Another week, another fluctuation in the standings. The Cubs are still in first place, but an eight-game winning streak by the St. Louis Cardinals has made things a bit less comfortable. The notion of losing the division to the up-and-coming Milwaukee Brewers is one thing, but this Cardinals team? Come on, man.
•A round of applause goes out to Cubs Insider’s own Brendan Miller. The talented writer and podcaster wrote in this same space on June 30 that Kyle Hendricks’ release point has varied this year, and that a higher release point may be at fault for his velocity issues. I spoke to Hendricks in the Cubs’ clubhouse about these very issues last weekend, and Miller is spot on.
As I wrote for The Sporting News, Hendricks talked about getting out of his mechanics when trying to ramp up the heat on the fastball, and agreed that the higher his release point goes the slower the velocity on his four-seamer. But here’s the catch: Hendricks is comfortable throwing 85 mph for right now.
Given the movement on his secondary pitches, the swings he was inducing from Washington Nationals players not named Daniel Murphy, and the fact that his four-seamer flattened out the harder he threw it, Hendricks said he was fine with using less velocity for now. He has generally seen good results since coming off the disabled list (2.00 ERA in 27 innings over five starts), so I’m willing to give him a pass for now too.
•Taking it back to the Cardinals, can we talk about shortstop Paul DeJong for a minute? Through 261 plate appearances, DeJong has hit 18 home runs with 42 RBI and has a .904 OPS. To put that into better focus, the 2015 third-round pick is on a pace that would see him hit 45 homers with 105 RBI over 650 plate appearances.
If it weren’t for Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger, DeJong would be receiving serious consideration for the National League Rookie of the Year award. He’s second in the NL among rookies in WAR (2.1) behind Bellinger, and he’s also third in wRC+ and home runs. DeJong is certainly not perfect – 80 strikeouts in just 65 games, woof – but this is no Aledmys Diaz. He’s the real deal.
•As hot and cold as he can be, Javier Baez has been really damn good since the All-Star break. In 95 plate appearances, Baez has a marvelous .315/.358/.629 slash line with eight home runs. His 18 home runs are a career high and he has filled in admirably for Addison Russell at shortstop for the last two weeks. In short, there are a lot of reasons to like Javy these days.
By now, most Cubs fans know what they’re getting with Baez. During that same hot stretch since July 14, Baez has also struck out 32 times. His strikeout percentage is up a bit in 2017, at 28 percent. His walk rate is a putrid 5.3 percent, and it’s even worse than it appears. Of Baez’s 19 total walks this season, 11 are of the intentional variety. For comparison, Madison Bumgarner earned 10 walks in 97 plate appearances in 2016.
Recently, Joe Maddon said that Baez would remind you of Manny Ramirez if he could stop swinging at the breaking pitch in the left-handed batter’s box. Baez may not actually be as good as Manny, but you can imagine what it might look like if he ever put in the extra effort to become a more selective hitter.