Maddon, Lester, Almora, And Other Strange Thoughts On This Nervous Night

I know better than to draw any conclusions when the Cubs are playing a non-representative Major League team like the current iteration of the New York Mets. Like some of you, the first three or four innings in both these games have raised far too much shpilkus in me, when I should know that even with the Cubs’ struggles they’re going to find runs off this outfit.

And yet we can’t help it. The Cubs put up 17 runs again last night, almost all of it off the tent city that the Mets bullpen is with all their call-ups. You could actually see when the Mets bus started running last night, even if Brian Duensing and Justin Grimm did their best to hold their interest.

But most of the conversation, before Albert Almora led the late-inning charge with six RBI in just two ABs over two innings, was about perhaps the worst base-running play of the season. That’s when Ian Happ got thrown out at third before Willson Contreras could score on Jason Heyward’s weekly hit.

Normally, you’d just say, “Mistakes happen,” and then move on. Except that they keep happening. While I’ve tried to remain level-headed about this season as long as possible, and would like to think I’ve managed better than most, it’s these kinds of things that I’ve noticed all season. The term I keep using is “locked in,” and there are just too many moments this season where the Cubs didn’t seem that way. Say whatever you want about Tony La Russa, and lord knows I have. But his Cardinals teams inarguably won three to five games a year simply because they were paying more attention than the other team. Be it some rule they knew, or saw a guy drifting off a bag, or paying attention when a pitcher used the same rhythm on base so that someone you wouldn’t expect could steal a bag, tipping pitches, whatever it was.

Maddon’s Cubs, when they were winning all those games the past two years, might not have been quite that but they certainly never looked like they were paying less attention. While Willson has to be careful with his hamstring troubles, there’s utterly no reason he needs to be lightly jogging while looking behind him coming to the plate. If he’s checking to see if Happ is going to have a play made on him, then he needs to know that he’s got to hustle when he sees that there is. And Willson isn’t a dumb player by any stretch of the imagination. Happ isn’t either, and yet there he was somehow trying to crash into third on his feet, or not even trying to get into a rundown to assure the run scoring. Then again, he probably never guessed Willson would be picking daisies on his way to home either.

It keeps happening, and yet the only time I’ve heard Maddon address anything was an allusion to bad at-bats somewhere in July. I’m not privy to what he does behind closed doors, and nor should I be. But if this had been addressed, why does this kind of bullshit keep happening?

Maddon still exudes the cool-dude-in-a-loose mood vibe, and for the most part that’s fine. The team shouldn’t be panicking at any point, and everyone being relaxed has value. But at some point there’s being relaxed and there’s just being naively arrogant. “Everything’s fine,”…. until it isn’t. While Montgomery has looked terrible his last two starts, is now really the time to chuck out a starter who’s never been in the majors? Again, it’s the Mets, if there’s any time you can get away with it…

The discussion will turn in a couple weeks whether or not the Cubs can “turn it on.” I don’t know that some bad habits that look like they’ve been allowed to fester for six months can simply be turned off.

-Jon Lester has been… well, let’s say weird since he came back from the DL. The problem at first seems obvious. He’s walked four guys in each of his last two starts in just 12 innings of work. He doesn’t seem to have much command of anything. And the one thing he’s having problems is getting anyone to swing and miss at his curve.

For the most part this year, Lester has gotten whiffs on at least 15% of the curves he throws, and usually between 20-25%. Sometimes higher. Two of his last three starts have seen only a 12% whiff-rate, and against the Pirates he didn’t get a one. And the problem is that hitters are only offering at about half of what they did before he got hurt. He’s just not getting near enough the plate for hitters to be fooled. In his last two or three starts of the season, finding his curve again is going to be priority #1.

-Speaking of Almora, I didn’t even realize this until looking it up today. Here are four wRC+ numbers of Cubs outfielders: 99, 98, 97, 83. As you probably guessed, the last is Heyward. The first is Schwarber. The second is Jay. The third is Almora. We’re basically out of time, but Almora needs an audition these last couple weeks to stake a full-time starting spot in the outfield for the playoffs.

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