It’s funny how baseball can teach us lessons. For instance, from 2012-2014 we learned to be patient. The new Cubs front office talked about parallel fronts and having a team that is competitive on the major league field and throughout the minor league system. Competitive in the minor league system wasn’t necessarily about wins and losses, though there have been a fair number of playoff appearances and more than a couple of championships since the new front office took over. We learned that this process was going to at least feel long and slow as the organization was basically torn down to the studs and built back up, instilling a core value system with it at every level.
In 2015, we learned that as this team moved towards being competitive that these are not your father’s Cubs. This team instead of starting strong and fading, started mediocre and got blisteringly hot right around this time. They knocked down the door to the playoffs, ambushed a 98-win Pirates team in the wildcard game and steamrolled a 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team that featured a team ERA+ of 134.
In 2016, we learned some new phrases like “screw the closer.” We also learned to watch a team steamroll a whole season with the exception of a rough stretch in June. And then we learned that even with a team that featured the highest team OPS+ at 106 and the highest ERA+ at 131, that the playoffs would be hard. The Cubs had to fight and claw and we had to hope and pray through a grueling march to the team’s first World Series championship in so long that no one is alive to remember it.
This year, we’ve learned, or at least were reminded, that championships aren’t won in June. I won’t speak for any of you, but I am around almost every day watching the comments and I know that for the most part I was one of the more optimistic people around here. Even at that, by the All-Star break I was already contemplating what trading Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis would look like. I’d seen the Diamondbacks and Rockies look like elite teams and the Brewers look like a very good team. More importantly, I’d seen this Cubs team fail to string any consistent baseball at any time. I understood the most persistent arguments on Bleed Cubbie Blue. There was no way this team was going to be able to win a series from either the Nationals or the Dodgers. Looking at finishing with at best the third best record in the league (which looked bleak) we were looking at a high probability of having to beat both of those teams to get to the World Series. Oh and a realistic chance at a return engagement with the Cleveland Indians, only healthier or the runaway train that is the Houston Astros.
Amazingly, the page turned at the All-Star game. Who knows what lies ahead? We do know that three weeks ago baseball paused for it’s annual break and showcase of some of the games biggest stars. At that time, the Cubs were two games under .500 and five and a half games out of first place. The team had just gotten pounded the day before by the Pittsburgh Pirates who had suddenly shown signs of life and was starting to get healthy and was eyeing the return of one of their best players from a season long suspension. The most recent time the Cubs had faced the Brewers they’d been crushed. Things looked bleak.
Then there was the Jose Quintana trade. Suddenly the Cubs featured one of the strongest starting rotations top to bottom in baseball. And then the Cubs came out of the All-Star break hitting the ball all over the yard. The pitchers were suddenly dominant again. The team began to click and though this is baseball and even the best teams do lose games, this team started to compete every single day. The team has run its total to winning 13 of 16 games since the break. Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg have gone to the disabled list. At least one and maybe both of them are likely to come back and could still be dominant. But you just don’t know. And now Alex Avila and Justin Wilson are on their way to Chicago to give a veteran backup behind the plate to replace departed Miguel Montero and another lefthanded arm to help anchor the bullpen.
Winning is hard and as it always is, it’s probably still a safe bet that this Cubs team won’t win the World Series. But they won’t be anyone’s pushover and on paper will go into the postseason with a better team than the one that won it last year. To be sure, a number of players are well off of the numbers they put up last year. But, the talent is there. That talent was on display over the weekend against the Milwaukee Brewers. Both teams played excellent baseball over the weekend and virtually every inning was contested with the teams tied or a one run lead for one team or the other. The Cubs came out of that weekend with two wins and now hold a two and a half game division lead. That’s an eight-game improvement in 17 days since the break.
On that happy note, let’s get to the numbers, and see what they say about the weekend’s games. As a reminder, the Heroes and Goats themselves are determined by WPA (Win Probability Added — here’s a good explanation of how WPA works) and are not in any way subjective. Many days WPA will not tell the story of what happened, but often it can give at least a glimpse to who rose to the occasion in a high leverage moment or who didn’t get the job done in that moment. Also note, for the purposes of Heroes and Goats, we ignore the results of pitchers while they are batting and hitters while they are pitching. With that, we get to the results.
