9 intriguing Cubs stats from the first half of 2017

9 intriguing Cubs stats from the first half of 2017

While you’re waiting for the second half to begin (hoping for an improvement over the disappointing start to the season), why not take a moment to appreciate some of the interesting Cubs oddities and achievements over the first 88 games.

Willson Contreras

Contreras hit a leadoff HR in his first career start at leadoff on June 26th. He was the first Cub to hit a leadoff HR in first career start at leadoff since…Anthony Rizzo did it 13 days earlier.

Rizzo was the first Cub to do it since Dee Fondy on June 12, 1951.

Anthony Rizzo

He’s only player in Cubs history with 20 HR and at least 10 more BB (54) than K (43) before the All-Star break (since the All-Star Game started in 1933).

Rizzo is also the: first Cubs leadoff man to get on base to lead off a game in seven straight games since Richie Ashburn June 28-July 3, 1960 (happened to be Rizzo’s first seven career leadoff starts).

Javier Báez

On May 18th, Báez cracked his 30th career home run…it was also his third career grand slam. Báez is the first Cub with 3 grand slams within his first 30 career home runs since Kris Bryant, whose 30th HR (which came in 2016) also was a grand slam. Prior to Bryant & Báez, the only other Cub with three grand slams within first 30 career HR was Dom Dallessandro, whose fifth, seventh and ninth home runs were of the four-run variety (1941-42).

John Lackey

Despite his struggles, he’s the only Cubs pitcher age 38 or older with multiple 10+ strikeout games in a season. 

In fact, he has two of the three 10+ K games by a pitcher 38 or older in Cubs history. Greg Maddux struck out 10 at age 39 in 2005.

Jake Arrieta

While Arrieta has struggled on the mound this season, he has managed to do a few things at the plate (actually, he has a .405 OPS, but still…).

Arrieta is the first Major League pitcher to hit at least one triple in four consecutive seasons since Ray Sadecki (1963-66)

Arrieta is the first Cubs pitcher with at least one triple and one HR in three straight seasons since Bill Hutchinson (1889-92) & Pat Luby (1890-92)

Ian Happ & Kyle Schwarber

The record for most HR by a Cubs player in his first 50 career MLB games is 13 – by two players – Ian Happ & Kyle Schwarber.

Happ hit #13 in Game #50 – as the first of back-to-back HR…with Kyle Schwarber.

Will Cubs clubhouse come together or completely collapse?

Will Cubs clubhouse come together or completely collapse?

This was hours after the Cubs dumped Miguel Montero for ripping Jake Arrieta, becoming the viral national story during a dead spot on the hot-take calendar with the NFL on hiatus and the NBA in between the draft and the start of free agency.

Roughly half the team skipped an optional trip to the White House, where that afternoon board member Todd Ricketts told Donald Trump the Washington Nationals would “crumble” against the Cubs in October. The Nationals at that point had a 98-percent chance to make the playoffs while the defending World Series champs were stuck around .500 and hadn’t been in first place in three weeks. That’s Cub.

Surrounded by reporters on June 28, star manager Joe Maddon sat on the bench in the visiting dugout at Nationals Park, knowing his team would also be playing shorthanded with a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist), Gold Glove outfielder (Jason Heyward) and Cy Young Award finalist (Kyle Hendricks) already on the disabled list and a World Series legend (Kyle Schwarber) demoted back to Triple-A Iowa the week before.

With his eyes shielded by sunglasses, Maddon listened to the question during his pregame media session: Are you concerned about the clubhouse starting to splinter?

“No,” Maddon said, pausing and leaning in as if he would launch into a filibuster or a philosophical dissertation or some story from his days as a minor-league instructor and instead going silent.

Why not?

“Because there’s no reason to,” Maddon said.

OK then, maybe we’re talking to the wrong guy here, because bench coach Dave Martinez usually runs interference and handles a lot of difficult conversations with players.

Just ask John Lackey, who responded this way after a 6-1 loss on June 12 when a reporter mentioned Maddon’s pregame suggestion that the veteran pitcher might change his approach this time against the New York Mets: “Joe doesn’t have much to do with the pitching. I don’t know what he’s talking about there.”

