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A look at the Cubs a quarter of the way into the season

It hasn’t been a great start to the 2022 season

Chicago Cubs v Cincinnati Reds
Ian Happ has been on a tear so far this season
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Cubs are 18-26 after splitting a four game series with the Reds. They are off today before they play a quick two-game series against the White Sox on the South Side. After that they will play nine, yes nine, games in seven days against the division-leading Brewers and Cardinals. Before that barrage of critically important division games, let’s use this opportunity, almost exactly a quarter of the way through the season, to take a closer look at the Cubs so far this year.

A few notes, I’m mostly going to be looking at overall performances by the team and groups of players (for example, starting pitchers or relief pitchers). I may highlight one or two individual performances, but for the most part this post will look at the team in the aggregate. Additionally, I’m going to try and rely on rest of season projections rather than “on pace” numbers because they take a lot more into account. For purposes of this article rest of season projections are from FanGraphs unless I specify they are from a different source.

Projected Standings

With an 18-26 record the Cubs currently have a .409 winning percentage. They are currently in fourth place in the NL Central, half a game behind the Pirates and four games ahead of the Reds. They are currently 10½ games behind the division leading Milwaukee Brewers and six games behind the second place Cardinals, who the Cubs will face for the first time at the end of next week.

The silver lining for Cubs fans is that the projections show that as currently constructed they should actually improve as the season goes on. FanGraphs projects the Cubs for a 55-63 record for the rest of the season. You can see the complete NL Central projections from FanGraphs below:

NL Central projected standings as of 5.27
FanGraphs

Hitting

While the offense looked like it might be a strength for this team in the early going the Cubs as a whole have regressed to almost a precisely league average offense. They rank 16th in MLB by wRC+ with a mark of 98, meaning they are approximately two percent worse than league average at generating runs than the MLB average. So far this season as a team the Cubs are hitting .234/.313/.385 compared to league-wide marks of .238/.309/.382.

A handful of Cubs have had remarkably good starts to their offensive season. Willson Contreras and Ian Happ both currently have 1.3 fWAR and are slashing .260/.389/.480 and .275/.386/.442 respectively. Contreras and Happ are certainly capable of leading an offense, but they will need more of the team to step up at the plate for the rest of the season. It is worth noting that both Happ and Contreras are overperforming their preseason projections.

Starting pitching

Starting pitching has not been a strength of this Cubs team so far. The current combined fWAR of 1.6 for Cubs starters ranks 25th in MLB. It does not get better if you sort by ERA where the Cubs 4.86 starter ERA ranks 26th across baseball. Their 4.54 FIP ranks 25th. It is not a pretty picture.

A quick glance at individual player performances gives some insight into these struggles. The most valuable starting pitcher for the Cubs by fWAR so far in 2022 has been Justin Steele with 0.8 fWAR. Steele is 1-5 and his 3.22 FIP looks much better than his 5.40 ERA, but for this Cubs team to be more competitive as the season progresses they will need pitchers like Kyle Hendricks, Marcus Stroman and Wade Miley to take that top pitcher performance mantle for themselves at some point during 2022. Steele has done an admirable job as a fifth starter, he cannot be expected to lead the rotation.

Relief pitching

The Cubs bullpen has been nearly as valuable as their rotation by fWAR this season. While that indicates the bullpen has been performing admirably, it is a warning signal for anyone who would like to see the Cubs be more competitive in the final three-quarters of the season. The Cubs are tied for 8th most valuable bullpen in MLB with 1.4 fWAR. At 182.1 innings pitched, they have also thrown the sixth most innings in baseball, likely due to the problems I’ve already highlighted with the starting rotation.

Keegan Thompson, Scott Effross and Rowan Wick are among the top five most valuable pitchers for the Cubs in 2022 so far. Yes, that includes starters. You can see the top pitchers for the Cubs by fWAR below:

Top Cubs pitchers by fWAR

Pitcher IP K% BB% ERA FIP WAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% ERA FIP WAR
Justin Steele 35.0 25.0% 11.9% 5.40 3.22 0.8
Keegan Thompson 35.0 23.1% 7.5% 1.54 3.31 0.6
Marcus Stroman 36.1 24.2% 6.0% 4.71 3.69 0.5
Scott Effross 19.2 28.4% 3.7% 3.20 1.92 0.5
Rowan Wick 17.0 26.0% 13.0% 2.65 2.55 0.4
Selected stats through May 27 FanGraphs

Takeaways

This looked like a 70-75 win club to me at the start of the season and the Cubs are currently slightly underperforming that estimate. However, there are more than a couple of cautionary tales in this data. For starters, the players who are most likely to allow the Cubs to hit that 75th win in the remaining three-quarters of a season are also players who are likely to be dealt at the trade deadline. Willson Contreras is in the final year of his time with the Cubs, Wade Miley (who is already the sixth best Cub pitcher by fWAR in three starts) is also not signed beyond this season. We saw how quickly the front office turned one year bullpen arms into prospects last year and there is no reason to think they won’t do that again.

Additionally, the bullpen is unlikely to sustain this rate of production through an entire season. If the Cubs are going to rise to the level of FanGraphs’ ho hum 73-89 regular season projection for them they will need their starting pitching and hitting to perform better for the rest of the season.