Photo by Stephen Green
At the season’s outset, many thought starter Kyle Hendricks wouldn’t last in the Cubs rotation. Now he might be the best pitcher in the National League. We break down the Cy Young contender’s rise from fifth starter to ERA leader. The following story can be found in the October issue of Vine Line.
By Gary Cohen
Baseball fans love fireworks. They pack stadiums to witness majestic moon shots and glove-popping 98-mph heaters; they line dugouts to get autographs from players like Kris Bryant and Jake Arrieta; and they study the stat sheets to divine the latest league leaders.
The numbers have always defined the game. It doesn’t take more than a mention of 755, .406 or 511 for most fans to know exactly who and what you’re talking about.
Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks is unlikely to excite this set. In many ways, he’s a Bizarro superstar—a hero hidden behind a mild-mannered exterior.
Hendricks is far from an intimidating physical presence on the mound. His fastball averages just 87.6 mph, 71st out of 78 qualified pitchers—and two of the guys behind him are knuckleballers. He was drafted in the 39th round by the Angels out of high school and in the eighth round by the Rangers out of college. On paper, not much about him is eye-popping. But, as the old saying goes, games are not played on paper.
Though the unflappable 26-year-old has quietly put up one of the best statistical seasons of any starting pitcher in baseball—orbiting the same stratosphere as names like Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard and Arrieta—many expected he would eventually get squeezed out of the Cubs rotation by new acquisition Adam Warren at the season’s outset, and few even recognized his efforts until the dog days of August. But consistently flying under the radar is nothing new for Hendricks.
“It’s something I’ve been dealing with my whole career, probably my whole life, growing up, being one of those guys who didn’t throw hard,” Hendricks said. “I don’t think it bothered me as much as maybe it would someone else, just because I’ve had that all the way coming up. I’ve always had the critics. ‘He didn’t throw hard enough, this and that.’ At the end of the day, I’ve always learned you just have to have confidence in yourself.”
And why wouldn’t Hendricks be brimming with confidence? The California native wrapped up the season leading Major League Baseball with both his 2.13 ERA and 188 ERA+, which takes standard ERA and normalizes it across the league, accounting for external factors like ballparks and opponents. A 100 ERA+ is league average. Hendricks’ 188 is 88 percent better than league average. His 0.98 WHIP ranked second in the NL, and his .207 batting average against ranked third.
So the big question is why do many around the game still view Hendricks as the Cubs’ fifth starter or talk about him as nothing more than a fringe Cy Young candidate? The answer—as unsatisfying as it is—is simple: He doesn’t look the part. He doesn’t snarl and glower on the mound like John Lackey. He doesn’t throw the kind of gas that makes fans swoon when the number appears on the left-field video board like Aroldis Chapman. Though he is 6-foot-3, he’s not a physical paragon like fellow Cy Young contender Arrieta. In fact, he looks every bit the Dartmouth-educated economics major he actually is.
But game by game, the cerebral hurler is proving you don’t need to bring the heat to put a chill into opposing offenses. You just need to be able to execute pitches and place them exactly where hitters least expect them to be.
It’s always darkest before the dawn. Though 2015 was an ascendant season for the Cubs organization, with the club notching its first postseason appearance since 2008 and winning its first playoff series since 2003, things never quite felt right for Hendricks from an individual standpoint. By the time the
Cubs had moved into the postseason, manager Joe Maddon had him on a short leash. In two playoff starts, one in the NLDS and one in the NLCS, the right-hander went 4 and 4.2 innings and put up a 5.19 ERA. But the problems started much earlier than that.
The 2016 model of Hendricks has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt you don’t need to throw 95 miles per hour to get batters out. But if you are one of the dying breed of non-knuckleballers who throws under 90, you certainly don’t have as much leeway to make mistakes. Hendricks admitted his mechanics didn’t feel right from Day 1 in 2015, and that created a ripple effect of problems that undercut his performance.
“Last year when I was out of it, I didn’t feel confident,” he said. “I didn’t feel I could put the ball where I wanted to, and as a command guy, that’s the No. 1 problem. My stuff isn’t going to beat you, so I have to have command. I have to be able to put the ball where I want to. When I’m not doing that, confidence is tough to come by. So when I was in those situations, I was going to my sinker and change-up, things I could rely more heavily on.”
Pitchers like Hendricks count on keeping hitters off balance, and, as he said, opposing offenses could comfortably sit on the sinker or change-piece in key spots. Because he was working harder to get batters out and his rhythm was predictable, Hendricks seldom went deep into ballgames. His first time through an order, hitters posted a .228/.296/.355 line against him. By his third time facing the same hitters, they pounded Hendricks to a .329/.374/.520 mark, which explains why he lasted only 5.6 innings per start.
“Last year, I think he was a little bit too predictable,” said catcher Miguel Montero. “We talk about a lot last year, and I give him some advice here and there, but I don’t think he was ready. Actually, we talk about the same thing this year, and I say, ‘What you’re doing now, that’s what I was trying to tell you to do last year.’ We had talked about it, and he gave me the right answer. He said, ‘You know what? I don’t think I was ready last year to try it.’
“I wanted him to use his whole repertoire. I don’t want him to fall into a pattern using the same pitches over and over and over and over. You can see the first time through [the order], he was on cruise control last year. The second time through, he had a little bit of a tough time. And then when the third time through came up, he was out of the game.”
Even with all this working against him, Hendricks was still able to make 32 starts, strike out 167 hitters versus only 43 walks and post a 3.95 ERA. There are plenty of pitchers who would happily take that line in their first full professional season. But Hendricks definitely isn’t among that number.
“I think the standards of what we’re trying to do here [are very high],” he said. “Even with all the games we won last year, coming into this year, with what we’re trying to accomplish, there’s a very heightened sense of what you need to do.”
PAINTING THE BLACK
To say things have been different for Hendricks this season would be a vast understatement. He used his frustrating 2015 campaign as fodder to spur the next major step forward in his development, and his darting pitches have been baffling opponents since the spring.
“I kind of got out of my mechanics a little bit in the middle of last year,” Hendricks said. “When you go into those kinds of slumps, it helps you learn more about yourself coming out of it. So I had better cues, better checkpoints in my delivery, basically. I was able to kind of work those in at the end of the season last year, so going into the offseason, spring training, they just kind of followed from there.”
This year, Hendricks has quite simply been one of the best pitchers in baseball, he made organizational history for his efforts. He won the ERA title—his 2.13 mark was more than 30 points ahead of teammate Jon Lester, who took second in the National League. No Cubs pitcher has led the NL in ERA since “Big” Bill Lee in 1938 (2.66), and that includes Arrieta, who won the Cy Young Award in 2016 but still finished second in the ERA chase to Zack Greinke.
“He’s one of the most fun guys to watch pitch because he can dominate a lineup with 88-90 and a change-up,” Arrieta said. “A guy like myself can learn a lot from that, knowing we don’t have to try blowing 96 by guys or throw an amazing breaking ball to get a swing and miss. You’ve got to be good about changing speeds and changing eye level. He does that extremely well.”
Because Hendricks has been so much better this year, there’s a tendency to assume there was some dramatic change he made. The bottom line is: There really isn’t one. It all comes down to small adjustments and execution.
He used to throw a cutter, which he gave up on early last year, and he’s using his change-up, always his best pitch, a little more. Perhaps the biggest differences are that he’s frequently mixing in his four-seam fastball, with which he can touch 90 mph, and his curveball has become a plus offering. He’s not necessarily using it more, but it’s a much bigger weapon.
“That’s become a big pitch for him,” said Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode. “Last year, it was more of a strike pitch. This year, he’s able to get guys out with it.”
He also feels much stronger heading into the most important games of the Cubs campaign. He’s worked hard to keep his body in shape and has even started practicing yoga. Unlike many pitchers, Hendricks likes to throw off the mound twice between starts, and he’s been doing a lot more long toss, a preferred workout of his, all season.
“I basically throw two shorter bullpens,” Hendricks said. “I’ve noticed it just helps me touching the mound more and getting more reps. I think because I’m that command-type guy. It just helps me stay sharper, and I don’t really fatigue too much from it.”
And the results bear that out. From June to September, Hendricks went 13-4 with a 1.80 ERA in 134.2 innings pitched. Besides his season finale on Oct. 2, he hadn’t given up more than three earned runs in a game since May 17, his seventh start of the season.
While his velocity dropped as last year wore on, it has actually increased this year. After starting the 2015 season throwing his fastball at 89.2 mph, according to Brooks Baseball, he was at his lowest velocity of 87.1 in October. This season, he was averaging 87.4 in April but had jumped to 89.2 by August.
