Apparently it’s Thanksgiving week, a time that would normally be characterized by a bit of a frenzy at work while we all juggle our commitments so everything is wrapped up enough to enjoy a four-day weekend to give thanks with family, friends and football. However, this is 2020, so even that ritual is complicated by a surging pandemic and desperate pleas from healthcare workers that we all stay home (again and/or still) in the hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19. In an effort to keep my mind off the fact that pretty much everything I’m thankful for in a given year has been cancelled indefinitely, I decided to take a look back at one of the very few things that was not cancelled entirely: the Cubs baseball season.
I thought about making this subjective, but I sort of already did that in this piece looking at specific highlights and stories. So today will be strictly by the numbers as I bring you the five Cubs fWAR indicates we should be most thankful for in 2020.
Yu Darvish was one exceptional start away from a Cy Young award in 2020, and even without that last start he put up one of the best pitching performances of the abbreviated season. He was worth 3.0 fWAR to the Cubs over 76 innings pitched. What really jumps out in Darvish’s peripherals is his BB/9 of 1.66. The bottom line is that Darvish just doesn’t walk guys anymore, and the best part of all of this is that it doesn’t appear to be a small sample size anomaly - it dates back to the second half of 2019.
Darvish has a career BB/9 of 3.18, with a couple of spikes over 4 in his rookie season and his 2018 debut with the Cubs. In 2019 he lowered that number to 2.82, but that number is misleading because it wasn’t consistent throughout 2019. Darvish’s first half walk rate in 2019 was 4.55 and then he lowered it in the second half to 0.77 (that is not a typo). Darvish has a stunning array of pitches and if he continues to control them the way he has since July 2019 he should find himself in the Cy Young conversation in 2021 again.
All he does is get guys out and he continued to do that in 2020. Kyle Hendricks started the season with a masterful complete game shutout and then just kept quietly getting guys out all season long. Speaking of guys who don’t walk anyone, Hendricks’ BB/9 was a career low 0.89 in 2020 — the best of any qualified starter in MLB. While he’s never going to have the flashy K rates that Darvish, Craig Kimbrel, or even Rowan Wick put up, Hendricks’ ability to limit mistakes is elite and was good for 1.9 fWAR in 2020.
Remember when Ian Happ had to hang out at Triple-A for what seemed like forever in 2019? Well, whatever they worked on definitely paid off because Happ went from an offensive liability who was striking out 36.1 percent of the time to the most valuable position player on the Cubs in 2020.
If I told you at the start of the season that Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez wouldn’t be in the Cubs top five players by fWAR but the Cubs would win the division, well, you would have laughed at me. I would have laughed at me too, but that is exactly what happened, and Ian Happ is one of the big reasons why. His season wRC+ of 131 kept the Cubs atop the division even as their stars struggled — oh, and he’s still only 26.
The fifth year of Jason Heyward’s eight-year contract with the Cubs was far and away his best offensive performance with the North Siders. He put up a 130 wRC+ for the first time since his rookie campaign in 2010 and his soft contact rate dropped to 14.3 percent, which is his career low for any season.
Oh, and he did all of this while remaining an elite defender in right field. With Mookie Betts in the NL now it might be more difficult for Heyward to add to his collection of gold gloves, but he was once again nominated for the defensive honor. There are three years left on Heyward’s contract and if his 2020 performance is sustainable they will be the best years of his deal.
The Cubs starting catcher didn’t quite put up the power numbers he hinted were just below the surface all season, but his 1.6 fWAR was still good for fifth most on the team. Contreras’ wRC+ of 109 was actually a tad below his 116 career average. In fact, what’s most interesting about Contreras’ 2020 fWAR is that it’s built more on defense than offense for the first time in his career.
We’ve all known Contreras can hit for a few seasons now, the question was whether he’d be able to control the strike zone enough to improve his framing numbers which he’s struggled with since becoming the Cubs starting catcher in 2017. Admittedly, 60 games is a small sample size, but if it’s accurate it indicates Willson improved on that area of his game substantially that had eluded him in his first few seasons. Considering he catches the majority of innings for pitchers like Hendricks and Alec Mills who make their living on pinpoint location, that improvement could pay huge dividends for the Cubs going forward.