The Cubs have opened 2023 at 9-6. That’s not shabby. They finished last season with a stretch of 32-25. We don’t often look across seasons for very good reasons. But that’s now 41-31 over a 72-game stretch. I realize there are flaws there because there are data from two different sample sets included in those numbers. But one would have to be pretty disagreeable to suggest that the current team isn’t better relative to the league than the old one was. The point here is that maybe, just maybe, this organization turned a corner last August.
I was telling you during that hot stretch last August and September to enjoy that the organizational needle appeared to be turning upwards. And I was also telling you that progress isn’t always linear and that none of it would guarantee anything. That’s often what I do in this space. I suggest that we not get ahead of ourselves. Doing so can often lead to frustration. Certainly, as with every baseball season, there will be frustration ahead.
But, on this chilly morning in central Florida, I’m sitting here and I’m going to tell you to enjoy this. Did a win over the A’s convince me to feel that way? Of course not. That team is putrid. As with the embarrassment that was last year’s Reds team, I’ll suggest that no one draw conclusions in April. The A’s could end up historically bad. Or they could figure a few things out and bounce at least a little towards respectability. People forget that even the bad teams sort out their roster and figure out the things that give them at least a better chance to win.
I’m certainly glad that the Cubs drew the A’s while they are at their absolute worst. Just as I’m pretty happy we booked two of three from a Mariners team that might be good, before it got there. Ditto for two out of three from a Dodgers team that was formidable before it will likely be a juggernaut in the second half of the season.
There are always going to be good breaks and bad. Hot streak and cold along the way. This team is getting some good breaks, at least with the scheduling. They are running through a hot stretch, going 8-3 over their last 11. These are fun times. We just talked about the fact that there are already three games so far this year that the Cubs maybe could have won but didn’t. On a team that is 9-6, that means this team is a couple of breaks away from having a really elite start. No one that I saw was suggesting that this team might win 90+ games and be a legitimate contender. Are they there? I’m skeptical.
I’m also not ruling it out. This team is figuring some things out. Those losses in close games are part of a team trying to find its way. How to grind its way through the tough times. Certainly, it was trying to grind through not having two players who I think will be core contributors on this team in Seiya Suzuki and Brandon Hughes. That is an important one. Finding ways to win close games is one organizational challenge.
Another is learning to play through injuries. Certainly one of the things that has me most skeptical is organizational depth. Is there enough to cope with the series of injuries every team goes through? I just don’t know. I’ll keep using the word skeptical. I’m skeptical that the team is strong enough to win consistently while short handed. I think in most instances the drop off to the next man up is fairly steep and I’m just not sure if this team is good enough to have the margin of error to overcome that. But that drop off is closing. This organization does have another wave of talent on the way.
So what of Monday night’s 10-1 win? I did catch a bit of it as I was drifting off to sleep. When the Cubs quickly went down in order to start the game and then Hayden Wesneski allowed a pair of singles, my brain immediately wondered if this team was going to have a letdown after a hard-fought weekend against one of the best teams in baseball. Hayden escaped that inning with only one run allowed. Patrick Wisdom went deep for the fourth straight game in the second inning and the deficit was erased.
But then came a pair of one-out singles against Wesneski. I began to wonder if the Cubs were going to have to start thinking about how secure his rotation spot was. But he wiggled out of that trouble. The Cubs added a run in the third. Wesneski had a perfect third. The Cubs blew it open with a four-run fourth. Wesneski had a perfect fourth. A perfect fifth. A perfect sixth. He allowed a single in the seventh. For those not keeping track at home, Wesneski didn’t walk anyone and he retired 17 of the last 18 batters he faced. He allowed five hits over seven innings — all singles.
Wesneski took care of business. So did the offense. They did what you hope for against an inferior opponent. They just kept putting together good at bats. 20 hits. 10 runs. Mercifully, the Cubs stopped at only three stolen bases. If you haven’t been watching, the team is third in MLB in steals. Nico Hoerner is the individual leader with his ninth steal of the season last night. The Cubs have played one fewer game than the two teams ahead of them in steals and two fewer games than the four teams behind them.
Of course, it’s not just steals. This team is hitting .289 as a team. That lands second in baseball. If you prefer on base percentage, at .347 they are fifth. The team hasn’t hit for a lot of power, right? .446 slug is good for sixth. Runs are a cumulative stat. The Cubs are hurt by having played between one and two games less than every team ahead of them, but the Cubs are ninth at 83. The Brewers and Astros are one and three runs ahead respectively but each have two more games played. This Cubs team has had a top five offense, give or take, through the first 15 games of the season.
And lest we only look at one side, the pitching staff has the sixth best ERA at 3.41. If you prefer WHIP, the team is at 1.19. Good for fifth. Opponent batting average? .223. Good for fifth. Strikeouts, they are way down at 11th. But again, every team ahead of them has played one or two more games. The two teams immediately in front of them have played two more games. So right at the edge of top five pitching as well.
