Anybody can have a bad century – and I believe there are legions of folks in Wrigleyville polishing off their fourth Old Style hoping against hope that we are not three years into another bad century. Peering through the amber induced haze, a few things jump out at us:
(1) The Cubs are not THIS bad, are they? I refuse to say that we’ve learned that the Cubs are the 2nd worst team in the National League. The North Siders stand 37-55, and lest anyone think that record is unlucky, the Cubbies run differential is an awful –84 at the Break (3rd worst in baseball).
(2) The Cubs Can Hit (A little). Talking about the Cubs in even a slightly positive light requires blinders to the disastrous contractual situation GM Jim Hendry has saddled the team with. Bear with me for a moment as we ignore Alfonso Soriano’s $19M, Aramis Ramirez’s and Kosuke Fukudome’s $14M. Ramirez has 15 HRs and has delivered at the plate to the tune of 26% above league average. Young Starlin Castro and aging veteran Alfonso Soriano are delivering at 8% above league average, and Carlos Pena (keeping 1st base warm for Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder) has overcome a slow start to post 19 HRs and a 14% above average hitting line. Even Geovany Soto, closer to his disastrous 2009 than his resurgent 2010, is hitting near the league average.
(3) The Cubs can Pitch (But you probably think they can’t). Only 1 team in the NL (Houston) has allowed more runs than the Cubs 459 – so how in the world can I say that the Cubs can pitch? Well, to be clear, there are no Cy Youngs in the immediate future, but the top of the rotation is certainly one that many teams would envy. Matt Garza has been impressive in his first summer in Wrigley – his 4.26 ERA masks a career high strikeout rate and a career low HR rate. Similarly, Ryan Dempster (now amazingly in his 12th season) is striking out 8.25 per 9 innings while walking the fewest hitters of his career. Flame throwing Carlos Marmol is backstopping the bullpen with a massive 11.14 K/9 and 19 saves. Bottom line – this staff is doing a lot to help the Cubs win. So why are the Cubs at the bottom of the league in pitching?
(4) The Cubs are HORRIBLE at turning batted balls into outs. Typically, a look at a pitchers ERA versus his FIP (along with LOB%, BABIP and other measures) will give the reader some indication of whether a pitcher is doing a good or bad job controlling those variables within his control, and perhaps offer some insight into those hurlers due to regress, or those receiving a disproportionate share of seeing eye singles and duck snorts to right. This list is a list of NL Starters with the biggest differences between their posted ERA and their FIP in 2011. You will see that of the top 13, five are Cubs starting pitchers. Is all the bad luck concentrated within the Friendly Confines this year? That seems hard to believe – and a look to fielding stats tells a different story. The Cubs have committed 77 errors, 10 more than the 2nd worst team in the NL. Their fielding percentage is the worst by a significant margin. Moving to more advanced statistics, the Cubs make few “out of zone plays” and have a UZR rating in the bottom third of the NL. Though Fukudome stands out as the only egregiously awful defender (with standard caveats about defensive sample size issues), Starlin Castro is not helping matters, and Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Pena are mediocre at best.
Ultimately, everyone knows that the Cubs have to deal with a swath of bad contracts – Soriano has $57M over three years left after 2011, Zambrano $19M and Dempster $14M in 2012, and Carlos Marmol gets nice raises to collect $16M over the next two seasons. However, the biggest issue to address on the field will be getting younger and more athletic on defense – before the pitching staff revolts.
Next Team: Oakland A’s
Last Team: Baltimore Orioles