I’ve reached an unverified conclusion that this September’s Cubs season has been written by strike-breaking screen writers. This storyline is just too cliché to actually be believable. So this story involved an upstart team that stormed out of the gates in 2023 only to trip over its feet and masquerade as one of the worst teams in baseball, lasting into June.
But that ended up being cute. It led to a second act that truly reminded me of a real life enactment of the beloved (by many) Hollywood film “Major League.” Included in this storyline was the evil team president Jed Hoyer not even bothering to hide his intent to trade off many of the pieces of the 2023 team and repeat the cycle of trading off the players who are actually performing well for players that maybe will produce sometime in the future.
Stealing the plot of Major League, the team got hot, thwarted off the efforts of the (not really) evil Jed Hoyer (who would have just been doing his job properly), storming back from the edge of ineptitude and into contention. It was truly fun to watch. June swoon has been a bedrock of Cubs history. So many years it’s something you could just set your clock by. But here was a team rising like a phoenix from the ashes in June and soaring with the eagles in July and August.
It doesn’t feel like hyperbole that anytime there is a plot twist in season for the Cubs that it is in the direction of good to bad and not vice versa. But not this time. And so it was that this team entered September, not certain, but looking certain to be a playoff team. It seriously looked to be a better question whether the Cubs would run down the Phillies or Brewers than to fall out of contention. The Cubs were realistically in the rear-view mirror for both teams.
See the thing is, a veteran Hollywood writer remembers that you need a third act to your story. Don’t get me wrong, a good plot twist can be a real crowd pleaser. But if you want to really wow the audience, the key to your third act plot twist is to write it into the script in such a way that the hints of that twist are perceptible in the first two acts. In the first act, the Cubs opened the season with an injured Kyle Hendricks. Later in that first act, Justin Steele and Jameson Taillon had injury (and ineffectiveness) issues. Also in that first act, Brandon Hughes and Brad Boxberger were ineffective and injured.
In the second act, Marcus Stroman and Michael Fulmer were injured. In the third act there was the injury to Adbert Alzolay. So the writers set this all up, right? The season went down in flames as a host of untested pitchers collapsed under the pressure of the moment. Right? Well, no. Certainly Sunday night’s game was no gem. But looking at team splits prior to Sunday’s game, the team had a 3.66 ERA, its lowest since June.
Anecdotally, it feels like they haven’t been able to come up with the big out when they need it. But it’s hard to find that supporting data at any granular level. Also, as to the kids struggling with the moment, the Cubs had only had 236 innings thrown by pitchers 25 and under. Baseball Reference pulls splits for 25 and under, 26-30 and 31-35. Each group has more innings than the one before it. And each group has a higher ERA than the one before it. It flips a little if you use OPS and 26-30 out performs the older group, and the youngest group does the least. Surely, between these numbers, there is some statistical noise because the young pitcher group just isn’t a huge sample with less than a quarter of the innings. But the point is, the young pitchers have done fine.
The offensive player group lost Jeimer Candelario in the third act. But it also didn’t gain him until the third act. It’s not like the team was reliant on him. Certainly, a healthy Jeimer makes the team better and the lineup much deeper. But by and large, the lineup is and has been very healthy. There were some injuries to key players in the early to mid part of the season, but if anything, that should help them to be a little less worn out, right?
So what about the batting splits? The Cubs had a team OPS of .721 in the first half and .784 in the second half. But we can explain that, right? Virtually all of those injuries happened in the first half. Candelario joined the team in the second half. But, the OPS was highest in April (.795), then July (.774) and then... September (.766)? What the heck is happening? Where is the collapse in any of this data?
Runs scored per game by month:
- April: 5.46
- May: 3.64
- June: 4.84
- July; 5.77
- August: 5.52
- September: 4.77
Runs allowed per game by month:
- April: 3.96
- May: 5
- June: 3.76
- July: 4.85
- August: 4.74
- September: 4.24
The offense is half a run per game down in September. July and August were fairly similar. June and September were fairly similar. Without doing research, I’m almost inclined to think that more or less follows historical scoring trends. July and August the pitchers allowed a very similar amount in July and August, elevated just like the offense was. Then the pitching is about half a run better in September. To be clear, since this data is so readily accessible, the Sunday score is in this number. By run differential, one would expect that the team was best in June at over a run per game. The scoring was up across the board in July and August. But it stepped down in both scoring and prevention in September.
So here we circle back to our poorly-written castoff script for the 2023 Cubs. There are no storm clouds readily available on the horizon anywhere. But worse than that, there isn’t much of anything showing why the drop-off is happening. There aren’t really a mounting number of injuries. Would it be great if Alzolay and Fulmer were available? Even Hughes, who has been no factor at all in 2023? Sure. But there just isn’t anything that you could see coming.
But worse than that, you can’t really look back and say “Ah ha!” as you identify the glaring reason for the collapse. But it isn’t there. Well, unless you pick up on exactly one thing I said. The team statistically, in the most meaningful way, performed its best in June with its largest run scored/allowed difference. That has slowly eroded in July, August and September. So is that the point? The run differential just slowly trickled away?
Nope. They were +1.08 runs/game in June, +.92 in July, +.78 in August and .53 in September. That leaves out that the gap was +1.5 in April. In April, the team was .500 with that differential, a wild under performance. In June, the team was 14-11, July, 15-11, August 18-9. So in a sense, if I wanted to give you an explanation, there it is. The record was improving as the run differential was eroding.
So here’s the clearly unsatisfying explanation. A decent team wildly underperformed (by record) in April. A decent team got hot and rolled momentum through May and into July. They then wildly overperformed (by record) in August. But even now, expected record still shows the Cubs as five games under their projected record. So in a sense, they are regressing after a wildly successful August. But, I actually think this is more or less random bad luck and sequencing.
