Chicago Cubs Off-Day Check-In: First of the Year

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Chicago Cubs Off-Day Check-In: First of the Year

Chicago Cubs

For those of you who are just joining us for the first time this season, an ongoing series we deploy throughout the year is the “Off-Day Check-In.”

As the name implies, we’ll check back in on everything that’s happened with the Cubs since the last off-day, including statistics, projections, rankings, recaps, and a whole lot more. So sit back, buckle up, and get ready to look back on how well (or poorly! or medium-ly!) the Cubs have been doing this season.

The Cubs have played 19 games so far this season, seven of which have come at home, with the other twelve on the road. All together, they split their four gamer against the Marlins (2-2), lost the one game they played against the Reds (0-1), beat the Brewers in four (3-1), lost to the Pirates (1-2), split the two games they played against the Braves (1-1) and Cardinals (1-1), and won their second series of the year in Colorado this weekend (2-1). As you can tell by the weird series sizes, there was a lot of inclement weather.

Here’s a look at the NL Central standings entering play today:

  1. St. Louis Cardinals: 13-8 (.619)
  2. Milwaukee Brewers: 14-9 (.609)
  3. Pittsburgh Pirates: 12-10 (.545)
  4. Chicago Cubs: 10-9 (.526)
  5. Cincinnati Reds: 3-18 (.143)

Through these 19 games, the Cubs have never been more than a game above or below .500, which sounds bad, but consider: they had five games postponed (some of which have been made up), a ton of travel, and some awful weather to play through. All things considered, I think they’re doing just fine. In fact, it sure looks like the arrow is pointing up.

Consider, for example, the Cubs’ +24 run differential, and where it ranks throughout the league:

  1. Boston Red Sox: +64
  2. Houston Astros: +58
  3. Atlanta Braves: +34
  4. Philadelphia Phillies: +33
  5. Arizona Diamondbacks: +31

  1. Chicago Cubs: +24

The Cubs have one of the top ten run differentials in baseball and one of the top five differentials in the National League (I’ll point out that the Cardinals are one spot ahead of the Cubs, at +27).

Of course, that differential isn’t exactly equally balanced. The Cubs (5.79 runs/game) are scoring more runs than any team in the National League and are behind only the Red Sox in that category in MLB. But the Cubs also rank in the bottom half of the league in terms of runs allowed per game (4.53, 17th). Needless to say, if the pitching tightens up as we believe it can (I won’t be betting against Yu Darvish and Jose Quintana over the long haul), the Cubs should find themselves rocketing up the run differential board, and, in turn, the standings.

For what it’s worth, the Cubs’ expected record, according to two different measures, is a fair bit better than what they’ve actually produced:

The Pythagorean and BaseRuns records are a way to measure how many games a team should have won over a given stretch based on the number of runs score and allowed (Pythagorean) and other underlying metrics (BaseRuns). Obviously, teams frequently under and over-perform these numbers, but they are usually a pretty good indication of how well a team may do going forward over a long enough horizon.

According to those two numbers, the Cubs should have somewhere around two more wins than they do. That’s obviously a bummer if you look at it like that, but it’s also an optimistic take on their expected performance going forward. [Brett: It’s also a reflection of the types of games the Cubs have played so far: some close losses and some blowout wins.]

The Adjusted Standings at Baseball Prospectus (based on different layers of underlying performance), have the Cubs winning something between 10 games and 11.7 games, so they’re slightly less optimistic, but still agree: this team has probably been better than their record (and that’s not to say they can’t improve on top of that).

According to FanGraphs, the Cubs are projected to go 81-62 the rest of the way, which is behind only the Dodgers in the National League (expected to go 82-60 the rest of the way) and is sixth best in baseball. That would leave Chicago with 91 wins at the end of the year, which feels light, but, again, would make them the second best team in the NL and the best team in the Central (frighteningly, the Cardinals are projected to finish just three games behind the Cubs as of right now …).

Which is a perfect lead into our next section: Playoff odds.

Chicago Cubs Playoff Odds (FanGraphs)

  • Chances of winning the division: 65.0% (-16.4%)
  • Chances of reaching the playoffs: 89.9% (-5.8%)
  • Chances of winning the World Series: 10.6% (-1.9%)

As you can see, the Cubs’ odds have reaching the postseason have dropped considerably since the start of the season, but it’s hard to complain about their present levels, given how things have played out so far. The Cubs still have much better odds than any other team in their division.

With a little normal positive regression, and little bit of a luck, I expect to find these numbers from FanGraphs much more encouraging the next time we check in.

But that’s not the only set of odds. Baseball Prospectus’s number crunching has a position, too, and they’re not quite as optimistic.

Chicago Cubs Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus):

  • Chances of winning the division: 40.1% 
  • Chances of reaching the playoffs: 61.6%
  • Chances of winning the World Series: 7.8%

I can’t pretend to be totally stoic about a less than a 50% chance of winning the NL Central. I expect the Cubs to win the division, and anything less would feel like a pretty big disappointment. For reference, the Cardinals, according to BP, have a 1/3 chance of stealing back the Central, while the Brewers are closer to 1/4.

Now it’s time to take a look at some statistics and rankings. The next time we do this, I’ll have the last check-in’s rankings in parentheses for comparative purposes, but for today, this is just the Cubs’ numbers relative to MLB, as of Monday morning.

Chicago Cubs Offensive Statistics

Walk Rate: 9.6% (10th)
Strikeout Rate: 21.7% (9th)
ISO: .167 (9th)
AVG: .258 (5th)
OBP: .349 (1st)
SLG: .425 (6th)
wOBA: .340 (4th)
wRC+: 114 (4th)
Position Player War: 4.7 (3rd)

There are plenty of good things to say about the Cubs offense right now. I know there have been inconsistencies, but the big picture is nothing but bright. And how about ranking fifth in batting average and just 9th in strikeout rate? Was there ever a day where you thought this Cubs team would lead in contact-related skill stats like that? I know I didn’t. They can succeed in other ways, obviously, but that’s not the kind of team you expected to see.

And when you consider that they’re first or second in the National League in most of these categories, *and* are doing all of this without any help from Anthony Rizzo (yet) … ooh baby. It’s hard not to love what I’m seeing.

… But how about those pitchers?

Well …

Chicago Cubs Pitching Statistics

ERA: 4.14 (17th)
FIP: 4.26 (18th)
xFIP: 4.25 (21st)
K-rate: 22.0% (21st)
BB-rate: 11.7% (28th)
K/BB: 1.88 (28th)
AVG: .239 (15th)
Soft-Contact: 23.7% (1st)
Hard-Contact: 27.3% (3rd)
Pitching Staff WAR: 0.8 (24th)

There’s really no way to sugar-coat this … the Cubs pitching staff has been atrocious. Or, rather, the starting rotation has been. The bullpen has actually been pretty great.

The scariest part is the 11.7% walk rate. Too many walks crippled Cubs pitchers at the end of last season, and there was a dedicated effort to improve upon that (mainly in the bullpen, but still) over the offseason.

On the bright side, the Cubs’ pitchers have been straight-up contact-management WIZARDS. The team’s 23.7% soft-contact rate is the highest in baseball and is met with a similarly excellent 27.3% hard-hit rate, which ranks 3rd best in MLB. That, I’m sure, has helped mitigate the damage that could’ve been done by opposing offenses, but clearly there’s still work to do.

Up Next: The Cubs are heading to Cleveland for a couple games against the Indians, before returning home for four against the Brewers and three against the Cardinals. They’ll have an off-day after that, but there’s no easy or unimportant baseball coming up, even here in April.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami