As of this writing we are less than two weeks away from the Cubs season opener against the Milwaukee Brewers. That’s right, on Friday, July 24 there is an actual chance we’ll have pitchers to breakdown, hitters to watch and more. I say there’s a chance because we still have to worry about this pesky pandemic that is surging in the Sun Belt and threatens things that are a lot more important than baseball. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 120 days looking at the implications of the pandemic so today I’m going to suspend disbelief long enough to talk about a part of baseball you all know is near and dear to my heart: statistics.
One of the most interesting aspects of the shortened season to me is how it will impact the ways we measure player performance. After all, in a 60-game season even the most active players will max out around 50-55 games. That’s about a third of a season and just this side of what I’d consider a sufficient sample size to evaluate performance. Back-up and platoon players may wind up with substantially fewer games. To illustrate this, let’s look at the Cubs performances through their first 60 games in 2019 courtesy of Fangraphs. But before we jump into it too much, take a look at how few Cubs batters wound up with “qualified” numbers over 60 games in 2019:
Only seven Cubs had enough plate appearances to be qualified for statistical comparisons through 60-games last season. It’s worth remember that some unpredictable streaks can happen over 60 games and there will not be 102 more games to quiet that noise. In other words, buckle up, and prepare for surprises.
Anyway, back to batters. There are some pretty big names not on the above list, so I re-ran the search eliminating the “qualified” standard. Here are the top 20 Cubs offensively through 60-games in 2019:
Yes, I too am amused that Daniel Descalso is in the top 20 at all, but let’s look at the top of this list rather than the bottom.
There is a reason that both Javier Báez and Willson Contreras were All-Star starters at their respective positions the last two seasons — they are both streaky players who have never seemed to have an issue getting off to a hot start. If that trend holds true in 2020, it could bode very well for this Cubs team in a season that is more of a 10K than a marathon.
It isn’t just Javy and Willson, however. There is a lot of good news offensively for the Cubs through their first 60 games in 2019. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo both had solid numbers through the first week of June. In fact, the player that will likely play everyday who struggled the most at the start of 2019 is also the player who really seemed to figure it out over the second half last season: Kyle Schwarber. If he can move himself into the top five of this group with similar numbers to his last 60 games in 2019 this Cubs team could be an offensive juggernaut. Schwarber slashed .299/.390/.652 with 16 home runs in the final 60 games of 2019.
But let’s be real, this Cubs team can hit. Run production was not the problem in 2019. Plus Ian Happ improves the offensive situation in center field, and a combination of Jason Kipnis, Nico Hoerner and David Bote at second base looks like a pretty solid upgrade from the 2019 combination of Bote, Addison Russell and Daniel Descalso.
Let’s talk about pitching.
It is easy to forget given the disastrous 2-7 start the Cubs had in 2019, but 60 games into the last season they were in first place in the NL Central with a one-game lead over the Brewers. If the season had been 60 games long last year the Cubs would have won the division and the Cardinals would have just missed on the Wild Card.
Where the Cubs struggled in 2019 was pitching, specifically the bullpen. This was true if you looked at the first 60 games or the last 60 games. I apologize in advance for the memories of blown saves this chart is likely to invoke:
This was Yu Darvish’s “way too many walks” period and before Alec Mills or Adbert Alzolay joined the team, but there are some gems we can pull from this first 60 games data. Jon Lester knows how to start a baseball season and this is not a fluke. He’s been in the All Star conversation for the last two seasons long about June, even though his numbers have come back to earth quickly. I know someone is looking at that xFIP with skepticism that the trend can hold, and it definitely stands out to me too, but if Lester can mimic his starts from the last two seasons the season might not last long enough for those numbers to come back to earth.
For this look at pitchers I want to highlight the last 60 games as well, partially to show you just how different Darvish’s two halves were, but also because the number of new names on this chart tells a story in and of itself:
The bullpen was almost completely overhauled for the second half of the Cubs 2019, including a name that does not appear in the top 20 pitchers for the Cubs last 60 games - closer Craig Kimbrel. The highest profile pitching acquisition on the team had did not find success with his new team in 2019. Here’s hoping he can channel his inner 2016.
If baseball is actually played in 2020, we should all settle in for a wild one on the North Side of Chicago. 2020 baseball is going to be more about luck and timing than anything we’ve seen before. Their 2019 numbers indicate the Cubs have the talent to put together a formidable 60-game stretch. In 13 days we’ll find out if it all comes together or falls apart.