Tuesday Trends: Bullpen Leads Way as Cubs Pull Closer to First

It’s been quite a turnaround for the Chicago Cubs, huh? At the beginning of May, the team sat at 12-15 and were five games back of the first place St. Louis Cardinals.

The times, they are a-changing.

Thanks in large part to a series win in St. Louis this past weekend, the Cubs find themselves only 1.5 games back from those Cardinals, who lost in their game against the Chicago White Sox. That kind of turnaround has come with some noteworthy individual performances. Let’s dig into them.

Trending up

Javy Báez‘s power numbers: It’s hard to know just what to make of El Mago’s 2021 season so far. There’s a lot to scare you: he continues to strike out at a career high rate, whiffs more than almost any hitter in the league, and remains allergic to walks.

But…you saw what he did Sunday night, right?

There’s been a heck of a lot of that lately. Javy has hit three home runs in his last seven games and is slugging an impressive .577 over that time. Those power numbers, both recently and throughout the season, have carried him to a 114 wRC+ despite a pretty putrid .293 OBP.

Are those the numbers of a guy who you find to be a slam dunk for a monster extension? I’m not so sure. But combined with stellar defense, Javy continues to be an exceptionally valuable piece of the Cubs’ puzzle.

The Cubs’ makeshift bullpen: Just how good has the ‘pen been? Over 76.1 innings in the month of May, the group has led the league in K/9, placed second in ERA, seventh in BB/9, and third in HR/9. It is undeniably one of the team’s biggest assets.

Is Hall of Fame closer Craig Kimbrel leading the way? Sure, you can certainly argue that: a 0.95 ERA and 15.16 K/9 will get you a long way as a closer. He’s not alone, though. Ryan Tepera (2.95), Rex Brothers (3.00), Dillon Maples (1.72), Andrew Chafin (2.49), and Dan Winkler (0.59) all have ERAs under 3.00. ERA certainly isn’t the most reliable indicator of success for a reliever, especially in May, but it certainly says something positive when a group of relievers has that many guys with strong numbers.

And this goes without mentioning successful newcomers like Keegan Thompson, Tommy Nance, and the unfortunately injured Justin Steele. A willingness to allow relievers from elsewhere in the organization to carve out meaningful roles on the major league club has helped David Ross separate himself from former manager Joe Maddon, who was oftentimes unwilling to provide those chances.

Holding steady

Anthony Rizzo: The Cubs’ captain continues to do, for lack of better words, Anthony Rizzo things. The home runs haven’t been there over the last couple of weeks, but Tony is slashing .360/.414/.440 over his last 15, which will certainly cut it. If the power can come along in a more significant way, and I’d bet it will, Rizzo will be putting up his usual slash line in no time.

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David Bote‘s hold on a starting role: If I had to guess, I’d say Bote’s brief tenure as the starting second baseman is over. He has struggled mightily all season, but his struggles have intensified as of late. Over his last 15 games, Bote is batting .204/278/.286. Peripheral indicators still point to bad luck as a major culprit for struggles.

To that end, he is still among the league’s better hitters at hitting the ball hard and accumulating barrels. Below-average strikeout and whiff rates are likely contributing to his underperformance relative to expected numbers.

As long as Nico Hoerner keeps hitting .324 with stellar defense, the team won’t have much cause for complaint.

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