When Hendricks came up to the big leagues with the Cubs in 2014, not much was expected of him, but he opened eyes around the league by putting up a 7-2 record and a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts for an improving team. He threw five pitches, all with movement, and had excellent command. His most effective weapon was probably his change-up, but he also had a sinking fastball that helped limit hard contact and keep the ball on the ground.
At first, the comparisons were inevitable, if not grandly premature. In the modern era, Hendricks is a far cry from flame-throwing behemoths like Syndergaard, Max Scherzer and Arrieta. Immediately, people started comparing him—though often a bit sheepishly—to Hall of Famer and four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux. The two even share a nickname: The Professor.
These days, that comparison is looking a bit more apt. Hendricks has become a true pitcher, someone who methodically studies, game plans and breaks down hitters’ tendencies. He knows what works for him, and understands how to exploit an opposing offense’s weaknesses.
“I was sitting in the bullpen the other day, and I was watching Kyle pitch, and one guy popped in my mind right away, and that’s Greg Maddux,” Strode said. “I said, ‘This guy is pitching just like Greg Maddux did.’ He’s not trying to overpower anybody. He’s making his pitches, locating pitches, changing speeds when he needs to change speeds on guys. He’s doing the exact same thing Greg did.”
Plus, Hendricks has the pitch mix and command to hit every quadrant of the zone. In other words, if you have a weakness, he can attack it. With his newfound confidence this year, he’s doing just that.
“Every time he’s pitching and we go over the scouting report, he’s locked in on it,” Montero said. “On every hitter, every pitch, he’s pretty locked in. You can see other pitchers, you go over the scouting report, and they got a little doubt here and there. He’s a guy who doesn’t have any doubts. He tell you what he wants to do and what the hitters’ weaknesses are and strengths. It’s pretty good. Obviously, you need to execute regardless, but he knows if he’s going to go fastball in, he’s got fastball in on this guy. He knows he can execute it, and he knows he’s got that pitch.”
In 2016, Hendricks has generated soft contact 25.1 percent of the time, more than any other pitcher in the game. Plus, he’s getting ground balls at a nearly 50 percent rate and limiting home runs, a problem for him last season. That’s a lethal combination that’s left even his more seasoned Cubs teammates awestruck.
“It’s kind of hard to believe now, realistically, you have a guy who throws 88, 89, touches 90, dominating the way he’s dominating,” Montero said. “But that’s the art of pitching. Pitching is not just throwing as hard as you can. Pitching is just having the art to actually change the speeds, change eye levels, move the batter, things like that. And he’s pitching. He’s not just throwing the ball. He’s actually pitching, and he’s a full-package pitcher.”
The unassuming Hendricks finds the comparisons flattering, obviously, but understands that Maddux became Maddux only by delivering consistent excellence over a 23-year career. You don’t win 355 games if you can’t sustain your stuff and deliver clean, repeatable mechanics.
“Sometimes I don’t think a lot of it, and sometimes it’s humbling,” Hendricks said. “Just to have it over and over, to hear it multiple times, I guess makes it the humbling part. But on the other hand, the things he’s done in this game are just unbelievable. So the comparisons as far as pitcher type, that kind of thing, maybe I’ll take. Beyond that, there’s not much I can really accept from that. He’s one of the best in the game, one of the best of all time, and I’ve got a long way to go.”
Because Hendricks looks like a regular human specimen on the mound and seldom breaks 90 on the radar gun, it’s easy to assume he’s the classic “comfortable 0-for-4” pitcher. In other words, hitters see him well, but somehow still can’t make hard contact. Cubs teammates dispute that theory.
“I don’t think it’s a comfortable at-bat just because you don’t know what you’re going to get,” said Lester, a fellow Cy Young contender. “That change-up, I think, is in the back of everybody’s mind, and now he’s started throwing his curveball a little bit more. A lot of guys who throw sinkers can’t throw four-seamers, and he throws that four-seamer. I think guys go up there with six different pitches in six different locations in mind, so I wouldn’t think it would be a comfortable at-bat.”
GUNNING FOR GREATNESS
Given Hendricks’ inscrutable mien, it’s ironic his favorite pitchers growing up were Pedro Martinez and Jake Peavy, notorious bulldogs who were unafraid to wear their emotions on their sleeve. Though he’s extremely well-liked in the clubhouse, Hendricks is notably quiet and generally keeps to himself. His teammates joke that they never know he’s arrived until they look over and actually see him sitting at his locker.
But don’t take Hendricks’ calm disposition to mean he’s not competitive. He’s a black belt in karate, and he’s determined to excel at whatever he sets his mind to.
“Everybody goes out there in a different mindset,” Lester said. “Some guys have to calm themselves down. Some guys have to act like nothing bothers them. Other guys pitch with their emotions on their sleeve. No one way is right. I don’t think you can dog a person because they don’t show emotion. That doesn’t mean they don’t care. I think when you’re around him, and you see every day what he does to prepare—for me that’s when you know somebody cares is the prep work and how much that day means to them.”
As a young pitcher, Hendricks has leaned on veteran catchers Montero and David Ross to help him understand how to execute a game plan, and he watches his fellow starting pitchers—by far the best unit in the game this season—to see how they attack hitters and keep their bodies healthy over the 162-plus-game haul.
“I have my own routine, I’m my own pitcher, I do my own type of things,” Hendricks said. “But watching the consistency and the dedication they put into their craft each and every five days, you know just how hard they work to get ready for the next start. There’s never a day off. They’ve never taken it easy. They know how to get their body ready to endure this long season and the playoffs. I take a lot of tips about those kinds of things.”
Despite all the Cy Young chatter this year, Hendricks said his life hasn’t changed all that much. The team is certainly more high profile, but he tries not to be. He lives close to Wrigley Field and occasionally still walks to games. Surprisingly, he said he seldom gets recognized.
“It’s once in a blue moon almost,” he said. “I just keep my head down. With my body type, people aren’t really going to recognize me. Which, the way my personality is, I’m fine with that.”
Hendricks admitted he’s humbled by being in the awards mix, but his 4.1 WAR, eighth in the NL, certainly justifies his inclusion. Still, the Cubs have their sights set on much bigger goals this season. Personal accolades, though nice, are nothing compared to what they’re shooting for.
“At the end of the day, those are just individual honors,” Hendricks said. “We have such higher hopes here of what we’re trying to do, so there’s a lot more to it. Trying to keep your body healthy. Do what you need to do to get through the end of the year and really make sure you’re hot and ready to go for the playoffs.”
In just his third professional season, Hendricks has become one of the elite arms in the game—whether fans and pundits realize it or not. Even on a team of aces, he’s far from a fifth starter anymore. He’s been the steadiest, most consistent performer all season long, and has had a unique knack for giving the team exactly what it needs.
He may look like more like Clark Kent on the mound, but he’s been a genuine Superman for the 2016 Cubs.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
There’s a big divide between Kris Bryant the media creation and Kris Bryant the man. As an exercise, let’s separate these dueling Bryants into column A and column B.
In column A, you have the burgeoning celebrity. This is the young superstar who hit .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs and 99 RBI in his All-Star rookie campaign. The 6-foot-5 matinee idol whose crystal blue eyes have spawned multiple Twitter accounts. The man who collected the Golden Spikes (given to the nation’s best amateur player), Minor League Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards in consecutive seasons. This is the Scott Boras client whose image was plastered across an enormous Adidas billboard staring down at Wrigley Field from Addison Street to start the 2015 season—before he had even cracked the 40-man roster. He’s the Sports Illustrated cover boy who has done viral videos for Lyft and Red Bull—posing as a taxi driver, swimming with sharks and masquerading as a European transfer player at Mesa Community College—and who was recently named the face of Express clothing.
It’s a compelling package, and, like with any celebrity, it’s easy to assume you know Bryant from this well-publicized and carefully groomed construction.
But the Bryant in column B is markedly different. This is the quiet, usually smiling gentleman teammates see in the clubhouse. This Bryant is confident and likes to have fun, but he’s also polite, respectful and hesitant to draw attention to himself. He works hard and listens to his coaches. He’s the humble player who calls his dad after most games and recently got engaged to his high school sweetheart.
So how did Bryant B, the flesh-and-blood human being who is still working to adjust to this rapidly expanding new life, learn to embrace Bryant A? The 24-year-old has the remarkable ability, rare in someone so young, to separate what he does on the field from what he does off the field. He has no problem saying no to the things he doesn’t want to do, but he embraces the opportunities that sound fun, confident in the belief that taking time away from the game to clear his head will ultimately make him a better player.
“I completely leave the game at the field—other than, I’ll probably call my dad after the game and talk to him about it,” Bryant said. “After that, I’m done. I watch Netflix. We go out to dinner a lot, especially in Chicago. The food is awesome. I play a little guitar too. I just tinker around with some things, video games, that kind of thing.
