Well, at least that headline is where I started off with this article. It has been much publicized that the Cubs have had a hugely inconsistent offense. It has been capable of scoring 10 runs on any given day and sometimes for several days in a row. But then it has also been capable of being shut out and held to only a few runs at a time for days at a time.
There has been eye-rolling about losing to spot starters and back of the rotation guys. There have been questions about beating the other team’s best pitcher. So I wondered, is there any kind of pattern at all to the Cubs scoring?
So I set out to look at it game-by-game and to put the Cubs performance into buckets. I imagine some of you will not love my methodology. I like things to be black and white. I did not want to spend hours debating who was the ace of a staff and how the pitchers stack up. I considered looking through pages and pages of data looking for who were the high leverage relievers for a team, the medium leverage, etc.
What I decided on was this. I looked at four groupings for starting pitcher. No. 1: The guy baseball-reference.com lists first for a team, almost always the guy with the most innings pitched for the year. No. 2/No. 3: The next two guys on the list. For most teams, these are the workhorse guys who have stayed healthy for the year. No. 4/No. 5: By the time we get here, a lot of teams have a number of guys who either got hurt, gained a job or lost one. Other: These are generally spot-starter types, guys who haven’t made enough starts to be considered a regular starter for the team.
For relievers, I decided to just look at them by portion of the game they pitched in. Innings 1-3: This is a guy who came in to stop the bleeding. This is usually going to be a long reliever, but not always. Innings 4-6: You are starting to see the early set-up men on good teams here, but still these guys are generally bridge guys and not the core relievers that teams count on. Innings 7-8: These innings are going to be thrown largely by set-up men. Guys who are either trying to hand a lead to the bullpen or hold the line so the team can make one last comeback attempt. Inning 9: Usually the closer. And extra innings. This is a hodgepodge of guys. Maybe a guy who can get some length, occasionally a closer who wasn’t used earlier, and sometimes any warm body able to throw an inning or two.
For relievers, in almost every instance, I based the “type” of reliever based on what inning a guy entered the game. If a pitcher entered the game in the third inning and threw five innings, I’d count it as a 1-3 pitcher. The one exception to this rule was when a team clearly brought in its closer for a save in the eighth inning. I lumped all of those type of stats into the ninth inning grouping so that most of the ninth inning data is for closers.
Here are the results:
- vs. No. 1 Starters - 56 runs in 113⅔ innings (4.43 runs scored average)
- vs. No. 2/No. 3 Starters - 91 runs in 188 innings (4.36 runs scored average)
- vs. No. 4/No. 5 Starters - 56 runs in 122 innings (3.11 runs scored average)
- vs. Spot Starters - 50 runs in 79⅔ innings (5.65 runs scored average)
- vs. Relievers first through third - 4 runs in 7⅔ innings (4.70 runs scored average)
- vs. Reliever fourth through sixth - 76 runs in 84⅔ innings (8.08 runs scored average)
- vs. Reliever seventh/eighth - 91 runs in 151⅔ innings (5.40 runs scored average)
- vs. Reliever ninth - 32 runs in 64⅓ innings (4.48 runs scored average)
- vs. Reliever extras - 15 runs in 28⅔ innings (4.71 runs scored average)
Conclusions: The Cubs average 5.12 runs per nine innings. In virtually every situation, they average fewer runs per game than that. The Cubs have been very effective against spot starters. They have also been very effective against seventh- and eighth-inning relievers. This is part of the reason the Cubs have so many come-from-behind victories. Coupled with a generally high-performing Cubs bullpen, this has allowed the Cubs to come from behind time and again. The Cubs have flat-out destroyed the pitchers that are brought in during the fourth through the sixth innings. Depth starters and relievers have gotten annihilated by the Cubs.
This is not an unusual phenomenon. I’m certain if I looked around at other teams, I’d find similar patterns. The one quirk here that I haven’t mentioned is in the fourth/fifth starter line. That 3.11 runs allowed mark is the biggest oddity in the data. So what of that number? Let’s look at some of the performances in there:
- Zach Davies on 4/7, six innings, one run
- Anibal Sanchez on 4/12, six innings, no runs
- Junior Guerra on 4/28, six innings, one run (Cubs win)
- Zach Davies on 4/29, 5⅔ innings, two runs (Cubs win)
- Jon Gray on 5/1, seven innings, one run
- Michael Wacha on 5/6, 5⅓ innings, two runs
- Brandon McCarthy on 5/16, six innings, one run
- Chad Kuhl on 5/28, six innings, one run (Cubs win)
- Joe Musgrove on 5/30, seven innings, one run
- Zach Eflin on 6/5, 7⅔ innings, one run
- Junior Guerra on 6/11, six innings, one run (Cubs win)
- Jack Flaherty on 6/17, five innings, no runs
- Matt Harvey on 6/21, six innings, two runs
- Clayton Kershaw on 6/28, five innings, one run (Cubs win)
We see on this list some guys who when healthy don’t belong on this list (Davies and Kershaw, at least), some guys who used to be better but still capable of some gems (Sanchez, Wacha and McCarthy), and some guys on the rise (Kuhl and Eflin). If we ignore the Kershaw start, the last strong start by one of these back of the rotation guys against the Cubs was June 21, or almost a month ago. The Cubs were 13-8 after that game to close out the first half. They scored 24 runs in the eight losses (three runs per game) and 104 in the 13 wins (eight runs per game). So the ups and downs are still there, but the results are fantastic.
There are some “rules,” then, for defeating the Cubs:
1) Do not throw your second tier pitchers against them. That almost certainly won’t work. Yes, occasionally they struggle with a guy who they’ve never seen before. But in general, you are going to have to hope if you are going to break in a new starter against them that he’s going to be able to go six innings. Because even if they don’t get to him, they are likely going to beat up on the reliever or relievers that follow him into the game.
2) Be ready to have a quick hook on all of your relievers. Looking at the numbers, once the Cubs start figuring out a reliever, they generally score in bunches.
3) if you have your choice of pitchers, that crafty older pitcher who still puts together a solid outing from time to time is probably a better bet than the flame throwing rookie who sometimes loses the strike zone.
What might this portend for the playoffs? My first thought is, starters do better against the Cubs than relievers. Starters in general are better on playoff teams. So that doesn’t sound great. But wait, in the modern era, teams tend to go their bullpen earlier and more aggressively in playoff games. The Cubs have crushed relievers. Sure, the bullpens will be more talented, but I’m not going to count the Cubs out of just about any game until the very end. Even end of game relievers haven’t owned the Cubs.