Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Flyover: Chicago Cubs

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month.

Nobody expected much of the Chicago Cubs this year, as they were widely viewed as still in the midst of a multi-year rebuilding effort under team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. The team was in last in the NL Central on July 5 when it traded arguably its two best starting pitchers, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, to Oakland for two minor leaguers, a pitcher whom they sent to the minors, and a player to be named later. They subsequently traded their starting second baseman, Darwin Barney, to the Dodgers and center fielder Emilio Bonifacio reliever James Russell to the Braves before the trade deadline, receiving two more minor leaguers. The Cubs released right fielder Nate Schierholtz on August 13; he signed with the Nationals five days later. Having cleared several veterans from the roster, the Cubs have called up several of their highly-touted young players, including center fielder Arismendy Alcantara, second baseman Javier Baez, and right fielder Jorge Solergiving them an extended major league audition.

How Are They Doing Lately? Surprisingly well. Since going all-in on the youth movement, the Cubs are 16-13 over the past 30 days, the second-best record in the National League. People are talking about the Cubs as contenders in 2015. With several other top prospects in the minors (Baseball Prospectus ranked the Cubs' farm system second in the majors before the season) the outlook for the Cubs is finally brightening.

What's Going Right? The Cubs' starting pitchers have a subpar 3.95 ERA over the past 30 days, but that drops to 3.43, below the league average of 3.70, without Edwin Jackson, who's having a terrible year (6.09 ERA, the worst in the league by over a run) and is now on the disabled list. The relievers' 2.85 is fourth in the league. Cubs pitchers have walked less than 7% of opposing batters, the third fewest in the league, resulting in a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.0, fourth highest in the league. On offense, Cubs batters have hit a lot of home runs (40, second in the league). 

What's Going Wrong? The offense reflects the team's youth. Those home runs have been accompanied by a swing-at-anything approach at the plate; the Cubs have swung at 33% of pitches outside the strike zone in the past 30 days, second most in the league, but made contact on only 55% of those outside-the-zone swings, lowest in the league. On pitches in the strike zone, their 86% contact rate is second lowest in the league. This has resulted in walks in just 6% of plate appearances, second lowest in the league, and strikeouts in 27% of plate appearances, by far the most.  They've gotten home runs on 15% of fly balls, second in the league, and that's probably unsustainably high, given the league average of 10%. They haven't stolen a lot of bases--nine over the past 30 days, third fewest in the league--but they've managed to get caught stealing ten times, second-most. The team batting average over the past month is .239, fifth lowest in the league, and its .291 on base percentage is third lowest, given the lack of walks. The homers have kept the Cubs' slugging percentage and runs scored around league averages. 

Just as the hitters have been getting home runs at a rate that may not be sustainable, the pitchers have been unusually good at preventing them. Just under 8% of fly balls allowed by Cubs pitchers have cleared the fence over the past month. That percentage is likely to rise, given the league average of 10%, though the Cubs have been good at keeping the ball in the park all year.

Who's Hot? Shortstop Starlin Castro, perhaps hearing the footsteps of a stable of shortstops in the Cubs' farm system, has a .363/.396/.505 slash line, making him easily the Cubs' best hitter over the past 30 days. Rookie second baseman Baez is tied for team lead in homers with seven and leads with 14 runs and 14 RBI. Rookie center fielder Alcantara is second in homers with five and is second in runs with 12 and fourth in RBI with 11. (But keep reading about the kids.) Soler has played in only five games but in them he has three singles, four doubles, and three homers over 19 at bats. I'm guessing he doesn't maintain his .526/.550/1.121 slash line. Third baseman Luis Valbeuna has seven homers.

Starters Kyle Hendricks (3-0, 1.78 ERA over five starts) and Tsuyoshi Wada (3-1, 2.40 ERA over five starts) have been good over the past 30 days, but the bullpen has been the  team's pitching strength. Setup men Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop, and Wesley Wright have combined for 1.56 ERA and 46 strikeouts over their last 46 innings, and closer Hector Rondon has nine saves and a 0.69 ERA, allowing only nine hits and no walks in 13 innings pitched.

Who's Not? Baez has walked in just 3% of plate appearances and struck out in 42%. He has easily the highest strikeout rate in the majors and the second-lowest walk-to-strikeout rate in the National League. Over the past 30 days, National League batters--remember, this includes pitchers--have walked in 7.7% of plate appearances and struck out in 21.0%. Among regulars (75 or more plate appearances), Alcantara, Baez, Castro, and catcher Wellington Castillo are all walking at a below-average clip, and only Castro and outfielder Chris Coghlan are striking out at a below-average rate.

Returning to Baez: He's struck out 50 times in 120 plate appearances over his last 30 games. As Sam Miller pointed out in the Effectively Wild podcast, in 1988, Tony Gwynn struck out 40 games. All season. And that was the most strikeouts he ever had in a year. Baez has swung at 42% of pitches outside the strike zone compared to a league average of 31%, so pitchers are throwing strikes to him on only 40% of pitches compared to a league average of 49%. Still, the power--for a middle infielder!--is undeniable.

Among the pitchers, the aforementioned Jackson has had a terrible year. Jake Arrieta has had a bad stretch, going 1-3 with a 5.34 ERA over the past 30 days, but his line indicates that he's probably been unlucky as much as anything.

What's the Outlook? This is a last place team, but a fun one, as Cubs fans are going to be watching a lot of highly-touted youngsters over the remainder of the season, and a lot of strikeouts. That's OK. They have talented players getting playing time, and they're setting up for better times in years ahead. It's a shame that they play in what has become arguably the best division in baseball.

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