April was a great month to be a Chicago Cubs fan. The club railroaded the Angels to start the season and they simply haven't looked back, even in the fact of Kyle Schwarber's devastating, season-ending knee injury suffered during the season's opening week.
While one month of baseball hardly provides for the most reliable sample size for player statistics, it does represent approximately 15 percent of the season. At this point, struggling players have their work cut out for them in order to rebuild their season lines whereas players riding a wave of success have a much better chance of producing results that exceed their career averages thanks to hot streak.
As successful as the Cubs have been, not all negative statistics are created equal. So which player statistics are genuinely alarming and which statistics are simply small-sample mirages?
1. Jorge Soler's .220 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP)
Soler scuffled through a miserable April in which he struggled to get on base (.294 OBP), hit for middling power (.123 ISO), and continued to play among the worst outfield defense in all of baseball. Soler also saw a sizable drop in his hard-hit rate compared to his career thus far.
However, a good bit of this is a mirage as Soler has been crippled by a dreadful .220 BABIP. He actually has, just barely, a career-low soft-hit rate, and although his line drive rate is below his career average, at 20.9%, he is hitting plenty of line drives to maintain a BABIP of roughly .300. BABIP improvement would, at the very least, drastically improve his on-base percentage.
2. Addison Russell's .236 BABIP
Whereas Soler is due for some slight improvement, Russell's batting line is positively baffling. In April 2016, Russell made soft contact less frequently than Kris Bryant while simultaneously hitting for a higher rate of line drives than Bryant did last year in his spectacular rookie season. Russell's hard-hit and groundball rates are both up this year, suggesting that his BABIP should climb in a big way over time.
In addition to the brutal and unfair BABIP, Russell hit at least three balls last week that easily reach the seats during most of the season...but not in late April at Wrigley Field. Expect to see a power explosion from Russell this summer.
3. John Lackey's 4.97 ERA
A 4.97 ERA isn't spectacularly bad by any stretch, but it's hardly what the Cubs were expecting from Lackey when they forfeited a top draft pick to sign him to handle the third spot in the club's starting rotation. Never fear. ERA estimators FIP (3.19) and xFIP (2.91) are both highly impressed with Lackey's work thus far. His 63.4% strand rate is the primary culprit in his inflated ERA, and given his career rate of 72.7%, there's only one reason to fear about his current rate: in 2010 and 2011, Lackey posted back-to-back strand rates south of 70% during his first two years with the Red Sox.
However, Lackey also struggled mightily with strikeouts and walks during those years. Neither true outcome has been a problem for him this year as his walk rate is right in line with his career norms and his strikeout rate would be his best figure in a decade. Lackey appears well on his way to dropping his ERA into the mid-3s and delivering on the expectation the club had for him entering the season.
1. Jason Heyward's Isolated Power of .047
Heyward's best attributes are his outfield defense, baserunning prowess, and on-base skills. That said, he has a career ISO of .160, an average rate, and he is expected is at least equal that rate as he plays his age-26 season in power-friendly Wrigley Field. News of his wrist injury explains some of his struggles.
Heyward does have a career-best line drive rate, but this is largely offset by the fact that his hard-hit rate is a putrid 16.7% compared to his career rate of 30.7%. Heyward has traded much of his hard contact for that of the soft or medium variety. That's not a recipe for power.
2. Jon Lester's HR/9 of 1.05
It may be surprising to see Lester on this list, but hear me out. There are two particular reasons that he shows up on here. First, the two worst seasons of Lester's post-cancer career came in 2007 and 2012. Those just so happen to be the only years of Lester's career in which he surrendered more than 1.00 HR/9. Given that Lester has allowed these home runs in the power-suppressing month of April, he doesn't figure to have great odds to bring this rate down in the coming months. Lester has primarily succeeding thanks to a ludicrous 94.7% strand rate -- his career average is 74.8% -- and his 28.6% line drive rate is well in excess of his 19.8% career average.
Lester has limited walks nicely and he is inducing lots of soft contact in spite of all the line drives. Nevertheless, there are some truly alarming signals in his rate stats.
3. Miguel Montero's 28.1% K%...and his 12.1% LD%...and his 6.7% HR/FB
Obviously Montero finds himself on the Disabled List, so it seems cruel to kick him while he's down after just 57 plate appearances. However, the numbers back up what the eyes say: Montero looks lost at the plate. All three of the numbers cited above are career worsts by wide margins. Montero has been a replacement-level offensive player buoyed almost entirely by a superb walk rate north of 14%. However, he needs to hit the ball with more authority to stave off challenges for playing time from retiring David Ross and emerging prospect Willson Contreras.
Going for Montero: Baseball Prospectus has calculated his framing value thus far in 2016 as 2.80 framing runs per 1,000 chances which compares well to his rate of 2.87 runs per 1,000 chances last year.
While these aren't the only story lines worth following for the Cubs right now, all six players will likely end up with significantly different totals in each of the above categories by the end of the season. I, for one, will enjoy following each of them.
What stands out as particularly concerning to you? Or what just doesn't seem like a big deal?