Even at that, our terrible script writer now realized they overdid it in the other direction. This lost trip, where the Cubs probably should have lost all six games after a frustrating blown save on Monday (that actually probably was impacted by the injuries and fatigue in the bullpen). On Sunday afternoon, the Brewers, Phillies and Reds all lost. Had the Cubs won on Sunday night, they would have actually still gone into the last two weeks of the season in a really strong position in the playoff picture.
They didn’t, but now they face six winnable games at home against two teams that have their eyes squarely on 2024, if not already on their offseason travel plans. Of course, I say that with clear memory that the Rockies actually had an extremely strong week at home. The Cubs should have the ability to win four or five games this week and keep their season in stasis.
This is going to need to really come together in something interesting over the last two weeks or I’m going to have trouble recommending anyone to spend time following the saga of the 2023 Cubs. Perhaps the sequel in 2024 will be more satisfying. This only feels like maybe an after school special. Definitely not worth clearing your schedule to go see on opening night.
Let’s see if I can find three stars.
- Ian Happ had three hits. One of them was a double. He scored a run. I wish someone in the Cubs organization had just told me that they felt that the third spot in the order was the best one for Ian and then just died on that hill. I know they’ve let it trickle out that Ian just wanted some kind of consistency, which everyone can understand. Ian excelled at getting on base and when he was put into the leadoff spot, he continued to get on base. I wish he’d been put there long ago and Cody Bellinger could have moved up a spot or two in the order. Who knows, maybe along the way it would have been good for one more win over the course of the whole season. That would really be helpful right about now.
- Brad Boxberger faced five batters and retired four of them. Should the pendulum swing again, given the lack of healthy options, I’m prepared for him to get some higher leverage spots. As much due to the lack of great options as his pretty long track record, outside of this season.
- Mike Tauchman had a single and a walk. He drove in a run. He maybe appears to be emerging from a recent slump. Perhaps a couple of days off helped him. The way they helped Seiya Suzuki. A few days off isn’t a magic bullet. That doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t have invigorated some other hitters who have tailed off lately and haven’t had days off in a long time.
Game 150, September 17: Diamondbacks 6, Cubs 2 (78-72)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Ian Happ (.072). 3-4, 2B, R
- Hero: Mike Tauchman (.070). 1-3, BB, RBI, K
- Kid: Nico Hoerner (.051). 1-3, BB, DP
- Billy Goat: Cody Bellinger (-.192). 0-4, K, DP
- Goat: Jordan Wicks (-.137). 4⅓ IP, 23 batters, 4 H, 4 BB, 3 R, 5 K, 2 WP (L 3-1)
- Kid: Seiya Suzuki (-.114). 0-4
WPA Play of the Game: The Diamondbacks were up one when Ketel Marte faced Jose Cuas with one out and a runner on first. Marte homered and that was pretty much ballgame. (.162)
*Cubs Play of the Game: Christopher Morel batted with runners on first and second and no outs in the third, the Cubs down two. He drew a walk to load the bases. Fair point if you think the Cody Bellinger double play that followed was where the game ended. The Morel walk was worth .088.
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Yesterday’s Winner: Nico Hoerner (Superhero is 100-49)
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 +34
- Justin Steele +19
- Ian Happ +18.5
- Adbert Alzolay +18
- Marcus Stroman +14
- Dansby Swanson -11
- Patrick Wisdom/Drew Smyly -15
- Trey Mancini -20.5
- Jameson Taillon -26
- Phillies lose
- Diamondbacks win third straight
- Marlins win third straight
- Reds lose
- Giants win
The Phillies are 3½ games ahead of the Cubs and hold the first Wild Card. I will likely drop them from this coverage by midweek. The Diamondbacks are three behind the Phillies and are now holding the second Wild Card. The Cubs and Marlins have identical records, but the Marlins hold the tiebreaker. The Reds are half a game behind the Cubs. The Giants are two behind the Cubs. If the Padres can sweep the Rockies in a three game set to start the week, I’ll maybe mention them in passing. They have only three games remaining against teams with winning records and have a chance to finish within shouting distance of the Wild Card race.
Monday, the Brewers open a three-game series in St. Louis. They should clinch the Central well in advance of facing the Cubs the final weekend. The Phillies travel to Atlanta. They are not all of the way out of the woods for the first Wild Card. Though a three game lead with them having 13 to play is pretty strong. The Marlins host the Mets, so the Cubs will either be the third or the fourth team in the three team race by the time they play Tuesday night. However, the Reds will play host to the Twins Monday night and they will either move into a tie with the Cubs, a nominal percent behind or a full game back. The Reds have fewer games left than any contender and so they need to win every game that they can.
Up Next: The Cubs host the Pirates (70-80), who are much worse on the road (32-40). The Pirates are also 31-59 against teams with winning records. The Cubs have crushed the Pirates this year (9-1) and must continue that. We’ve reached that time of the year where teams aren’t giving a ton of information ahead of time about who starts the next game.
This is Javier Assad’s spot. I would think he would take his start. I’ve noted that the Cubs could skip someone’s start coming off of this off day to line Justin Steele up to potentially start 162 or at least be available for it. I’m not positive that would be the right decision. There is a delicate balance between a starter with an extra day of rest and a more capable starter.
Cubs starters in 2023 on four days of rest: 25-25, 3.90, .715 OPS allowed. Cubs starters in 2024 on five days of rest: 20-7, 3.83, .668 OPS allowed. Also, if the Cubs needed game 162 to get into the playoffs, I’d want Justin Steele starting the game. So it’s a close call in my book.