The first ninety games of the season have been a wild ride for the Chicago Cubs and their fan base. As the Cubs enter the all-star break, they find themselves leading the National League Central by 0.5 games. If you ask Cub fans how the season has gone so far, many of them would give reports that don’t sound like they would be about a division leader. Luckily, the Cubs play in the NL Central, where no team is better than 4 games over .500. Let’s take a look back at some stories, analyze some statistics, and look at some moves from the first half of the season to determine if the glass if half empty or half full.
The Streaky Chicago Cubs
I attended a Cubs-Brewers game in Milwaukee on Saturday April 6. As I talked to other fellow Cubs fans at that game, the fans were completely dumbfounded by how the season had started for the Cubs. At that point in time, they were 1-6 on the season, and had given up six or more runs in each of their six losses.
After winning only one of their first four series(4-8 record in those games), the Cubs went on an absolute tear. After losing two of three games to Milwaukee on April 5-7, the Cubs would not lose another series until May 16, when they lost two of three games at home to the Cincinnati Reds. From April 6 to May 16, the Cubs would go 24-10 and take their record from 1-6 all the way to 25-16.
Since that time, the Cubs have played under .500 baseball. They currently find themselves at 47-43, which means they have went 22-27 in their last 49 games. The Cubs almost played .500 baseball in the month of June, going 14-15 in their 29 games. They finished the first half of the season by going 2-4 in their six games in July. Will they be able to break out of their June and July funk and return to the type of baseball they were playing from early April to mid-May?
Successes at Home, Struggles on the Road
The Cubs have thoroughly enjoyed playing at Wrigley Field this season. In their 45 games at the Friendly Confines, the Cubs have gone 29-16. This record is the second best home record in the National League (only trailing the Dodgers), and have the fifth highest winning percentage at home in all of baseball. While the Cubs have split some series at home this season, they have only lost one series. That one series came against the last place team in the National League Central, the Cincinnati Reds, as the Reds took two out of three games in the May 24-26 series.
The Cubs have been a very different team on the road. They have a record of 18-27 away from Wrigley Field this season. The Cubs are only one of two National League teams that have a road record that is nine games under .500 or worse (other team is the Mets). They have won four road series this season, but the latest of those ended on May 19. In their last seven road series (22 games), the Cubs have lost six of those series, and split one of them. Their record in those 22 games is a pitiful 6-16. If they are going to have success in the second half of the season, they will need to play better baseball away from Wrigley Field.
The National League Central has more parity in it from top to bottom than any other division in baseball. At the all-star break, only 4.5 games separates the first place Cubs from the last place Reds. The Cubs have 45 divisional games in the second half of the season, and every divisional series could end up having playoff implications. Let’s take a look at how the Cubs have fared against each divisional opponent.
Milwaukee Brewers: The Cubs have played six games against the Brewers this season, and have gone 3-3. In an April series at Miller Park, the Brewers took two out of three games. The Cubs responded by taking two out of three games in a mid-May series at Wrigley Field. The Cubs and Brewers still have 13 games left to play this season.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Cubs have played nine games against the Cardinals this season, and have gone 6-3. All three series have been sweeps as the Cubs swept the two series at Wrigley Field, while the Cardinals swept the only series at Busch Stadium so far this season. The Cubs still have 10 games against the Cardinals, with 6 of those games on the road. The Cubs will end the season at Busch stadium, and the whole season may find itself on the line in that series.
Pittsburgh Pirates: The Cubs have played seven games against the Pirates so far this season, going 3-4 in those games. The Cubs took two out of three games in an April series at Wrigley Field, and then lost three out of four games in a series last week at PNC Park. The Cubs still have 12 games against the Pirates, including an important three game series that begins on Friday. This series could help set the tone for the entire second half of the season.
Cincinnati Reds: This divisional opponent has caused the Cubs a lot of trouble this season. In their nine games so far the season, the Cubs have lost all three series, and have gone 3-6 in those nine games. They still have 10 games left against the Reds, with six of those games coming at Wrigley Field.
