The Cubs are now fully into the 2023 season. Hooray! The early season has featured plenty of drama and excitement, especially with the first two games of the Mariners’ series earlier this week. It hasn’t all been good news as evidenced by the club’s average 6-5 record, but after a forgettable 2022 campaign, up-and-down excitement is a welcome sight in 2023.
With four series now in the books, here are four reactions to the 2023 Cubs. I’ll give my own thoughts on whether I think these are overreactions or appropriate, and I welcome you to weigh in below.
1. The Cubs’ pitching depth has been on full display, with both the starters and the bullpen producing.
This was my great hope coming into the 2023 season: the Cubs would be relevant all year because they’d have a quality, Major League-caliber pitcher on the mound at all times. So far, so good.
Marcus Stroman and Justin Steele have sizzled in their outings, and Jameson Taillon has largely been bitten by the bad luck bear given his .406 BABIP and 46.7 percent strand rate. Drew Smyly and Hayden Wesneski have each thrown a gem and a dud apiece.
With all due respect to the likes of Michael Fulmer, Keegan Thompson, and Adbert Alzolay, the bullpen lacks a true elite reliever, though Alzolay may eventually prove me wrong if he stays healthy. Nevertheless, the depth in the ‘pen is strong with the aforementioned relievers pairing with Michael Rucker, Mark Leiter Jr. and Brad Boxberger to produce strong results.
Add it all up and you have a solid pitching staff that places both its starters (11th) and relievers (seventh) in the top half of MLB among FIP. I’m confident that the Cubs will continue to pitch well in 2023.
2. David Ross committed a brutal error, showing that this is his first crack at managing a winner under normal circumstances.
Ross did manage the playoff-bound 2020 Cubs... but we all know that 2020 was far from normal. The 2021 and 2022 clubs then floundered all year, rendering 2023 his first crack at making the difference for a potentially good team. And in his first big test, he failed in a baffling way.
On April 3, with the Cubs trailing the Reds by one and with two runners on and none out, Ross took the bat out of Patrick Wisdom’s hands despite Wisdom having a 3-0 count (then 3-1). Wisdom failed, the rally fizzled, and the Cubs squandered a very winnable game.
I know that Joe Maddon loved to press the bunt button, but this was a brutal mistake by Ross.
Here’s hoping he evolves.
3. Cubs power hitters are struggling with fastballs.
This has been the most jarring early-season development in my eyes. Wisdom, Cody Bellinger, and Trey Mancini have hammered curveballs this year, and Bellinger has obliterated sliders. That’s great!
However, all three of them have struggled mightily against fastballs, posting solidly below-average numbers based on negative production against fastballs via Fangraphs’ pitch values metric.
I admit, I began looking at this because of Bellinger’s struggles with fastballs. The eye test suggests that Bellinger still produces against breaking balls, but fastballs give him trouble. The numbers back this up. Back when Bellinger was an MVP candidate in 2017-19, he produced well against heaters, compiling a pitch value/100 against fastballs of 1.15, denoting well above-average production. But since? He compiled a poor -0.60, and has followed with a dreadful -2.42 thus far in 2023. If Bellinger can’t hit fastballs, his ceiling comes down considerably.
Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic on this one.
4. Up-the-middle speed and defense has carried the position players while they await the arrival of their power.
Bellinger has hit a pair of homers, yielding a solid if unspectacular .167 isolated power. Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner, on the other hand, haven’t found their power strokes, combining for just five doubles in 96 plate appearances without a homer or triple. Their batting averages have propped up their powerless profiles, but Swanson in particular will need to find more pop to justify his deal.
Thankfully, the defense of all three up-the-middle field defenders has been a plus. While Swanson and Hoerner have each made some highlight plays, this was most noticeable on Wednesday when a ball that likely would’ve ended up in Hoerner’s glove deflected off of Nick Madrigal’s into centerfield to keep a Seattle rally alive.
Especially when adding in the contributions of the Cubs’ backstops, the up-the-middle defensive improvement has been dramatic. Gloves and arms don’t tend to go cold, so I’m expecting this defensive improvement to remain, health permitting.
What do you think? Are you having the same reactions? And do you maintain the same hope looking ahead?
Speed and defense (especially middle infield defense — Swanson’s absence was notable today