The Chicago Cubs and Their Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad First Half
Yesterday afternoon, I opened my garage door and wheeled my lawn mower into the driveway to fill it with gas before I cut the grass.
When I looked up, I noticed that the “W” flag that hangs alongside my garage door had become wrapped around its angled pole thanks to a recent storm. It was wrapped tightly enough that the content of the flag was hidden from view.
The flag pole is a bit out of my 6-foot-4-inch reach, so I grabbed the leaf blower to give it a gust back to its rightful position.
But then I stopped, reflected for a moment, and left the flag wrapped tightly around the pole. “Maybe it’s best to just leave it for now,” I thought.
The Cubs needed the All-Star break almost as bad as their fans did, but later today the club will begin the second half of its season against the Baltimore Orioles amidst rampant uncertainty and deserved skepticism.
When Jesse Rogers or any of the writers who cover the Cubs and ask the players, coaches, or front office how they feel beginning the second half, all will likely respond with confident optimism using phrases like, “Start fresh,” “Forget the past,” and other such clichés.
It’s understandable, really. Confident optimism is a passable coping mechanism for a baseball team that was by far the best in baseball last year and returned most of the crew in 2017.
How can the Cubs improve enough in the second half to make the playoffs? Let’s break it down.
What the Problem Is Not
The problem is not Joe Maddon. Our friend Sherm’s hissy fit last Sunday was fun to read, but as far as I can tell, it’s pretty misguided. I had trouble discerning what he actually had to say beyond the “MADDON!!! SUCKS!!!” he managed to seeth amidst wiping the foam from his mouth.
Pitchers’ ERAs are not double what they were last year because Joe Maddon likes to make up funny phrases.
Hitters’ inability to drive runs in like last year are not due to occasionally dressing up for road trips.
Blaming Joe Maddon is lazy and it’s a cop out. It doesn’t put enough emphasis on the aging pitching staff or the relative youth of the lineup.
To say, as Sherm did, that Joe Maddon should “Let the eagles fly” like Dave Roberts is doing in L.A. wrongly assumes that all of these guys are eagles.
Let us be clear about something: this Cubs team won the World Series last year, but beyond Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, we have no reason to think any of these players can maintain the kind of production they did last season.
Schwarber had a good World Series, beyond that, we have a tiny sample size of his performance. He may not be as amazing as we all had hoped.
Javy Baez is one of the most exciting players I’ve seen in a while, but can he maintain consistency?
To say that Joe Maddon should “Let the eagles fly” like Dave Roberts does in L.A. wrongly assumes that the Cubs are made up of a bunch of polished perennial All-Stars. In reality, it’s a team of a bunch of players who, give or take a half season, could be experiencing their sophomore slumps all at the same time!
Joe Maddon can’t just gin up some “good baseball” whenever he wants. That’s not what managers are even meant to do.
Don’t blame Joe Maddon for a half-season of young talent underperforming the unrealistic expectations we all had for them following last season. That’s just lazy and it avoids looking at the real problems.
What the Problems Are
Heading into the All-Star break, the Cubs did not have one problem, they had two, and they are really quite simple:
1. Starting pitching.
Last season, the five starting pitchers had a combined ERA of 2.97. The first half of this season, our starting pitchers have a combined ERA of 4.81.
We all knew coming into this season that our starting pitching situation was going to be problematic in the future, but we may have overlooked how dire it would be in the present.
The only Cubs pitcher with a winning record is Jake Arrieta, set to be a free agent after this season. John Lackey will be a free agent and isn’t performing well. Kyle Hendricks has been hurt. Jon Lester has been underperforming. The five slot is up for grabs for anyone who wants it.
That is, until yesterday.
None of the prospects we traded are major blows to the system, and it signals that management believes in the young talent on the major league squad and that they are bought into it for the foreseeable future.
Sure, it would have been nice to grab Chris Archer, but he would have required at least one or two major leaguers.
The Cubs were able to acquire Quintana without giving up anyone from the major league squad. This is a win.
Quintana is sealed up through 2020 with a league option the last two years of the contract.
This is a nice stat:
José Quintana This Season
First 13 Starts Since
ERA 5.30 2.43
Team W-L 5-8 5-0
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 13, 2017
Quintana is not the cure for all that ails the Cubs pitching situation, but it is a big step in the right direction.
2. Dead bats.
The 2016 Cubs run differential was +252. So, let’s say at the All-Star break it was somewhere around half of that, or about 126. Not bad.
The 2017 Cubs run differential at the All-Star break is zero, as in “0.”
But everything else is pretty awful.
I really think the biggest problem is the pitching, because while the hitting is problematic, even reducing the staff ERA by a run would be a huge help.
Also, I tend to trust in the ability for bats to rebound halfway through the season more than I trust pitching to rebound.
I could go on and on, but I need to stop.
Don’t blame Joe Maddon. That’s silly and not based in any real metric.
Blame the lack of effective pitching and an understandable regression by a team of youngsters who maybe outperformed themselves last year.
I still think the Cubs can win the World Series this year, even though I think it’s pretty unlikely.
I do think they will make the playoffs, but only of Quintana becomes the functional ace for the second half.
We will see!