A quick look at the standings reveal the Chicago Cubs are trailing the Milwaukee Brewers by a mere one game. While that can be considered troubling given it’s mid-July and the Cubs stocked up on free agent acquisitions over the winter, it’s actually a good place to be in considering the problems the Cubs have had this season.
The Starting Rotation Has Not Lived Up to the Billing
On paper, the Cubs entered the 2018 campaign with one of the best rotations in baseball. Yes, their Opening Day starter amassed a 4.33 ERA in 2017, but that came on the heals of a Cy Young-caliber performance in 2016. Kyle Hendricks was a year removed from putting the finishing touches on back-to-back outstanding seasons in which he posted ERA’s well under 3.20.
Chicago’s three through five starters to kick-off the season rivaled anything other teams could throw at the Cubs. Yu Darvish, a four-time All-Star, lurked the in the middle of the rotation, while one of the most consistent pitchers in the game, Jose Quintana, followed him. To round things out, Tyler Chatwood was signed to a three-year, $38 million contract to eat innings at the back of the rotation.
While that formidable group looked good on paper, they have not lived up to expectations through the mid-point of the season.
To kick things off, the Cubs’ newly acquired $126 million pitcher in Darvish has failed to provide any sort of value. After dealing with the flu that cause him to miss a start early in the season, Darvish’s ERA sat at 6.00 following his start on June 2. His early season struggles were only worsened when the right-hander hit the DL with right triceps tendinitis and suffered a set-back that has caused him to miss 43 games with no realistic timetable for his return.
If Darvish is able to come back healthy this season, he will no doubt be the freshest starting pitcher for the Cubs. Despite that, the Cubs probably thought they would get more than 40 innings and one win in eight starts at the All-Star break out of a pitcher who is making $25 million this season.
While Darvish is the only injury concern for the Cubs’ rotation, Hendricks, Chatwood and Quintana have struggled to find success this season. Currently, Hendricks is sporting a 3.93 ERA while at the same time watching his strikeout rate dip below 20 percent for the first time since his rookie season. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Hendricks’ 7.1 percent walk rate and 1.37 HR/9 mark would be career highs if they hold.
The good news for Hendricks is that his last outing was much better (8.1 innings, five hits, zero earned runs) and his track record suggests he will return to a sub-3.00 ERA pitcher in the second half.
Chatwood’s track record, on the other hand, offers less hope the right-hander will find his way. After posting walk rates above ten percent in 2016 and 2017, the Cubs gave $38 million to a pitcher that is currently sporting an 18.9 percent walk rate, far and away the highest of his career.
While the strikeouts are there (career-best 20 percent strikeout rate), his terrifying 7.97 BB/9 and 5.01 ERA (5.05 FIP) are major red flags for a team hopeful to return to October.
As touched on above, Chatwood’s numbers traditionally take a nose-dive in the second half of the season. For his career, the right-hander has a 5.26 ERA in the second half opposed to a 3.95 mark in the first half.
Continuing with the trend, Quintana has joined in on the struggles of Hendricks and Chatwood. After never posting a walk rate higher than 7.7 percent in a season, Quintana has logged a 10.7 percent mark at this point in the season. To make matters worse, Quintana’s strikeout rate has also dipped to 20.8 percent after sitting at 26.2 percent a year ago.
Those numbers have not helped the southpaw who has an ERA approaching four and a FIP of 4.63.
Unlike Chatwood, Quintana has remained a similar pitcher in the first and second parts of the season. For his career, Quintana owns a 3.56 first half ERA and 3.57 second half ERA, suggesting the left-hander has better days ahead.
A Chance to Turn Things Around
Despite these struggles, the Cubs’ starting rotation owns the 11th best ERA in the major leagues at 3.86. That number has been largely off-set by the outstanding play of Jon Lester and Mike Montgomery (starting in replacement of Darvish).
With that being said, the Cubs have a great chance to better that number as the second half of the season rolls around. Lester owns an almost identical first half (3.47) and second half (3.45) career ERA while it’s already been touched on what kind of pitcher Hendricks is in the second half. Quintana has looked much better in his last two starts, logging 12 innings and allowing just two earned runs on eight hits. For the first time this season, the left-hander’s ERA sits below four with his last two starts paving the way for a bounce-back second half.
Right now, Lester has been carrying the load for the Cubs’ starting staff. With a healthy Darvish and improved Hendricks and Quintana in the second half, the Cubs’ rotation has a chance to re-claim their 2016 glory.
