Are the Cubs Underachieving?

While the rotation has underperformed, the Cubs are mostly as advertised. (Photo: Keith Allison)

All things being equal, the Chicago Cubs find themselves in a very good position at the moment. They’re three games ahead of the Cardinals and 2.5 ahead of the Brewers in the NL Central. And while 11 of their final 17 games feature either St. Louis or Milwaukee, our playoff odds give Chicago an 87.5% chance of qualifying for the postseason, with the club avoiding the Wild Card game in almost every scenario. Last year’s World Champions, it appears, will have an opportunity to defend their title.

Yet the season seems slightly disappointing. The Cubs are likely headed to 88-90 wins instead of the 95-96 for which they were projected at the beginning of year — and well short of the 103 victories they recorded last season when they clinched the division on September 15. Given the expectations, it’s fair to wonder not only if the Cubs are underachieving but also, further, if we could have seen this coming.

Heading into the season, the Cubs were projected for around 49 WAR. Simply adding that total to the 47 or so wins a replacement-level team should garner gives you 96 wins. Right now, the Cubs are “on pace” for 88 wins. The FanGraphs model calls for 89 wins because it integrates projections (which are generally strong for Cubs players). In either case, though, Chicago will almost certainly fall short of their preseason forecast.

Let’s try and figure out where those eight wins (or, really, seven wins because 10% of the season remains) went. We can start by simply consulting the BaseRuns standing, which indicate that the Cubs would have 82 (and not 79) wins right now if the sequencing of all their hits and homers and outs was more evenly distributed. So of those seven aforementioned wins, we can account for three of them right away — unless we somehow believe that this Cubs team, composed mostly of players who won three playoff series last year, is fundamentally “unclutch,” that is. But that’s unlikely.

So, based on performance, the Cubs are at 81 wins instead of 85, essentially within 5% of their projection from the beginning of the season. That seems pretty good, not really the look of an underachiever.

To better understand how they’ve fallen short by four wins, let’s first take a look at the Cubs position players. We know, for example, that Kyle Schwarber’s season has been a disappointment. Jason Heyward has continued to struggle, while Ben Zobrist might be showing his age. Before we look to performance, let’s first check out playing time to see how injuries might be playing a factor. The table below shows prorated plate-appearance projections from our Depth Charts at the beginning of the season versus actual playing time through Tuesday.

Cubs Playing Time v. Projections
Name Actual PA Projected PA Prorated Difference
Addison Russell 348 561 -213
Ben Zobrist 434 548 -114
Jason Heyward 429 517 -88
Miguel Montero 112 199 -87
Willson Contreras 383 436 -53
Kyle Schwarber 443 484 -41
Albert Almora Jr. 293 324 -31
Jon Jay 375 368 7
Kris Bryant 599 561 38
Anthony Rizzo 623 567 56
Javier Baez 458 383 75
Tommy La Stella 132 56 76
TOTAL 4629 5004 -375

Russell, Zobrist, Heyward, Montero, and Contreras have all played less than expected. Baez has assumed some of those plate appearances, though, while the Cubs two best players, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, have gotten more playing time than expected. In the end, most of the lost playing time has gone to Ian Happ, who has put up 1.6 WAR and 116 wRC+, leaving little lost in terms of expectations. Alex Avila has gotten nearly 100 plate appearances and put up an above-average hitting line, too, essentially negating Montero. So the effects of time lost to injury doesn’t seem huge.

What about performance, though? The table below shows projected and actual wOBA this season.

Cubs Offense v. Projections
Name Actual wOBA Projected wOBA Difference
Kris Bryant .392 .375 .017
Anthony Rizzo .385 .384 .001
Willson Contreras .362 .331 .031
Tommy La Stella .360 .314 .046
Miguel Montero .346 .300 .046
Kyle Schwarber .331 .358 -.027
Jon Jay .327 .302 .025
Javier Baez .323 .315 .008
Albert Almora Jr. .316 .298 .018
Ben Zobrist .311 .341 -.030
Addison Russell .304 .318 -.014
Jason Heyward .304 .324 -.020
TOTAL .341 .337 .004

The Cubs are actually outperforming their projections without including Happ and Avila, who have both done well. The team’s 107 wRC+ might not match up with last season’s 112, but that was never a reasonable expectation. Maybe that four-point boost from the projections is taken away by improved offense overall, but the Cubs on offense have performed as expected.

So what about overall value, with WAR? Here are the prorated projections and the value thus far.

Cubs Positon Player WAR v. Projections
Name WAR Projected WAR Prorated Difference
Kris Bryant 5.8 5.0 0.8
Anthony Rizzo 4.0 4.1 -0.1
Willson Contreras 2.9 2.2 0.7
Javier Baez 1.9 1.3 0.6
Kyle Schwarber 1.3 2.2 -0.9
Jon Jay 1.3 0.4 0.9
Addison Russell 1.2 3.1 -1.9
Ben Zobrist 0.7 2.3 -1.6
Jason Heyward 0.7 2.6 -1.9
Tommy La Stella 0.6 0.1 0.5
Albert Almora Jr. 0.6 0.5 0.1
Miguel Montero 0.2 0.2 0.0
TOTAL 21.2 24.1 -2.9

By this measure, the Cubs are down nearly three wins. Add in the 2.3 WAR from Ian Happ and Alex Avila, though, and it’s basically a wash. Yes, they’ve accrued over 10 WAR less than last year’s team, but that 2016 version of the club recorded defensive numbers that were due for regression and also lost nearly five wins in the person of Dexter Fowler.

