My fellow Cub fans. The State of the team is _____.
I haven’t actually found the right word to fill in that blank just yet, although I’m sure you have suggestions. Indeed, while this post does not conclude that the Cubs are definitely heading in the right direction, it also does not stomp all over them (#topical). All jokes aside, at this point in the season and given the play of the last week or so, in particular, I think I’m leaning most towards promising – and I’ll tell you why.
The Team Standings and Results
Although the Cubs (8-9) are actually a game below .500 right now, that’s really pretty solid, considering where they were a week and a half ago. If the start of the season didn’t turn you off completely, you’ll know that they’ve won three games in a row, their first sweep of the year, and 7 of their last 10, after starting the year off 1-6. And when you also consider the speed bumps hit by the Brewers and Cardinals, the division is much tighter than it was just a week ago (which is hard to believe, so early in the season, but still).
NL Central Standings:
- Milwaukee Brewers: 12-7
- Pittsburgh Pirates: 10-6
- St. Louis Cardinals: 10-8
- Chicago Cubs: 8-9
- Cincinnati Reds: 5-12
But what’s probably even more encouraging than the recent climb up the standings is the underlying run differential. As of today (Thursday), the Cubs +18 run differential is the sixth best mark in baseball, second only to the Dodgers in the National League. And along those lines, then, their Pythagorean Record (which efforts to project a should-be record based on the number of runs scored and allowed) actually has the Cubs with two more wins than they do right now.
BaseRuns – another similar system which works towards the same goal, but uses other, underlying metrics to get there – is identical. By their measure, the Cubs have been a bit unlucky and should actually be at 10-7, not 8-9. Although you don’t want to underperform those projections, that does usually mean good things in the future.
But let’s break that run differential down into some more manageable pieces, starting with …
I think, even without the numbers in front of us, anyone watching this team right now would state some degree of confidence in the offense as a whole. Not everyone is producing – notably, Albert Almora (29 wRC+), Kyle Schwarber (66 wRC+), Anthony Rizzo (75 wRC+), Kris Bryant (82 wRC+), and Ben Zobrist (84 wRC+) have started off slowly – but great starts for other guys like Willson Contreras (207 wRC+), Jason Heyward (166 wRC+), Javy Baez (152 wRC+), and Daniel Descalso (151 wRC+) have made up for the shortcomings.
A few key points to consider:
- 6.06 Runs/game (3rd in MLB)
- 11.0% Walk-rate (3rd in MLB)
- 22.9% Strikeout rate (12th in MLB, 6th in NL)
- Five games with 10+ runs scored
- Ten games with 5+ runs scored
I’ll also add, more narratively, that of all the players on the roster, Rizzo and Bryant are the two about which you should be worried least. Rizzo has a history of starting slow, and has been one of the more consistent players over the past half-decade or so, while Bryant might be the best pure hitter on the team (who’s also coming back from a shoulder injury). Give those guys time, and I’m sure their numbers will match your expectations before long, and take the entire offense with them.
The Starting Rotation
The starting rotation has taken some lumps along the way, including some bad first starts for 4/5ths of the rotation (Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana, and Kyle Hendricks each struggled in his first outing). And, of course, Jon Lester and Mike Montgomery, the nominal sixth starter, are both on the shelf at the moment, but there’ve been so many positives lately.
Most recently, each of Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana, and Cole Hamels have turned in really excellent starts – and for Quintana and Hamels, that makes two in a row. Darvish, meanwhile, was firing 99 MPH fastballs around pitch 100 on Monday. As we discussed earlier today, Jon Lester and Mike Montgomery are actually working their respective ways back. And Kyle Hendricks is sort of the Anthony Rizzo of this group. He has a history of starting slow and usually gets locked in soon enough. I’m just not worried about him yet. I think he’ll be just fine, as he usually is.
That is not to say everything in the rotation is peachy, but it sure feels a lot better than the overall mediocrity indicated by the numbers:
- 0.9 WAR (22nd in MLB)
- 4.09 ERA (16th)
- 4.71 FIP (21st)
- 22.5% Strikeout Rate (17th)
- 8.6% Walk Rate (18th)
One thing this group has been decidedly bad at so far is contact management. Their 14.7% soft-hit rate is just 23rd in MLB, while their 42.5% hard-hit rate is 5th highest. Thankfully, they’ve gotten a very good 47.8% ground ball rate (3rd in MLB), otherwise that would’ve probably resulted in a lot more damage.
At this point, the general trend of the rotation is more encouraging than anything else.
The bullpen is probably one of the most confusing and frustrating positional groups to address. For example, they’re currently playing without useful pieces like Mike Montgomery, Brandon Morrow, Xavier Cedeño, and Tony Barnette (all injured). Carl Edwards Jr. is down at Triple-A Iowa working on his command (and just hit the IL, as well). So all together, the Cubs have already shuffled in 12 different pitchers to their big league pen, and at least three additional arms (Morrow, Cedeno, and Barnette) could well be on their way.
Put differently, this is at best a partial bullpen picture at the moment – one that hasn’t yet reached full strength (who knows if and when they will). Further complicating things: this group blew three obviously winnable games at the very beginning of the season … and then went on an 18.0+ inning scoreless streak immediately thereafter.
What I can tell you is that their middle-of-the-pack strikeout rate (24.1%, 15th in MLB) is not going to be enough to cover their worst in baseball 15.0% walk rate.
And it’s not like they are dominating in quality of contact, either.
- 16.9% Soft Contact Rate (20th in MLB)
- 39.4% Hard Contact Rate (21st)
Like the rotation, if it weren’t for a 52.2% ground ball rate (tops in the NL, second in MLB), their production would be unthinkably bad. That’s just the way things have gone. And, indeed, their .253 batting average allowed is one of the higher marks in the game.
The bullpen has shown some more signs of life and could be getting more reinforcements soon, but of the three general areas of the roster, it is the obvious weak point.
Which brings me back to promising.
The Cubs are clearly trending upwards right now, and that applies both broadly at the won/loss level and more specifically in terms of the rotation and bullpen’s steps forward. I can’t say the team is “strong,” because it’s not right now. But I do think it is more likely than not that they do get there.
So, where do you land? Got a word to finish the title?