Well, this is more recognizable. Once again, the Cubs spent a whole series looking overmatched. All too often, if Marcus Stroman or Justin Steele isn’t on the mound looking unhittable, the Cubs look like a team that has plenty of work to be done in its rebuild.
Now even as I say that, I recognize that things can turn fast. The difference between top and bottom looks massive. But it really isn’t. That team on the other side? They are full of guys who started in high school, college for some, through the minors. There’s a reason that the worst teams often win games against the best teams.
We certainly expect the best team to beat the brains of the worst team over time. And if you had them play 100 games, they might win some ridiculous number of games. But if you have them play three? The A’s have a win over the Diamondbacks, two over the Braves, one against the Reds, two against the Rangers, and two against the Rays. They haven’t played the Twins. Every one of those teams is leading their division. The A’s have won 21 games out of 83 and have been outscored by 240 runs. And they have a collective eight wins against division leaders. That ignores a win over the Orioles, three over the Brewers, and a win over the Indians. All of those are second-place teams.
The worst team in baseball has 13 of its 21 wins against teams in first or second place. Any team can beat any other team on any given night. That is in large part due to the fact that there isn’t a massive difference in teams from top to bottom. So it certainly feels like the Cubs are a long way away. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Would another bat tip the scale? Two?
It’s tough to say for sure. There is no magic formula. And there is always the risk that by the time you find a quality third baseman, that Cody Bellinger hasn’t gone in free agency. That first base gets settled, but Yan Gomes falls off the cliff due to advancing age. Putting together a sports team can feel like trying to stop a leaky dam. You are trying to plug all of the spots at once, but more and more leaks spring while you are doing that.
Of course, that’s just putting together a playoff team. You want to win it all? My perception, which may be over simplifying things a bit, says that there are two different types of team that win the World Series. One has overwhelming talent. There are usually three or four teams in a given year that are head and shoulders better than the rest and reach the postseason relatively healthy. Certainly the Cubs championship team fell in this category. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. But a good number of the winners are in this camp.
A smaller number of teams are relatively mundane teams that play heroic baseball for a few times in the fall. These teams may in fact have some players who used to be stars and others on their way to being stars. I think of a 83-win Cardinals team, the White Sox 2005 championship team (who admittedly had one of the best postseason runs in baseball history), the ‘03 Marlins (young Miggy and Beckett).
You can try to win the second way. That’s generally the Cubs plan in my lifetime. But the postseason tsunami is unpredictable. It doesn’t hit every year. It tried to carry the Phillies last year. But then a group A team squashed them. You really want a group A team. This team has to be at least three or four really good pieces away from being an A type team.
The Cubs offense comes up empty way too often. The bullpen is thin and its closer largely hasn’t gotten even a small sample size at doing that job. This series bookended the two stories. In games one and three, the offense was inept, scoring one run in each. In the middle game, the starter allowed five and while the offense was showing at least some sign of life, it wasn’t enough.
Not good enough. It wasn’t good enough against the Angels. Or against the Marlins at the end of April. The Astros in mid-May. The Reds in late May. Only the Reds are a first place team amongst that group and they certainly weren’t at the time. Most of those teams will make the playoffs at least.
Not good enough. It’s an old refrain. It sure has a look the last three days like it wasn’t so much the Cubs coming off the mat but a Pirates team that was collapsing to its usual also-ran spot. The team from Cleveland comes in next. Like the Phillies, Cleveland has won seven of 10. Wrong time again? Let’s hope not.
Let’s find three positives from Thursday’s loss.
- Nico Hoerner: two hits, one a double
- Christopher Morel: two hits, one double - one sacrifice?!?
- Julian Merryweather: A perfect inning with one strikeout. Two thirds of the “A” relievers got work in the loss.
You’ll read about it lots elsewhere so let me mention it. The Cubs attempted two sacrifices. All across baseball, there have been 207 sacrifices in 1231 games. I’d love to say there is a correlation with bad teams and bunting since the A’s lead with 17 heading into Thursday’s game. But the next group: Diamondbacks, Marlins, Pirates, Reds, Padres and Orioles. Damn, those teams are pretty good.
I’ll use run expectancy to belabor the point. Morel bats with runners on first and third and no outs. Ignoring the quality of hitter, the run expectancy in that situation is 1.84. After his bunt moved the runner up from first to second? It was 1.4. Obviously, you have some chance of a great bunt getting the runner home from third. Low reward play.
Game 79, June 29: Phillies 3 at Cubs 1 (37-42)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Nico Hoerner (.097). 2-4, 2B, K
- Hero: Jared Young (.031) 1-4, 3B, RBI, K
- Sidekick: Julian Merryweather (.028). IP, 3 batters, K
- Billy Goat: Ian Happ (-214). 0-4, K
- Goat: Dansby Swanson (-.180). 0-4, K
- Kid: Nick Madrigal (-.176). 0-4
WPA Play of the Game: The game was tied in the third inning when Bryce Harper batted with runners on second and third with two outs. The run expectancy here is only .6 but Harper singled, producing two runs and that turned out to be the game. (.186)
*Cubs Play of the Game: Jared Young batted with a runner on first and two outs in the second, the Cubs down one. The run expectancy is even lower here at .23. But, a triple produces a run. (.129)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Yesterday’s Winner: Nick Madrigal 48-39 over Hayden Wesneski (Superhero is 54-24)
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 +20
- Ian Happ +15.5
- Adbert Alzolay/Justin Steele +12
- Matt Mervis +8
- Miles Mastrobuoni -8
- Nico Hoerner -9
- Patrick Wisdom -12
- Trey Mancini -13
- Jameson Taillon -15
Up Next: Cleveland comes to town. They are 39-41 and in a virtual tie for the AL Central. Justin Steele (8-2, 2.62, 79 IP) takes the mound for the Cubs, trying to snap a four-game losing streak. Justin has been less good over his last seven starts (3-2, 4.04, 35⅔ IP).
The Guardians start 28-year-old righty Cal Quantrill (2-4, 5.61, 59⅓ IP) gets the start. Quantrill was the eighth overall pick of the 2016 draft, by San Diego. Like Steele, Quantrill is going backwards. Over his last seven (1-3, 6.45, 37⅔ IP). Cal was a 15 game winner in 2022.