The Cubs 2023 season ends in a fiery train wreck. Even in a season filled with ups and downs, this feels wrong. The post mortems are going to suggest that this team was a fake or an imposter. There will be all sorts of takes that suggest that this team choked down the stretch. None of that feels fair.
This team was a good team. The team had a deep and productive lineup. 800+ runs scored is a very good number. Without waiting to see the dust settle, the team was sixth in the majors and third in the National League in runs scored. To be fair and balanced, it is a distant third. But that is more scoring than all but the two bye teams in the N.L They’ll need a strong weekend to reach 200 homers (currently: 193). They’ll finish right around 15th in the majors. They’ll finish around seventh in stolen bases. They’ll finish around eighth in OPS. A very good offensive team, solidly in the second tier among teams.
When I first started talking about this team, I used the qualifier when healthy for the offense. But it’s an unneeded qualifier. None of the numbers above try to adjust for when the lineup was fully healthy. The offense was productive, period. The only question is if the offense might have hung with the top tier offenses if it were fully healthy or if it had more depth. But either way, the offense was good enough to win.
On the other side of the ball, the pitching was around 13th in ERA. A better measure is probably that the team was 16th overall in runs allowed. The unearned runs lose games for you just the same as the earned ones do. The only fly in the ointment is innings pitched. Due to a combination of how often a team has to pitch the bottom of the ninth and how many extra innings occur doing the year, teams don’t throw the same number of innings. Still, when we look at offenses and scoring, we never adjust for innings.
I do feel comfortable saying that the pitching staff was excellent when healthy. Marcus Stroman had a fairly dominant half season. He was a reasonable choice for the NL All-Star team. He and Justin Steele were one of the better duos in MLB in the first half when they were both healthy. Kyle Hendricks, Drew Smyly, Javier Assad, and Jordan Wicks all were impressive at times. Certainly, Smyly eventually tailed off, but the other three were relative consistent.
Adbert Alzolay, Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr., and Michael Fulmer were all very good out of the pen. By the end of the year, two of them had injury issues and two of them had ineffectiveness issues, but all four of them had a good season on balance. Assad was a very effective reliever during the time he pitched out of the pen. That’s also true of Drew Smyly. There was a lot of inconsistency out of the rest of the bullpen.
Going back to the 13th in the league in ERA. 14th is the Dodgers. 15th is the Braves. 16th is the Marlins. 19th is the Rangers. 20th is the Diamondbacks. Injuries, inconsistency and flat out poor performance held the Cubs pitching staff back. That said, those are five team that you may be watching in the playoffs over the next several weeks. Included there are the two top seeds in the NL and possibly one of the top two in the AL. The pitching was good enough to win games and reach the playoffs.
Errors aren’t the be-all, end-all of defensive evaluation. However, the Cubs have made more errors than 22 other teams. That’s a weird one for the Cubs to be bad in. Among what appear to be the playoff teams, only the Marlins made more errors than the Cubs. Many will regard the Marlins as the weakest of the 12 playoff teams. If we flip it though and use defensive runs saved from Baseball Info Solutions as reported by Baseball-Reference, the Cubs check in at fifth in defensive runs saved. Only the Blue Jays, Brewers, Dodgers and Diamondbacks check in ahead of them. We can expect all four of those teams to play bonus baseball this year.
It’s certainly curious that on errors alone, the Cubs don’t show up as a strong defensive team. They do on DRS. Where is the disconnect? Keeping it simple and not surfing website to website, Dansby Swanson checks in 10th. Nico Hoerner 16th. Nick Madrigal 36. Individually those three have 17, 14 and 9 runs saved among the three of them. 40 runs saved among three players. The whole team is at 39. So that’s -1 among the remainder of the team.
I don’t read a lot into defensive metrics. It doesn’t seem too odd that second, third and short would be responsible for the large majority of the runs saved. Those three spots have the most defensive impact on the game, arguably. The Blue Jays up top have three of the top 10 defenders. Two outfielders and a catcher. Add in the third baseman, and the Blue Jays have four fielders better (by DRS) than Nick Madrigal.
So, this is a very small sample. But it definitely suggests that DRS doesn’t just find a bunch of middle infielders and third basemen. Going back to the overall list and and ignoring team, in the top 10, there are four outfielders, two second basemen, a catcher, two shortstops and a combo third baseman/shortstops. Going out to the top 20, the first pitcher shows up (Zack Greinke). Interestingly, Anthony Rizzo checks in with three DRS, listed at 81, though 23 players check in at three DRS, all would be tied at 63. Rizzo is the highest rated primary first baseman. Javier Báez also checks in at three.
