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The Cubs are still the team to beat in the NL Central

As good as the Brewers and Cardinals are, the Cubs are going to be tough to beat.

Philadelphia Phillies v Chicago Cubs Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

The Cubs and Brewers are in the midst of a key three-game series, with the Cubs winning the first game on Monday night but with Brewers getting that one back on Tuesday night. The Brewers currently have a half-game lead in the NL Central.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like the Cubs have been flying under the radar a little bit since their historic 2016 World Series win. They won 103 games that year and were the best team in baseball. The year before that, they shocked the baseball world by winning 97 games the year after winning only 73. By comparison, their 92-win 2017 season might look underwhelming, even though that is still an excellent season where they easily won the division by six games. They were down 5.5 games to the Brewers at the All-Star break, too.

Those Brewers arguably took a lot of the attention away from the Cubs, and for good reason. Like the Cubs in 2015, the Brewers had an unexpectedly good season the year after winning only 73 games. They won 86 games instead of 97, but unlike the Cubs, they never fully tanked to rebuild their team. That likely made them a better story in the eyes of many writers and fans.

The Brewers continued to make headlines during the offseason by making big splash acquisitions in Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, both of whom are having great seasons to date. Josh Hader is lighting the world on fire with his superhuman 53.7 K% and his ability to *gasp* pitch more than one inning in an appearance.

Lately, the Cubs have been grabbing more headlines. After a lackluster May, the team has been 8-2 in June. Jason Heyward has been making the highlight reels with his bat instead of his glove. He hit a walk-off grand slam off of left-handed reliever Adam Morgan last Thursday. Morgan has a career 5.45 RA9, but it is still an impressive feat for a hitter with a career .230/.304/.344 line against lefties. One could argue that Heyward’s single off of the aforementioned Hader on Monday night was even more impressive. It was far from a home run, but Hader is also a lefty and he might be the best reliever in baseball right now.

With the Brewers being such a good story — and one I’ve really enjoyed myself — it is understandable to see the Cubs get swept aside just a little bit, even if they still are one of the best teams in the NL. I think it is silly to care about how much or how little attention or respect a team gets, but let’s shine a little more light at where the Cubs are at this season.

The Cubs are not much different than they were in 2017. They replaced Jake Arrieta, who was not great last year, with Yu Darvish, who has not been great this year. He is currently on the DL and has a 5.40 RA9 over eight starts.

To further bolster their starting rotation, the Cubs also signed Tyler Chatwood to a three-year, $38 million deal. It was a little surprising at the time of the signing, but it was a fair deal for a pitcher who had been about league average by runs allowed when adjusting for Coors Field.

Sheryl Ring of FanGraphs put it best when she said that Chatwood’s season has been “interesting so far.” It might look like he is continuing to be an average pitcher with a 4.26 RA9, but the Cubs’ excellent defense is helping with that. His peripherals tell a very different story. He has a sub-par strikeout rate, but that is not what stands out about him. What jumps out at you is that he has walked about 20 percent of batters faced! Not only is that incomprehensibly high, but it is also equal to his strikeout rate!

Chatwood has never had good control, but a 19.9 BB% is unreal. To give that some more context, that is 50 percent higher than the second worst walk rate among pitchers with at least 50 IP. His walk rate is so bad that his DRA is almost double his RA9 at 8.17. If he does not find the strike zone soon, Cubs’ fans will be excited to get Darvish back.

Last year’s trade acquisition José Quintana has not brought back a good return on investment so far this season. He has a 4.48 RA9, and what used to be very good control has worsened to a 11 BB%. On the positive side, Kyle Hendricks is still Kyle Hendricks, and Mike Montgomery has made a few strong starts for the Cubs.

The best story out of the rotation belongs to Jon Lester. After an excellent 2016 season, he struggled mightily in 2017 with a 5.03 RA9. That was about double his RA9 from the year before. Right now he is closer to his 2016 self with a 2.69 RA9 and a 3.33 DRA. However, he is benefiting from a high strand rate and a .238 BABIP. ZiPS projects his true talent at a 4.03 RA9. The good news is that the rotation and the team as a whole are strong enough to withstand a Lester regression.