Teams that are around the top of the heap in both hitting and pitching are elite teams. So I’ll circle back around. I’m skeptical that all of this is going to last as the marathon takes its effect. But using the marathon analogy, the season is just a couple of “miles” old. There is an attack group that has broken out in a pack setting a strong pace. Some of the favorites like the Dodgers are just settling into a comfortable pace and waiting for the rabbits to run out of gas. Some of the typical favorites like the Cardinals stumbled out of the gate and are trying to get back in the hunt.
The Cubs are in that attack group. Will they be able to keep up their early pace? It’s way too soon to know. But it sure is fun seeing them emerging towards the front. Certainly, for those of you sweating that they maybe let three games get away, are right. The statistics this team has through 15 games suggest a team that is even better than 9-6. So where am I settling? I’m going to be hopeful that everything will balance. The team has played well enough to have 10, 11 or 12 wins but only has 9. They have underachieved! But they probably aren’t as good as their stats. So maybe they figure out how to win a few more of those that have gotten away and that balances things out as the stats calm down a little.
A 9-6 start projects to a 97-win pace. Maybe they can sustain close to 90 wins? I wouldn’t have guessed that. I mean, there is a lot to get through and this is all getting way ahead of ourselves. But as someone who thought maybe 75ish wins, I’m starting to wonder if I’m late to the bandwagon.
Three positives from Monday’s win? When I went to this format, I was just trying to stay positive through lean times. Now, just limiting myself to three is getting hard.
- I lean towards a strong pitching performance every time. I’m aware of the competition and I’m aware that when the final score says 10, it looks like it was an easy situation to pitch in. Hayden’s at least as aware, if not more so, as we are about his rough start. Do you think the collar wasn’t starting to squeeze on him last night. He started righting the ship last night before the tidal wave of offense arrived. Hayden Wesneski gets my top spot.
- I probably would have gone with Patrick Wisdom even without the late three-run homer. That second-inning solo shot took some pressure off of Wesneski. In a rout, it doesn’t look huge, but it was a pick me up at the right time. With five homers over his last four games, Wisdom is on a blistering pace. I could absolutely justify him for the top spot.
- No chance I’m passing on Cody Bellinger posting a five-hit game from the seventh spot in the order. When he’s down there, you know it means there was a lefthanded starter. Cody is here in Chicago, at least in part, because he didn’t want to be relegated to a platoon role at this stage in his career. He’s trying to rebuild value and land the kind of contract that a guy with an MVP on his record commands. It’s only a 19 plate appearance sample, but Cody is sporting a .786 OPS against lefties. With a .928 OPS over 46 PA against righties, and elite defense in center, he’s off to a great start at rebuilding that value.
So many other guys who could merit an honorable mention. Great team effort. Let’s move to the Heroes and Goats.
Game 15, April 17: Cubs 10, at A’s 1 (9-6)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Hayden Wesneski (.110). 7IP, 26 batters, 5H, R, 7K (W 1-0)
- Hero: Patrick Wisdom (.103). 3-5, 2HR, 4RBI, 2R, 2K
- Sidekick: Seiya Suzuki (.096). 3-5, RBI, R, 2K
- Billy Goat: Trey Mancini (-.070). 0-5, 3K
- Goat/Kid: (Tie) Julian Merryweather/Edwin Rios (.000). Merryweather: IP, 4 batters, H, K; Rios: 0-1
WPA Play of the Game: With two outs and runners on the corners in the third inning, the score was 1-1. Seiya Suzuki delivered a single to give the Cubs a lead they’d never relinquish.
*A’s Play of the Game: Ryan Noda batted with a runner on first and no outs in the bottom of the fist. He singled, advancing the runner to third and setting up the A’s only run. (.096)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Cody Bellinger (5-5, 2B, R)
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Yesterday’s Winner: Patrick Wisdom (Superhero is 10-4)
Rizzo Award Cumulative Standings: (Top 5/Bottom 5)
The award is named for Anthony Rizzo, who finished first in this category three of the first four years it was in existence and four times overall. He also recorded the highest season total ever at +65.5. The point scale is three points for a Superhero down to negative three points for a Billy Goat.
- Marcus Stroman/Justin Steele +8
- Keegan Thompson +7
- Patrick Wisdom +5.5
- Ian Happ +5
- Cody Bellinger -4
- Julian Merryweather -4.5
- Michael Fulmer -5
- Trey Mancini -7
- Yan Gomes -8
Up Next: Game two of the three-game set. The Cubs will go for their fourth straight series win. Marcus Stroman (2-1, 1.00, 18 IP) has been nothing short of brilliant across his first three starts. For the third straight day, the Cubs will face a left-handed starter. Ken Waldichuk (0-2, 10.20, 15 IP) will go for the A’s. Ken actually took a bit of a step forward in his last start, limiting the Orioles to three runs over 6⅓ innings in Baltimore. The A’s lefty has made 10 appearances in the majors, all starts. He was a fifth-round pick of the Yankees in 2019 and he’s 25 years old. He was actually decent as a September callup for the A’s last year. He’s had a bit of trouble with the long ball so far in 2023, allowing seven homers in his 15 innings of work.