Jordan is a baseball columnist for the Daily Herald, where he wrote weekly columns on the Chicago Cubs, White Sox, and Major League Baseball during the 2016 season.  He also wrote a pair of featured columns for

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Archived Daily Herald Columns

Daily Herald: (5/29/16)

Bernfield: Hot-hitting Zobrist brings critical leadership

Jason Heyward grabbed more offseason headlines, but another free agent acquisition has made a much greater impact for the Cubs this year.

He’s a career .268 hitter with a .358 on-base percentage, but through Sunday’s action he has the highest on-base percentage .451 and the second-highest batting average .351 in baseball.

Ben Zobrist has been one of the Cubs’ most valuable players, ranking 3rd on the team in WAR 2.3. And right now, he’s red hot.

“Zo’s been unbelievable,” the Cubs’ manager said on the “Spiegel and Goff Show” last week on WSCR-AM 670. “He’s been so consistent. You can hit him anywhere in the top five numbers, and he’s going to give you a great at-bat, not a good at-bat.”

After easing into things with his new team through April, Zobrist is batting a sizzling .422 in May, with a whopping .505 on-base percentage. He has been almost equally prolific from both sides of the plate, though he has had far fewer at-bats right-handed.

More notably, he’s putting up these numbers while posting the lowest swing-rate in baseball this season, per On a team built to wear pitchers down with lengthy at-bats, Zobrist provides the Cubs quality plate appearances virtually every time, regardless of result. He swings when he gets a pitch to drive, and takes when he doesn’t. It seems simple, but it’s one of the hardest skills for hitters to master.

What a great example he provides his young teammates still forming their offensive identities in the big leagues.

Though the Cubs are defined by their surplus of young talent, veterans like Zobrist provide critical leadership skills and invaluable experience to teams with championship aspirations. That’s why President Theo Epstein spent $56 million for four years of Zobrist, who turned 35 this past Thursday. While he’s not likely to maintain this pace, Joe Maddon isn’t surprised by the steady presence his versatile 2nd baseman provides.

Zobrist began his big league career in Tampa Bay, playing nine seasons for Maddon on a young team that turned the Rays’ franchise from a perennial doormat into an American League power. Maddon made him into baseball’s “super-utility” player, providing good defense at numerous positions while also hitting proficiently from both sides of the plate.

Last year, Zobrist was traded midseason from Oakland to the Royals and played a key role in leading Kansas City to its first World Series title since 1985.

Now in his second tour with Maddon, Zobrist is a perfect fit both on the field and in the clubhouse for a young team ready to win. He’s one of the players entrusted to show the young guys both how to approach their daily work and how to handle high-pressure situations come October.

Earlier this season, Royals’ General Manager Dayton Moore drove from Kansas City to meet the Cubs in St. Louis, where they were playing the Cardinals. He hand-delivered Zobrist his World Series ring from last year. Zobrist’s young teammates loved it — especially Anthony Rizzo, who wore it around the clubhouse.

“We’re in the middle of trying to win one here in Chicago,” Zobrist said.

Jordan Bernfield is an anchor and co-host of “Inside The Clubhouse” on WSCR 670-AM The Score. He also works as a play-by-play broadcaster for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter@JordanBernfield. (6/9/2016)

Bernfield: Cubs Embrace Joe Maddon’s Positional Versatility Vision

(CBS) Cubs super-utility man Javier Baez keeps seven gloves in his locker and estimates he owns 35 in total.

“I’m a big fan of gloves,” he said.

It’s no wonder the Cubs built a new 30,000-square-foot clubhouse. They needed space to store all the equipment necessary to be one of baseball’s most versatile teams, and Baez symbolizes that.

He has played five positions so far this year. While spending the majority of his time at third base, he has also played shortstop, second base, first base and left field.

Baez typically uses the same glove to play both middle infield positions, though he occasionally switches to a smaller glove for second base to help him transfer the ball quickly to his throwing hand for double plays. He goes with a slightly larger mitt for third base and an even larger one to play 1st base. Baez also has three outfield gloves that he rotates when assigned to play left field.

Eventually, Baez hopes to settle in at one position and maybe even one glove. For now, he’s embracing his role, which keeps him in the lineup more frequently.
“It’s fun,” Baez said. “Obviously, I’d like to have my own position later on. I think shortstop or second base would be great for me.”

With so many talented infielders on the Cubs, Baez won’t start every day at either position right now. Ben Zobrist has had a remarkable season manning second base, and Addison Russell is tied for fourth in baseball in defensive WAR (1.0), per ESPN.