“But there is never much time off the field when you’re not playing. You have a couple of hours after the game to watch some TV, go to sleep, wake up, go right to the field. It’s a crazy lifestyle, but a lifestyle I want to live.”
Of course, the celebrity Bryant persona is still quite new and will take some getting used to. So for now, he’s moving forward one step at a time and trying to remain laser-focused on getting better at his day job.
Everything about Bryant’s career so far has had a whiff of inevitability to it. At times, he’s seemed like a man among boys—even when he was still a boy himself.
Bryant’s father, Mike, a former minor-league outfielder in the Red Sox organization and a disciple of Ted Williams, loves to tell of how his son still holds the Las Vegas Little League record for home runs in a season. As a senior at Bonanza High School, Bryant hit .489 with 22 home runs and 51 RBI en route to AFLAC, Baseball America and USA Today high school All-American honors. In his junior (and final) year at the University of San Diego, he mashed 31 home runs, which seems like a reasonable total for a man with his size, power and uppercut swing—until you realize Bryant hit more homers than 223 out of 298 Division I baseball programs by himself and led the NCAA in eight different offensive categories, including runs, slugging percentage, total bases and walks.
After the Cubs selected him second overall in the 2013 draft, he continued to punish baseballs. From his rookie-league debut until his major-league call-up on April 17, 2015, Bryant hit an absurd .327/.426/.667 with 55 bombs and 152 RBI in 181 minor-league games.
“If you just look at him, he looks the part,” said Cubs assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, a 12-year major-league veteran who won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2002 with Toronto. “The guys that are the All-Stars and the Hall of Famers, they’re touched on the way out. He’s one of these guys who is just blessed with all the talent, and he’s got the right head on his shoulders. The sky is the limit, for sure.”
In some ways, Bryant was biomechanically engineered to be a major-league slugger. His father, who gives private lessons in his backyard batting cage in Las Vegas, has admitted to treating his son like a big-league hitter since he was a preteen. From the age of 5, Bryant was getting daily swing lessons and learning the intricacies of Williams’ seminal opus, The Science of Hitting. The main lesson—and one the slugger has internalized well—was to hit the ball hard and put it in the air.
Mike Bryant worked tirelessly to fine-tune his son’s trademark uppercut swing, designed to loft the ball with sufficient drive and backspin to carry it out of most parks, short of Yellowstone. The problem with that extreme uppercut is that it also creates a lot of swing and miss. Despite spending the first few games of the 2015 season at Triple-A Iowa, Bryant still led the NL in strikeouts with 199. While the young slugger understands strikeouts are an inevitable byproduct of the way he swings the bat, he did notice last season that he was missing on too many pitches in the strike zone.
“He’s talked a lot about staying flatter in the zone with his bat path,” Hinske said. “He has a tendency to uppercut his swing a little bit, so he wants to keep that barrel in the zone longer. He’s worked a lot in the offseason doing that. He does a stop-the-bat drill where he just tries to stop that barrel in the zone using his lower half to get there. He works at his craft, man. He’s a pro, and he’s got an idea.”
Both hitting coach John Mallee and Hinske agree that Bryant is almost the perfect pupil. He takes coaching well, and his problems are easy to fix because he’s so mechanically correct.
“His aptitude is tremendous,” Mallee said. “He studies the opposing pitcher, he takes a lot of pride in his pregame preparation, and he develops his own plan when he gets up in the game. If he sticks to his plan, he’s as good as anybody.”
That’s high praise for a man who came into the 2016 season with only 650 major-league plate appearances. But hitting exploding fastballs and gravity-defying sliders from the best pitchers on the planet takes more than just the right chromosomal mix. As the old adage goes, even the best hitters fail seven out of 10 times, and no rookie gets through his initial tour of duty without hitting the skids for a few games.
Though Bryant famously didn’t log his first major-league home run until May 9 of last year, 21 games into his career, he actually still swung the bat well during that brief power outage. His season found its nadir between July 6 and Aug. 6, when he hit .168/.289/.295 with only two home runs and 38 strikeouts in 27 contests, dropping his season average 29 points in the process.
“He got in a little bit of a funk there, and the veterans picked him up and kind of showed him the way to get through it,” Mallee said. “When you have that much talent, if we can just not let him think of it as a big situation—[we want to] just let him go up there and see it and hit it and let his instincts take over.”
It would have been more than understandable if Bryant had started to press, as a young man trying to prove himself in the big leagues. But that’s what truly separates him from most of the other premier hitters around the league. He has an almost preternatural calm about him. Teammates rave about his ability to never get too high or too low, which allows him to easily shrug off the occasional 0 for 4.
“The mental game is huge in baseball, and he’s very strong-minded up there,” said teammate Kyle Schwarber. “It’s easy to get down on yourself when you’re going bad. Everyone gets to that point of second-guessing themselves at some point. A couple of bad games here and there, and you start thinking about it too much. But he does a really good job of turning that switch back on and getting right back to it.”
Bryant also has a unique ability to made adjustments quickly if things get out of whack. When most hitters are battling their swing, it can take weeks in the cage and/or video room to find the microscopic grain of sand in the machine. But Bryant has such a good feel for his mechanics and is such a student of hitting that he can sometimes make at-bat-to-at-bat adjustments. This is a skill even other major leaguers marvel at, and it’s anomalous in someone so young.
“[Making those adjustments] is hard,” Schwarber said. “I mean, you’re seeing the best pitching from around the world. These guys are getting paid a lot of money to get you out, and you have to make adjustments on the fly because they start picking up on what your weaknesses are pretty quick.”
When a player appears to be a perfectly tuned hitting machine, it can be easy to forget he’s also a human being. While Bryant was racking up accolades last year, he was also adjusting to a completely different life, both on and off the field. Almost every pitcher he faced last season was new to him, meaning he had very little intelligence on how they would attack him and what their pitches would look like in real time. And that doesn’t even factor in what it feels like to stand in the batter’s box at Dodger Stadium for the first time.
“It’s great to get to know the pitchers better,” Bryant said. “It’s not just me going up there and saying, ‘Oh man, it’s Max Scherzer. I saw him on TV. He was on my fantasy team a couple of years ago.’ You know? He’s just another guy in the big leagues, and you have to approach it that way. Every pitcher is a nameless, faceless opponent, and that will be easier this year.
“That’s the biggest thing when you get up there and you start facing guys who are household names. Playing against guys like that, it’s really hard to get over that hump and realize that it’s just another game of baseball, just at a different level, with cameras everywhere and a whole lot of fans in the stands.”
One factor that made last season even more complicated was the constant scrutiny he was under. Every time Bryant came to the plate in 2016, it was like Christmas morning for the media and fans. What will he do this time? Can he clear the new left-field video board? When will he detonate the next walk-off bomb?
While the hype may not dissipate given his rookie performance and the expectations saddling this 2016 Cubs squad, Bryant is more of a known commodity this year, and there are plenty of other stars around him to pull focus.
“The whole hype thing and the tuning in to every at-bat, it’s something as a player, I don’t know if you really want that,” Bryant said. “You just want to go out there and play your game. I think this year will be a little bit more of that. Just let me go out there and play and do what I do on the field and kind of keep all that other stuff a little bit more quiet, which will be nice for me and the team.”
In some ways, baseball has always come easy to Bryant. But it’s nearly impossible to prepare a person for the constant stream of demands and opportunities that accompanies celebrity. And Bryant is undeniably a celebrity.
Though he is surprisingly grounded and calm, he still leaned heavily on his clubhouse mates to ease him through the adjustment period. It helped that he was far from the only rookie sensation on the team, as he came up in the same season as Addison Russell, Schwarber and Jorge Soler. Another plus was that the team was in the hunt all season long. There was little time for clubhouse hazing and rookie initiations (though the rookies did have to put on princess dresses for the occasional flight) with the club fighting for a playoff spot down the stretch.
“It definitely was easier because we had so many young guys, but it wasn’t just because of all the young guys,” Schwarber said. “The veteran presences around us brought us in. It was, ‘You’re part of this team, and let’s go.’
“It definitely makes it easier when you have a group of guys up here who are so worried about winning, they don’t really have time to waste. It’s time to go, and when we get up here, they don’t treat us any differently. They treat us with respect, and we treat them with respect.”
Bryant’s true partner in crime on the Cubs is Anthony Rizzo. The two fun-loving former top prospects bonded almost immediately last year, spawning the Bryzzo phenomenon, which has since been immortalized in a commercial for MLB.com.
“We just have fun, we’re young,” Bryant said. “We just have a good time on the field and goofing around in the locker room. It really isn’t just us though. There are so many people here and different personalities who like to goof around. But he’s a really good guy. He does a lot for the community. He’s someone I look up to in terms of that. He does so much for people and treats everybody with respect. It’s good to see that out of a superstar.”
