The Cubs Just Played a Month of Very Mediocre Baseball

It’s still rather difficult to craft an argument against the Chicago Cubs as the best team in baseball, at least in my opinion. I mean, shoot, they’ve outscored their opponents by 139 runs for the season, and that’s 34 more than the next-best team, and 50 more than the next-next best team. They’ve got an MVP candidate (favorite?) in Kris Bryant, and they’ve got perhaps the second-best pitcher in the world in Jake Arrieta. The lineup’s still deep, the rotation’s still deep. They still play defense, and they still run the bases. It’s the same roster that was undoubtedly the best roster just a month ago, and the same roster that the projections, whether it be ZiPS, Steamer, or PECOTA, think is clearly the best in the sport.

But, here’s the thing. The Cubs no longer have the best record — they’ve barely got the second-best record — and that’s kinda crazy, considering it was barely a month ago that they had the best record in the sport by 6.5 games, with an even better BaseRuns record at the time.

Except, lately — and pretty much since that moment — things haven’t been going so hot. I created a little infographic to help put things into perspective. Hope this does the trick:

CubsBeforeAfter

And I’m underselling the Twins, here, by quite a bit. That’s the Cubs, getting out to an unthinkable 25-6 start. And then that’s the Cubs — the same Cubs — losing 15 of 21 heading into the All-Star break. Six wins out of 21 games is a .289 winning percentage, and the Twins are at .364. The Braves are at .348.

This is the superteam! Or, this was the superteam! It probably still is, but you can’t particularly tell from their play as of late. I decided that the first thing to investigate here was probably strength of schedule. Maybe the Cubs have had a tough run lately. I broke the season into convenient rough thirds, and calculated the actual winning percentage of the Cubs’ opponents, as well as the projected rest-of-season winning percentage of those same opponents, the latter of which could perhaps serve as a better indicator of the true-talent ability of those opposing clubs:

Cubs Strength of Schedule, in Thirds
Time Games Cubs Record Cubs Win% Opp. Record Opp. Win% Opp. RoS%
First third 29 23-6 .793 1146-1432 .445 .475
Second third 29 18-11 .621 1299-1294 .501 .490
Latest third 30 12-18 .400 1237-1336 .481 .496

Biggest thing about this table is that the Cubs certainly benefited from a relatively easy schedule early on. They played 12 games before facing a .500 opponent. Then they played three against the Cardinals, and then eight more against sub-.500 teams. You’ve still gotta win the games, of course, but the Cubs weren’t being challenged too fiercely in the early goings. Then it got more typical, and the Cubs continued to dominate, playing at a 100-win pace over their next 30 against an average schedule. This most recent 30? Still relatively average. Easier than average, if anything. Met with a 65-win pace from the Cubs. It’s not the schedule.

And it’s not the bats, either. These last 30 days, Cubs position players lead the National League in WAR. They’re second in all of baseball to the Blue Jays, who you should’ve heard about lately. The last month’s wRC+ is 126, which ranks third and is considerably better than their season mark. Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have been on fire. Willson Contreras has never not hit. Even Jason Heyward‘s showing some signs of life, and Albert Almora‘s more than held his own in Dexter Fowler’s absence. The Cubs are still hitting, they’re still walking, they continue to run the bases, and the elite defense hasn’t gone away. Even during this brutal slide, there’s absolutely no cause for concern regarding the batters one-through-eight, those who take the field.

You surely understand the defining characteristics of the sport, and therefore you surely understand that, if not the hitting or the fielding or the schedule, the problem has been Chicago’s pitching. And the funny thing is, for a bullpen that’s been relatively shaky over the course of the year, it wasn’t the bullpen that suffered a major dropoff. The bullpen wasn’t great over the final month of the first half, but for what it’s worth, the unit’s FIP- was unchanged from the first couple months.

Where the Cubs really slipped is the rotation. The rotation projected as the third-best in baseball the rest of the way, the rotation with two aces and seemingly no back-end starters, ran a 4.83 ERA over the last 30 days. Perhaps more troubling is the 5.31 FIP. This isn’t BABIP or strand-rate misfortune: their .272 BABIP remained among the lowest figures in baseball during that mark, their 72.9 LOB% was right about league average. No, the Cubs starters legitimately pitched worse.

Nobody’s lost any velocity, so no cause for concern there. But Arrieta’s already troubling walk rate ballooned into the double digits with a significant drop in his zone rate, he lost himself a fair share of strikeouts and grounders, and he tripled his home-run rate. Jon Lester‘s served up nine dingers in his last five starts; he’d allowed seven in his previous 13. John Lackey‘s problems essentially mirror Arrieta’s, just without the significant drop in zone rate. Kyle Hendricks has been the only one preventing runs, but even he’s seen his peripherals decline. Jason Hammel’s been a disaster all around.

I don’t want to make too much of this fact, but the losing streak depicted in the right-hand side of the image above coincides with the exact date that catcher Willson Contreras made his debut. Now, Contreras has only caught half the games since then, but could be that the rotation’s unfamiliarity with their catcher is playing a role in the struggles. Doesn’t explain Lester’s collapse with David Ross. Doesn’t explain Arrieta with Miguel Montero. But it’s worth mentioning.

Funny thing about the Cubs rotation struggling is, it’s such a talented staff that it’s tough to make a change, if the Cubs are looking outside the organization with the trade deadline nearing. Arrieta and Lester, of course, aren’t going anywhere. Tough to do much with Lackey’s track record or Hendricks’ upside. Hammel probably isn’t guaranteed a spot forever, but even he’s still got a 3.46 ERA on the season, and there’s likely some diminishing returns to be found in upgrading the fifth spot in a rotation for a playoff run. More than likely, the obvious area of upgrade on this Cubs roster is still the bullpen — it’s the only spot of the team that hasn’t shown dominance this year, and if the rotation continues to scuffle, well, more innings to the pen!

Nearly every player has a blip in the season where they don’t look like themselves. Could be the Cubs’ rotation decided to have theirs all at the same time. Doesn’t mean it’s time for panic in Chicago — there’s plenty of overwhelmingly positive Cubs facts peppered throughout this article. But it serves as a reminder that no team is perfect, and that anything can happen over a month, let alone a seven-game playoff series in October. The Cubs are still the team to beat in the second half and beyond. But the league just showed that it’s certainly not impossible.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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cornflake5000
6 years ago

This is going to be a fun day of comments!