So bringing this all of the way around, at second, short and third, the Cubs got pretty solid defense from their best defenders. The rest of the team? Much more ordinary. Certainly, we know that Cody Bellinger has some pretty solid defensive skills that can border on gold glove level skills when allowed to focus on one position. Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki may be talented defenders, but it certainly didn’t stand out.
If the Cubs are to want to sell out for elite defense, they still have work to do. Certainly, Pete Crow-Armstrong, if he can provide enough offensive skill to stay on the field, can have a transformative effect on their team defense. If the Cubs can’t re-sign Cody Bellinger, I’ll advocate for a true defense-first first baseman, perhaps matched with a bat-first guy who can be productive off of the bench and maybe take some of the time at DH.
Hopefully, you didn’t come here for a long dissection of Friday’s baseball game. The story is the same recent story. The Cubs played a close game but ultimately coughed it up late. The Cubs walked six batters in the game, but just one scored. The Cubs managed six hits and three walks in 10 innings. Nine baserunners in 10 innings. The offense definitely tailed off down the stretch of this season.
For curiosity, I looked to see when various Cubs last had a day off. Nico Hoerner was last off on August 26. Nico has a line of .316/.397/.350 since his last day off. That’s a higher batting average and on base percentage, but lower slugging percentage. He’s played every inning of every game since. Cody Bellinger has played in every game since the All-Star break. I didn’t go back any further. Bellinger did get an occasional inning or two over that time in blowouts. Cody hit .319/.361/.560 over that stretch. Those numbers are all a bit better than the full season numbers.
Ian Happ was last off on July 30. Ian has a line of .244/.326/.469. For Ian, the on base dropped a bit but the slug increased. Seiya Suzuki was last off on August 8. Seiya’s line is .359/.413/.688. As we all know, Seiya has been scorching hot. Dansby Swanson was last off on July 21, the day before he came off the injured list. Dansby hit .232/.309/.438 down the stretch. His slugging percentage was actually up, but otherwise his other numbers were down a bit.
We can’t know if the lack of rest held back any of these players. It certainly doesn’t jump off of the page for any of these players. I’ve certainly been among those who would have preferred that players get some rest along the way. But again, we don’t know it to be true that the lack of rest caused any of them to be less than.
None of it matters too much. The Cubs lost. The Marlins came from behind and won. It’s only a matter of time now until the Cubs are formally eliminated. It was a nice run. I’m not going to wail about it too much. A good team that came up short. They need to continue to grow and improve.
Let’s give a quick three stars.
- Ian Happ, a game-tying ninth inning homer that gave the Cubs some residual hope.
- Christopher Morel had a triple, a double, drew a walk and scored a run.
- Jeimer Candelario homered.
Honorable Mention: Julian Merryweather retired all five batters he faced, two via strikeout, Adbert Alzolay faced three batters, walking one and striking out one.
Game 160, September 29: Brewers 4, Cubs 3 (82-78)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Ian Happ (.282). 1-4, HR, RBI, R, 2 K
- Hero: Christopher Morel (.174). 2-3, 2B, 3B, BB, R, SB
- Sidekick: Mark Leiter Jr. (.074). ⅔ IP, H, BB
- Billy Goat: Yan Gomes (-.300). 0-4, RBI, 2 K
- Goat: Patrick Wisdom (-.198). 0-2, 2 K
- Kid: Kyle Hendricks (-.126). 4⅓ IP, 21 batters, 5 H, 3 BB, 3 R, 2 K
WPA Play of the Game: Ian Happ’s homer leading off the ninth to tie the game at three. (.336)
*Brewers Play of the Game: Carlos Santana’s double leading off the 10th to win the game. (.188)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Jeimer Candelario (1-4, HR)
Julian Merryweather (1 ⅔ IP, 5 batters, 2 K)
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Yesterday’s Winner: Seiya Suzuki 78 of 92 votes (Superhero is 108-51)
Rizzo Award Cumulative Standings: (Top 6/Bottom 6)
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 +35
- Ian Happ +20.5
- Adbert Alzolay +18
- Justin Steele +16
- Javier Assad +14
- Seiya Suzuki +11
- Michael Fulmer -9
- Patrick Wisdom -14
- Drew Smyly -15
- Dansby Swanson -16
- Trey Mancini -20.5
- Jameson Taillon -23
Up Next: Jordan Wicks squares off with Eric Lauer in the penultimate game of the 2023 season.