Bryant is a firm believer in working hard when it’s time to work and getting completely away from the game during his downtime. That philosophy is not altogether different from the way manager Joe Maddon handles things, and it may be the key to a healthy major-league lifestyle. Across every sport, there have been plenty of athletes who have lost their way when the “A-Rod” or “Johnny Football” or “Star-bury” alter egos overwhelmed their real lives.
While the offseason was busy for Bryant, he did manage a little rest and relaxation. Aside from getting engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Jessica Delp, he said the best thing he did this winter was travel to Hawaii. He spent some time on the islands watching the pro surfing tour and paddle boarding, but he also tapped into his inner adrenaline junkie by taking helicopter rides and, yes, swimming with sharks—a little escapade that set the Cubs Twitterverse aflutter. When Bryant initially posted a video of his underwater encounter to his Instagram account, it looked as if he was swimming freely with the man-eaters. Rest assured, he was safely ensconced in a protective cage.
“I was not free-swimming with sharks,” Bryant said, laughing. “I don’t even know if they’d let you do that. No way I’d ever do that. But it was cool. There was a little mystery behind it, but I was definitely in the cage. I didn’t mind doing it. I wasn’t scared at all. I knew we’d be in a cage. I was more worried about the boat ride out there because I get super seasick. I was just like, ‘Just get me in the water, let me see these sharks and then let’s go back.’”
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Despite his many successes in the game, Bryant is constantly and furiously driven to get better, which means he also spent plenty of time this offseason working on his swing. Though that trademark uppercut was good enough to deliver a unanimous Rookie of the Year Award, it wasn’t good enough for him. When asked to grade his first year in the bigs, Bryant was a stern evaluator.
“In terms of handling everything that came my way—the struggles, the tension, the craziness—I’d give myself an A+,” he said. “I was really able to kind of tune that out and just go out there and play my game and help the team win. I was pretty proud of myself for doing that.
“Overall, maybe a B+. I’m pretty hard on myself—like, a lot. There are areas last year where I can think back on not getting the runner in from third base or making a silly error, that kind of thing. I really want to get better at that. I think I’ll always give myself a B+ or a B. It’s just who I am. I just want to continue to get better and be the best I can be and not be complacent or settle for anything less.”
For many, the second year in the big leagues can be harder than the first. Even a player as heralded as Bryant essentially arrives in The Show as a mystery, but now pitchers have detailed scouting reports on him. Plus, they have faced Bryant mano a mano, so they know how he reacts to their arsenal.
To offset this, Bryant spends a lot of time in the video room studying opposing pitchers, but he said he doesn’t immerse himself in it because watching too much video can be detrimental to him. He just wants to know what each pitcher throws and how their pitches move. After that, he trusts his swing and his ability to make real-time adjustments.
“Once I figure something out that I did wrong and I make that adjustment, I’m so determined to fix it,” Bryant said. “I think that’s really what sets me apart in terms of my mentality is just that determination and the desire to change what’s not going good for me. That’s really what’s gotten me this far, and I hope I can continue to learn how to be even quicker at making adjustments so that my game can go to different levels.”
As far as the Cubs coaching staff is concerned, Bryant is already well ahead of the curve for a player of his age and experience level. Mallee said once the second-year phenom learns to relax from at-bat to at-bat and let the game come to him, the result could be scary for opposing pitchers.
“Kris’ ability to hit and recognize pitches and command the strike zone is outstanding,” Mallee said. “As a young hitter, he gets in trouble sometimes because he tries to do it all in this at-bat instead of being patient. When he’s patient, he walks a bunch.
“He’s going to become a better hitter, and he’s learning that with the lineup we have, he doesn’t have to get that hit. The next guy behind him has a chance to get the hit. He just has to look for a good pitch to hit, [and if] he doesn’t get it, [he’ll] just take his walk and let the next [guy come] up.”
So how does a man who has gone from relative anonymity to the owner of the second-best-selling jersey in the game in just three years’ time stay grounded, avoid the sophomore slump and manage the colossal expectations on his back after his spectacular freshman campaign? Somehow, he handles it all with the same steady hand that smoothed his transition into the upper echelon of baseball and instant celebrity.
“I have no problem with those expectations, because mine are way bigger than theirs—than anybody’s out there,” Bryant said. “My expectations are the sky. I’ve always had that mentality. I think if you don’t set your expectations high, if you don’t write your goals down and make them lofty or crazy or record-breaking goals, then you shouldn’t be playing this game. That’s what I do all the time. I write my goals down, what I want to do as an individual and as a team, and I look back on them at the end of the year. There are some I don’t get, but there are some where I’m like, ‘Wow, I did that. That’s pretty good. Let’s make it even higher next year.’”
Opposing pitchers beware.
I had one guiding concept in mind when I set out to report the cover feature on Cubs star Kris Bryant for this month: Do not write a hagiography. There are plenty of St. Kristopher stories out there. I figured the world didn’t need another one.
I’d certainly talked to Bryant before—several times, in fact, from his initial signing through the final days of last season. And, cards on the table, I like the guy. But I’d never done anything in-depth with him. My goal as a writer was to stay impartial, impassive and honest. Yes, I work for the Cubs, but I still wanted to let the story tell itself without bias.
Soooo … that was my goal.
But here’s the rub: Kris Bryant is an excellent baseball player. Sure there are a few knocks on his game. He struck out a lot last season and likely will always pile up the K’s. His defense is still evolving, although he finished strong last season. And I suppose he got stuck on 99 RBI for a while. Anything else is nitpicking.
But the reason it’s so difficult to avoid writing a puff piece about him is that he’s also a genuinely nice fellow. I had only a short window to interview him at Spring Training in March, so I checked in with him on my first full day there—a Monday. He was literally dressed and walking out of the clubhouse, but he politely said he couldn’t do anything substantive until that Friday because he was booked solid with photo shoots, commercial shoots, interviews and, well, baseball.
For many players, “Try me tomorrow” is the sporting equivalent of saying, “It was fun; I’ll give you a call sometime,” after a bad date. Still, we checked in with each other throughout the week, and he held firm on Friday. I told him that was fine with me, but in reality I was nearly panicked because Friday was my second-to-last day there. No Bryant, no story.
But once that day arrived, I didn’t have to track him down (or beg, which I was prepared to do). He walked straight over to me, shook my hand, apologized for making me wait and then asked if I wanted to get out of the clubhouse so we could avoid the inevitable media scrum that surrounds him. That kind of behavior is not unheard of, but it definitely stands out enough that you notice. After a very respectful and engaging 20 minutes, I had what I needed and made my peace with what kind of story this was going to be.
What I really wanted to uncover was how Bryant handled the titanic expectations that were heaped upon him last year and what kind of an impact that would have on his sophomore campaign.
One of the first people I talked to for some insight was Cubs assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, a two-time World Series champion with his own Rookie of the Year trophy, from 2002. I figured if anyone can relate to what Bryant will be going through this season, it’s him. When asked what the 24-year-old is like as a student, Hinske, who pretty much saw it all over his 12-year major-league career, seemed a bit flustered.
“Honestly, he’s far along in the process,” Hinske said. “He really doesn’t have to be a pupil that much. It’s more of just maintaining his swing. He’s so mechanically right. He’s a bright kid, a good character guy. He takes instruction well if he needs it, and he’s just a pleasure to work with every day.”
Our feature paints a picture of a very talented, grounded and decent human being—one who is likely to terrorize opposing pitchers for the next decade-plus. In the May issue, we also talk to hitting coach John Mallee about his expectations for the season and the work he’s doing with an incredibly potent offensive group. Finally, we look back at one of the most memorable games ever pitched at the Friendly Confines, even if there might not be a person alive who actually remembers seeing it—the remarkable dual no-hitter spun by Hippo Vaughn and Fred Toney in 1917.
For more insight into the players and team you love all season long, subscribe to Vine Line at cubs.com/vineline.
(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
The 2016 Cubs are one of the deepest teams in baseball, but the thing that makes them so formidable is their versatility. And nowhere is that more evident than in the bullpen, where the Cubs have four swingmen capable of filling multiple roles. The following feature ran in the April issue of Vine Line.
Since the expansion of bullpen specialization in the 1950s and ’60s, most major-league relief corps have been constructed in a similar fashion. Teams tend to carry six or seven relievers, including a closer, an eighth-inning specialist, a seventh-inning specialist, a few set-up men and at least one long man. Often, that long man is a former starter no longer making the grade—the kind of arm teams feel most comfortable running out to the mound with a five-run lead or a five-run deficit.
But as Cubs fans discovered all throughout last season, the way manager Joe Maddon’s teams are put together is far from conventional.
