turn down a scholarship offer to Arizona State University.

Sveum became a film rat at Fenway Park. As much as the Cubs wanted the Red Sox model, they also seem to be getting a version of Bill Belichicks New England Patriots.

Sveums detailed spray charts resonated with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer during the interview process. They looked at the game through similar lenses and made a significant investment in the teams video capabilities.

Even with better technology, the players still have to buy in. Carlos Zambranos ideas of where the infielders should be didnt always match up with the coaching staff, and Marlon Byrd could be a bit of a freelancer at times in center field.

The Cubs know that hitters want to drive the ball from left-center to right-center, a kind of V-formation, so they will pinch up the middle to try to take that away.

Before each series, third-base coach Pat Listach will watch the last 100 groundballs from each position player on the opposing team, because swings can change over the course of a season. That right there is a database of 1,300 at-bats.

Were trying to play the percentages, Listach said. The charts dont lie.

There are other variables, like breaking it down with two strikes and charting which balls were hit hard and which ones were not. Utility man Jeff Baker credited Listach and first-base coach Dave McKay, who works with the outfielders.

Theyre busting their tail and no one really sees that, Baker said. They kind of just stay down at the end of the dugout and position guys.

Its frustrating as a hitter when you square a ball up and you hit it into a shift, or someones playing you where they normally dont play you, and youre out. It can start to wear on you a little bit.

The second part is our pitchers have been executing their game plan to where were playing a shift on a guy and theyre still throwing it where they need to throw it. You can put a shift on somebody, a dead pull hitter, the pitcher pounds him away and it makes you kind of look like youre not on the same page.

I dont think people realize how much time our coaching staff puts into it. From the top to the bottom, (theyre) prepared.

That culture is what Sveum will be judged on during his first year on the job. The Cubs will keep trying to beat the casino.

Were doing a lot of homework, Barney said. Were trying to come out with a game plan (and) as many cards in our back pocket as we can.

Jose Quintana giving White Sox another ace to play as early season success rolls on

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Jose Quintana giving White Sox another ace to play as early season success rolls on

The White Sox newfound brand of crisp, clean baseball is suiting Jose Quintana awfully well. 

The 27-year-old left-hander pitched another gem Tuesday night, firing eight innings of one-run ball to propel the White Sox to a 4-1 win over the Boston Red Sox in front of 15,025 at U.S. Cellular Field.

Anchored by improved offensive and defensive support, Quintana lowered his season ERA to 1.40. But more jarring — in a positive way — is that in earning the win on Tuesday, Quintana for the first time in his career won three consecutive starts. 

“It’s way better this year,” Quintana said. “The offense is, for me and for everybody, everybody tries to do his job. We’re off to a really good start and we believe this year is a good year for us, and we’ll try to do everything to stay in first place.”

Quintana’s posted consistently solid results since the White Sox plucked him from Double-A Birmingham to start in a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians four years ago. His decidedly-not-flashy-but-effective pitching style didn’t make headlines like his prolific teammate Chris Sale, but a 3.46 ERA and an unfairly poor win-loss record landed him on plenty of lists and social media takes focused on the most underrated or overlooked players in baseball. 

That’s changed this year. Before his stellar start Tuesday, Quintana was given 8/1 odds by the sports betting website Bovada to win the American League Cy Young, the third-best of anyone (Sale led the way at 6/5). It’s still early, of course, but these six starts to begin the 2016 season stand is one of the best stretches he’s had in his career. 

Manager Robin Ventura attributed Quintana’s ace-like success in part to pitching with a little less pressure than in the past. 

“There is something to be said for going out there thinking if you give up one you’re going to lose,” Ventura said. “It’s been a few years for him. Right now (with) the feeling going on in there, he knows if he just pitches his game those guys are going to scratch out some runs for him.”

The White Sox continue to show signs of ending a head-scratching inability to support Quintana. 