The conclusion from this? On the position-player side, the team isn’t underachieving at all. In fact, they’re meeting fairly lofty expectations despite down years from Schwarber, Zobrist, Heyward, and Russell.

If the position-player side isn’t doing worse than expected, then it must be the pitching. Before addressing the starters, I would note that the bullpen has underperformed by about a win and a half this season from their projected five WAR in April. However, their Winning Percentage Added (WPA) is above 4.0, so any issues the Cubs have had with the bullpen haven’t really been felt by their record.

As for the starters, it hasn’t been a great year for the group as a whole. Here are the inning projections and actual totals for pitchers projected to start for the Cubs this year.

Cubs Starter Innings v. Projections
Name IP Projected IP Prorated Difference
Jake Arrieta 160.1 173 -13
Jon Lester 159.1 186 -27
Kyle Hendricks 121.0 153 -32
John Lackey 155.0 165 -10
Brett Anderson 22.0 82 -60
Mike Montgomery 116.1 93 23
Eddie Butler 54.2 49 5
TOTAL 788.2 901 -112.1

We have an innings void here. A decent amount of it has been filled by Jose Quintana, though, who’s pitched 65 innings for the Cubs. We still end up with a 50-inning gap even after accounting for innings that went from their better pitchers (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks) to starters who aren’t as good (Mike Montgomery and Eddie Butler). This is likely part of the problem.

Moving on, we find that Cubs starters simply haven’t performed as well as last season. Here are the team’s main four starters entering the season. I’ve included their projected versus actual ERAs and FIPs.

Cubs Starter Pitching v. Projections
Name ERA Proj. ERA Diff FIP Proj. FIP Diff
Jake Arrieta 3.48 3.28 0.20 3.99 3.46 0.53
Jon Lester 4.35 3.25 1.10 3.99 3.38 0.61
Kyle Hendricks 3.35 3.46 -0.11 4.14 3.63 0.51
John Lackey 4.65 3.74 0.91 5.25 3.87 1.38

Increased offense might account for one-third of the ERA bump and one-fourth of the FIP bump, but these starters simply haven’t performed as well as projected. In terms of WAR, it doesn’t come out great.

Cubs Starter Pitching v. Projections
Name WAR Projected WAR Prorated Difference
Jake Arrieta 2.6 3.5 -0.9
Jon Lester 2.5 4.0 -1.5
Kyle Hendricks 1.8 2.8 -1.0
John Lackey 0.5 2.6 -2.1
Brett Anderson 0.2 1.1 -0.9
Mike Montgomery 1.0 0.9 0.1
Eddie Butler 0.6 0.2 0.4
TOTAL 9.2 15 -5.8

Brett Anderson obviously didn’t work out, but the much needed trade for Jose Quintana and his 1.2 WAR wipe out Anderson easily. It’s the rest of the rotation, the pitchers who guided the Cubs last year, who have all fallen off. There’s your four other wins right there. It’s in the rotation.

Does that mean they are underachieving? Well, they aren’t doing as well as expected, but a handful of less-than-stellar pitching performances doesn’t exactly equal a call for an entire team of underachievers. The table below shows innings leaders from 2015-2016, including postseason.

Innings Pitched Leaders: 2015-2016
1 David Price 477.0
2 Corey Kluber 471.1
3 Max Scherzer 469.0
4 Jake Arrieta 468.1
5 Johnny Cueto 464.2
6 Madison Bumgarner 459.0
7 Jon Lester 457.1
8 Chris Sale 435.1
9 Cole Hamels 429.2
10 John Lackey 429.2
11 Clayton Kershaw 419.2
12 Jeff Samardzija 419.1
13 Edinson Volquez 418.1
14 Jose Quintana 414.1
15 Dallas Keuchel 414.0
16 Chris Archer 413.1
17 Kyle Hendricks 404.0
Including Postseason

The Cubs have had very good luck the last two seasons in terms of pitcher health and effectiveness. We can’t say for sure that the team is paying the price for that luck this season, but John Lackey is 38 years old, Jon Lester is 33, and neither Jake Arrieta nor Kyle Hendricks had pitched a full season in the majors before 2015. That all four of them experienced a decline in performance this season is probably an anomaly, just as all four staying healthy and effective for all of 2015 and 2016 is as well. (Lackey’s 2015 season was with the Cardinals.)

Expecting the Cubs to exceed 100 wins again was unreasonable. Expecting a 95-win season might have been more possible, but even a few weak spots (in the rotation, for example) can pretty easily shave off wins in a season. The Cubs haven’t really underachieved, though. Their offense has been easily above average. Their defense has been pretty good, and their bullpen has done well enough. Their starting pitching has had experienced some bad luck, and even a trade for Jose Quintana can’t fix all of that. The Cubs are a good team that’s played well this season despite a slow start. Assuming they close out the year like they should and win the division, the year should be viewed as a successful one, even if they haven’t won as many games as expected or fail to repeat as champions.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

On the wOBA comparison chart, is the total team and individual difference column weighted based on PAs for each player actual vs. projected? I’m thinking for example that Montero was better than expected but also played less, so his positive contribution was limited.