Sunday marked the 17th game the Cubs have played this season, meaning that, at that point, a little more than 10 percent of the season was in the books.
While neither 17 games does nor 10 percent represents a significant enough sample size to make grand pronouncements, it provides a window into what’s trending early in the season.
Here are some samples of what stands out early, through those first 17 games.
Nothing exemplifies the Cubs’ strong start like Anthony Rizzo’s league-leading .481 on-base percentage. Entering Monday, Rizzo has more walks (12) than he does strikeouts (8). Rizzo’s 15.6 percent walk rate and 10.4 percent strikeout rate would represent career bests for the 25-year-old first baseman.
Simply put, he isn’t making outs.
Being on base is important when Kris Bryant’s power potential and Starlin Castro’s ability to put the ball in play are lurking behind him in the order.
As a team, the Cubs’ on-base percentage is .321, which is 11th in baseball. Take out the pitchers and the team’s OBP increases to .334.
It is a marked improvement from the .299 OBP the Cubs posted collectively last year, which ranked 28th of 30 teams. Take the pitchers out of the equation and the team’s OBP was .305. The Cubs’ ability to get on base at a respectable clip has made for a much better on-field product.
While Rizzo has been the Cubs’ best offensive asset, Castro’s start to the season has been equal parts encouraging and assuring.
Castro’s early season walk rate is 4.2 percent — low by even his standards — but his strikeout rate has taken a dip, too. A 13.7 percent strikeout rate would represent a career low for Castro. On the other side of the coin, Castro owns a .362 BABIP, which is helping his batting average sit currently at .329. For all of the Cubs’ early season woes with runners in scoring position, Castro has been the guy leading the way with a .360 average (9-for-25) and stands to get more such opportunities, especially if Rizzo and Bryant are getting on base ahead of him at their current clips.
This is an important year for Castro, who is settling into a much more comfortable role for him, which is being a good player on a good team.
On the mound, Jake Arrieta has been the ace. Through four starts, he is easily sustaining last year’s success. His command is still good (6.7 BB%, 66 percent of pitches have been strikes), batters still aren’t squaring him up (.184 BAA, .236 BABIP and 21.9 percent line drive rate).
Arrieta has thrown 26.2 innings, 16 of which have been 1-2-3 frames.
Also interesting to note that Arrieta is 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA, 14 strikeouts, 3 walks and a .140 BAA in 14 innings pitched in games the followed a Cubs loss.
Jorge Soler’s 35.9 percent strikeout rate is alarming, but not unexpected considering his swing and inexperience.
Still, striking out that much while batting second in the order is concerning because Soler is supposed to be part run producer -when Addison Russell and Dexter Fowler are setting the table – while also playing a bit of a table-setting role, himself, with Rizzo, Bryant and Castro hitting behind him.
Consider this the time that Soler has to make his first significant adjustment to the league. It will be interesting to watch how he counters what pitchers are doing to him.
Brian Schlitter has been the least effective arm out of what has been a decent bullpen thus far. Schlitter has made four appearances in high leverage situations (see the splits here via Baseball-Reference) and the numbers are bad. Five of 12 batters have reached base, four of 11 have picked up hits and seven runs have scored. His ERA is 9.53 and his FIP is 7.29.
It has really been a struggle for Schlitter since July 2014, in which he has a 7.46 ERA and 4.50 FIP to go along with a 15-12 K-BB ratio. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, then, that when the Cubs decided to go back down to 12 pitchers yesterday, it was Schlitter who was optioned to Iowa.
THE JURY IS STILL OUT ON…
Jon Lester hasn’t been good, but he hasn’t been awful. He is winless in four starts, but the Cubs are 2-2 in those contests. So it’s not as if all has been lost when Lester takes the bump.
The biggest differences between Lester’s first four starts with the Cubs and his 2014 season split between the Red Sox and Athletics are opponents BABIP (.424 in 2015, .299 in 2014) and percentage of runners left on base (58.3 percent in 2015, 76.1 percent in 2014). In that sense, Lester has been unlucky. And regression to the mean should take place sometime over the rest of the season. On the other hand, Lester’s 40.3% line drive rate is up 20 percentage points from last year. That’s alarming.
While Lester’s 6.23 ERA is too high, his 2.11 FIP suggests better days are ahead.
Kris Bryant has played in only nine games this season, so it’s way too soon to judge what he’s done. Yet, it’s hard not to be pleased with his production in what has been the most miniscule of sample sizes. Take out his debut and Bryant has more walks (8) than he does strikeouts (6). He has yet to homer, but he does have four doubles, so one would imagine the power will come around eventually.
Kyle Hendricks was due for a regression after a stellar run after his summer call-up in 2014 and he has seen that, to an extent, but he hasn’t pitched poorly. He has a 5.74 ERA, but a 3.25 FIP in three starts. He also has a tidy 1.6 BB%, having walked just one of the 63 batters he has faced in 15.2 innings.
The bullpen, as a collective, still has its fair share of question marks. Then again, outside of Kansas City’s Herrera-Davis-Holland triumvirate, whose bullpen doesn’t have those questions marks? Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop have been nails in the back end, but with Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm currently on the disabled list, getting them the ball with the lead has been a struggle at times. Luckily, the Cubs are at a point of the season in which they can still do some trial by fire experiments with the relief while guys get healthy.