Cubs sophomore jinx? No guarantees but no worries for ’15 rookies
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ANAHEIM, Calif. – Joe Charboneau once ate six cigarettes to win a bet. He opened beer bottles with his eye socket. And drank the beer through his nose with a straw.
He also became just the third player to hit a ball into the third deck in left field at Yankee Stadium, during the 1980 season in which he won the Rookie of the Year award as the Cleveland Indians left fielder.
He played 70 more games in the majors and was out of professional baseball within four years.
Two decades later, 2002 Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske – now the Cubs’ assistant hitting coach – told media upon receiving the award, “Hopefully, I can avoid the sophomore slump.”
Instead, injuries hampered his 2003 season, his OPS falling by 80 points and his WAR by more than half before he rebounded in subsequent seasons.
So one of the biggest reasons so much is expected of the Cubs this season is also one of the bigger uncertainties of 2016.
Four 2015 rookies that were major contributors to the Cubs’ surprising 97-win success last year make up the bulk of the Cubs’ celebrated young hitting core, and are expected by many to pick up where they left off and help slug this year’s team into the World Series.
Kris Bryant was a unanimous Rookie of the Year Award winner. Addison Russell looks like a potential Gold Glove shortstop with some pop. Kyle Schwarber, who debuted at midseason, hit a club-record five postseason home runs – including one on top of the right-field video board at Wrigley. And Jorge Soler might hit the ball harder than any of them.
But even one of this group’s biggest supporters has a message for the big-assumption crowd.
“I still expect some bumps in the road this year from all of them,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I fully expect a lot of them to struggle this year at some point. But two or three years from now when they’ve really figured the league out and really take their position among major league baseball players, heads up. That’s when they’re really going to show you how good they are.”
As for what that might mean for one of the most anticipated seasons in franchise history, which opens Monday in Anaheim, is simply this: As with everything else in baseball, no guarantees.
Cubs history is littered with bad, even tragic, sophomore stories after Rookie of the Year seasons: Kerry Wood going from 1998 superstar to 1999 surgery, Geovany Soto slumping and hampered by injuries in 2009, and Ken Hubbs slumping in 1963, then dying in an off-season plane crash.
None of this means a four-man sophomore jinx should be expected to clobber the Cubs in ‘16.
“I think the sophomore jinx is when they adjust to you and you don’t adjust back,” Maddon said. “How long does it take you to adjust back is what’s really pertinent there.”
Indeed, for every Charboneau, Mark Fidrych and Dontrelle Willis, there’s a Cal Ripken Jr., Derek Jeter and Mike Trout.
“I just kind of smirk at it,” Russell said of the concept. “This game is all about adjustments. Things are going to happen this year, good or bad. You’ve just got to keep grinding. I don’t feel like it pertains to me at all.
“I don’t think that pertains to any of us here,” he added, “because we want to get better. And the work ethic is always going to be there.”
Teammates who have been through the second-year battles say this group of sophomores might be especially well equipped to handle what admittedly is not an easy season to navigate.
“It’s tough. For me, coming back my second year was really hard,” said third-year pitcher Kyle Hendricks, who struggled much of last season after a 7-2 debut season that included a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts. “I had to make a lot of adjustments. The league learns a lot about you. You’ve got to learn about them some more, too.”
But Hendricks said last year’s Cubs rookies looked like second-year players in their first year.
“They act like they’ve been here for a while,” he said. “They’re really mature guys, every single one of them. The have high baseball IQs, so it’s pretty easy; they know exactly what they’re doing.”
Both Russell and Bryant say that’s because they went through their sophomore slumps as rookies.
“Freshman slump,” Bryant said, smiling, referring to a 10-for-78 (.128) skid through Aug. 1 that lasted nearly four weeks. He hit .326 with 12 homers and a .973 OPS the rest of the season.
Russell took a 5-for-40 (.125) slide into the All-Star break before a leg-kick adjustment that helped lead to a strong finish.
“Slumps and stuff, and the highs and lows, are all part of the game,” Bryant said. “And I’ve always embraced it, and gotten through them and learned from them.”
What’s certain about this season is that the learning curve is still in effect heading into the Cubs’ big season. If nothing else, Maddon suggests that should bode well for the extended competitive window.
“If [a next-level breakout] were to happen for any of them this year, wonderful,” he said, “but I still anticipate a couple years down the road until you really see the full fruits of their labors and their talent really comes to bear in a couple of years.”