The Cubs wound up their 10-game west coast road trip 4-6, which isn’t really all that successful, but frankly could have been much worse. In fact, if you just focused on their games against the National League West the four games they split with the Padres while taking two out of three from the Giants looks pretty good. Unfortunately, there was a sweep by the Angels sandwiched in the middle of those two series.
Which sets up a series with the Pittsburgh Pirates that is scheduled to begin tonight at Wrigley Field (if the weather cooperates). So today I wanted to take a look at the National League Central standings because the Cubs are about to embark on a three-game series against the most unlikely division leader. Given the trade deadline rumors already swirling, this series seems weirdly crucial for mid-June.
The Pirates have gotten off to a hot start this season with a 34-30 record and a slim one game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers. While FanGraphs still projects that the Brewers have the best chance at winning the division, Pittsburgh’s stock is certainly rising:
The Pirates are a league average offense with a wRC+ of exactly 100 as a team. They are exactly middle of the road in the NL Central, tied for seventh among offenses with the Philadelphia Phillies. Their offense is fueled by speed, not power. They only have 60 home runs as a team this season — only ahead of Colorado, Cincinatti and Washington. However, with 70 stolen bases this season they are the most likely team to steal a bag in the National League. You can see each team in the N.L. sorted by wRC+ below:
National League Teams by wRC+
The Pirates’ running game could be a problem for the Cubs. Neither Yan Gomes nor Tucker Barnhart grades out particularly well by the Caught Stealing Above Average metric that Statcast released this season to combine catcher pop-time, accuracy, arm-strength and components like teamwork. By that metric, Gomes is the 30th best catcher in the league with zero CSAA this season, Barnhart is 36th with -1. However, at a more basic level, neither of them is particularly quick with their pop times. Gomes is at 2.01 for the season and Barnhart is at 1.98. For comparison’s sake, J.T. Realmuto leads all catchers in pop time at 1.81 seconds. Miguel Amaya does not yet have enough stolen base attempts on him to qualify for the CSAA leaderboard, and the two stolen bases attempted against him this season probably aren’t enough to accurately judge his pop time — but it is 1.97 according to Statcast.
As you can see from the above table, the Pirates are slashing .249/.327/.405 as a team. Their walk rate is identical to the Cubs 9.8 percent, but they strike out slightly less with a 22 percent K rate.
Jack Suwinski has been their most potent offensive hitter this year with a wRC+ of 134 and a .244/.354/.517 slashline while hitting 13 home runs and stealing six bases. Outfielders Connor Joe, Andrew McCutchen and Bryan Reynolds round out the biggest offensive threats for the Pirates this season.
The Cubs have actually gotten much better starting pitching than the Pirates this season. The Pirates starters strike out more batters with a 8.48 K/9 for their starting pitchers this season compared to the Cubs’ 7.58 K/9. However, they also walk more batters with a 3.44 BB/9 compared to the Cubs’ 2.69 BB/9. The results are predictable, the Cubs have the second best team-ERA among starters in the NL at 3.87 while the Pirates starters have put up a more middling 4.28.
However, you probably already guessed where this movie was going, because the Cubs pitching woes have all come out of the bullpen, and it’s here that Pittsburgh gets an edge on the Cubs. Below you can see all of the teams in the NL Central sorted by reliever ERA:
NL Teams by Reliever ERA
There is no way to sugarcoat this. The Cubs have the third worst reliever ERA in the National League at 4.73. While they may have gotten a little unlucky with a FIP of 4.16 and an xFIP of 4.17 that isn’t that much of an improvement over the status quo.
Normally, I’d pull stats like wins and losses off of a reliever leaderboard, because I think pitcher wins and losses are pretty random. However, in aggregate it is telling that the Cubs bullpen has the worst record in the National League at 6-17. They have the fewest saves in the National League, at nine. Right now, the biggest gap for the Cubs in terms of actual wins and losses appears to be how late the game gets to the bullpen — if the Cubs can cover a couple of innings with Mark Leiter Jr. and Adbert Alzolay, they have a shot. If anyone else needs to throw high-leverage innings it is an adventure. This will have to change if the Cubs are going to compete in the division this year.
The Cubs will need to bring their best baseball to this series against the Pirates. The good news is that despite the early bullpen woes and the offenses’ inconsistency this season, the Cubs are still only 6½ games out of the division lead and 5½ games out of a wild card spot. Neither of those is insurmountable, and this Cubs team has the ability to go on a run that could make selling off at the trade deadline a much more difficult decision for Jed Hoyer — however, they are going to need to start by winning a series against the division-leading Pirates.