Cubs President Theo Epstein jumped on 670 The Score to discuss his expectations for Yu Darvish, the Cubs’ recent hot streak, the trade market, and much more with Bernstein and McKnight.
You can catch the full interview right here …
… but we’ll go over some of the highlights and add some context/analysis along the way below. Enjoy.
- “It’s been a good couple weeks,” Epstein said to lead off his interview, before adding that a switch seems to have flipped for his Cubs over the past week or so. Indeed, the Cubs had gone 8-2 over their past ten at the time he gave this interview, with Jason Heyward’s walk-off grand slam still fresh in his mind: “Our first walk-off of the year is always an important moment to build momentum coming home. So, yeah, we’ve done a good job.”
- When pressed on his belief in “momentum,” Epstein said he “absolutely” believes in it and thinks we don’t realize how much of the game is mental, psychological, and emotional for the players. In fact, Epstein even told 670 that the biggest surprise in a front office is how often they play armchair psychologist with their players and how much of their game is affected by what’s going on in their lives. To be sure, this belief is probably why we’re always hearing about how the Cubs go out of their way to accommodate players and their families. It actually matters.
- On the Cubs’ “meat left on the bone” offense, Epstein said: “I think we can certainly do more and we [also] hope there’s some regression there and that things even out and you see our performance improve with runners in scoring position.” Epstein went onto say that while he thinks it’ll get better, the team definitely feels like they’re leaving something on the table given that their underlying performance shows that they’re one of the best teams in baseball who probably should have 4-5 more wins by now (he must have read the Off-Day Check-In). But Epstein reiterated that “things like that even out,” and you’d much rather have the quality underlying performance, knowing that it’ll translate to wins going forward than the alternative. Agreed.
- On the draft, Epstein said his picks are not guided by floor or ceiling, but rather by the qualities they value. “You’re talking about literally hundred of variables. We try to get as much information as possible. We really challenge our area scouts to dig and get to know the player extremely well … and then we try to find every single performance indicator that we can. Statistically, in terms of certain testing that we do, there’s ways to get all kinds of a data on players now.” Epstein expanded by saying plenty of teams can gather these variables, but appropriately valuing them is the hard part.
- But here’s where his comments get a little crazy (and exciting). Epstein said that he was particularly happy with this draft because the picks really reflect what the team finds important. “There are things we really like about their [the draftees] neuro-testing. So, basically how we feel objectively about their hand-eye coordination and their ability to hit really advanced pitching when the time comes.” Wow. I’ve heard of medical exams and physical tests before taking a player, but neuro-testing potential draft picks for objective hand-eye coordination measurements? That feels new. I would very much like to learn more about that.
- On Addison Russell’s progress (finger), Epstein says he’s still day-to-day, but not on the disabled list because of how good he felt on Wednesday. In fact, Epstein says they were prepared to DL him, but he was able to swing the bat and felt very good, so the Cubs put it off for another day. This interview came in the morning and Epstein said they’d check again before the game started, so given that he’s not on the DL right now, I’d tentatively expect him back late in today’s game or Saturday the latest. By then, if they haven’t DL-ed him, it’ll have been a mistake.
- On the performance front, Epstein understands fan frustration with Yu Darvish, but wants them to know that “it is coming.” Epstein sounds extremely confident that better days lie ahead for the Cubs big right-hander, including days where fans are thrilled he’s wearing a Cubs uniform.
- On the health front, Darvish threw for the second day in a row on Wednesday (just playing catch) and apparently felt pretty good. Yesterday was a scheduled down day and he’ll continue to build up in a “progression,” until it’s time for some rehab starts. The need for rehab starts is arguably something we already knew, but it now feels pretty certain. It’ll take some time.
- On Kris Bryant taking third the other night, Epstein is extremely proud. “Any time your player does something on the field that reflects great instincts, great preparation and also some courage, you feel proud that those guys are Cubs.” Epstein also praised the coaching staff for stressing those opportunities/moments.
- On whether or not pitchers should be able to “call off a shift,” Theo Epstein straddles the line. On the one hand, he believes that a pitcher needs to execute every pitch with conviction and if his mind is elsewhere (i.e. worried about the defensive alignment), he won’t be able to execute. HOWEVA, Epstein goes onto explain that there’s so much evidence that goes into how the defenders set up, you can’t just abandon it. In general, Epstein believes that these discussions just need to happen beforehand, especially because “9 times out of 10” he can convince someone that their path is better for him.
- On Jason Heyward: “He’s very quietly having an extreme contact season this year, as the game is trending towards more swing and miss …. He’s making an exceptional amount of contact and I think that reflects his recognition skills and he’s having pretty good at-bats because of that.” The issue remains, of course, doing damage when he does make contact, but Epstein says he has seen a little more “whip” in his swing since coming off the DL, as well as some more barreled up contact and better ball flight. So that’s at least encouraging.
- “The foundation for being a really good hitter is there … the work that he’s doing on his swing is going to pay off.” Epstein continued, before going back to the “better ball flight and spin” well. Too much backspin or topspin is certainly a problem we’ve discussed before (ever notice how some of Heyward’s deep fly balls seem to die on the track?), but we’ll have to dig in again to see if anything has changed lately on that front.
- And finally, Epstein adds that the trade “check-in” calls happen almost immediately after the draft, but things tend to go very slow until the middle of July. Moreover, he suggested that the Cubs are more than happy to “just go play” for now, because the needs aren’t particularly apparent. And even as he concedes that almost every team can use a starting pitcher, he adds that no one can just go out and get one at the beginning of June, “it’s just not feasible.” My guess is that the Cubs get active in July, but I’m just not sure where they’ll add yet. Neither are they.