Game Chart Friday, July 28th:
THE THREE HEROES:
- Superhero - Anthony Rizzo (.115). Anthony actually had a tough day on Friday, making outs in his first three at bats. But then he drew a walk to lead off the ninth inning (.115 WPA) and one out later advanced to second on a wild pitch (.053). In a 2-1 game, that was very significant in terms of WPA. Unfortunately, the Cubs couldn’t come up with a hit to tie the game and they lost the game 2-1.
- Hero - Jose Quintana (.042). Pitching has been leading the way for the Cubs in the second half and this was a pretty good outing. Jose threw six innings allowing just four hits and two runs. He did walk three but he struck out six.
- Sidekick - Hector Rondon (.026). Hector threw a perfect seventh inning with the Cubs trailing 2-0. Over Hector’s last 21 appearances (21 innings), he has a 3.43 ERA, 26 strike outs and nine walks, and has held opponents to a .642 OPS. During his 2016 season in which he was a dominant closer for most of the first four months of the season, he had an opponent OPS of .641.
THE THREE GOATS:
- Billy Goat - Jason Heyward (-.250). I always talk about timing when it comes to WPA and Heroes and Goats. There were a number of guys that were hitless on Friday when the Cubs only had five hits. Jason was one of them, but he’s here because of two at bats. He grounded into a double play in the seventh inning with the Cubs down 2-0 and a runner on first and no outs (-.118). He then grounded out in the ninth inning after Rizzo had moved to second (-101).
- Goat - Kris Bryant (-.147). Kris was also hitless in four tries. He didn’t have a big headline negative, but he flied out to end the third with runners on first and second (-.050) and grounded out to end the eighth with a runner on first (-.059).
- Kid - Kyle Schwarber (-.129). Kyle only had one at bat. He got to come in and pinch hit against Corey Knebel, the very fine closer of the Milwaukee Brewers with two outs and the tying run on third. Obviously, since Kyle is here, he didn’t come through. He struck out and the Cubs lost a close one.
Game Chart Saturday, July 29th:
THE THREE HEROES:
- Superhero - Jason Heyward (.210). A day after being a Billy Goat, Jason Heyward stepped to the plate with one out in the eleventh inning of a 1-1 game. He’d been hitless in four at bats, including two strike outs running his total to hitless in eight at bats to start the series. Jason Heyward launched one over the wall to give the Cubs the lead.
- Hero - Wade Davis (.210). Handed a 2-1 lead after the Heyward home run, Wade was looking for his 21st save in 21 attempts. He did walk a batter, but he struck out two and was successful in converting yet another save. I hated to see Jorge Soler go, but Wade Davis has been fantastic to say the least.
- Sidekick - Kris Bryant (.163). Another of Friday’s goats came up big on Saturday. Kris had three hits and a walk. The biggest contribution was an RBI single in the seventh to tie the game at 1-1.
THE THREE GOATS:
- Billy Goat - Kyle Schwarber (-.226). Ouch. Kyle was hitless in four at bats and struck out three times for his second goat performance of the weekend. Kyle’s been better since coming back from Iowa, but this was a tough weekend for him.
- Goat - Javier Baez (-.179). Not even the toughest game of the week for Javy, but hitless in five at bats and three more strike outs. He is in a really bad funk right now. But as we’ve seen before, the tides turn and I expect the next hot streak to start very soon.
- Kid - Addison Russell (-.097). When you only score two runs in eleven innings, you expect that the offense is going to have a tough day and that certainly was the case. Addison came into the game late and was hitless in two tries. Every at bat is magnified at the end of a tie ball game.
Game Chart Sunday, July 30th:
- Superhero - Victor Caratini (.151). Victor got a start at first base with Anthony Rizzo injured. This raised a lot of eyebrows, given that he had yet to play that position at the major league level and we were facing our division foe. But this was a time when the mad scientist moves of Joe Maddon paid off as Caratini launched his first major league home run in the seventh inning to break a 2-2 tie. Victor will head back to Iowa for the next month, but he’ll be back when the rosters expand.
