Think back five years, if you can, to a game at Wrigley Field in late August. It was the first time a young pitcher named Daniel Norris took an at bat, and it was against the Chicago Cubs. Norris hit a two-run home run in his first MLB at bat that day.
I start the Q&A with this story so you’ll have a warm, fuzzy feeling to start the week, because I can assure you, that feeling is unlikely to last when the Tigers face the Cubs over the next three days.
The Cubs have a new manager this year, a robust roster of pitchers, and some hot bats in their lineup, all of which have propelled them to the top of the NL Central. The Tigers have won two of their last 10 games.
We chatted with Al Yellon, the managing editor of the SB Nation Cubs site Bleed Cubbie Blue about what the Tigers will be facing this week.
BYB: This is the first year under the helm of David Ross, and it has been going — dare I say — very well. What do you think Ross is doing right to achieve success in 2020?
AY: It’s been said that Cubs players respect Ross because they all played with him in the World Series and saw his leadership skills then. The truth is that only nine active Cubs played with Ross and so most of them are new to him in this role. He’s had respect from fellow players and coaches and his managers for most of his playing career; Theo Epstein saw him as a potential coach as far back as 2008, when Ross played for him in Boston.
He’s more traditional than Joe Maddon, but also knows how to have fun with his players, while still being able to hold them accountable. He didn’t hesitate to take Craig Kimbrel out of the closer role when Kimbrel was bad, and even after Kimbrel righted the ship, Ross has mixed-and-matched at closer. I like this outside-the-box thinking and hope to see more of it.
Who has surprised you most the season, for good or for bad?
Javier Baez has been just awful. He seems totally lost at the plate and has made throwing errors uncharacteristic of him. His current .600 OPS is his worst since his rookie year (2014) and he’s struck out 37 times in 100 at-bats.
Some have said that Javy feeds off the energy of the crowd and that more than most players, he’s not reacting well to playing in empty parks. There’s no real way to systematically study that, but I think given Baez’ unique skillset, there might be something to that. He’s going to have to make adjustments in order to succeed the rest of this unique season.
Kris Bryant will miss this series being retroactively placed on the 10-day IL to Aug 19, do you think his absence will be a major factor for the team?
No question about it. While KB’s numbers are down, there was always a psychological boost from having him in the lineup. At this writing it doesn’t appear he’ll be ready to come back when eligible (Saturday). His replacements (mostly David Bote) have been competent, but you don’t lose a former MVP without missing a significant part of your lineup.
What the heck is happening to Ian Happ? I feel like he has come out of nowhere as this tour de force, but is it really a surprise to Cubs fans?
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who watched Happ hit last September, when he hit .311/.348/.672 (19-for-61) with six home runs. Happ was sent to Triple-A out of spring training in 2019 and completely re-tooled his approach at the plate. It paid dividends last fall and he’s hitting like that again this year. With Bryant out, Happ was moved to the leadoff spot and that’s paid off too: He has a .382 OBP leading off, with three home runs.
This is more like the guy we hoped the Cubs would get when they made him the No. 9 overall pick in 2015.
The Tigers won’t see Yu Darvish this series since he just pitched on Sunday, but he has been dominant so far this season. Considering how much flack he got in his early days with the team, do you think he’s finally turning out to be the pitcher Cubs fans had hoped for?
Absolutely, and I think Darvish got that flack undeservedly in 2018. He was injured that year and made only eight starts. He struggled a bit at the beginning of 2019, but since the All-Star break last year, in 19 starts he has a 2.42 ERA in 118⅔ innings, with a WHIP of 0.84 and 13 walks and 162 strikeouts.
That says “ace” to me. The variety of pitches Darvish throws is amazing. Check out this slider he threw on Sunday:
Yu Darvish, Ridiculous 85mph Slider...part deux.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 23, 2020
9th K pic.twitter.com/OD0VkdKJCF
Is there anyone left at the alternate site you’re really excited to see come up this season?
A lot of Cubs fans would like to see lefty Brailyn Marquez, who throws 100 miles per hour, or this year’s 2nd-round draft pick Burl Carraway, another lefty who can throw in the high 90s.
Neither of those has pitched above A ball and Carraway hasn’t had any action at all, and I don’t think Theo Epstein wants to start their service time.
So while that’d be fun, it’s probably not going to happen.
I asked the Indians site this, so I figure I’ll ask you: do you think it would be a nice full-circle story to see Jason Kipnis in a Cubs uniform for a 2016 World Series rematch, considering what he did last time he was at Wrigley in the postseason?
Oh, absolutely. Kipnis grew up a Cubs fan in suburban Chicago and when he first entered Wrigley Field as a Cubs player this summer:
“We’ve had a meeting on the side of the stands where I can almost remember the first time as a kid coming in at Wrigley Field,” Kipnis said, “and like coming through the tunnel out to the stadium in that view and that’s where we’re sitting in the seats when we had this team meeting now.
“I remember, I’m like ‘This view is ringing a bell me to right now,’” he said. “And so there’s little flashbacks like that that are just special to me, that I get to enjoy that not many others do. It’s only going to get better from here, the more games we get to play and down the road — knock on wood — we get fans.
“I just find myself enjoying this more than probably a normal guy might.”
I think it would be a great symmetry for the Cubs to get to the World Series this year and for Kipnis to have some key hits there for his childhood favorite team.
Many thanks to Al for taking the time to chat with us. If you want to see more of his (or incidentally more of my own) work, you can find him over at Bleed Cubbie Blue.