Some Big Names Need to Get Going Offensively
Like the starting rotation, the Cubs’ lineup has had their ups and downs this season. Most recently, they scored just seven runs over a three-game span against the San Francisco Giants, after ripping off four straight games in which they scored ten runs or more during the turn of the month.
That sometimes maddening up-and-down offense has turned a corner, however, as the Cubs are now hitting .249 with runners in scoring position after lacking in that area earlier in the season. Despite that, the Cubs are hitting just .198 in losses and .311 in wins while at the same time slashing .215/.226/.320 when the pitcher gets ahead in the count.
While it would be easy to say the Cubs’ offense is not ready for the postseason, it remains one of the best in all of baseball. Currently, the Cubs in second in team bating average (.264), first in OBP (.344), seventh in slugging percentage (.425) and fifth in wRC+ (106). Those numbers continue the trend for a Cubs’ offense that has remained near or at the top of every major offensive category since 2015.
However, a couple of things are different now than they have been in recent years. For one, Kris Bryant is not slugging like we are used to seeing. Granted, he just recovered from a shoulder injury, but he himself has said that’s no excuse for his drop in power. Right now, Bryant is sporting an ISO of .208 and a slugging percentage of .487. If those numbers hold, they would be career-lows for a player who won the 2016 National League MVP.
In addition to his lack of power, Bryant’s strikeout rate has ticked up this season. After falling each of the two seasons since his 2015 rookie campaign, it has risen more than two full percentage points to 21.4 percent. To make matters worse, Bryant is walking at an 11.3 percent clip this season, three points lower than his 2017 mark.
While his overall contact percentages do not seem out of sorts, Bryant’s soft contact percentage is up to 18.7 percent after sitting below 15 percent last season. That has been coupled with increased fly ball and line-drive rates, seemly suggesting Bryant is hitting more lazy fly balls this season compared to last.
Even though Bryant is experiencing a drop in power, it does not really compare to the struggles Anthony Rizzo has gone through this season. The left-handed slugger started out the season hitting .149 at the end of April just to average .303 during the month of May. That number was followed by a solid .270 in June, making people think the old Rizzo was back. However, a .125 batting average and .031 ISO in July has derailed any success Rizzo enjoyed earlier in the year.
For the season, Rizzo is slashing .236/.333/.393 which would be the lowest numbers since his second year with the Cubs in 2013. Even then, Rizzo slugged .419 with a .186 ISO. This season, those numbers sit at .393 and .157 respectively.
As you would expect with someone struggling to find power, Rizzo’s hard contact percentage is down to 32 percent, which if it holds, would be his lowest mark since 2014. Despite that, Rizzo’s soft contact rate is also down from last year, leaving a major up-tick in medium contact, an almost seven percent increase from 2017. That medium contact is getting put on the ground less, resulting in an increased amount of not-well-struck line-drives that do not often find dirt (.236 BABIP).
The Cubs’ Roster Has Yet to Reach Full Strength
With the injury to Bryant and the struggles of Rizzo, “Bryzzo” has yet to reach its full capabilities. Even so, the Cubs own one of the deadliest offenses in the game of baseball without two of their biggest power-hitters producing the way they have in the past.
For his career, Rizzo has always been a little bit better late in the season. His career batting average in the month of August sits at .273, the second highest average of any month during the year. Coupled with that, July has been Rizzo’s second worse month by wRC+ as he has posted a 121 mark that has only been out-done by his 118 wRC+ in September and October.
Just like Rizzo, Bryant seems to get better as the season wears on. His .353 career batting average during the month of August has fueled his .302 career clip during the second half.
Overall, the Cubs have been one of the best teams in baseball this season without their top weapons performing at peak level. Darvish has the track record to return to All-Star form once he is healthy, while Quintana and Hendricks have both proven they are better pitchers than their 2018 numbers suggest.
On the offensive side, the Cubs rate has a top-tier group despite Rizzo and Bryant battling health and performance problems. The success the Cubs’ offense has seen this season has come from guys like Jason Heyward and Javier Baez who are having breakout years at the plate.
While some numbers suggest those guys will regress in the second half, Bryant and more importantly Rizzo’s numbers can not get much lower. That suggests a second half breakout for the Cubs both on the pitching and offensive side. If that happens, fans will not have to worry about trailing the Brewers in the standings because the Cubs will pass them up as they try to reach the World Series for the second time in three years.
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