Well we made it! The first half has concluded and many of us feel a bit empty about what the Cubs did in the first 88 games. Things seemed to fall apart on June 20th when the Cardinals came into Chicago and swept the Cubs in three games. The Cubs finished off the half with a 6-15 record. They played some really poor baseball as of late.
It’s really easy to assume that the Cubs aren’t just that good. If you simply look at the wins and losses over the past 3 weeks then your evidence looks solid. But there are some things that might not be as bad as fans might think. We need to really dig into what’s going on with this team.
Kyle Schwarber went down in the second game of the season. The Cubs didn’t seem affected because they started off with a 25-6 record. The media talked about the tremendous amount of depth this team had. Schwarber’s production wasn’t needed and the team was running like a fine oiled machine. Comparisons were being made to the greatest teams in history.
The starting pitching was so good that the Cubs had all five starting pitchers with an ERA under 3.00! Once again the media crowned the Cubs as having the best pitching in the majors. Not even the mighty Mets with all those young power arms were able to produce like the the Cubs starters. It wasn’t even close!
So what happened? First and foremost it was the injury bug. Within a matter of a few weeks the Cubs lost Matt Szczur, Tommy La Stella, Jorge Soler, Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler. All of these guys were important in their respective rolls with the team. It forced the Cubs to promote some of those top prospects before the front office may have wanted to make that call.
It really changed the approach the hitters were using in those first 2 months of the season. During the first 31 games when the Cubs were off to that historical start, the team seemed to really use a patient approach. They were forcing the opposing pitchers to throw a lot of pitches. In fact, it wasn’t unusual to see the opposition have to go to their bullpen before the 5th inning was over!
The younger guys that were called up just weren’t as patient. They were a bit more free swinging. The Cubs were no longer taking 5 or more walks per game. The opposing pitchers didn’t need to work as hard because the Cubs got away from what was making them so successful. They just got themselves out.
Then there were a few guys that just never got on track. Everyone knows the struggles we saw in the $184M man, Jason Heyward. Hayward’s line of .223/.316/.299 in the first 2 months was simply awful for a guy hitting in the 2 slot. Addison Russell could also be added to that list because his first 2 months were less than expected. Russell had a line of .242/.333/.371 and had a strikeout rate of 26%.
The offense really felt the loss of Dexter Fowler. He really is the spark plug that starts this offense. His first 2 months he had a line of .309/.428/.526. He did cool off a bit but the hamstring injury that lead to his removal from the lineup cannot be ignored. Maddon has always told Fowler, “you go, we go” and it was never more true than after Fowler went out on 6/18/16. Is it a coincident that the 6-15 finish to the 1st half started on 6/20/16?
Another factor that had to be a big part of the poor finish was the schedule. It wasn’t so much as the strength or weakness of the schedule but more the amount of games played. The Cubs had to play 24 straight days without a day off. Playing professional baseball is not like your typical 9 to 5 type of job. The days are long and can really start to drag you down.
Next you look at the pitching. Everyone wants to point the finger at the bullpen. On the surface it’s easy to see why we would point the finger at the relievers. There have been more than a few games where the pen was unable to hold a lead. But the starting pitching has regressed also. We are just not seeing the same quality starts we saw to start the season. This puts more of a strain on the relievers to be the hero.
With that all said, we could chalk up any one of these items as an excuse. But if you add them all up at the same time, it shouldn’t be a surprise that any team would struggle a bit. Do we really think that this roster is going to produce the type of baseball that gives you a 6-15 record or will it be the team that saw us produce a 25-6 record at the beginning of the season? The Cubs currently have a .602 winning percentage. This might be a better guess as to the type of team we have. This would give us about 98 wins!
So the break is here. There are a few signs of encouragement. Kris Bryant is having a MVP season and way ahead of schedule. He currently leads the NL in fWAR (5.0), HR’s (25) and runs scored (73). He is 3rd in RBI’s, 9th in walks and 13th in OBP. That’s not to shabby for a 24 year old in his 2nd full season in the majors!
Anthony Rizzo is the rock that Theo and Jed envisioned when he acquired him for the 3rd time. He finished the first half with a line of .299/.416/.591. He has 21 HR’s and 63 RBI’s. He has a 13.4% walk rate and only a 14.5% strikeout rate. He is the perfect middle of the order lefty you want on any team. There is no doubt that Rizzo is the tower of strength these young guys look to for leadership.
Addison Russell is starting to breakout. He is really starting to put a charge into the baseball and his line is becoming much more respectable for an All Star SS. Since 6/21 his line reads .268/.346/.521. He had 5 HR’s and 14 RBI’s in the last 20 games. We’ve also seen him solidify the middle infield with his glove. It’s something we sorely missed from the SS position for many years.
Jason Heyward is actually showing a pulse offensively. Over the past 8 games he has hit the ball extremely hard and those hits are finding holes. His line over the 8 games is .333/.405/.485 with a 10.8% walk rate and a ridiculously low strikeout rate of just 2.7%. He looks a lot more relaxed in the 6 hole and would be a huge shot in the arm if this is the type of production we see in the 2nd half.
While the bullpen may still be a question mark, it’s good to know that Theo has also acknowledged that we may need a little help. I have no doubts that Theo and Jed will find a solution to this problem. The Cubs also have a few internal options that may still work out. But ultimately we will probably see an acquisition from outside the organization.
Finally, the break gives a lot of guys a chance to rest. We should see Dexter Fowler rejoining the team very soon and Jorge Soler should not be far behind. It will be interesting to see what the front office will do with the roster as these guys get activated.
All in all, I’m encouraged to be right where we are. If you were asked in Spring Training how it would feel to be in 1st place and have a 7 game lead over the Cardinals, I’m pretty sure folks would be excited. The season is long and always filled with lots of drama. That’s why it’s so much fun and we keep coming back for more.
ENJOY THE RIDE FOLKS!