Whether it feels right or not, the Chicago Cubs have now played exactly half of their 60 total games this season, coming to the mid-way mark with a record of 18-12. If they repeated that performance in the second-half they’d be a lock for the postseason, if not the second seed overall behind the Dodgers. Meanwhile, the Cardinals (20 games), Pirates (26 games), Reds and Brewers (28 games) are a bit behind the Cubs on the schedule for now, but they’ll all try their best to play as many games as possible.
Starting tomorrow, the Cubs have 30 games in 31 days, including two scheduled seven-inning double-headers (Reds and Cardinals) as well as three off-days. There are still seven games left against each of the Reds and Pirates, but just five games left against the Cardinals and three against the Brewers. It’s crunch time.
The Cubs Offense
Well. This certainly caught up to them, eh?
At the mid-way point, the Cubs have just three qualified players with an above-average offensive output (and two of them are just a smidge above average): Ian Happ (164 wRC+), Anthony Rizzo (108 wRC+), Kyle Schwarber (107 wRC+).
With that said, Willson Contreras’ actual production trails his expected production dramatically. In fact, he’s among the top-25 biggest differences between his expected wOBA (.368) and his actual wOBA (.300). There are a million ways I can help put that into context, but none better than this: Willson Contreras’ career wOBA is .347. So in terms of the underlying production, he’s doing as much, if not more, than he ever has. He’s just catching a lotta bad breaks.
Meanwhile, Javy Baez, riding a six-game hitting streak, seems to have begun turning his season around, and Nico Hoerner is trending in the right direction, as well:
Nonetheless, the Cubs have been just about average overall (102 wRC+, 16th) and particularly weak against left-handed pitching (85 wRC+, 22nd). They need someone who can hit lefties.
Oh, also: the insane bases loaded thing.
The Cubs Defense
By contrast, the Cubs defense has actually rated out pretty well here at the halfway point, with the fifth most Defensive Runs Saved (13), plus the third highest Ultimate Zone Rating (tops in the NL) and the fourth best Def rating (5.5). It’s tough to put too much weight into most of those numbers, considering how long it takes defensive metrics to normalize (and even then they’re imperfect), but the eye test certainly seems to indicate mostly good things.
In a more traditional sense, the Cubs have committed the 9th fewest errors this season. So there’s that.
Perhaps more importantly and trustworthy (because the data stabilizes much more quickly), Cubs catchers are the third best framing group in baseball, behind only the White Sox (who employ one of the league’s top framers, Yasmani Grandal) and the Pirates. We’ve discussed Willson Contreras’ improvements already, so I won’t linger too long, but the changes he’s made over the offseason have clearly paid off. This is a huge development and a testament to the work he’s put in. Along the same lines, the Cubs catchers have allowed just one passed ball this season, tied for second fewest in MLB.
All things considered, the defense is doing just fine.
The Cubs Bullpen
The situation in the bullpen may not feel as dire as it did at the beginning of the season, particularly with the resurgence of Craig Kimbrel and Jeremy Jeffress, but it’s also not necessarily a strength.
Looking at the first half as a whole, their ground ball rate is 17th, their walk rate is 24th, their batting average allowed is 23rd, their FIP is 27th, and their 5.79 ERA is 29th. They do have a strong collective strikeout rate (25.8%, 6th best in MLB), but that’s clearly not doing enough. In general, they’ve allowed far too much hard contact (46.2%, 3rd highest) and way too many line drives (24.0%, 5th highest). They have a lot of work to do.
Among my biggest concerns is Rowan Wick, who, after starting the season with five scoreless innings, has now allowed five earned runs in his last 4.0 innings. If he’s not “right” going forward – it’s a very short season! – the Cubs just lost one of their better bullpen arms. Wick’s velocity has looked fine, so maybe he just ran into a bad stretch, but his performance remains something to watch very closely over the next few outings.
The Cubs Rotation
The Cubs rotation is a difficult nut to crack narratively. On the one hand, I have all the faith in the world in Yu Darvish, a legitimate Cy Young candidate, and Kyle Hendricks (3.55 ERA, 3.37 FIP) continuing their impressive seasons. And Jon Lester also seems to be in a good place overall after another solid outing last night.
But Tyler Chatwood has completely fallen apart in back-to-back starts that sandwiched a back injury, and Jose Quintana is still only just ramping back up to full availability.
Alec Mills did have a really nice bounce back start, though, and in terms of him being your 4th or 5th member of the rotation, the Cubs could do worse. Moreover, while the multiple upcoming double-headers do make things complicated, the Cubs have a number of options to deploy, between Chatwood, Quintana, and, of course, Adbert Alzolay, who filled in very nicely last time they had a twin set.
So I guess while I do have concerns, the Cubs have a strong front three and four legitimate options for the last two spots. It could be a lot worse (and it is, if you look around baseball).
Statistically, the Cubs rotation ranks 3rd in fWAR, 3rd in innings pitched, and … FIRST in walk rate:
The #Cubs bullpen has the 7th highest walk rate in MLB (12.3%), while the Cubs rotation has the single lowest walk rate in MLB (5.5%).
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) August 27, 2020
The Cubs rotation has also been a relative master of contact, with the 7th highest soft%, 9th lowest hard%, 7th highest ground ball rate, and 3rd lowest overall exit velocity allowed.
The Standings and the Odds
At 18-12, the Cubs are still in first place, with seven more wins than the Cardinals and five more than the Brewers, however …
1. Chicago Cubs: 18-12
2. St. Louis Cardinals: 11-9 (2.0 games back)
3. Milwaukee Brewers: 13-15 (4.0 games back)
4. Cincinnati Reds: 11-17 (6.0 games back)
5. Pittsburgh Pirates: 7-19 (9.0 games back)
… with the uneven schedules, that doesn’t equate to the sort of cushion you’d probably imagine. As I mentioned up top, the most obvious contenders in the division don’t have a ton of head-to-head matchups to make up this ground directly, but there is still plenty of time left and the Cubs have not been playing as strongly lately.
As it stands, FanGraphs has the Cubs odds of making the playoffs at 94.0%, with their chances of winning the division down to 55.8%. Meanwhile, PECOTA has the Cubs odds of winning their division at a slightly lower 54.0% with their overall playoff odds at 91.9%.
At this point, given their hot start, it would be an incredible collapse to miss the postseason altogether, but there is value in winning one of the top seeds in terms of home field advantage (though much less if it winds up at a neutral site) and maybe a better first-round matchup.