The 2016 Cubs sprint into the regular season as one of the deepest and most formidable teams in baseball, with a unique mix of young stars at key positions and battle-tested veterans to help lead the way. But the thing that might make this group truly dangerous is its versatility up and down the roster—and that includes exceptional bullpen depth.
The Cubs do have an established closer in Hector Rondon and several talented set-up men with electric stuff, including Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm. But behind them, the club has a quartet of arms—Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren and Travis Wood—who can all start, relieve or do just about anything in between. All four pitchers came into professional baseball as starters, and they all have experienced success in that role. But each ended last season in the bullpen, and their versatility gives the Cubs a big weapon as the season wears on.
“It’s an unusual group in the most positive way possible in the bullpen, with the variety of multiple-inning guys that are also capable of closing games if you wanted them to and could also start games if you wanted them to,” Maddon said. “I think any manager would love to have those four guys to choose from, whether it be to fill the latter part of the rotation or to have at your disposal on a nightly basis. It’s all good stuff.”
Interest in versatility has been trending upward in baseball for years on the positional side. New Cubs acquisition Ben Zobrist became a legitimate major-league star by playing multiple positions and helped usher in the age of the super-utilityman. But until recently, there has still been a stigma associated with being a bullpen swingman. The typical narrative was that these pitchers couldn’t cut it as starters and didn’t have the stuff to be back-end relievers.
In recent years, big-league front offices have begun to see the value of versatility in the ’pen as well. Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Executive Vice President and General Manager Jed Hoyer have repeatedly spoken of needing eight or nine viable starters to feel comfortable heading into a season. Injuries and underperformance are almost inevitable, and teams need to protect themselves for those eventualities.
Now, in addition to an imposing starting five that includes 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, World Series champions Jon Lester and John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs have four pitchers who can easily slot into a starting role if necessary. And that doesn’t even include minor-league arms like Pierce Johnson, Dallas Beeler and others.
“If you look at this position just a couple of years ago, it had a totally different feel,” Richard said. “What people are starting to understand is that there’s value in the versatility. You see we signed Ben Zobrist, and people place so much value because he’s capable of doing so many things. That holds weight as a pitcher too, if you’re needed for a start or if you’re needed for multiple innings out of the bullpen or if you’re needed for a situational lefty with me or Woody. There’s value in that, and it’s neat to be a part of it.”
Plus, if the starter is shaky in a particular outing—and even Arrieta had an off day or two last season—the Cubs have several pitchers who can step in and provide long relief, without overtaxing the bullpen for the next day’s game.
The best example of this might have been the 2015 postseason. Going into the playoffs, both Hammel and Hendricks were struggling. The two pitchers made four combined starts between the NLDS and NLCS and didn’t last through five frames in any of them. Cahill, Richard and Wood all stepped up to log valuable innings and keep the Cubs’ hopes alive—and they were almost never used in the same situation twice.
“A team might be stacked and have the best rotation, and there’s always something that comes up, whether it’s a little nagging injury or a big injury,” Cahill said. “Depth helps out a lot. I think they figured out that starters can pitch out of the ’pen effectively. Me, Woody, Clayton, we’re all throwing harder out of the ’pen. It’s nice to have that versatility. I think we got more comfortable throwing in those later roles instead of just being a long guy when we first went to the bullpen. But if one of us is going well, you can just keep running us out there—one inning, two innings, three innings.”
Another major benefit of having so much versatility is that it offers Maddon more flexibility in how he can use his pitchers, which should reduce wear and tear on the starting rotation. The veteran skipper has always been cautious about overusing his arms, but with depth an issue last year and the team in position to make a deep postseason run, Maddon leaned more heavily on some of his guys than he might have liked.
In 2016, the Cubs should be able to go to the ’pen earlier if needed to preserve their starters and reduce the workload on some of their key high-leverage relievers, especially early in the season. As Maddon will be the first to tell you, he’s quite comfortable with any of his swing quartet closing a game or two in certain situations.
“We have a lot of talent, and that gives Joe a lot of flexibility with how he wants to use the bullpen,” Warren said. “He can say, ‘All right, I want to let this guy eat up three innings tonight,’ and we still have a long man the next night. You don’t have to make a move. It allows for that flexibility. You can throw just a matchup guy and then still have a long guy.
“I know in New York, we had a longer guy who pitched two or three innings. Once that guy pitched, it was almost like panic for the next day. ‘What if the starter goes down in the first? We’re screwed.’”
Pitching from the rotation and in relief are very different jobs that require different preparation. Just because someone has been a solid major-league starter doesn’t mean he’ll make an effective reliever, and a reliever who excels in one-inning bursts won’t necessarily remain effective in a second turn through an opposing lineup. To be able to do both well is an acquired, and impressive, skill.
“There are four days as a starter that you know you’re not going to pitch,” Warren said. “So you’re like, ‘OK, I got this. I’ve got running and lifting today. The next day I’ve got a bullpen.’ You have a set routine, whereas coming in from the bullpen, it’s ‘OK, I might have to pitch today, so I have to get up and have the same routine.’ You have to prepare yourself to pitch every day.”
You also can’t discount major-league egos. Most pitchers would rather start or throw in high-leverage, late-inning situations. That’s where the glamour—and, let’s be honest, the money—is. All four of the Cubs swingmen have spent most of their lives in a starting role.
In 2010, Cahill went 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA in 30 starts with the Athletics, earning a spot on the All-Star team. He’s logged six seasons as primarily a starter. Richard has two 14-win seasons under his belt in six years as a starter with the White Sox and Padres. Wood logged five seasons in the rotation with the Reds and Cubs and made the 2013 All-Star team before being moved to the ’pen in 2015.
Warren’s background is a bit different. He was a starter at the University of North Carolina and in the Yankees’ minor-league system, but pitched mainly in relief after getting his first real big-league shot in 2013. Injuries in New York forced Warren back into the rotation for parts of the 2015 campaign, and he made 17 starts, going 6-6 with a 3.66 ERA in the role.
When pressed, all of the Cubs swingmen say they prefer starting. But what makes them—and many other Cubs players—special is that their first priority is winning, and they’re willing to do whatever is asked of them in pursuit of the ultimate goal. Each took the move to the bullpen well, worked hard to master the new routine and came out firing.
“[Being willing to move around] goes with the background, the makeup on the individual,” said Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio. “That has a lot to do with the people we’re looking to pick up.”
Each pitcher also admitted to struggling a bit at first with moving back and forth and not being in a defined role, but that all comes down to personal preference. Cahill said going from a reliever to a starter is more difficult, while Warren said the exact opposite. Ultimately, it’s about mastering the different mentality needed for each job and making your pitches.
“Initially [going back and forth] can be difficult,” Richard said. “But you can’t think about it too much because when you do that, you put undue pressure on yourself. At the end of the day, it’s still executing pitches. If you’re going to be successful either as a starter or as a guy out of the bullpen, you have to execute pitches.”
Or, as Wood said: “It’s still 60 feet, 6 inches.”
MIXING IT UP
One thing that does—or can—change coming out of the bullpen is pitch mix. While most starters use three or four pitches to keep hitters off balance, top relievers really need only two plus pitches. One of the best closers in major-league history, Mariano Rivera, threw his cutter almost 90 percent of the time by the end of his career. Some relievers work with a larger repertoire, but most are fastball-slider guys.
This is one of the characteristics that makes the Cubs’ talented foursome unique.
“I think the advantage for us as a staff is that most of the guys who have been starters are three- or four-pitch guys,” Bosio said. “We’re bringing another pitch in there that normally a lot of hitters wouldn’t see—a third pitch or possibly even a fourth.”
Richard continued to use all of his pitches out of the ’pen, but in a much different ratio. Last season, throwing in relief for the first time, he used his fastball at an 81.3 percent rate, according to Fangraphs. That’s nearly a 20 percent increase over the previous season when he was a starter. He also gained a little velocity on his heater, as most pitchers do going from throwing multiple innings to a single frame.
“You’re a little more fresh,” Richard said. “The workload isn’t as heavy as a reliever, so naturally your intensity is able to kick up because you’re not throwing the sheer quantity of pitches. I think that’s where the velocity comes from is just having a rested arm.
“I’ve always leaned on my fastball pretty heavily. It may have been a little bit more this past year making that transition into the bullpen, making sure they’re seeing my best pitch, kind of feeling out, ‘Well, I don’t want to get beat with my third- or fourth-best pitch when I’m only facing one hitter.’”
Warren throws a fastball, slider, curveball and change-up, and he’ll use them all in about the same ratio whether he’s starting or relieving. For him, it’s more a matter of strategy. As a starter, he might hold a pitch back the first turn or two through the order, so he has something new to go to later in the game. As a reliever, he’s using all four pitches immediately because he likely won’t see batters a second time.
