Sunday Notes: Cubs, Pirates, Managers, more

The Cubs are a confident team. They should be. Despite a lack of experience at several key positions, Joe Maddon’s squad finished with the third-best record in baseball. Last night, they evened up the NLDS at one game apiece by besting the Cardinals.

When did the youthful squad realize they weren’t simply talented, but also capable of seriously contending for a post-season berth, and perhaps even a World Series title? It depends on who you ask.

Maddon suggests it was in early August, when his team won a key series at home against the Giants. The handful of players I queried on Tuesday offered somewhat different answers.

“It kind of kicked in early in the season,” said Chris Denorfia. “I think after we got that first month under our belt, we just started coming to the ballpark expecting to win. We never really had a long losing streak.”

“I think we kind of turned a corner in August,” said Jon Lester. “That’s when we started putting up good games every single day. But I think we were always confident –we knew it from Day One – we just had to prove to other people that we could do it.”

“It happened right after the All-Star break,” said Kyle Hendricks. “We had a little meeting with (Joe Maddon) at the beginning of the second half. He told us that we couldn’t have a different mentality depending on the opponent – we couldn’t get up for the good teams and not show up for the bad teams. I think we changed our mentality from there.”

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Two weeks ago, Dave Cameron wrote about how Kyle Hendricks has become a viable third starter in the Cubs rotation. The 25-year-old Dartmouth College product allowed three-or-fewer earned runs in six of his last seven regular-season starts, and closed the campaign with 12 scoreless frames.

Getting his delivery back in sync fueled Hendricks’ surge.

“I’d gotten into a bad groove with certain things,” Hendricks explained earlier this week. “I was collapsing on my back side, and my arm was dragging behind me, so I wasn’t able to get out front. Now I’m much taller over the mound. I’m in line – I’m in my lane – so when I get out front, I’m behind the baseball and have that downward angle to my pitches.

“It was about a month and a half ago that I finally started making solid progress toward what we were looking for in my mechanics. We started working on it before that, but we weren’t sure what the source of the problem was. Now I’m back to where my pitches have the consistent movement I’m used to, and my mentality is all about attacking the hitter, not my mechanics.”

Hendricks sandwiched brilliance with long balls last night. The righty gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, and was chased by back-to-back jacks in the fifth. In between, he retired 14 of 15 hitters, seven by way of the K.

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Chris Young’s ability to have success up in the zone with a pedestrian fastball was a primary focus of an interview that ran here a few weeks ago. Spin rate and deception are important facets for Young and others of his ilk. So is the ability to change eye levels by working down with a solid off-speed offering.

“Chris Young has a good breaking ball, so therefore you have to look breaking ball and maybe that fastball gets on you a tick quicker,” said Indians bullpen coach Jason Bere. “Just like our Josh Tomlin. He’s a kid who has to use a pitch-mix – use all of his pitches – and he’s got a little life. He’s not a velocity guy, but he can still have life at 87-89, touching 90, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. And when he has life on his ball, his breaking balls plays.

Tomlin, who missed time with an injury and didn’t pitch until August, went 7-2 with a 3.02 ERA in 10 starts.
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Prior to Wednesday’s NL Wild Card game, I asked Clint Hurdle if he believes in the idea of clutch. More specifically, I inquired as to whether the Pittsburgh skipper believes certain players are more predisposed to slowing the game down and coming through in key situations.

Hurdle initially demurred, saying that he’s still working on his kids putting their teeth beneath pillows. The former outfielder then offered the following:

“From my experience, there (were) times the game sped up on me, and there (were) times I handled the game and got it to slow down. Whether that’s clutch or not, I don’t know. It may all be about terminology. But I do know there are men I’ve worked with from a coaching standpoint that have shown the ability to do far more impactful things than many other men in those specific times.”

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Earlier this week, I asked Addison Russell how much he utilizes video and data when preparing for a game. His answer surprised me. Most players respond by talking about offense; the young Cub began by talking about defense.

“I look at a lot of video,” replied Russell. ‘I look at spray charts and at which counts the batters are most aggressive in. I look at their swings. I look at my own swing as well, and at what the pitcher is trying to do to to me.”

Does Russell view himself a defense-first shortstop?

“I’d say I am,” said Russell. “At the same time, I bring a little funk to our lineup.”

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Josh Harrison is proud of how the Pirates have become a winner, and in many ways, the undersized infielder is a poster child for their success. Compared to the Cubs, Harrison’s club is a roster of overachievers. The Coles and Polancos received ink coming up through the system, but relative to the Baez-Bryant-Russell-Schwarber-Soler hype machine, it might well have been invisible ink.

“What makes our (situation) different is that they have a lot of young guys who have high-profile names,” Harrison told me on Tuesday. “When we started winning, we had a lot of young guys who were maybe not as high profile. But we did know how to win, and a lot of that came from growing together in the minor leagues and winning some championships. We blended in up here with the guys who wanted to win, and now we’re in that wave of winning.”

It goes without saying that you can’t sustain a winning culture if you don’t have the talent to win. The Pirates wouldn’t be where they are had they not drafted and developed, and acquired through trade, quality players. Harrison recognizes that, while lending credence to both the quantifiable and the non-quantifiable.

“You have to have the ability to play, but there are some things I don’t think you can measure,” opined Harrison. “Sometimes (players) know how to win in certain situations. Analytics do help you win some games, but I don’t think they help you win 98 games.”