The Cubs’ bullpen has been outstanding so far, which is good, because the Brewers’ bullpen is one of the few that is better. Steve Cishek continues to be an excellent reliever with a 2.20 RA9 and 29.3 K%. Brandon Morrow sadly never worked out as a starter because he could never stay healthy, but his career as a reliever has been outstanding. He has a 1.66 RA9 this season and a 1.99 RA9 since 2016. I have never heard of Randy Rosario, but he has a 0.84 RA9 over seven appearances.

It should come as little surprise that the Cubs’ offense has been one of the best in the NL so far this season. The team as a whole is hitting .259/.340/.418. Their 104 wRC+ is just just behind the Braves and Dodgers.

Kris Bryant is still in MVP form, hitting .281/.391/.481, though he is hitting with a little less power than he has the past couple of seasons. Anthony Rizzo, however, has been off this year, which is strange because he used to be so consistent. His line of .243/.341/.438 is still above average, but it is disappointing. His .334 wOBA is 46 points lower than last year. He does have a .233 BABIP, so hopefully he will see some positive regression soon.

Speaking of positive regression, Ben Zobrist has bounced back nicely from a disappointing 2017 season by hitting .289/.380/.428. That four-year, $56 million deal he received before the 2015 season was starting to look bad, but it looks like he is back to the guy he was over the two years prior. He has as many walks as strikeouts!

The most pleasant surprise on the Cubs is Kyle Schwarber. He was a replacement level player last year according to Baseball Reference. He was average offensively, but he played left field, and he played it very, very poorly. He lost some weight over the offseason and now it is like he is a completely different person. He is hitting .243/.370/.483 and has significantly improved his contact rates. He was always good at taking a walk, and now he is walking in almost 17 percent of his plate appearances.

As for Schwarber’s defense, my jaw dropped when I saw that he has a 7 DRS. It was -9 last year. I can’t imagine that he has improved to that degree, but I also have not seen him much this year with my own eyes. The only knock I have on Schwarber is that he is putting the ball on the ground too much. He needs to focus more on putting the ball in the air.

Albert Almora Jr. is having a nice season so far, hitting .316/.367/.432 while playing some good center field defense. Javier Báez is still frustrating, but he is a better than average hitter for the first time in his career. The problem is that he needs to keep hitting for a ton of power to get by with that ugly .286 OBP.

After a couple of incredibly disappointing seasons with the bat, Heyward is finally hitting respectably, slashing .281/.339/.421. He has not slugged above .400 since 2015. For Cubs fans that are understandably frustrated by him, I am sorry to say that there is no way he opts out after this season. There is no way he does better in the open market than the five years, $106 million left on his current deal.

There are a lot of positives on the Cubs’ offense, but Addison Russell is not one of them. He is still a below average hitter, and though he has never hit for a lot of power, he currently has a .098 ISO. Thankfully, he is making up for that in the field. There is nothing wrong with a 93 wRC+ from an excellent defensive shortstop.

There has been some talk of the Cubs being a possible destination for Manny Machado. Yes, he is raking, hitting .311/.380/.586. His .399 wOBA is 89 points higher than Russell’s. The thing is that Machado has taken surprisingly poorly to shortstop. Not only does he have poor defensive metrics at shortstop, but he has looked a bit awkward there by the eye test. The upgrade might not be worth what it would cost to get him. I would not want to part with three-plus years of Russell or Báez for a few months of Machado, and those players are overqualified for a bench role if they are kept.

No team is perfect. That being said, the Cubs are in great shape to win the NL Central for the fourth straight year. FanGraphs is giving them a 76.5 percent chance to win the division for a reason. With some bad luck, though, and the Brewers or Cardinals could swoop right in.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.