Now more than one quarter over, the 2018 season has delivered surprises. Not just for the Cubs, but for most of the National League. None of the last year’s division winners are higher than third and resurgent Atlanta, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have helped put two-thirds of the league over .500.
The Cubs have underachieved, but remain as capable as ever of reeling off several hot months. Remember, they have played better than .650 ball each of the last three second halves. That’s winning basically two of every three games. As Kris Bryant warns, it’d be foolish to bet against the Cubs, even though starting slowly every year seems a risky gambit.
Thus, you should take this quarter-year report card with a grain of salt. As practitioners of a different form of gambling say, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results,” positively or negatively.
The Cubs are four games over .500, which puts them 4.5 games behind Milwaukee, who has dominated or been competitive against every team other than the Cubs. With that great bullpen, the Brewers have an excellent 13-5 record in one-run games. By comparison, the Cubs’ are just 5-9.
In fairness, when the Cubs do come from behind or break a late tie, they often blow past by the other team by more than one run. See their April 7 game against Milwaukee and April 14 against Atlanta. Just this past Friday, they flipped a 1-1 late-inning nail-biter into a 6-1 win.
That said, and despite a 7-1 record against the Brew Crew, the Cubs are a very disappointing 15-16 against division leaders and other winning teams. This includes a 1-9 record in May.
So if there’s a pattern to the Cub’s up-and-down 26-22 record, it’s this: When playing Milwaukee or bad teams (18-7), they’ve buoyed fans’ spirits. When playing other good teams (8-15), they’ve turned even their most even-keeled fans into sports radio callers. This is understandable since the Cubs would not make the playoffs if the season ended today.
Overall First Quarter Grade: B-
What’s to complain about? First in the NL in runs per game (5.16), OPS (.765) and OBP (.340). On the other hand, they’ve stranded the most runners in scoring position (4.15 per game through Friday). This partly reflects getting a lot of runners on and into scoring position, but is also product of their lower-than-league-average ability to plate runners from third with less than two outs.
Drilling down further, these struggles are most acute against power pitchers. This dates back to the Cubs’ struggles in last year’s playoffs. Cubs Insider has dived deep to explore this Achilles’ heel. For a lineup prescription, visit here. For more background analysis, visit here.
First Quarter Hitting Grade: B+
The starting rotation was forecast as a team strength, but they have been its most erratic group. Only Kyle Hendricks is averaging more than 6 innings a start, and the rotation as a whole is just middle of the NL pack in ERA (3.76) and innings pitched per start (5.4). On the positive side, the low early workload could mean more gas in September and October when it matters more.
In contrast, the relievers have surprised. They have the third-lowest bullpen ERA in the NL (2.81) despite a much greater workload than expected. Yet, they still have the highest non-intentional walk rate in the NL (4.3), a priority area Theo Epstein tried to address this past offseason. As the season wears on, the bullpen’s workload and high walk rate should rise as concerns.
First Quarter Pitching Grade: C-
Overall, most would agree the defense peaked in 2016. Since then, it has declined slowly each year, adding to pitch counts and shortening the length of starts.
Since 2016, we’ve seen the steady “boring” defense of Ben Zobrist at second base naturally lose playing time to the flashier but more erratic Javier Baez. Similarly, the more agile and athetic Willson Contreras replaced the tandem of Miguel Montero and David Ross, which has cost the Cubs when it comes to pitch framing.
On the positive side, Addison Russell and Albert Almora Jr. are off to Gold Glove-contending starts at shortstop and in center field, though dislodging Ender Inciarte and Brandon Crawford will be difficult. Atlanta’s Nick Markakis may also give Heyward a run for his money in right. Balls over Kyle Schwarber’s head remain adventurous in left field, but his hustle and arm rank him second in NL outfield assists (4) to Milwaukee’s Lorenzo Cain (6).
First Quarter Fielding Grade: B
No one is better than Joe Maddon managing a squad through the 162-game mental marathon. He’s also generally succeeded at keeping his position players relatively sharp, even if Tommy La Stella and his .403 OBP has been glaringly underutilized. Maddon has also applied a deft hand with Yu Darvish as the prized agent agent continues his adjustment to Chicago.
This includes apparently sending a strong private message to Contreras to zip it with his frankness to the media about teammates. The most recent missteps were his April comments about Darvish. Since then, we actually haven’t heard much from Contreras. In Darvish’s last start, Maddon even directed Anthony Rizzo to make a calming mound visit instead of Contreras.
In terms of in-game decisions, a manager’s pitching, substitution and bunt calls are easy targets for hindsight criticism. These decisions tend to even out over a full season, even if they can grate in the present. However, as mentioned above, Maddon seems slow to adjust to his hitters’ major deficiency against power arms, which remains the offense’s biggest shortcoming.
Assessing the rest of the coaching staff is near impossible as players must still execute. We know Chili Davis is an expert at teaching situational hitting and increased contact. While the team continues with its RISP struggles, the strikeout rate has dropped this year (from 22.2% to 20.6%). We’ve also seen more opposite-field hitting from Baez, Russell, and Schwarber.
The change to Jim Hickey was meant to at least change voices and lower the pitching staff’s high walk rate. Alas, little has changed there. In fact, the walk rates of all four of the team’s key staff additions (Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek) are significantly higher than their 2017 numbers. Quite befuddling.
First Quarter Coaching Grade: B+
To wrap up, the Cubs have proven themselves to be the best second-half team in the NL Central the past three years. Assuming the rotation rebounds, they have the best experience and roster depth to weather a long season and prevail with a third division title in a row.
Next up for the front office is the amateur draft from June 4-6 and then the July 31 trading deadline. If the team continues to avoid major injuries (fingers crossed on Darvish), look to Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to add a high-leverage arm to the bullpen (perhaps in the form of Abdert Alzolay) and at least one hitter not named Manny Machado via trade who’s adept at hitting power arms.