Lackey — who has a history with Maddon, three World Series rings and a 5.20 ERA that ranks 66th out of 74 qualified big-league pitchers — would later crush a softball question about Jon Jay after the super-sub delivered a pinch-hit, game-tying, three-run homer in a comeback win over the Tampa Bay Rays on July 5: “He’s been everything we needed this year. Honestly, I can’t believe he doesn’t play more.”

It’s hard to believe, but there are times where it feels closer to 108 years than eight-plus months since the Cubs last won the World Series.

For all the talk about this 43-45 team getting hot and having a run in them, the Cubs should also be concerned about the possibility of the bottom falling out and this second half turning ugly.

For all the speculation about Theo Epstein’s front office riding to the rescue at the July 31 trade deadline, this post-All-Star break window could be about making sure the Cubs don’t overreact and give up on the wrong young player and do something that blows up The Foundation for Sustained Success. 

That day in Washington, Maddon circled back to his belief in the clubhouse culture and the positive attitude and hands-off style that’s made him a three-time Manager of the Year and a future Hall of Famer. 

“Primarily, again, there’s a lot of guys missing,” Maddon said. “That’s the biggest thing. You’re not going to find splintering among (Albert) Almora and (Javier) Baez and (Addison) Russell and Willson (Contreras) and (Kris) Bryant, to answer your question specifically.

“It’s not about splintering. It’s about youthful players finding their way to the major-league level. We’re missing a lot of the key components that drove us to the World Series last year, and now we’re building another group of components that are going to take us back there again.”

Russell became the subject of a Major League Baseball investigation last month after a third party leveled an abuse allegation on social media, responding to his wife’s since-deleted Instagram post that accused him of infidelity and foreshadowed her divorce filing.

Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base last year and then starred for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, but Maddon didn’t feel comfortable anointing him as the everyday second baseman. Baez has signed endorsement deals worth $2 million in the last six months, according to USA Today, joining forces with Nike, Toyota, Apple and David sunflower seeds and getting on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s body issue. 

Almora, Contreras and Ian Happ haven’t gone through a full season in the majors yet. Backup catcher Victor Caratini made his big-league debut after the Montero fiasco. 

“Splintering is not it at all,” Maddon said. “For me, it’s a patient, consistent approach with me doing my job as the manager and the coaches doing what they’re supposed to do in regards to bringing the message out there on a daily basis.

“It’s a different path. We’re fortunate we are in this division right now, based on the record and we’re still very solvent. (But) it’s an entirely different group — entirely different. I mean, to try to connect the dots between last year and this year, to me, is impossible.”  

Except it’s impossible to ignore after making history. A player agent once described meeting his client on the road last year and noticing the flocks of Cubs fans gathering and growing bigger and bigger as they walked through a mall near the team hotel. This is life after “Embrace The Target.”  

“That’s where you want to be,” said catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello, who won four World Series rings with the New York Yankees. “You want to be that team. It’s this rock-star aura around this club now with all the young guys. Good players, good-looking guys – men, women, everyone wants to be around the team. It was the same way in New York.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Schwarber — who now has the lowest batting average (.178) among all qualified big-league hitters — became part of a Gatorade ad campaign, a face of the New Era hat company and a regular on WMVP-AM 1000. That’s the same station where Anthony Rizzo used his radio gig to either stick up for a teammate or do some of management’s dirty work, burying Montero before the DFA news leaked.

The Twitter account for Rizzo’s charitable foundation — which does admirable work for cancer patients and recently donated $3.5 million to Lurie Children’s Hospital — retweeted Rizzo’s ESPN 1000 comments: “When you point fingers you’re a selfish player. We have another catcher that throws everyone out.” The message above that since-deleted tweet: “Win together, lose together.”

“I think we have a great clubhouse,” Rizzo said. “Guys get along really well. We’re all joking around. We’re all having a good time. We’re just not 25 games over .500. We got to keep playing (and) come together and continue to fight.”

While Bryzzo Souvenir Co. didn’t get the ideal All-Star Game placement, Bryant and Rizzo still combined for 38 homers, 94 RBI and an OPS range between .894 and .928 in the first half. Yet the Cubs are still a stunningly mediocre team with 399 runs scored and 399 runs allowed and 61 errors through 88 games.

The Cubs keep talking about searching for their identity, because that beats the alternative of admitting they’ve already found it.

“It’s a hard thing to define,” Epstein said. “It’s like culture. You can go on and on trying to define it, but it’s like what the Supreme Court said about pornography: You know it when you see it.