- Hero - Kris Bryant (.150). Kris had an eventful weekend, being on the podium all three days. On Sunday, he got here with two more hits including an eighth inning solo home run to make it 4-2. He also doubled and scored in the sixth inning rally that gave the Cubs their first two runs on the day.
- Sidekick - Justin Grimm (.111). Justin threw a perfect seventh inning after the Caratini home run gave the Cubs the lead. Justin is almost certainly heading back to Iowa as well with the trade that was made last night. Justin also will be back in September unless he is needed to fill in for an injured player between now and then.
THE THREE GOATS:
- Billy Goat - Ben Zobrist (-.093). A really tough day at the plate for Ben who not only was hitless in five at bats, he struck out three times.
- Goat - Albert Almora Jr. (-.091). Albert had three at bats and was hitless in them. He did have a nice sacrifice bunt in the ninth inning as the Cubs tried to add another run to their lead.
- Kid - Jason Heyward (-.046). This is a bit of a tough one. Jason followed up his heroics on Saturday with two more hits in four at bats. The big negative was a ground out with runners on first ant third to end the sixth after the Cubs had scored their first two runs (-.040).
With that, let’s take a look at the year to date standings for Heroes and Goats. As a reminder, we award three points for Superhero, two for Hero, and one for Sidekick. And we deduct three points for Billy Goat, two for Goat and one for Kid. Here then are the standings.
Cumulative Standings (Italics indicates no longer with the organization):
- Anthony Rizzo 38
- Willson Contreras 24
- Wade Davis 16
- Kris Bryant 14
- Mike Montgomery 7
- Jon Jay 6
- Miguel Montero 6
- Kyle Schwarber 5
- Tommy La Stella 5
- Kyle Hendricks 5
- Jose Quintana 5
- Justin Grimm 4
- Felix Pena 3
- Matt Szczur 2
- Brian Duensing 2
- Eddie Butler 1
- Pedro Strop 1
- Mark Zagunis 0
- Seth Frankoff -1
- Dylan Floro -1
- Albert Almora -2
- Hector Rondon -2
- Pierce Johnson -3
- Carl Edwards -3
- Victor Caratini -4
- Brett Anderson -5
- Jeimer Candelario -5
- Ian Happ -6
- Jason Heyward -8
- Jake Arrieta -9
- Jon Lester -9
- Koji Uehara -13
- Addison Russell -16
- John Lackey -17
- Ben Zobrist -18
- Javier Baez -29
Anthony Rizzo pads his lead at the top. Kyle Schwarber takes the larges step backwards. Victor Caratini escapes the bottom 10 in the standings. Javier Baez stands at the doorway to the none too pleasant -30 club.
Tonight, the Cubs begin a week long homestand against the Diamondbacks and Nationals that should provide a significant test to the resurgent Cubs who are finally looking like defending champions. These are two teams that the Cubs could see in October, so that always adds a little bit extra. The Cubs will debut their two new players this week. It should be an interesting one. The Cubs will send Lester, Arrieta and Quintana to the mound against the Diamondbacks.
We always end with a poll. On Friday, Kyle Schwarber was overwhelmingly the choice for the Hero of Thursday night’s game. Today, we will do something we haven’t done. Let’s look at who was the Player of the Month for the Cubs for July. An honorable mention for Brian Duensing (0.00 ERA and .62 WHIP) and Pedro Strop (0.00 ERA and .75 WHIP) in 11 appearances each.
Who was the Cubs’ Player of the Month for July?
This poll is closed
Willson Contreras (.321/.400/.619)
Kyle Schwarber (.250/.400/.607)
Kris Bryant (.326/.398/.535)
Anthony Rizzo (.256/.396/.537)
Jake Arrieta (3-1, 2.25 ERA, .84 WHIP in five starts)
Jose Quintana (2-1 2.37 ERA, .89 WHIP in three Cubs starts)
Wade Davis (6 of 6 saves, 2.25 ERA in 8 appearances)