The Chicago Cubs’ Two Biggest Problems

There are a lot of underlying metrics you can look at to evaluate whether a team’s results are matching the things they are doing on the field that they can control. We know baseball is, by its very nature, a bit of a flukey sport, requiring 162 games to come even close to really telling you which teams are true-talent good, and which teams are not.

One that I really like is FanGraphs’ BaseRuns, which looks at all of a team’s underlying individual performances, and calculations how many runs they would have scored – and given up – in a context-neutral environment. Then, you can calculate an expected record. It doesn’t *matter*, of course, but it can give you an idea of how much better or worse a team is performing than its actual record.

The Cubs this year lead baseball by a wide margin in underperforming their BaseRuns by EIGHT wins. That is to say, if the Cubs’ results in the standings matched their underlying performance, they would have a record of 28-18, the fourth best record in baseball. By the underlying performance, these Cubs have been outstanding.

AND YET! YOU KNOW WHERE THIS IS GOING!

By the results that matter, the Cubs have been deeply disappointing. And lately, they’ve been downright terrible.

I knew the last month or so had been bad for the Cubs, but until I saw it laid bare, I did not fully appreciate just how bad things had been:

In other words, if not for the not-even-trying A’s, the Cubs would’ve been – BY FAR – the worst team in baseball over the last 30 days. And that was BEFORE yesterday’s loss. (The Mets won twice yesterday, so you can mentally create even more distance there between the Cubs and the rest of the non-A’s pack.)

Is some of that just bad luck? Sure. That’s always an element. But is it ALL bad luck? Of course not. We know the Cubs have some significant problems, which are costing them in close games where they’d otherwise gotten good individual performances.

I thought this was an interesting set of notes, particularly given the nature of yesterday’s loss:

https://twitter.com/MLBastian/status/1660388913674870788

This latest terrible stretch has ultimately been about two issues: pitching struggles (especially in the bullpen) and lack of situational hits. At first blush, you wouldn’t think yesterday’s loss fits some of the mold. However, while yesterday’s game felt like a pure lack of offense, it was also a lack of situational hitting that stung (0-5 with RISP, 7 LOB). And although I could excuse a couple runs given up by Adbert Alzolay, individually, it was another game where the bullpen gave up as many runs as innings pitched.

That is all to say, increasingly, we can see the two biggest problems for this team: the bullpen has not be the bright spot the Cubs need it to be, and the Cubs are performing disproportionately poorly with men in scoring position.

The troubles of the bullpen has been well-trodden ground by now (7th worst ERA in baseball, among other unhappy stats), and the Cubs need to figure out composition and roles ASAP before it costs them any more games. I think the talent is there – in the big leagues and in the upper minors – to put together a good bullpen for the final four months of the season. Historically, the Cubs do it, even as the personnel churns constantly. So, it’s time to do it again. Actually, it’s a few weeks past time, but sooner is nevertheless better from here.

As for the lack of situational hitting, I was JARRRRRED when Niklas on Twitter pointed out to me just how far in last place the Cubs were in their “Clutch” score at FanGraphs, which measures the difference in how well a player performs in high leverage moments as compared to context neutral moments. Ideally, you’d love to be way better in the most important moments, but we know historically, the best players are simply able to be themselves – so a Clutch score near 0 is actually just fine, and indeed most teams hover around 0 for the full year. Eyeballing past years tells me that the vast majority of teams fall between 2 and -2, while the outlier teams can get up into the 5/-5 or larger range.

Right now, the Cubs are at -6.01. That is a massive number.

The Minnesota Twins are second worst at just -2.28. The Los Angeles Angels have been the top team, at 2.52. The Cubs have been so unclutch this year that they are breaking the scale.

Now, you could regard this as good news if you want to be an optimistic weirdo: “Clutch” has almost no predictive power. So, over a full season, you would not necessarily expect the Cubs’ negative clutch score to keep growing. It should be more stable from here, or might even regress back to the mean. (If you want to be a pessimistic weirdo, you might say that’s just a variation on the Gambler’s Fallacy, and we might expect the Cubs’ performance from here to be closer to zero, but not necessarily positive enough to balance things back out.)

Troubling thing? The Cubs led the league last year in negative Clutch, too, at nearly -7. So. I don’t know. Do they just have some guys who really struggle in the big moments? Is the coaching staff not getting guys properly prepared? Are the Cubs leaning too much on the wrong guys in the big moments? Beats me. But even flukey stats have to be regarded with some closer scrutiny when you see them repeat themselves year to year.

I guess we’ll keep an eye on this, but boy has it felt right. When the Cubs have needed a big hit this year in a tight game, they just haven’t gotten it.

When you see extreme outcomes like this – team with good underlying metrics but terrible results – it’s usually the case that six different things are all happening at once. Some cosmic, some self-inflicted. Some will naturally regress, some will not. Success in the big moments feels like one of those things that somehow falls into both categories. So that sucks? Or doesn’t suck? I guess we’ll see?

As for the bullpen, there will be some positive natural regression in results, but most of the improvement is going to have to come from better usage/personnel/roles, and then individual improvements in performance.

written by

Brett Taylor is the Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and on LinkedIn here. Brett is also the founder of Bleacher Nation, which opened up shop in 2008 as an independent blog about the Chicago Cubs. Later growing to incorporate coverage of other Chicago sports, Bleacher Nation is now one of the largest regional sports blogs on the web.

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