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Joe Maddon and Clint Hurdle should each receive strong support in NL Manager of the Year voting. Their teams had great seasons, and both receive kudos for their motivational skills. Each is a player’s manager in his own inimitable way. Maddon, in particular, runs his team to the beat of a different drum.

“It’s a different atmosphere here,” said Tommy Hunter, whom the Cubs acquired from the Orioles at the trade deadline. “Joe runs a different ship than Buck (Showalter) did. I’m not saying one is right and one is wrong, but it’s just different. And not that we didn’t in Baltimore, but the guys here are really having fun.”

Jon Lester played for Terry Francona, Bobby Valentine and John Farrell in Boston. In his opinion, the man in charge does more than simply set the tone.

“You take on the persona of the manager,” said Lester. “You take on the way he thinks and the way he goes about things. The way he preaches to us – you take on that personality. Joe is laid back and takes things one day at a time, and that rubs off on his players.”

Where did Maddon’s esoteric, low-key approach come from?

“I’ve learned a lot from coaches I’d never want to be like,” said Maddon. “A lot of that had to do with tightness or trying to do things differently, or getting angry and becoming punitive when things weren’t working well.”

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A top managerial candidate temporarily took his hat out of the ring when Torey Lovullo re-upped as the bench coach in Boston. Lovullo will return to that role after serving as interim manager while John Farrell was on medical leave, and his new contract doesn’t allow him to interview with another club for one year.

Who are the best available options to fill the openings in Miami, San Diego, Seattle and Washington (and potentially elsewhere)? The answer to that question is subjective, and a lot depends on whether previous experience is a prerequisite. If it is, Manny Acta and Bo Porter would be my top choices. Each is saber-friendly, and neither was put in a position to succeed in his earlier opportunities.

Among those who haven’t yet managed at the highest level, Dave Martinez is the man teams should target. Given his time as Joe Maddon’s second lieutenant, in two of the game’s most-progressive organizations, Martinez is well-positioned to lead a big-league team. Tim Bogar – reportedly on the short list in Seattle – is right behind Martinez in my personal pecking order.

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Some are speculating that Scott Servais is a candidate in both San Diego and Seattle. He’d be a surprise hire – Servais hasn’t managed or coached at the professional level – but there’s reason to believe he could thrive if handed the reins. Currently an assistant general manager with the Angels, the 48-year-old former catcher has extensive experience in scouting and player development, and he possesses excellent communication skills.

Earlier this year, I discussed the player-development process with Servais. The roles of managers and coaches were part of our conversation, and two things he said on that subject stand out:

“It’s very rewarding to see a coach you brought into the system be rewarded with a big league job,” said Servais. “That’s whether it’s with the parent club or another club that asks for permission to talk to him. Over the years, 16 or 17 guys I’ve had in the minor leagues have ended up with big league jobs. That comes from the culture you try to create with your coaches – one in which they have a voice.

“Everybody walks around with a big manual that says ‘The Ranger Way’ or ‘The Halo Way’ or ‘The Yankee Way.’ It’s all on paper, but it’s the people who put it into play that make the difference. That’s the separator. Having people who are creative, and who can convey a message to the players and have them buy in, is the difference-maker in player development.”

Irrelevant to the subject at hand, yet topical – today is Sunday – Servais is a diehard Packers fan. If the Wisconsin native does get a managerial job, he promises to be a bolder decision maker than Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy was in last year’s NFC Championship game.

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It wasn’t surprising to see the benches empty when Tony Watson plunked Jake Arrieta at PNC Park on Wednesday. The pitch clearly had a purpose, and as Jon Lester said after the game, “We’re going to stand up for our guys and we’re going to make sure the other team knows we’re going to stand up for our guys. If that means going on the field and taking care of business, that’s what we’ve got to do.”

The Pirates were also protecting their own. Arrieta’s earlier HBPs may have been unintentional, but there was still protocol to follow. That’s how the game is played.

What is surprising was the dust-up between David Ross and Sean Rodriguez. The latter has a reputation as a hot-head, but the former is one of the game’s most-respected elder statesmen. As he later explained, Ross was “trying to keep guys off our starting pitcher, who was dominating the game. We were up four runs, so the last thing I wanted to do was fight. Unfortunately, it got a little ugly.”

It did get ugly, and much of the blame rests on the Chicago catcher’s shoulders. Rodriguez’s reaction wasn’t justified – throwing a punch rarely is – but Ross recognizes that he lit the feisty Pirate’s fuse.

“It really shocked me, but I understand it,” Ross told a group of reporters after the game. “I didn’t mean to put my hand around his throat, I get it.”

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

The winning pitchers in Friday’s games – Jacob deGrom, Kelvin Herrera, Keone Kela, John Lackey – were paid a combined $3.6 million this season. The losing pitchers – Will Harris, LaTroy Hawkins, Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester – were paid a combined $55.3 million.

On this date in 1999, a hobbled Pedro Martinez came out of the bullpen and pitched six hitless and scoreless innings as the Red Sox rallied to beat the Indians in Game 5 of the ALDS.

Earlier this season, Gerardo Parra became the 1,000th player to appear in a game for the Orioles since the team moved to Baltimore in 1954.

Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez went 9-3 with a 2.25 ERA and a 9.1 K/9 in the postseason.

On this date in 1948, the Cleveland Indians beat the Boston Braves to win the World Series. It was their first title since 1920, and their most recent.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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