The Cubs Thursday completed their 81st game, exactly halfway through the 2019 season. (Where does the time go?)
So let’s examine where they stand as they begin a nine-game road trip that will complete the unofficial “first half” that ends with the All-Star break. I’ll issue my usual team grade report at that time.
The Cubs are 44-37 and lead the N.L. Central by one game. This team seemed more talented than that coming out of spring training, but got off to a horrific 3-8 start before going on a 34-19 run that had them at 37-27. But since then they’re just 7-10 — and yet, the team’s divisional lead has increased by one game over that 17-game span.
If they match the 44-37 mark in the second half they’ll win 88 games. You know, that just might be enough to win the N.L. Central. None of the teams in the division is setting baseball on fire this year — all have flaws, including the Cubs. But the Cubs have had first halves like this in other seasons since returning to contention in 2015 and still had a better second half. Yes, in all four years:
2015: 44-37. Second half: 53-28
2016: 51-30. Second half: 52-28
2017: 40-41. Second half: 52-29
2018: 46-35. Second half: 49-33
(Note: one game in 2016 ended in a tie and the 2018 second half included the divisional tiebreaker game.)
Under Joe Maddon, the Cubs have a history of finishing the season strong. Even in 2018, when they struggled offensively at times and had to play 40 games in 42 days ending the regular season due to rainouts, they did nearly as well as they had the previous three seasons. They’re averaging 51½ wins over the last 81 games of each season since 2015. If they can do that again, the 2019 Cubs will wind up winning somewhere around 95 games, which should be enough to win the N.L. Central.
Having said that, this team clearly has flaws that need to be addressed by the front office. One of those needs joined the team Thursday in the person of Craig Kimbrel. Theo Epstein and his staff have not hesitated to make significant additions to the ballclub in all four of those years and I am certain they will do so again in 2019.
The Cubs have scored 411 runs, so they are on pace to score 822. That would be the most runs by a Cubs team since 2008 (855) and 61 more than last year. It would also be the second-most runs scored by any Cubs team since 1930.
The current run differential is +63, a pace for +126. In the last 50 seasons, Cubs teams have done this four times: 1970 (+127), 2008 (+184), 2016 (+252) and 2017 (+127).
The Cubs have hit 126 home runs, a pace for 252, which would break the franchise record (235, set in 2004). They’re a little bit short of a pace to break the team record for walks, which is 656, set in 2016. They have walked 313 times in the first half, a pace for 626.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Cubs have stolen 24 bases this year. If they match that in the second half, the 48 steals would be the fewest by any Cubs team since 1971, when that team stole just 44, led by Don Kessinger with 15. Javier Baez and Jason Heyward lead this year’s team with five. This is one area management might address through trades.
Baez (19), Anthony Rizzo (19), Willson Contreras (17), Kyle Schwarber (17) and Kris Bryant (16) are all on pace to hit 30 or more home runs. The team record for most 30-homer players is four, set in 2004, when Moises Alou (39), Aramis Ramirez (36), Sammy Sosa (35) and Derrek Lee (32) did it. That’s the only year any Cubs team has had more than two 30-homer men, and Baez, Rizzo, Contreras and Schwarber are also on pace to set personal bests in home runs.
With 61 runs scored, Bryant ranks tied for fourth in the National League, and would also set a personal high if he matched that in the last 81 games. His personal high is 121, set in 2016. Rizzo has 52 runs, a pace for 104. His personal best is 99, set in 2017.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any pitching paces. Despite the fact that the Cubs’ 348 runs allowed are third-best in the National League, no individual pitcher has really done anything notable. Yu Darvish has 105 strikeouts and thus is on pace for 210. That would be his most since 2013 and he’d be the first Cubs pitcher to strike out 200 or more since Jake Arrieta (236) and Jon Lester (203) did it in 2015. Hopefully, Darvish will do that and also have better overall results in the second half.
Cole Hamels has thrown 98⅔ innings and is just short of a pace for 200. The last Cubs pitcher to throw 200 innings was Lester (202⅔) in 2016.
As a team, the Cubs have just 19 saves, which ranks tied for 16th in MLB. If they match that in the second half — and with Kimbrel on board, they should do better — the 38 saves would be the fewest since... 2016, when they also had 38 saves. (One more reason the save stat is overrated.)
For all the tough times the 2019 Cubs have seen in the first half of the season, they still seem well-positioned to win the N.L. Central. And even if they barely sneak into the postseason with around 90 wins, plenty of teams like that have gone on to defeat teams who were better in the regular season when the October tournament begins.
Fasten your seat belts. It should be a great second half.