Back from California now, I got to follow the doubleheader between the Chicago Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds. I also got to listen to the last bits of the Kyle Schwarber game Tuesday night, including the go-ahead (and eventual game-winning) home run.
In addition to a new, snarky Cubs Twitter, this year we Cubs fans get to enjoy the forging of a perennial contender around a young core of talented and frustrating players. This means we’re treated to many Cubs fans blowing up over lineup issues, Starlin Castro, or whatever else they’re mad at that day. Conversely, when they pull out a dramatic victory, we’re treated to the elation that comes to being a fan of a team that can justify, more often than not, #WeAreGood. We also witness the magic of Taylor Teagarden actually getting the best of Aroldis Chapman, which was made possible by some BABIP magic earlier on:
Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. We’re talking about SEVEN shutout innings by the Cubs bullpen after Dallas Beeler was pulled early (a smart move for many reasons, by the way) which allowed the Cubs offense to tie the game and keep it that way long enough to squeeze the winning run across the plate from the unlikeliest of sources. The bullpen has been spectacular this year, aside from a few glaring examples made to look worse by kneejerk Cubs Twitterphiles. It wasn’t always easy, but the Cubs are weathering the obvious deficiencies and staying in contention while the team is still finding its identity.
Part of the reason the Cubs had to rely on Dallas Beeler in the nightcap was because the normal fifth starter (who isn’t ideal, but is probably still a better option), Tsuyoshi Wada, is currently rehabbing an injury in Iowa. You can check the transaction log for details, and you will see that Wada initially started the season on the disabled list with a groin strain. After a long rehab (which was basically his spring training), Wada was activated in mid-May and lasted a month with generally solid results until he went on the DL again in late June with left deltoid inflammation. A compounding irony is that Beeler also started the season on the DL with right shoulder inflammation. Fellow pitchers Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, Zac Rosscup, and Jacob Turner also had early season injuries that prevented them from contributing fully, and in Turner’s case, shut down his entire season.
My train of thought started when I read this article by Travis Sawchik detailing how the Pittsburgh Pirates have used certain techniques and exercises to reduce the number of injuries to their team, which is likely a huge part of their success so far this season. As of that article, the Pirates had lost 379 days to the DL, while the Cubs in that same period had lost 546; that number is a lot higher now with Wada still getting set to come back and Tommy La Stella nursing an oblique strain. There are certain injuries that you can’t really protect against, such as Miguel Montero‘s jammed thumb or Mike Olt‘s broken arm on the early-season hit-by-pitch that allowed the Kris Bryant call-up, but I’m interested in these techniques reported by Sawchik because injuries such as La Stella’s oblique or Chris Denorfia‘s two-DL stint with the same hamstring may have been prevented. The article also emphasizes Gerrit Cole‘s use of these techniques, which allowed him to stay healthy after losing 70 days last season with various injuries.
Now I want it to be known that pitching injuries are pretty much inevitable these days, which is why the Cubs have worked so hard to build up depth in the system (not that the depth always plays well, i.e. with Beeler) to alleviate the strain of losing one of their top pitchers. The Cubs as currently constructed cannot survive if more than one of their top starters goes down, because the major-league-ready depth just isn’t that good, and the current contention margin is razor-thin with the Cubs holding a slim lead for the second National League wild card. Perhaps using technology like the Pirates have been doing with Gerrit Cole could allow the Cubs to reduce injury time with their pitching staff going forward, though they could very well have already implemented a program.
The team has been remarkably lucky with no major injuries to their starters before Montero went down, especially with Anthony Rizzo who seemingly gets plunked every other game. Jorge Soler did have a particularly annoying ankle injury while running the bases, but sometimes you just step wrong and that’s that. For the most part, they’ve been able to gut out the games and survive tiny tweaks here and there, like when Dexter Fowler had the ankle snafu with a base before the All-Star Break. The Jason Hammel injury prior to the break was minor and represented the first potential major blow to the starting rotation besides Wada. It does appear that the Cubs are doing enough to keep the big guns healthy, and maybe the injuries I listed above were just “shit happens” types of things, but I’m not an injury or sports medicine expert here. Basically, if an oblique is going to crap out (like with La Stella), it’ll happen regardless of preparation, but that doesn’t reflect some kind of organizational negligence. However, there is always room for improvement as the sizable gap between the Pirates and Cubs’ injury days lost suggests.
One thing that Cubs manager Joe Maddon has seemed very good about is managing fatigue, which is also mentioned in Sawchik’s article:
Other sports are ahead of baseball in studying and monitoring fatigue.
A player-tracking system — SportVU — arrived in the NBA before baseball, and the Golden State Warriors have employed it and wearable technology to monitor fatigue levels. The Warriors reduced their starters’ minutes this season. The result? Efficiency on the court went up, and injured days went down en route to an NBA title. The Pirates were watching.
No Pirates pitcher has thrown a complete game this season. No Pirates player ranks in the top 40 of games played. Jeff Locke said one result of the data is that he stopped weight training the day after starts.
Said Cole: “There’s been more easing off than hitting the gas pedal.”
In a season where Cubs fans always want to leave Kyle Hendricks in for one more batter (which probably has more to do with times through the order, but fatigue is likely important too) or where they wonder why Kris Bryant won’t start every single game, Maddon has appeared from my lying eyes to be very adept at giving his guys days off, sometimes when they are struggling, but mostly to keep them fresh. Maddon recognizes that certain players, especially young ones like Bryant and Addison Russell, aren’t yet used to the 162-game grind, and so they get some time off here and there (I’m still not sure if it’s scheduled). If the “easing off” technique works out, then the Cubs core will likely be intact as they start to gel and generate the powerful offense we’ve been dreaming about to supplement the solid pitching.
As our friend says here:
If the Cubs were a .500 ball club the rest of the year they would be 85-77
— Shadows Of Wrigley (@ShadowofWrigley) July 23, 2015
I think the Cubs will be better than that record, but to get there, they will have to stay healthy. They’ve done a great job of avoiding disaster so far, and maybe with additional magic, luck, and some of the technological and medical techniques the Pirates (and probably other teams) have implemented, they can continue to dodge the big injury bug.