My apologies for being gone from posting for about a month. Unfortunately, my oldest son was dealing with a set of not very serious but very annoying and time consuming (from the parental perspective) maladies that resulted in my writing time evaporating. With that taken care of, though, we now return to your regularly scheduled analytics-based programming.
Early in the season, I made a host of predictions regarding which Cubs would win a host of awards. Well, a host of fictional awards. And man, were my predictions terrible. Of my 7 predictions, I was right on only one: Least Valuable Cub. On the “good fictional awards” front, here’s the short version: Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta were really, really good in 2014.
Most Valuable Player
Opening Day Guess: Starlin Castro (SS)
End of Season Winner: Anthony Rizzo (1B)
This actually wasn’t a horrible guess, as Castro was the Cubs’ second most valuable every day player according to both fWAR and rWAR despite missing the last month of the season due to an ankle injury. And my reasoning was solid. If Castro rebounded following his poor 2013 campaign, Rizzo needed to become an elite hitter to be more valuable than Castro. Of course, Rizzo went ahead and became an elite hitter, posting a 5.3 fWAR, tied with Miguel Cabrera and Jose Abreu for the best in baseball among first basemen.
Opening Day Guess: Jeff Samardzija (SP)
End of Season Winner: Jake Arrieta (SP)
I guessed that Samardzija would not be traded this season, and was clearly wrong on that front, as Samardzija was no longer a Cub by the time Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum got finished with those aliens. Yes, that was a terrible Independence Day joke. Also, like everyone in baseball not affiliated with the Cubs’ organization, I did not see Jake Arrieta’s emergence. On a start for start basis, Arrieta was as good as any pitcher in the National League not named Clayton Kershaw, and was the Cubs’ best pitcher by a country mile. Arrieta very likely would have been the winner here even if Samardzija was not traded.
Rookie of the Year
Opening Day Guess: Mike Olt (3B)
End of Season Winner: Tie between Neil Ramirez (RP) and Kyle Hendricks (SP)
Olt was awful at the MLB level, striking out in nearly 39% of his plate appearances and batting just .160. At age 26, the odds of him having a meaningful MLB career are slim to none at this point. Ramirez came up and put up a phenomenal year out of the pen, showing both the ability to tally strikeouts and limit walks. Hendricks exceeded expectations after coming up, pitching to a 2.46 ERA over 13 starts and undoubtedly earning a spot on the 2015 Opening Day starting rotation. Jorge Soler earns an honorable mention for his solid debut in right field, but was only up for a month.
First Player Traded
Opening Day Guess: Nate Schierholtz (RF)
Actual: Samardzija and Jason Hammel (SP)
Schierholtz was terrible this season, and the Cubs eventually designated him for assignment and released him. The Cubs’ first trade of the season ended up being their biggest: Starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s for their top two prospects, Addison Russell (who is a Top 10 prospect in all of baseball) and Billy McKinney, as well as starting pitcher Dan Straily.
Least Valuable Player
Opening Day Guess: Junior Lake (OF)
End of Season “Winner”: Lake
Hey, one I was right on! FanGraphs had three players as equally terrible for the Cubs at -0.9 fWAR (Ryan Kalish, Schierholtz and John Baker), but Baseball-Reference breaks the tie by having Lake at -1.4 rWAR, besting (or is worsting the right word?) the other Cubs by -0.3 WAR. Lake remains an interesting physical talent with terrible baseball skills. I’d still like to see the Cubs try to convert his cannon of an arm to the mound, where he could be a late innings reliever fairly quickly with any semblance of control.
Player Who Will Look Most Improved Despite Changing Nothing
Opening Day Guess: Edwin Jackson (SP)
End of Season Winner: Luis Valbuena (3B)
Jackson would have been the worst starting pitcher in baseball by ERA had he thrown enough innings to be eligible for the ERA title, but he just missed that one. While I stand by my argument that in 2013 Jackson’s issues were bad luck as much as anything else, in 2014 he was just terrible with his walk rate climbing and his ground ball rate tanking. Valbuena did most of the same things at the plate this season that he did in 2013: walked, hit for a modest amount of pop, struck out around a league average or slightly better amount. Yet his OPS climbed 68 points this season. What was the difference? In 2013, Valbuena’s BABIP was .233; this season, it was .294.
Most Actually Improved Player
Opening Day Guess: Welington Castillo (C)
End of Season Winners: Rizzo and Arrieta
Looking back on this, Castillo may have been my worst prediction at the start of the season. His solid offensive batting average and on base percentage in 2013 were propped up by a .347 BABIP (of all people, I should be looking for a BABIP regression), and the hope that Castillo would improve his pitch framing abilities was solely that, a hope. Reports are that Castillo’s pitch framing remains below average, and his BABIP dropping to .288 was the primary cause of a 60 point drop in his OPS from 2013 to 2014. As discussed above, Rizzo emerged as one of the best hitters in the National League and Arrieta emerged as one of baseball’s best starting pitchers, clearly being the most improved players on the team. According to fWAR, Rizzo was worth 3.6 more wins in 2014 than he was in 2013, and Arrieta was worth 4.8 more wins. In other words, Rizzo and Arrieta were the reason the Cubs won 7 more games this season than they did last season. If you throw Castro in that mix, you could argue that those three players are the reason the Cubs didn’t lose 100 games again.