“I think our identity last year was all our guys got to the point where they felt like they were part of something bigger than themselves. They felt completely connected with one another. They felt like they were on a mission to win the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

“I think part of their identity was they were keenly aware of how talented they were — and what a special opportunity it was — and how as long as they had each other’s backs, things would work out really well for this group. That meant maybe playing multiple positions or taking less playing time or backing up a teammate rather than playing a leading role.

“Nothing was going to get in the way of the group working together to make history and take advantage of the special opportunities that they had. Every year, the landscape is different. The environment is different. The challenge is different. The circumstances are different. And the group is different.

“Every year, a new identity has to emerge. And I think it just so happens that we’re still in the process of that happening. Again, it’s kind of been a stop-and-start first half of the season for us. We haven’t gotten on any kind of roll.”

Combined, the Cubs are 2-6 against the American League East and 6-11 vs. the Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, a reality check that means the next 74 games could become more and more about player development, 2018 auditions and planning for the future, even while trying to make up that 5.5-game deficit against the Milwaukee Brewers.

“Guys have been around enough, for the most part, to understand that tomorrow if something happens and I don’t walk in this clubhouse, the game will still be played,” Jon Lester said, the $155 million ace looking back on the churn rate. “Regardless of what moves that Theo and the front office and ownership and management feel we need to make, the game will still be played.

“That’s kind of how you have to look at it. There’s a lot of moving parts. It’s not too often that you have a team that doesn’t make a move through the entire course of a season. Some of them as a player you don’t like, and some of them as a player you agree with or whatever, but that’s not our job. Our job is to go out and play with who’s in this clubhouse and make the best of it. That’s all we can control.”

That starts again Friday night at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, where the Cubs will either begin to finally click or continue this slow-motion collapse. As Lackey said: “Winning makes everything better.”

Jake Arrieta sharp again, Ian Happ homers as Cubs top Reds

Jake Arrieta sharp again, Ian Happ homers as Cubs top Reds

CINCINNATI (AP) - Jake Arrieta pitched one-hit ball for seven innings without allowing a stolen base on Sunday, and Ian Happ homered twice in the ballpark where he played as a college star, leading the Chicago Cubs to a 6-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

The Cubs (41-41) salvaged the final game of their series.

Injuries to the starting lineup and inconsistencies in the rotation have left the defending World Series champions treading water. Arrieta (8-6) was coming off a subpar performance that created friction and a surprise move.

The Nationals stole seven bases off Arrieta during their 6-1 win on Tuesday, and catcher Miguel Montero complained afterward about the pitcher's move to the plate with runners on base. Montero was cut loose the following day.

Back in the ballpark where he threw a no-hitter last season, Arrieta was back in form, allowing only Joey Votto's first-inning single and a pair of walks - the Reds were never in position to try to steal. Votto singled home a pair of runs in the eighth off Koji Uehara.

Happ grew up in the Pittsburgh area and played at the University of Cincinnati, including one game at Great American Ball Park. The first-round pick from 2015 hit a two-run homer and a solo shot off Tim Adleman (5-5). The rookie added an RBI single, the third time he's driven in four runs in a game.

Anthony Rizzo also had a solo homer, and Javier Baez doubled home a run as the Cubs prevented a three-game sweep.

REDS MOVES

Cincinnati acquired Double-A outfielder/first baseman Nick Longhi from Boston in exchange for international signing bonus pool space. The Reds also optioned RH starter Jackson Stephenson to Triple-A Louisville and called up RHP Asher Wojciechowski. LHP Brandon Finnegan was moved to the 60-day DL with a shoulder injury.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Cubs: Ben Zobrist started in right field, his first start since returning from a sore left wrist that sidelined him for 17 games. He was activated a day earlier and pinch hit.

Reds: SS Zack Cozart was back after getting a day of rest. Cozart is recovering from a strained right thigh.

UP NEXT

Cubs: After a day off, they open a six-game homestand heading into the All-Star break. John Lackey (5-9) starts against Tampa Bay's Chris Asher (6-5). In his last start, Lackey gave up a season-high eight runs in 5 1/3 innings of an 8-4 loss to Washington.

Reds: Luis Castillo (0-0) makes his third major league start as Cincinnati begins a seven-game road trip at Coors Field, facing Colorado's Jeff Hoffman (4-1). Castillo was the victim of blown saves in his first two starts.