At this point, you can almost feel the two halves of the Cubs multi-personality team dueling for control. It’s like one of those 80’s cartoons where there was the angel over one shoulder and the devil over the other. On Saturday evening in San Diego, the Cubs were a team that featured basically no offense. On Sunday afternoon in Chicago, their pitching staff stifled the Padres en route to a fourth win in six games.
I mentioned it after the Saturday game. The Cubs have won one game in the last month where they allowed more than two runs and two in the last two months. If the other team gets three, the Cubs are in a lot of trouble. But, when their pitchers do hold the other team to two or fewer, the offense is on the spot. They’ve only lost one game in the last month where they allowed two runs or less and still lost.
Of course, most of the time any team, good or bad, wins when they allow two or fewer. The striking thing is how consistent the two halves are. When the pitching is on, the hitting comes through enough to win. When the pitching is off, the hitting isn’t bailing them out by winning a high scoring team.
The thing is, Cubs starting pitchers look pretty up to the task of having that bar down there at two runs or less. They had one terrible road trip in mid-May, but otherwise they’ve been pretty good. If the bullpen would snap into line, maybe this team could win enough of these low scoring games to hang around in the playoff chase. In an inept NL Central, hanging around looks like it could be enough. The Brewers look like the only team that can sustain any high level of play and even with them, it disappears for stretches of time.
The thing is, the Cubs wins aren’t in fact all low scoring. That’s the oddity about not grabbing a few high scoring wins. They do score a fair number of runs, but their results are stratified and they seem to score in bunches. Is there some bad sequencing there? Without doing any difficult math, the Cubs are averaging right around 4.5 runs per game. Intuitively, they should jump up and win some 4-3 and 5-4 games. Maybe even sweat out a 6-5 once in a long while. This team has scored 10 or more runs eight times already this year. Basically a little over every seven games they are doing so. So they should jump up and win a high scorer eventually.
We’ve listened to the experts tell us for a long time that they can’t statistically find long term evidence of clutch. All of the players bristle around that as they will all tell you they had that one teammate who always came through in the moment. And none of them will do more than whisper about the guy who shrunk from the moment. So here’s the deal on that. Either there is some strange sequencing of results or we are accepting a narrative that Cubs hitters perform better when they are getting a strong start.
That was certainly the case on Sunday. A team that had managed four and two hits in the first two games of the series busted out with 11 hits and three homers. Even with three double plays against them, they still put seven on the board. Notwithstanding occasional terrible lineup choices, this offense is capable of scoring in bunches. These starters, particularly when Justin Steele is healthy, are capable of making life very difficult for opposing teams.
No matter how many ways I’ve sliced the numbers, I’m left with a Cubs team that should be better than its results to date. The bullpen is the clear exception to that argument. They have got to find some dependency. Even if they can’t display the kind of bullpen mastery the best teams do, they have to at least emerge with three dependable guys who can pitch the last three innings to nail down a win.
I believe that at some point this offense is going to hit their way to some wins. If the pitching staff can be the kind of strong staff that is suggested by the quality of this starting rotation, then this team can still make a run.
It isn’t how you start, it’s how you finish. So here I am, a person who only thought they’d win 75 games, and as someone who has been as frustrated as anyone in the early going, suggesting it isn’t over yet. The NL Central should have run off and left this team in the dirt while it was trying to find its identity. But no one in the division is really capable of that.
The fun thing about this Cub team is that other than Marcus Stroman, you have a hard time identifying any key player this team would reasonably trade away and take the legs out from under this team. Remember that this is a team that traded four relievers at the deadline last year and played significantly better afterward. Their relievers had been their strength, but then the rotation emerged down the stretch and when asked to cover less innings, some relievers without long pedigrees stepped up and did what needed to be done.
After Stroman, is Yan Gomes the next most productive player on an expiring contract? The kind of player that could be traded? This team is just not going to be a massive seller. Of course, someone might offer a king’s ransom for Stroman. That’s going to be tempting. But there are going to be people in the Cubs front office who thinks that it’s possible that this team could get hot and make the playoffs. This team didn’t grab Dansby Swanson to be good three years from now.
