Once again, the Cubs’ season has ended too early. This time, it was the dreaded Dodgers, who — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — outscored and embarrassed them 20-6, even though the Cubs were the highest-scoring team in the National League.
You might think it’d be pretty hard to dominate a league so completely in the regular season, and then look so bad in the postseason, but you’d be incorrect, bucko.
Many, many Cubs fans are surely angry, upset, borderline suicidal, confused, and generally feeling like jilted lovers.
When an entire team forgets how to hit for one playoff series, well, you can chalk it up to some bad luck, or a coincidence, or a pitching matchup problem that can happen in a short series, or any of a host of other rationalizations about failure. And you might even be right: bad luck does happen, and in a short series, luck definitely comes into play now and again. Pitching matchups can be a big advantage over 2 or 3 games.
But when it happens two years in a row, something else is going on, and in this case, it’s pretty easy to see what it is, just by watching the games: too much expanding the strike zone, chasing bad breaking stuff outside, that you can never ever ever hit safely. Well, maybe if your bat is 52 inches long and you have superhuman hand-eye coordination.
And the list of players who forgot the strike zone is only 17 inches wide is quite long, and led by the main run producers on the team: Alfonso Soriano, who makes the offense go, and Aramis Ramirez, who had shown signs of being a very patient and disciplined hitter this season. This affliction also struck, to a lesser extent, Derrek Lee, Geovany Soto, and Jim Edmonds. Even Ryan Theriot and Mark DeRosa, who actually got a few hits in the series — DeRosa also drove in 4 of their 6 total runs — looked pretty bad on a few ABs.
And to complete the trifecta, the pitching and defense imploded as well, each contributing majorly to defeat (pitching in game 1, defense in game 2). But if the offense is clicking, either or both of those games was still winnable.
I’m not sure who that team was, but it was not the team I watched and read about and thoroughly enjoyed watching much of the year.
So now what? You’ve got this team with a lot of talent, some big salaries and no-trade clauses, and an apparent brain cramp problem and/or courage shortage in October.
Against that backdrop, here are my ideas, for what it’s worth, in no particular order.
Offense Too Right-Handed
All three Dodger starters were right handed pitchers. In last year’s series against Arizona, 2 of 3 were right handed. These five righty starters yielded 5 ER in 32 IP; the lone lefty, Doug Davis of Arizona, yielded 4 ER in 5 and 2/3 IP.
The Cubs lineup is also very right-handed, and this presents matchup challenges for them against teams with dominant right-handed pitching rotations. Not unsolvable matchup challenges, but challenges they are. It’s obvious, from watching the complete dominance of this team by those two pitching staffs, what the scouting report is for the Cubs: “pitch breaking stuff away, or low and away, set up by going inside, because they swing very hard and usually try to pull everything, even with two strikes, and so are vulnerable to the strike out.” And it works like a charm.
To some degree, adding one or two left-handed bats can help this problem, by removing easy outs and inserting bigger challenges for the other pitcher. It still doesn’t help the right handed hitters, though, which leads to …
Need Higher Quality ABs
Don’t try to pull good breaking stuff, ever.
Don’t try to pull outside pitches, ever.
Don’t try to pull good outside breaking stuff, ever ever ever!
In fact, how about this, just to start a habit of enforcing some disciplined hitting …
Don’t try to pull any pitch other than a fastball middle/in, or a hanging curve. If you do try, you’re hurting the team.
Do use the “inside out” swing to the opposite field every chance you get, i.e. with anything on the outer half, even during the regular season, and especially with runners on. This will make you a better hitter, by using all fields, which makes you harder to get out, and will also serve as practice for the postseason, when a World Series title may well depend on excellent bat control, and the best pitch you get in an entire AB might be on the outside edge of the zone.
If their current players can’t adapt to a more intelligent and team-first style of hitting, then they might need to get new players. Or, put up with lousy postseasons. Teams that make it to the World Series don’t have such fatal, obvious flaws.
Leadership / Intensity
I didn’t see a lot of fire out there when they could have sorely used some. A Garry Matthews, an A.J. Pierzynski, a Jason Veritek, the kind of guy who is a little bit vocal when necessary, but who also leads by example, by playing smart and putting out maximum effort all the time. The kind of guy who is mentally and emotionally very tough and resilient, and doesn’t put up with any bullshit from teammates, and isn’t afraid to call them out, because sometimes, that’s what a team needs. Somebody like Carlos Zambrano could do this — maybe — if he could reign in his emotions a little more. He pounded on Michael Barrett, so that’s a good start. But pitchers are not usually cast in this role, since they are basically part-time players.
Of the remaining players, I like Geovany Soto for this role, since he is a catcher and has shown the ability to handle a staff and give his pitchers the business when he thinks they need it, and he should be around for a few years, as a young, talented player at the most important defensive position on the field. Since he was just a rookie this year, he gets a one year pass, but next year, he should throw his considerable weight and talent and moxy around a little bit more. Ramirez and Soriano and Lee don’t seem to have the makeup for this role. Ryan Theriot seems like a choirboy, Fukudome can’t speak English, and DeRosa is quiet. Everybody else is part-time or might be gone next year.
There normally aren’t a lot of times when a team needs a player like this, but when they do, there is no substitute.
The Fukudome Experiment
Despite his well-documented troubles with hitting over the last 3-4 months of the season, Fukudome is obviously solid in all the fundamentals: defense, baserunning, bunting, hitting to all fields, etc. Even his later batting troubles — which began when the league started brushing him back inside and then going away, which he was unable to adjust to — are hardly fatal flaws. He was also adjusting to a new league, a new culture, and without his family here with him, and was coming off an elbow injury and surgery last year; this isn’t to make excuses, but to attempt to honestly asses what might have happened. Next year, some of those issues might be less pressing, and if he can just learn how to stay in the box and not bail out, he should be able to rediscover his batting effectiveness. Plus, he’s here for 3 more years at $12M per, regardless, and he doesn’t seem that far away from being a very valuable player like he was in April and May. His defense, speed, and baserunning are excellent, so I’m thinking he’d make a very good centerfielder, and chould bat eighth, where he can focus on getting on base, bunting, with less pressure than he faced this year. It’s something to think about, anyway.
The Lou Piniella Factor
Lou Piniella, for my money at least, is a very good manager, at least during the regular season. Somehow, in the postseason, at least with this team, he seems too cautious and waits too long to make changes. Maybe he can’t comprehend how a team could play so badly in the postseason, since he’s never been on a team like that. He was a “winner” and he probably expects his players to play like that too. Or maybe it’s something else; he sure doesn’t seem shy during the regular season about taking pitchers out, or benching unproductive position players.
What Went Right
Alot of things went right for this team, obviously, since they won 97 games. Defense was very solid, if unspectacular at every position; they made all the standard plays, nearly every time, and I think this is really what all managers and GMs desire from their defense. Pitching was very good to excellent all year long, from the starters through the middle relief and into the closer (though middle relief struggled a bit in the latter half of the season). The starting lineup was simply excellent, top to bottom, leading the league in runs scored by a wide margin, and showing a newly formed patience at the plate that translated into a very high OBP, lots of walks, and all those runs. The depth was intimidating, often featuring hitters at 6-7-8 batting .280 or higher with an OBP of .375 or more; no easy outs, and that adds up to a lot of pressure on the other team.