Still, Cubs manager Joe Maddon finds a way to get Baez into the lineup regularly, and he’s impressed with the way the 23-year-old has handled bouncing around the diamond.

“The way he’s accepted (his role), I shouldn’t say I’m surprised with (it), but I’m pleased with (it),” Maddon said. “Even when he doesn’t start the game, you go down there to give him the high-five before the game, he’s smiling, he’s engaged. You know he’s going to be ready that night. He’s just doing it properly.”

If Baez needs any guidance on how to handle his unique role, he can look across the clubhouse to Zobrist.

Though the Cubs signed the 35-year-old Zobrist primarily to play second base, they know his value reaches far beyond his prowess in the middle infield. Maddon made Zobrist into baseball’s ultimate utility player eight years ago, when the latter was trying to break through with the Rays. It was Zobrist’s only chance to make the club out of spring training.

Zobrist had hit just .224 in 52 games in 2006 and .155 in 31 contests in 2007. Then a shortstop, he hadn’t done enough offensively to convince Maddon and the Tampa Bay front office to give him a roster spot in 2008.

“So they were like, ‘If you’re going to make this team, you’re going to have to figure out how to be more defensively valuable,’” Zobrist explained. “And they said, ‘Bring three different kinds of gloves to spring training’ in 2008, and I said ‘great’. If it can get me more major league at-bats, which is what I need, then I’ll do it.”

Zobrist knew he was athletic enough to handle multiple positions, so he called up Rawlings and ordered new gloves. He soon discovered he had the arm required to excel in the outfield. Once his bat came around, Zobrist made the American League All-Star team in 2009 and finished eighth in MVP voting, all while playing seven positions that season.

The approach Maddon and Zobrist had in Tampa has now spread to Chicago. For the Cubs, there was never a worry about whether Kris Bryant would hit at the big league level. While those talents alone may be prolific enough for him to win an MVP someday, it’s Bryant’s positional versatility that has been the pleasant surprise that’s made him even more valuable.

So far this season, Bryant has played five different positions, splitting most of his time between third base and left field. He has also spent time in right field, first base and even played an inning at shortstop against the Dodgers last week.

Unlike Baez, Bryant brought just one glove with him when he joined the Cubs last April, figuring he’d spend most of his time playing third base. But Maddon likes to use Bryant’s athleticism the way he used to use Zobrist’s, and the player doesn’t mind.

“It’s exactly like Little League,” Bryant said with a smile. “You’re moving all over. That’s exactly what it was like for me growing up.”

As a youth player, Bryant’s father Mike was his coach.

“The coach’s kid — you can’t just put him at shortstop because the parents would complain,” Bryant joked. “He put me all over the diamond, and I think that’s just the ballplayer I’ve always been. And I enjoy it.”

Bryant’s collection of gloves is growing. This past offseason he bought an outfield glove, figuring he’d need it this season, and he’s also added a first baseman’s glove for the times Maddon gives Anthony Rizzo a day off. Bryant still feels most at home playing third base base but has grown more comfortable in the outfield.

Bryant’s new challenge is keeping each of his gloves game-ready. He switches them during batting practice to make sure he develops the right feel in each so he’s prepared to play wherever Maddon needs him each day. It’s a lot of defensive responsibility for a player who’s also expected to be one of the team’s best hitters.

“I have a ton of respect for him,” Zobrist said. “Because it’s a mental grind. It’s not easy mentally. I think physically he’s obviously a great athlete and he can do it, but it takes a special player to embrace that.”

Bryant does. He’s enjoying the chance to play other positions and credits Maddon with developing an unselfish clubhouse culture. Maddon deflects that credit back to his players. Together, they’re off to an MLB-best 41-17 start.

“Our guys are just out to win,” Maddon said with pride. “That’s it. And they don’t care who gets the credit or who gets it done that night. We’re just out there to win, and it’s beautiful to watch.”

Jordan Bernfield is an update anchor at 670 The Score and the co-host of “Inside the Clubhouse,” which airs Saturday from 8-10 a.m. (6/4/2016)

Bernfield: The Evolution Of The Cubs’ Starting Rotation

(CBS) On the second pitch of the game last Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Cubs left-hander Jon Lester surrendered a lead-off home run to Dodgers second baseman Enrique Hernandez.  That home run turned out to be all the offense Los Angeles would get.

Lester retired the final 15 batters he faced, struck out 10 overall and earned his first career complete game victory at the Friendly Confines.