“I’ve always had a good feel for all my pitches,” Warren said. “I feel like that builds my strength because most hitters are used to seeing a reliever with two or maybe three pitches, but never really four. Most relievers usually have a really good fastball or a really good slider or breaking ball. I don’t have a put-away pitch, but I can use all my pitches to keep hitters off balance. I feel like it gives me an advantage if I can throw them all.
“Now, there might be one day where maybe I’m casting my curveball or something, so for one inning, I might get rid of my curveball and stick with fastball, slider, change-up. That happens, but the hitters don’t know that.”
The other thing pitchers moving from the rotation to the bullpen need to prepare for is the hike in adrenaline. Starters get a chance to ease into games and aren’t necessarily pitching in high-leverage situations all the time. Coming out of the bullpen, anything can happen. You might be called on to start a clean inning, but you also have to be ready to come in with the bases loaded and the game on the line.
In Game 3 of last season’s NLDS versus the Cardinals, the Cubs took a 5-2 lead into the sixth inning with the series knotted at 1-1. Arrieta quickly gave up two runs on a Jason Heyward homer and then struck out two Cardinals hitters before plunking Brandon Moss. Maddon called to the bullpen for Richard, who quickly induced Kolton Wong to ground out on a 93-mph fastball to end the threat and maintain the Cubs’ lead.
Richard was followed by Cahill and Wood, who combined for a scoreless seventh inning before turning the game over to Strop and Rondon.
“I kind of like not knowing because you’re always on your toes,” Cahill said. “You’re always into the game because you just don’t know.”
Of course, there are some drawbacks to coming out of the bullpen, especially for a well-rounded player like Wood.
“I do miss hitting quite a bit,” said Wood, who hit .215 with seven home runs and 22 RBI in his first three Cubs seasons as a starter. “I don’t get the same opportunities to come in and pinch-hit. I don’t get the at-bats on starting days, so that was a big thing. I do miss it. I still enjoy it, so I work on it. I don’t want to let it slip away. I keep it toned in case it’s needed.”
If the Royals proved anything with their World Series title run in 2015 it was that the postseason is all about powerful bullpen arms. Last year, they had the ability to shorten games with their dominant back-end pitching. While the Cubs ’pen is constructed differently, it could be similarly effective. One thing is certain: Few teams, if any, can match the depth and versatility the North Siders have in their relief corps. And for a manager who loves to get creative with the way he utilizes his players, it could be a perfect match.
“It’s got to be great for Joe having those tools to be able to use in different situations,” Richard said. “When you’re only able to do one thing, it really makes decisions a little bit more difficult for your manager. If you look through the pitchers, we have so many guys who are talented on so many levels and that can be used in different situations, it’s got to help.”
(Photo by Christian Petersen)
From 2008-09, veteran pitcher John Lackey faced off against Jon Lester three times in close American League Division Series matchups between the Angels and Red Sox. Lester took two out of those three contests.
When you pit two intense, highly competitive pitchers against each other in the pressure-filled cauldron that is postseason baseball, it’s safe to say emotions can run high. To put it mildly, there was no love lost between the two hurlers.
“I’ll be the first one to tell you nobody in that dugout liked him,” Lester said of Lackey. “Just because of how competitive he is and all the emotions he has on the field.”
In 2010, Lackey and Lester suddenly found themselves together in the Red Sox rotation. Would the two bitter rivals be able to put that animosity behind them and function effectively as teammates?
“Easy,” Lackey said. “Once you get on the same team wearing the same colors, it’s time to go to work together.”
That’s certainly good news for Cubs fans, as Lackey spent last season with the division rival Cardinals before signing a two-year contract with the Cubs in December. As it turns out, Lackey and Lester did much more than tolerate each other in Boston; the two avowed country boys became close friends and are now nearly inseparable, on and off the baseball field. When Lackey found out he’d be facing Lester again in the National League Division Series last October, the two pitchers shrugged off any special meaning to the game. Their friendship meant more to them.
“When I was in Boston, we faced Lackey almost every year in the playoffs, and he was always an incredible competitor,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We always admired him from afar. He’s one of those guys who takes the ball, and he wants to control that day when he pitches. That’s something that happens less and less in our game. That day for him is his. He brought that kind of fire to the field all the time, and we really admired that from afar in Boston.”
This season, Cubs fans will get to see firsthand just how competitive Lackey truly is. Jason Heyward, who played with the pitcher last year in St. Louis, is extremely happy to have Lackey as a teammate again, especially because it means he won’t have to face him from the batter’s box.
“When he’s on the mound, he’s a bully,” Heyward said. “He wants you to swing the bat. It’s ‘You’re going to get a hit or I’m going to get you out, but let’s make this happen quickly.’ His stuff is just heavy. He’s got heavy stuff, but he has the kind of experience with that mindset. It’s a good combination for him to have success at this stage of his career.
“He’s a bulldog. He competes like no other when he’s on the mound. It’s fun to watch. He likes to work quick. Playing behind him, that helps you out. It’s somebody you want to play behind, and you appreciate what he does when he goes to the mound.”
This season, Cubs players will no doubt appreciate the simple fact that when Lackey goes to the mound, he’ll be doing it in Cubbie blue instead of Cardinal red. In three starts (21.2 innings) against the North Siders last season, he went 2-0 with a 1.25 ERA and 19 strikeouts versus only five walks. Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant logged two hits and five strikeouts in nine at-bats against Lackey in 2015. One of the first things Bryant told the right-hander was that he was glad he didn’t have to face him anymore.
“He’s a really good guy to have on your team,” Bryant said. “He doesn’t care what you think between the lines.”
One thing that surprised Bryant is how different Lackey is as a teammate versus the way he’s generally perceived from the opposing dugout. He may be fierce on the mound, but that doesn’t carry over into the clubhouse—at least not on non-pitching days.
“From the moment I met him, I was like, ‘This guy is awesome,’” Bryant said. “Obviously, you have opinions of players, and you hate facing certain guys. He was one of those guys for me. I struggled against him. I haven’t had many at-bats against him, but I struggled.”
As far as Lackey is concerned, he’s just fine with most big leaguers thinking he’s difficult. No pitcher wants to be a hitter’s favorite opponent.
“I don’t want a hitter to want to face me,” Lackey said. “Obviously, I compete on the field and I get after it, and I know how that can be perceived sometimes. I think people find out I’m a lot different than [they think] I am, which is fine. In between the lines, I don’t care what the other team thinks about me. I’m there to win.”
In 2016, the Cubs’ young hitters should learn a thing or two from the pitcher who schooled them last season. And don’t think they won’t ask him how he got them out.
“I told him that he dominated me,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “I’m happy to play behind him, pick his brain, [find out] why he got me out so much.”
Though Lackey spends most of his time on the mound scowling, he actually smiled and laughed his way through much of his first spring camp with the Cubs. Anyone looking for him could usually find him with Lester. The pair regularly challenged each other at wind sprints, talked over strategy or simply drove around in Lester’s camouflage-colored buggy.
“It’s Siamese almost,” said catcher David Ross of the pair. “They’re attached at the hip. It’s a good thing. They both are similar in how they go about their business. That’s how Jon is. He’s so serious, and you’ll see the same thing with Lackey. He wants to win.”
Lester laughed when told that Ross said the two pitchers were as close as conjoined twins.
“That’s how we were over [in Boston],” Lester said. “We did everything. It makes you accountable because you have somebody going, ‘C’mon, let’s go do this.’ You’re not by yourself trying to get yourself motivated.
“The biggest thing is accountability. You’re sitting here thinking, ‘I don’t want to do my running,’ but you’ve got somebody sitting here going, ‘C’mon let’s go.’ That’s the way we’ve always been. I think it makes each other better because it makes you accountable. Those days—we all have them—when you don’t feel like doing anything. Now you have somebody who will push you.”
Ryan Dempster had a little fun at Lackey and Lester’s expense during his talk show at the Cubs Convention in January. When the two friends were on stage together being interviewed, Dempster brought out some Popeye’s chicken, saying he likes to make Red Sox pitchers feel at home. When Lackey and Lester were in Boston, they created a media firestorm by reportedly drinking beer and eating chicken in the Fenway Park clubhouse during a few games. Lackey didn’t know what Dempster was up to, but he did laugh at the joke—and eat the chicken.
“It’s Dempster—he’s my guy,” Lackey said.
Though Cubs hitters are certainly happy to call Lackey a teammate, his arrival in Chicago may benefit Lester more than anyone. Several members of the coaching staff have already told Lackey what a good influence he’s been on the veteran lefty.
“He’s my boy,” Lackey said of Lester. “Our wives are good friends. Our kids are friends. We’ve been hanging out, having cookouts and that kind of stuff. It’s been a lot of fun.”