Jose Abreu’s first-inning RBI triple got the White Sox scoring started and his double in the eighth added two insurance runs (a Todd Frazier groundout in the third inning plated the White Sox other run). For the fifth time in six starts this season, Quintana was supported by four or more runs, and Adam Eaton and Austin Jackson made sparkling defensive plays to keep hard-hit balls from inflicting any damage. 

Having the offense score four or more runs in 83 percent of Quintana’s starts seems unlikely — if he makes 32 starts this year, that’d mean he’d get that support in about 27 of those — but it is an improvement off the last few seasons. The White Sox scored three or fewer runs in 54 percent of Quintana’s starts from 2013-15, a span in which it’s worth noting the club also was rated as having the third-worst defense in baseball by DRS and UZR. 

“There’s more of a confidence level of him knowing he doesn’t have to do an extraordinary thing — and he might do it, like tonight,” Ventura said. “But he doesn’t feel like he has to do it on his own.”

Quintana isn’t throwing harder this year and hasn’t added a new pitch or anything like that. But Ventura’s theory on why the Colombia native is pitching better makes sense — perhaps the next step in Quintana’s career was getting a good, reliable team playing behind him.

“He’s probably one of the best right now in the league,” first baseman Jose Abreu said through a translator. 

That’s not hyperbole. Quintana has a top-10 ERA that’s backed up by a 2.12 FIP, which is a good indicator that his early-season success isn’t necessarily a small sample size-generated mirage. 

Quintana is a shining example of how so much has gone right for the White Sox this season — even on the day in which the team announced it would eat over $11 million to cut ties with veteran left-hander John Danks. Not only is he pitching better, but everyone around him is playing better. And the combination of that, so far, has taken Quintana and the White Sox to another level. 

“Everything changed,” Quintana said. “Everything is going in a good direction this year. We believe in that.”

Today on CSN: Lester, Cubs go for sweep in Pittsburgh

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Today on CSN: Lester, Cubs go for sweep in Pittsburgh

The Cubs look to sweep the Pittsburgh Pirates this afternoon, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 11 a.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Today’s starting pitching matchup: Jon Lester (2-1, 1.83) vs. Juan Nicasio (3-2, 3.33)

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Rick Hahn: Filling fifth spot in White Sox rotation a 'fluid situation'

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Rick Hahn: Filling fifth spot in White Sox rotation a 'fluid situation'

Erik Johnson gets the first chance at the No. 5 spot in the White Sox rotation, but the situation is hardly finalized.

The White Sox announced Tuesday that they would promote Johnson from Triple-A Charlotte in time to make Thursday’s start in place of John Danks, whom they will officially designated for assignment later this week. But just because Johnson gets the first start doesn’t mean he’s here for good, general manager Rick Hahn said.

Hahn and the White Sox have made it clear they want better production from the fifth spot, whether it's from an internal or an external option.

“It’s going to be a bit of a fluid situation,” Hahn said.

Hahn is comfortable with the team’s internal options at Charlotte beyond Johnson.

Miguel Gonzalez, who started last Monday in Toronto, has a solid major league track record. Then there’s Jacob Turner, who has 27 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings with a 3.04 ERA in five starts.

But Hahn also said the White Sox wouldn’t shy away from looking outside the farm system, either. Hahn declined to answer whether or not the White Sox would watch Tim Lincecum’s tryout Friday in Scottsdale, Ariz. before he noted the club has “scouts everywhere.”

The White Sox could also try and use their internal options to get by for several months before adding another pitcher ahead of the trade deadline.

No matter whom they turn to, the expectation is better results than the White Sox received from Danks, who was 0-4 with a 7.25 ER in four starts.

“Obviously, Erik starts on Thursday,” Hahn said. “After that, we may well make another move next week as we try to accomplish two things with that spot -- first and foremost, get greater production than we’ve been receiving thus far this year.”

“We do have a few internal options.

“If it does get to the point where we’re better off going outside the organization, obviously we’ve never been shy about doing that.”