Situational hitting is important to success at the big league level. Over the last handful of seasons, it has seemed like the Chicago Cubs have struggled with making meaningful contact in those key situations. New hitting coach Chili Davis was brought in prior to last season in an attempt to fix that problem which has plagued the Cubs.
Despite Davis’ departure after the 2018 season after not being able to connect with many of the players, the Cubs actually fared slightly better in many situational hitting categories last year. Nevertheless, the club moved on to their third hitting coach in as many years with newly hired Anthony Iapoce. Iapoce, who left his job with the Texas Rangers to join his new club, had previously worked with many of the young Cubs players when he worked as a special assistant to the general manager from 2013 to 2015.
Iapoce’s new yet familiar voice in the clubhouse combined with Joe Maddon‘s more hands-on approach this season in the final year of his contract has already resulted in more emphasis on situational hitting.
Cubs’ Joe Maddon on fast pitch softball drill: pic.twitter.com/bVg8nSJktS
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) February 24, 2019
As Maddon explains above, he has been putting the Cubs hitters through a fast pitch softball drill that is directed at teaching a shorter, more direct approach to the baseball. He does that by generating ride on the softball pitches at a much shorter distance than a game pitch would come from.
This drill, along with a slew of other things the Cubs will no doubt work on this spring will prepare hitters for situational hitting in a way they have not been prepped over the last few years.
Just two games into the Cactus League schedule for the Cubs this spring, that preparedness for hitting in key spots is already beginning to show up.
An eight-run second inning saw the Cubs send 13 men to the plate and record seven hits. Kyle Schwarber, who drew the start in left field against the San Francisco Giants’ southpaw starter Madison Bumgarner, kicked the frame off with a double into the left-center field gap. That double was a rare sight as Schwarber managed just three two-base hits off left-hander’s in 2018 while hitting .224 with an .079 ISO.
A Bote hit-by-pitch loaded the bases for the Cubs after Addison Russell reached on a solid single into left field. Bote, who was hit in the back of the helmet by Bumgarner, was forced to leave the game after walking off the field under his own power.
With the bases loaded, the Cubs ripped off four straight RBI hits, two knocks that reached the outfield by Victor Caratini and Albert Almora and two hits that failed to leave the infield by Mark Zagunis and Jacob Hannemann.
Those hits, which gave the Cubs a 4-2 lead over the home team, seemed to embody the very approach talked about by Maddon in the clip above. Just making contact with runners on base, and in this case nobody out, produces good results a vast majority of the time.
Already ahead two runs, the Cubs took advantage of a wild Giants reliever who walked Anthony Rizzo and Schwarber, pushing across back-to-back runs, giving the Cubs a commanding 6-2 lead.
The Cubs, however, were not done as Russell took his second at-bat of the inning, this time producing a sac-fly (getting back to the just making contact idea) to center field, plating the Cubs’ seventh run of the frame.
In total, the Cubs plated eight runs with eight different players contributing an RBI. Of those eight runs, five were scored on base hits with another coming on that Russell sac-fly as the Cubs went 6-for-13 with runners in scoring position on the evening.
Transiting to the pitching side of the ball, one of the story lines heading into this early spring match-up was how Tyler Chatwood would fare in his first action of the year. After walking 95 batters across 103.2 innings last season, a number good enough to lead the league, Chatwood was knocked out of his starting rotation spot in favor of Cole Hamels.
Immediately on Sunday, it looked like Chatwood was making a concerted effort to work in the strike zone. While he was moderately successful, that resulted in the right-hander getting knocked around a little, as Joe Panik ripped a lead-off single into center field to greet Chatwood.
Three batters later, Brandon Belt mashed a home run beyond the short right field fence, giving the Giants a short-lived advantage.
Chatwood’s only free pass on the evening came just ahead of that Belt home run and replaced Panik on the base paths after the Cubs turned a 3-6-3 double play.
Perhaps the only pitch to miss by a large margin for Chatwood occurred in the second inning when the right-hander drilled Rene Rivera with a pitch in the back. Other than that, Chatwood was largely in control of his pitches, and more importantly his fastball, while working around base runners in his two innings of action on Sunday.
Sticking with the theme of pitchers who have a history of not being able to control their pitches, the Cubs had Dillon Maples on their roster for their match-up against the Giants.
Maples has been in the Cubs system since 2012 after being a 14th round draft pick in 2011. Quickly Maples developed a reputation for striking out batters by the bunches. In his more recent action, Maples struck out 75 batters in 38.2 innings at the Triple-A level in 2018 which equated to a 17.5 K/9 rate.
That mark only continued to build upon Maples’ insane 10.8 career K/9 rate, a number amassed over almost 300 minor league innings. If Maples owned that kind of strikeout rate by itself, he would have stuck in the major leagues two or three years ago. However, the right-hander has also struggled mightily with the free pass.
In that same season where Maples struck out better than 17 batters per nine, the youngster averaged 9.1 walks per ball game. For his minor league career, Maples is sporting a 6.2 BB/9 rate and an even higher 9.3 mark across his 10.2 innings at the big league level.
On Sunday, however, Maples continued to impress with his strikeout ability, recording two in his one inning of work while throwing all seven pitches for strikes.
With the fluid nature of the Cubs’ bullpen this season, fans could very well see Maples in a big league uniform this season. If he builds upon his solid outing on Sunday and has a good spring, the right-hander will be solidly in the mix for a role within Maddon’s bullpen in 2019.
Their eight-run inning in the books, the Cubs remained in control for much of the game, even when the Giants pushed across a total of three runs between the third and fourth innings, making the score 8-5 Cubs.
In the sixth, the Giants loaded the bases with right-handed pitcher James Norwood on the mound for the Cubs. Two singles and a walk with one out put the Giants in the driver’s seat to get back in the game.
James Norwood, however, working with his mid-90’s fastball, induced a fly out to center field and a ground out to end the threat and keep the Cubs ahead. Norwood, who made his major league debut in July of 2018, worked a total of 11 innings for the Cubs last season. While his 4.09 ERA will likely not impress anyone, Norwood owns a respectable 3.83 ERA across 214 minor league innings and will be looking to make his mark on the club this spring.
He, like Maples, will put himself solidly in the mix for work in the big league bullpen with a good spring, and working out of a huge jam is a good sign for the talented Norwood.
After loading the bases in the sixth, the Giants would not threaten for the remainder of the game even after a Johnny Field home run pushed the Cubs’ lead to 9-5.
With the win, the Cubs move to 2-0 in Cactus League action while the Giants fall to 0-2 with just over 30 games left on the schedule.
Next Up For The Cubs
The Cubs will be playing two games on Monday, February 25 in split squad action. As the away team, the Cubs will face the Los Angeles Dodgers at 2:05 p.m. at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix, Arizona.
Chicago’s second game on Monday will also be played at 2:05 p.m. but they will instead face the San Diego Padres as the home team at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona.
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