There’s also a burgeoning Texas connection on the staff. Jake Arrieta will soon be Lackey’s neighbor in Austin. The Arrietas are planning to build a new home there, just down the street from the Lackeys’. The former division foes even played golf together a few times this offseason.
“Everything you hear about the guy is just positive, especially from guys who have played with him,” Arrieta said. “Conversations with him are natural. He’s a funny guy, always upbeat, joking around. He’s a personality you want to surround yourself with. I was fortunate to get to know him this offseason and start that transition for spring and throughout the season. I know he has a real close relationship to Lester and Ryan Dempster. It just shows you what kind of guy he is.”
Despite a deep postseason run for the Cubs in 2015, the team still lacked some depth in the rotation. Not only does Lackey create an imposing front three with Arrieta and Lester, he is also one of the more playoff-tested pitchers of his generation. Between stints with the Angels, Red Sox and Cardinals, Lackey has gone to the postseason eight different times (15 series), pitched in 23 playoff games (20 starts) and gone 8-5 with a 3.11 ERA in 127.1 October innings.
Lackey was the pitcher the Angels and Red Sox wanted on the mound when it mattered most, and he delivered in those pressure-packed situations. He is the first starting pitcher in major-league history to win two World Series-clinching games with two different teams, doing so as a rookie with the Angels in 2002 and again with the Red Sox in 2013.
And Lackey has always had that mental toughness. When he was a 20-year-old minor-league pitcher in the Angels organization, his manager, Tom Kotchman, once went to the mound to take him out of a game. Lackey, being Lackey, refused to leave, so Kotchman simply went back to the dugout and let him continue pitching. When the Angels picked the big Texan to start Game 7 of the World Series, Kotchman knew he could handle it.
“He ain’t a normal rookie,” Kotchman said at the time.
The Cubs hope whatever it is that drives Lackey rubs off on the rest of the team. Manager Joe Maddon has known the pitcher since those early days with the Angels and said Lackey has mellowed a bit—on certain days, at least.
“Four out of five days, I’m pretty laid back and having a good time,” Lackey said. “When you only get 30-some times to help your team, I take it pretty dang serious and go get after it.”
So does he need that edge to stay among the game’s elite arms at 37 years old?
“I think it’s helped, for sure,” Lackey said. “It’s not going anywhere. It’s just there. It’s what it is.”
Ultimately, Lackey’s image is immaterial, so long as he takes care of business when he’s on the mound. And, to a man, the Cubs pitchers all agree he’ll be a perfect addition to the staff.
“We all want to do our job,” Lester said. “We all have different ways of going about things. Jake is kind of the stoic one and doesn’t show emotion and stands up there and chucks the ball. I get a little more emotional, and so does Lack. With Kyle [Hendricks], I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kyle do anything except keep his mouth shut and go pitch.
“Everybody harnesses their deal their own way. [Lackey] is a little more vocal and outgoing with his emotions on the mound. The other four days, he’s a big ol’ teddy bear and cares about his teammates and wants his teammates to do well.”
When told people were surprised to see him smiling so much with the Cubs, Lackey, as if on cue, smiled.
“When I’m competing, I’m there to win,” he said. “I’m not there to be your friend and hang out. On the other days, I’ll be cool and hang out. I love having fun as much as anybody. When it’s my day, it’s time to work.”
Lester, who was standing nearby, quickly interrupted.
“Don’t lie to Carrie,” Lester said. “You’re a [jerk] all five days.”
Only good friends can tease each other that way.
“He’s a terrific guy,” Hoyer said of Lackey. “He’s a leader. All the players love him, and he takes his day seriously. When he’s on the mound, he’s incredibly intense, incredibly focused. We feel the edge he does bring is great for our team. An April 20 game that might be midweek, people will be on alert the day he pitches because he takes it so seriously. I think that’s important. It’s a long season, and the team that executes game in and game out and can bring that intensity every day [usually wins]. A lot of times, it isn’t the most talented team, but the team that comes to play night in and night out. There’s no question the day he pitches, the team comes to play. They know how seriously he takes it.”
Ross, who caught Lackey when the two were together with the Red Sox, has seen that game face up close.
“I don’t understand when people get upset when people are emotional in a negative way,” Ross said. “They’re all excited about the good emotions that come out of this game, but sometimes there are bad emotions. John is an emotional player, and he goes out there and really feels strongly like, ‘Today’s my day for the boys. I don’t get to help out the other days. This is my day, and I try to compete and help the guys win.’ He takes that very seriously. I appreciate that.”
Ultimately, all Lackey wants to do is win, and that’s exactly the kind of player the Cubs were looking to add to their rotation this offseason.
“He’ll be really good for all these guys,” Ross said. “The emotion you’ll see the day he pitches, he doesn’t care about anything else but winning. He’s the nicest guy ever, but on the day he pitches, he’s pretty locked in. He’s no nonsense.”
Of course, Lackey also likes to have a good time, and Maddon has seen that side of him too.
“Johnny is straight up and straightforward,” Maddon said. “He likes to giggle and have fun, but when it comes down to his craft, he gets very serious.”
While it might be hard to imagine the 6-foot-6, 230-pound pitcher giggling, all you have to do is mention his new daughter, Kenzi, who was born in December, or play a round of golf with him to hear his easy laugh and see his softer side.
“He’s as polar opposite as you could possibly be [on the golf course],” Arrieta said. “He hasn’t been playing that long. He’s out there having a good time and doesn’t care how he scores. He’s like, ‘Whatever. Let’s move on, keep playing.’ He’s just out there having a good time. It’s a nice change-up from the mindset we’re in at the field.”
So before Lackey’s starts, put on your cowboy hat, play some country music and add a little swagger to your step. This good old boy is going to bring everything he has to the mound every fifth day.
“When we signed Lackey in the offseason,” Maddon said, “I thought he was one of the top free-agent signs of the winter—specifically for us and what we’re doing.”
by Carrie Muskat, MLB.com
Some teams just have a certain magic. It usually manifests in walk-off wins, unlikely heroes and other assorted frozen moments. Think the 2014 Royals or the 2008 Rays.
But not every good team has this ineffable spark. Some just plod along, winning more than they lose, and the only excitement they really produce is a matter of inertia. By the end of the season, they simply rack up enough by-the-book wins to qualify for the postseason.
That is certainly not the modus operandi of the 2015 Cubs.
For a future article, we recently started compiling the 10 most memorable moments from this season, and we realized it’s going to be nearly impossible to keep it to just 10. As soon as we settled on Jon Lester’s 14-strikeout game, Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter and made us readjust. We wrote up Anthony Rizzo’s amazing over-the-tarp-and-into-the-stands grab, and Kris Bryant delivered another walk-off miracle.
It’s not that this team hasn’t experienced hardships, but the second you think the Cubs are down, and the fatalistic, knee-jerk, “they’re-finished” reaction sets in, they pick themselves up, dust themselves off and do something amazing.
In the first homestand following the All-Star break, the Cubs were swept by the last-place Phillies and no-hit by Cole Hamels—the first time the franchise had been held hitless since Sandy Koufax turned the trick in 1965. The offense had been struggling for about a month, and the Cubs looked ready to take a tumble. But the team responded by reeling off an incredible 16-2 run, highlighted by a four-game sweep of the Giants, the team directly behind them in the NL Wild Card chase.
So where does this resilience come from?
It all starts at the top with manager Joe Maddon. One of the true joys of covering the Cubs this season has been getting to see the veteran skipper work his magic up close. In interviews, sports figures can be dodgy, belligerent and downright unresponsive. But Maddon never has a false moment. He’s unfailingly honest, willing to discuss just about any topic and nearly impossible to rile.
As the leader of a franchise with a unique history, he is frequently asked about curses, goats and the pressure to deliver the big one to a long-suffering fan base. His typical response: “I just don’t vibrate on that frequency, man.”
He’s also a master at defusing tension and keeping things light. After two reporters got into a spat during a media scrum with GM Jed Hoyer, Maddon walked into his daily pregame presser wearing a catcher’s mask and carrying a bat because he “heard things got a little testy.”
Sometimes Maddon’s bag of tricks even includes actual magic. Following a late-June five-game skid against the Dodgers and Cardinals, he brought a magician into the Citi Field clubhouse in New York to perform an impromptu show for the team.
“I’m more concerned about just mental fatigue more than anything,” Maddon told reporters at the time. “When you have a couple bad days in a row, or a bad week, it can wear on some guys who have never really gone through it before.”
The skipper’s 30-minute rule—celebrate the win or bemoan the loss for a half-hour, and then move on—has resonated with his troops. And, boy, do they celebrate. By now, you’ve no doubt heard of the Cubs’ famous postgame victory bashes, complete with light shows and smoke machines, and themed pajama-party road trips.