“I really think that might have been the best I’ve seen Jonny since he’s been here,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.  “(He) deftly repeated his delivery over and over. Gives up a leadoff homer and then just… nothing.”

Lester’s gem was the second complete game thrown by the Cubs in the previous five.  Masterpiece performances by the starting pitchers have become the rule, not the exception, and not just from reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.

The Cubs’ staff has been reliable and remarkable this season. Through action Friday, the Cubs’ starters have posted the lowest ERA in baseball, a sparkling 2.33. They’re the only staff with an ERA under 3.00.

The Cubs’ starting rotation has a lower ERA as a team than 72 of the 110 Cy Young Award winning pitchers had in big league history, per Chris Kamka of Comcast SportsNet.

The Cubs are less than one-third of the way through the 2016 season, but for perspective, last year’s staff posted a 3.36 ERA, struck out the fourth-most hitters in the game (921) and allowed opponents to bat only .233, the best mark in baseball. That team won 97 games. This year’s staff is on pace to post better numbers in each category.

So how’d we get here?

Adding the veteran leader

What has made the Cubs so much better this season? One difference is obvious.

“We’ve got a much better pitcher that’s in our rotation,” catcher David Ross said.  “John Lackey is a proven, veteran, stud pitcher. That always helps, to have that consistency in the rotation.”

After a slow start, Lackey found his groove, posting a stingy 2.09 ERA in May while holding opposing batters to a .170 average. The 37-year-old lackey signed a two-year, $32-million contract to bring championship pedigree and lengthen the rotation.  He’s done just that, and his attitude in the clubhouse creates an atmosphere of accountability.

“John’s edgy,” Maddon said.  “And he definitely brings an edge to the rest of the group.”

Maddon called Lackey the linchpin to the entire rotation’s success. He has never been the best pitcher in the league, averaging 12 wins per season and a 3.90 ERA, but his career has been defined by clutch performance in big moments.

Lackey burst onto the scene as a 23-year-old rookie in 2002 and fired a gutsy five innings in Game 7 to help the Angels capture the World Series title. Eleven years later, he threw 6 2/3 innings in Game 6 of the Fall Classic to bring the Red Sox their third World Series title in nine seasons.

Maddon notes Lackey’s intellect and experience have left a positive impact on the clubhouse.

“When you talk to John about pitching, it’s really impressive,” Maddon said.  “He has a great ability to dissect what’s going on in front of him.”

During Lackey’s recent start against Philadelphia, Maddon noticed a particular adjustment his righty made against one hitter in the Phillies lineup. When he approached Lackey to ask him about it, he left impressed with the explanation.

“It was a much more sophisticated answer than I thought myself,” Maddon said. “Even though I’ve been around him as long as I have, his answer to me on that particular day also indicated a higher level than I really knew about him, in regards to how he approaches a hitter.”

With that intellect and experience, Lackey also brings a commitment to his craft that doesn’t go unnoticed. His leadership by example has set the standard in the Cubs’ clubhouse.

“We talk about Arrieta and how he works harder than anybody, but I’m very impressed with the work ethic Lackey has,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “I see him every day, and I’m like, ‘Man, don’t you ever get tired?’ He works his butt off.”

Go the distance

Last year, just two Cubs’ starting pitchers eclipsed the ever-important 200-inning plateau.

Arrieta fired a team-best 229 innings in a historic, Cy Young Award-winning season, while Lester reached 205 frames in his first season in Chicago.

Maddon believes his team can be better.

“One of our goals or objectives before the season was to have our starters pitch 1,000 innings,” Maddon said. “When that happens, you have a great bullpen, because the bullpen is rested.”

For a starting staff to throw 1,000 innings in a season, each of the five starters must average 6 1/3 innings per start. It also requires the manager to trust each member of his rotation to pitch deep into games.

Kyle Hendricks threw just 180 innings in 32 starts last season, while Jason Hammel fired 170 2/3 innings in 31 starts. Both averaged less than 5 2/3 innings per start, with Maddon frequently removing them early to preserve the Cubs’ chance to win.

This year, Cubs starting pitchers have averaged the requisite 6 1/3 innings per start, up two outs from 2015. They’ve lasted at least six innings in 40 of 53 starts, or about 75 percent of the time.

In fact, only twice have the Cubs starters failed to throw at least five innings, and only once due to poor performance. Jason Hammel left after two innings on Memorial Day with right hamstring cramping, while Jon Lester lasted just 2 2/3 innings in a loss May 21 in San Francisco.

Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio has even higher standards for his pitching staff.

“Our goal for a quality start is seven innings,” he said on the Mully and Hanley Show this past week. “That’s the thing our guys really look at. When you get the seventh inning, we’re going to usually win between six and seven of the 10 games every time. And that’s the kind of streak we’ve been on lately.”

The Cubs’ rotation has pitched at least seven innings in 22 of 53 games. All five starting pitchers have an ERA below 3.00.

Familiarity and confidence

In December 2014, the Cubs added Lester on a blockbuster six-year, $155-million deal, which marked a turning point for the franchise’s rebuilding effort. For the first time in the Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer regime, the Cubs convinced a prized free agent to choose them.

All of a sudden, a team that hadn’t won more than 73 games over the previous three seasons was expected to improve. An influx of young talent joined the roster in 2015, but they needed to add some veterans to give the club a chance to succeed.

Two of those veterans were catchers. The Cubs signed Montero to a three-year deal to serve as the team’s primary backstop. They added 38-year-old Ross on a two-year contract to primarily work as Lester’s personal catcher.

On paper, the Cubs were better, but they needed to develop chemistry — especially the catchers, who had a brand-new pitching staff to learn.

“The more you get to know pitchers as a catcher, the better and more success you’re going to have,” Ross said. “What guys like to do, what their personalities are like, how to talk to them and how to get the most out of them — that’s a process that starts in spring training from day one.”

While there were ups and downs for the Cubs’ starting pitchers in 2015, the group developed chemistry as the year progressed. Ross and Montero studied their new starters, and the pitchers grew comfortable throwing to their new catchers.

Maddon brought the team together with his usual tactics, including dress-up days and other goofy activities. He hired a magician to perform for the players in New York, and he set up a petting zoo at Wrigley Field later in the summer.

The team began to grow close. And in the late summer, the Cubs really began to win.

The Cubs hit their stride after the All-Star break. They won 19 games in both August and September and won their last eight regular-season contests before a run to the National League Championship Series.

Though the staff eventually ran out of gas in October, it knew they had the makings of something special. The Cubs finished four victories shy of leading the Cubs to their first World Series appearance since 1945.

And when Arrieta won the National League Cy Young Award after a historic campaign in which he went 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA and became the unquestioned ace of the staff, Lester could begin his second year with the Cubs more relaxed. No one was focused on his contract anymore, and he didn’t need to be the ace. He could settle into the role of elite veteran pitcher with a year of experience in the NL under his belt.

Hammel pitched through injury down the stretch last year and changed his preparation and workout routine to be in better shape this season. Lackey signed on to provide another elite veteran to the staff.

And Hendricks — who was thrown into the fire, starting games in both rounds of the playoffs — now had a full year of big league experience to carry with him into 2016.

This group came to spring training this year with something markedly different: confidence.

The pitchers have it in themselves, and Maddon has it in them. He doesn’t have to give the quick hook to any of his starters anymore out of fear of losing a lead.

“I’ve been fortunate to have really good starting pitching where I’ve managed in the past,” Maddon said. “But, the way these guys are playing right now, I’m a big believer when a guy completes a game it can really catapult him in the next several starts. There’s something that it does to a starter mentally. I really believe when they pitch that efficiently and that well, let them finish it.”

Hendricks finished his last start in May against the Phillies, a complete game in which he gave up one run and fanned seven. He followed that with an eight-inning gem against the Dodgers, allowing two runs. The Cubs’ “fifth starter” has a 2.84 ERA this season and posted a 2.23 ERA in May, allowing batters to hit just .183 against him.

Hammel, the “fourth starter,” has the fifth-best ERA in baseball at 2.09. He has pitched at least six innings in all but three of his starts this season, and that includes the Memorial Day game against the Dodgers that he left due to hamstring cramps.

Arrieta picked up right where he left off.  He and Clayton Kershaw are tied for MLB’s best ERA at 1.56, and he has become so good that we now worry when he gives up a run, walks a few batters or doesn’t pitch past the seventh inning.

And Lester?

“Just trying to pick up my load as far as my spot in the rotation, and keep this train moving with these four other guys that are throwing the heck out of the ball right now,” he said after throwing that complete game Wednesday night. “That’s the biggest thing, just keep this line moving for the next guy, and it seems like every night we do a good job of keeping our team in the ballgame.”

Jordan Bernfield is an update anchor at 670 The Score and the co-host of “Inside the Clubhouse,” which airs Saturday from 8-10 a.m.