Dream a little dream. But first? First they have to survive this west coast trip. They sure are off to a good start. Let’s find three positives from this performance.
- If I’m going to write close to 1,000 words about this team following the lead of its pitching staff, then I’ve got to recognize the guy who goes out and gets the job done. Marcus Stroman won his fourth straight start. My preseason pick for best Cubs starter threw six innings allowing four hits, three walks and one unearned run. That’ll play.
- Miguel Amaya had the best day of his young career. Three hits, one of them his first major league homer and he was even hit by a pitch. Small sample size numbers are so much fun. as he crosses 20 major league plate appearances, he now has a line of .375/.450/.563 (wRC+ 176). Those numbers are absurd, particularly for a player with almost no experience at Triple-A. Fully healthy, he appears to be forcing his way into the roster conversation at the major league level. Even if you feel you must keep the offensively lost Tucker Barnhart on the team, get rid of one of the bats like Edwin Rios, who doesn’t get into games very often. At least with catchers, there is a natural opportunity to get them into the game.
- Yan Gomes’ season is no small sample size. With 126 PA, he has a line of .271/.294/.458. He’s only really had one year in his career where he had a decent walk rate. So the on base is never going to be much (this is almost exactly on his career average). 2018 was the last time he got significant playing time with a slugging percentage around the .450 mark. At 35 years old, this is a bit of a surprising development.
Game 58, June 4: Cubs 7, at Padres 1 (26-32)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Marcus Stroman (.114). 6IP, 26 batters, 4H, 3BB, 1R (0ER), 6K (6-4)
- Hero: Yan Gomes (.104). 2-4, HR, RBI, 2R
- Sidekick: Ian Happ (.092). 1-3, BB
- Billy Goat: Seiya Suzuki (-.044). 0-4, K, DP
- Goat: Patrick Wisdom (-.037). 1-4, 3K
- Kid: Mike Tauchman (.000). 0-1, K
WPA Play of the Game: With one out and a runner on second in the top of the first inning, Ian Happ singled, giving the Cubs their first run. He moved to second on an error on the play. (.103)
*Padres Play of the Game: The six highest WPA events were all in the Cubs favor. That left the Padres top moment one that came in the very first inning as well. Ryan Weathers struck out Dansby Swanson one batter in front of Happ’s RBI-single. (.042)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Miguel Amaya (3-3, HR, HBP, 2RBI, 2R)
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Yesterday’s Winner: Dansby Swanson (Superhero is 40-17)
Rizzo Award Cumulative Standings:
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 +19
- Dansby Swanson +12.5
- Justin Steele +10
- Adbert Alzolay +9
- Mark Leiter Jr. +7.5
- Michael Fulmer -8
- Nico Hoerner -9.5
- Jameson Taillon -10
- Patrick Wisdom -11
- Trey Mancini -15
Up Next: With two wins in the bank, the Cubs can do no worse than a split with the Padres. Based off of winning two of three wins in Chicago, the season series is locked. So the only question here is win the series outright or settle for a split.
Kyle Hendricks (0-1, 3.86) will make his third start for the Cubs in his return from injury. The last time was starting to look quite a bit more like vintage Kyle. Against a potent Rays team, he allowed one run on six hits and three walks over five innings. He’s not going to be able to survive with that much traffic. The good news so far is that he has kept the ball in the park. In recent years, that was increasingly a bugaboo.
The Padres feature 30-year-old lefty Blake Snell (1-6, 4.50, 56 IP). Snell hasn’t been terrible, for the most part. He did get rocked around on May 19 at home against the Red Sox. But in the two starts since, both on the road, he allowed one run over 11 innings in two no decisions. He has started against the Cubs this year and he was the losing pitcher in that one. But again, not too badly. Two runs on four hits in five innings. His problem was five walks and only throwing 58 of 105 pitches for strikes. With Sunday’s win, the Cubs are 11-6 against left-handed starters. They’ll look to make it two in two days.