After a disappointing afternoon Friday, there were two really good things that happened in Saturday’s game. One was Cubs ace Justin Steele on the mound and the other the bat of Cody Bellinger. Both keyed a calming win on Saturday, even if it got a little dicey towards the end. Steele and Bellinger should each find themselves at least on the deeper list of finalists for hardware in the National League. It’s unlikely either will land the gold, but if the Cubs were to press forward and win the NL Central, there will be some among the media that get swept into that story and look to credit one or more of the Cubs stars for their efforts.
Justin Steele continues to shine as the Cubs’ ace. On Saturday, he threw another six innings. Six hits, no walks was just what the doctor ordered, though he did hit a batter and threw a wild pitch. He had seven strikeouts and allowed only two runs. The Cubs have an interesting quandy with Justin. He has blown past his career high in innings now. Last year he threw 119 innings and with six more on Saturday he’s at 132. There are certainly theories around baseball around not making significant increases year over year in workload. In 2021, Steele threw 84⅓ innings across two levels. Then he made a significant jump from 2021 to 2022. For that matter, he didn’t pitch in 2020.
The thing with Justin is that he’s been so consistently good. This was his 23rd start of the year. His last two starts in May were starts where he threw less than four innings. Every other start besides those two was at least five innings. Counting Saturday, he’s thrown six innings on 13 occasions. He’s had two starts in which he’s recorded one out in the seventh. Twice he’s completed seven innings. So that is 17 of 23 starts that he’s thrown at least six innings.
With 40 games left in the season, the simple math would have him making eight more starts. We know there is a doubleheader on the schedule and we know that things could get jumbled in the last week or so depending on where the team lands in terms of being solidly in, solidly out or on the bubble for a playoff spot. The doubleheader coupled with Steele being lined up for that 40th game suggest it might only be seven starts. But then again, if things are tight, would the Cubs dare try to grab an extra start in the last month given that he’s their top pitcher? So let’s use eight starts. If we assume six innings in six of those starts and five in two of them, that’s 46 more innings. And then the playoffs?
Steele looks like a big strong guy. He doesn’t have to labor in a ton of these starts. He’s averaged 23.8 batters per outing. 28 walks across 23 starts certainly helps. He allows just a tad under one hit per inning. With his starts largely landing around six innings, if we call it 25 batters per game, he’s seeing roughly one runner per inning. Certainly not a ton of high stress innings. But can they reasonably push him to 170-180 innings? I don’t know the answer, but it feels like a reasonable question. If they keep running him out there with no restrictor on him, it feels like an 18-20 win season is possible. Certainly, wins don’t have the glamor they once did, but it’s not like voters ignore a season like that either.
With Cody Bellinger, the question is going to be how will voters view him after he missed that big chunk of time earlier this year. With a two homer game on Saturday, he’s now sporting a line of .326/.375/.564 (wRC+ 150). Without question, those are superstar numbers. He’s reached 20 homers, 71 runs scored and 63 runs batted in. With 17 steals (in 20 attempts), he’s almost certainly going to steal 20 bases and could reasonably reach something like a 25/25 season with 90ish runs and 80ish runs driven in.
Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman and Bellinger are sitting 2-3-4 in the NL in batting average. With respect, Luis Arraez is not going to win an MVP despite a very strong season for a surprising team. Arraez has a significant lead, but the other three are in proximity as to batting average. Acuna and Freemen are 1-2 in OBP, not massively ahead of Arraez. The other flies in the ointment show up in SLG. Matt Olson and Mookie Betts are 1-2 there. Freeman, Acuna are next followed by Bellinger. Acuna has a wide lead in steals, Bellinger is 18th in steals and Freeman 22.
Acuna ought to be hoisting the MVP trophy when all is said and done. No matter how many times we tumble these numbers, Acuna is a clear leader. Freeman pops up often enough that he’s very likely to be second. The big question is going to be rate stats or counting stats. Particularly the flashiest counting stats. Matt Olson and Mookie Betts (and Pete Alonso) have some gaudy homer and run batted in numbers. Alonso is well back in most of the rate stats and on a team that fell out of contention. So do Olson’s flashy counting numbers (he’s likely to have 50-55 homers and 130ish RBI) land him third? Or maybe Bellinger for his rate stats and plus defense at two positions?
Time will tell. Regardless, those two led the Cubs to victory. Steele shut down a plucky Royals team, holding them to two runs over six. Then on the offensive side, Cody Belling had a two-run homer in the first and added a second homer in the third. He drove in four as the Cubs moved out to a 6-1 lead. Those two are clearly the top two stars of this one and I’d imagine one or the other should be the player of the game in this one.
What do we do for the third star of this one? None of the four relievers locked down an inning. No hitter other than Bellinger had multiple hits. I’m going to recognize Seiya Suzuki for the third spot. He had a single, a run scored and a run batted by way of a sacrifice flies. A tip of the hat to Nico Hoerner who had a single and two stolen bases. That runs his total to 32, good for fourth in the NL. Nico appears likely to steal 40 bases. That’s pretty rare air for a Cub.
I talked a lot in 2022 about Nico as an emerging star. That certainly hasn’t slowed in 2023. His combination of above average bat, elite baserunning and elite defense has him in the top 25 in the NL in fWAR. Dansby Swanson and Cody Bellinger are both inside of the top 20. All three of the Cubs had their numbers held back by time lost to an injury. Jeimer Candelario ranks 23rd through Friday. Bellinger checks in at 20th despite only 91 games played through Saturday. Of the 19 players ahead of him, Fernando Tatis Jr. is a few spots ahead of Cody with 103 games played, Swanson has 108. Most of the other guys ahead of him are in the vicinity of 115-120 games played. People forget that fWAR is a counting stat. You can’t assume production for the lost games. If Bellinger had not missed those games and continued this production, he would be beyond question a top three MVP finalist.
Game 122, August 19: Cubs 6, Royals 4 (63-59)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Cody Bellinger (.253). 2-3, 2 HR, SF, 4 RBI, 2 R
- Hero: Justin Steele (.122). 6 IP, 24 batters, 6 H, 2 R, 7 K, HBP, WP (W 14-3)
- Sidekick: Adbert Alzolay (.073). IP, 4 batters, H, K
- Billy Goat: Christopher Morel (-.040). 0-4, 3 K
- Goat: Ian Happ (-.034). 1-4, RBI, SB
- Kid: Mike Tauchman (-.025). 1-4, K
WPA Play of the Game: Cody Bellinger batted with a runner on second with two outs and the game was scoreless. Bellinger hit the first of two homers and the Cubs would never trail in this one. (.178)
*Royals Play of the Game: Freddy Fermin batted with a runner on first with no outs in the second inning. The Royals were down two. Fermin doubled. This put runners on second and third with no outs. The Royals ended up scoring one run. (.110)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Somebody else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Yesterday’s Winner: Nico Hoerner (Superhero is 82-39)
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.
- Cody Bellinger +36
- Adbert Alzolay +14
- Ian Happ +12.5
- Marcus Stroman/Mike Tauchman +12
- Julian Merryweather -11
- Patrick Wisdom/Drew Smyly -15
- Jameson Taillon -17
- Trey Mancini -20.5
Scoreboard watching: Brewers win, Reds lose. The Cubs are three back in the Central, percentage points ahead of the Reds. The Marlins lose twice as do the Padres. The Diamondbacks win twice. The Phillies win. The Giants lose. The Mets win their fourth straight. The Phillies lead the wild card by three games over the Giants. Then it is a pileup. The Giants are three behind the Phillies, sitting in the second spot. The Cubs and Reds are a half game behind that, so the Cubs are sitting in and the Reds out. But the Giants are in a precarious spot. The Diamondbacks are a half game behind that. Five teams within one game for two playoff spots. The Mets or Padres would need to get blazing hot at this point.
The Diamondbacks, Marlins and Padres are all off until Monday with Hilary bearing down on the West Coast. The Marlins and Padres are set to play in San Diego starting Monday in what has to be a crucial series for the Padres. The Giants finish their series Sunday in Atlanta. The Reds their final came with Toronto. The Mets will look to finish their sweep of the Cardinals. They are reminding me a bit of last year’s Cubs team in that they were sellers and then are playing better after. Obviously, they have quite a bit more talent still on the roster than the Cubs did at this point last year.
Up Next: Kyle Hendricks (4-6, 4.00, 92⅓ IP) starts for the Cubs. Over his last seven starts, Kyle is only 1-3 with a 5.31 ERA in 39 innings. His last two starts haven’t been bad though. He didn’t receive a decision in either, but allowed five runs over 11 innings. Kyle has made eight starts at home and eight on the road. The numbers are striking. At home, he’s 1-4 with a 5.36 in 42 innings. On the road, he’s 3-2 with a 2.86 in 50⅓ innings. The Cubs haven’t had to go as deep with the bullpen of late, it would be well advised for the Cubs to be willing to have a quick trigger in this one.
Jordan Lyles (3-13, 6.30, 131⅓ IP) starts for the Royals. The 32-year-old right was selected by the Astros back in 2008 with the 38th overall pick. It’s been a little better for Lyles of late at 2-2 with a 5.45 in 39⅔ innings over his last seven starts. He’s gotten knocked around over his last three starts, allowing 15 earned runs over 18⅔ innings. If it feels like Lyles has been around forever for a 32-year-old, you aren’t wrong. He debuted for the Astros back in 2011 when the Astros were still an NL team. He was still part of that team in 2013 when they shifted to the AL. That was the only year before 2020 that Lyles pitched in the AL, but he’s been there exclusively since. Lyles has made 344 appearances and 237 starts in his career. He has a 5.21 ERA over that time.
This could be a high-scoring game.