In the October issue, we examine what Maddon has really meant to a young, talented Cubs team—not to spoil the story, but it’s a lot. We also look at some of the good work the organization has been doing off the field through its charitable foundations and initiatives. Finally, we travel back 100 years to when the Federal League’s Chicago Whales delivered Wrigley Field its first championship season.
This magical year is about to lead into a magical offseason. Don’t miss a minute of it. Subscribe to Vine Line at cubs.com/vineline and follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.
Here’s a bit of advice for aspiring sports journalists out there: If you ever plan on writing a story about Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta, you need to get comfortable with waiting. It’s not that Arrieta isn’t accessible or approachable. Quite the contrary, in fact. He’s polite, intelligent, thoughtful and probably takes reporters’ questions much more seriously than they deserve to be taken. And when he’s in the clubhouse, he’s happy to accept queries from all comers.
He’s just not in the clubhouse all that often. And if you’ve ever really looked at the 29-year-old starter, who twirled the first no-hitter of his career Sunday night in front of a national ESPN audience, you can probably imagine why.
When we were trying to track down Arrieta (and his glorious beard) for our cover feature this month, we asked various sources if they had seen him around. Here’s a sampling of the responses we received:
“When I got here at around 2 p.m. (for a 7:05 game), I know he was on his Pilates machine.”
“The last I saw him, he was in the weight room.”
“I know he was throwing earlier. He’s always working. He’s impossible to find sometimes.”
This may or may not come as a surprise to you, but Jake Arrieta is an extremely hard worker. Still, that’s not what makes him unique. Most major leaguers are hard workers. It’s the wide range of activities he does to keep himself in shape—from Pilates to cycling to weights to isometric work—and the gusto with which he undertakes these activities that make him a bit of an oddity.
What I found most interesting during the reporting process was listening to how his teammates talk about him. Even in a room full of professional athletes, most Cubs players still seem to view the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Texan with wonder. Rotation mate Kyle Hendricks said he aspired to be like Arrieta one day. Catcher David Ross called him a tree bark-eating caveman. Pitcher Jason Hammel mythologized him as a Greek god. Most freely admitted they couldn’t keep up with him, while others hesitantly said they were weighing whether they should actually join him on his famous Pilates reformer.
“Some of the stuff I see him do in the weight room, there’s no way my body could even get in those positions,” Hendricks said, laughing.
Arrieta also might be the poster child for why the Cubs need the 1060 Project’s improved player facilities. The current Wrigley Field weight room and clubhouse are surprisingly small, so Arrieta has moved his Pilates machine (yes, he has his own Pilates machine—of course, he has his own Pilates machine) into the media room. In the last few months, Cubs beat writers have grown accustomed to waiting a few extra minutes for their daily pregame briefing with manager Joe Maddon, while Arrieta either does Pilates himself or puts one of his teammates through the paces.
For the last few seasons, people have been asking—and I asked the same question of everyone I spoke to—why the Cubs’ version of Jake Arrieta is so much better than the Orioles’ original version. The consensus answer points back to his Herculean work ethic. Arrieta is truly driven to be great in every aspect of his life. He always had the stuff. That’s why he made an Opening Day start for the Orioles in 2012, even though his numbers never said he was an ace.
This month, we examine how Arrieta transformed himself from an underachieving prospect into one of the top pitchers in the National League. We also get to know the next wave of heavy hitters in the system, this year’s top draft picks Ian Happ and Donnie Dewees. Finally, we look back at the last time the Cubs were flush with young talent during the tenure of aggressive and often aggravating general manager Dallas Green.
The 2015 season is almost in the books, but things are just heating up. Here’s one more piece of advice: Don’t miss a second of the Cubs’ playoff push. We’ll be there for every last pitch in print, on the Web and on Twitter at @cubsvineline.
To subscribe to Vine Line, go to cubs.com/vineline.
This spring, we talked to Cubs players and personnel about everything from their goals for the season to the best prank they’ve ever pulled. With the official Cactus League season wrapping up Wednesday, we round out our spring video series by looking at what the Cubs are getting in new leader Joe Maddon. The 61-year-old skipper has a unique way of relating to players and keeping the clubhouse loose, from having a DJ play on the practice field to wearing old-school coaching shorts during workouts.
And make sure you check out all the other videos from our Spring Training series:
Cubscast Mesa: Spring sit-down with manager Joe Maddon
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, If I weren’t a ballplayer …
Cubscast Mesa: Checking in with the 2015 Cubs coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, If I could have one talent or superpower
Cubscast Mesa: The Cubs are setting a positive tone in camp
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, What the Cubs are watching on TV
Cubscast Mesa: The next wave of Cubs talent
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, The best thing I did this offseason
Cubscast Mesa: Goals for the 2015 season
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, The best clubhouse prank I’ve ever seen
All winter long, we couldn’t wait for Spring Training to arrive so we could catch our first glimpse of Jake Arrieta, Starlin Castro, Dexter Fowler, Jon Lester, Miguel Montero, Anthony Rizzo and the rest. Add in Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, C.J. Edwards, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler, and it portended to be a hot time in the desert.
But just how much more exciting this team really is became readily apparent on our second day with the club at Sloan Park. Like all Spring Training complexes, the Cubs’ beautiful facility in Mesa, Arizona, has a number of practice fields in addition to the main stadium field. Most of the veteran major leaguers—or, as manager Joe Maddon called them, the “varsity squad”—took batting practice in the stadium, while the high-level prospects did their work on Fields 1 and 2.
Though it’s certainly easy to get from one field to the other, there is a bit of distance between them so you need to allot a few minutes for travel.
We were making our usual series of Spring Training videos (check them all out at here on the blog), so we needed to capture footage of several different players. To figure out where we should set up camp that day, we checked the batting groups, which Maddon had posted in the clubhouse. On Field 1 was uber-prospect (and world’s nicest future superstar) Bryant. Well, we had to see him. But Field 2 boasted Almora, Russell and Schwarber. We definitely wanted to catch them too. Of course, there was also the stadium field, where players like Baez, Castro, Fowler, Montero, Rizzo and Soler were taking their hacks.
This posed a bit of a dilemma because, as of this spring, we still hadn’t figured out a way to be in three places at one time.
We ran into this same quandary all through spring camp. It’s not that the Cubs didn’t have exciting players scattered throughout the practice fields in previous years. There just wasn’t quite this volume. And it’s not like you didn’t believe Cubs personnel when they said they felt the playoffs were a possibility in, say, 2014—spring is a time of boundless optimism. But this year, when person after person, without hesitation, said his goal for 2015 was to win the division—or, better yet, the World Series—there was a different intensity to it.
These guys know they are good, and they expect to win. Anything less would be a disappointment.
“The goal is always to win the World Series,” Maddon said. “I don’t understand how a team goes to Spring Training and doesn’t believe that. We have a young core group with some really nice veterans. I want our guys to believe we’re getting to the playoffs and going to the World Series and winning it.”
For the April issue, we got our first chance to meet new center fielder and leadoff man Dexter Fowler, acquired in an offseason trade with the Astros. For a Cubs team that struggled to get on base, lacked a leadoff hitter and was short on everyday outfielders last year, he might just be the perfect acquisition.
We also sat down with new bench coach—and familiar face—Dave Martinez, who was drafted by the Cubs in 1983 and has spent the last seven years by Maddon’s side in Tampa Bay. He spoke with us about returning to Wrigley Field, working with the Cubs’ new manager and setting lofty goals for 2015.
Finally, as the team embarks on a new relationship with CBS Radio WBBM-AM 780, we go back in time to look at the Cubs’ storied history on the dial. The organization was one of the first to see the value of broadcasting games to a wide audience and has remained at the forefront of the medium for nearly a century.
So there you have it—postseason or bust. We like the sound of that. Stick with us for the entire journey in print, on the blog and on Twitter at @cubsvineline. It should be an exciting ride.
One of the best things about hanging around the Cubs is you get to know the players off the field. While the team is serious and focused about 2015, there are also some great personalities, and they like to cut loose. During Spring Training, we asked the guys to recall the best prank they have ever pulled—or seen—during their careers.
We’ll be posting videos and stories from Sloan Park all spring, so make sure you’re watching the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.
Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:
Cubscast Mesa: Spring sit-down with manager Joe Maddon
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, If I weren’t a ballplayer …
Cubscast Mesa: Checking in with the 2015 Cubs coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, If I could have one talent or superpower
Cubscast Mesa: The Cubs are setting a positive tone in camp
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, What the Cubs are watching on TV
Cubscast Mesa: The next wave of Cubs talent
Cubscast Mesa: The Lighter Side, The best thing I did this offseason
Cubscast Mesa: Goals for the 2015 season