Overall First Half Divisional Record: 15-16
The Ups and Downs of the Starting Rotation
Let’s take a look at how each member of the starting rotation has fared so far this season:
Jon Lester ended the first half of the season with a record of 8-6, an ERA of 3.72, a WAR of 1.4, and a WHIP of 1.31. He has struck out 93 batters in his 17 starts, averaging 5.47 per game. He has had a quality start in eight of his 17 starts, and he has given up three runs or less in 11 of his 17 starts. In his nine home starts, Lester has pitched real well. He has thrown 48 and 1/3 innings at Wrigley Field this season, and sports a record of 5-2. He also has an ERA of 2.23 in those nine starts. In his eight road starts, Lester has been less impressive. He has given up 26 earned runs in 46 innings of work, which equates to an ERA of 5.09.
Kyle Hendricks had a bad start to the season. In his five April starts, Hendricks went 1-4 with an ERA of 5.33. In May and June, however, Hendricks turned it around. Hendricks went 6-1 and lowered his ERA down to 3.36 in those nine starts. He then had a brief stint on the injured list with a shoulder strain, and has given up two runs in each of his two outings since returning from the IL. If the Cubs are going to make a postseason run this season, Hendricks may be the most important pitcher on the staff.
This next stat is very troubling for Cubs fans. After winning his first career start last week for the White Sox, Dylan Cease has more career wins in the city of Chicago than Yu Darvish. I want Cub fans to let that thought sink in for a little bit. Not wins this season, but rather wins in their career in Chicago.
Darvish has thirteen career starts at Wrigley Field, twelve of them has come as a Cub. This season, Darvish is 0-3 at nine starts at Wrigley Field. He has given up 33 earned runs in 47 and 2/3 innings pitched in those nine starts, which equates to an ERA of 6.23 at Wrigley Field this season. In his nine road starts this season, Darvish has fared slightly better. He is 2-1 in those nine games, giving up 21 earned runs over 49 and 1/3 innings of work. That equates to an ERA of 3.83.
The Cubs are going to need stability out of the back end of their rotation if they want to be a playoff team this season, and Yu Darvish is going to have to be much better in the second half of the season.
Jose Quintana enters the second half of the season with a 6-7 record, and an ERA of 4.19. Quintana had a tough middle of the first half of the season, going win-less in his nine starts between May 10 and June 22. This culminated in a June 22 start at Wrigley Field against the Mets, in which Quintana was hammered. Since that time, though, Quintana has won his last two starts, giving up three runs over thirteen innings of work in those outings. The Cubs need Quintana to continue his recent success, and finish the year on a strong note.
Cole Hamels was by far the best pitcher in the Cubs rotation in the first half of the season. In his seventeen starts, Hamels went 6-3 with a 2.98 ERA. Of the other starters mentioned above, Hendricks had the best WAR at 1.8. Hamels’ WAR for the 2019 season is 3.0. The problem for Cubs fans, is that Hamels currently finds himself on the Injured List with an oblique strain. If the Cubs do not have a great second half, Hamels will need to return and pitch as well as he did in the first half of the season. If the Cubs start slow out of the gate and Hamels returns from his injury, look for the Cubs to possibly trade him to a contender that needs pitching depth(Philadelphia would probably make the most sense).
Cubs Offense: Good or Bad?
On the surface, the Cubs have had a good offensive season far, ranking fifth in the NL in runs scored, fourth in the NL in home runs, eighth in the NL in batting average, and seventh in the NL in hits. Fans of the Cubs know though that this year’s team has lacked timely hitting. They currently rank 13th in the NL in batting average with runners in scoring position, sporting an average of .249.
Joe Maddon has experimented with many different line-up combinations this season, trying to create a spark during times when the team seemed to be playing really flat. The move that stunned most Cubs fans was moving Kyle Schwarber to the lead-off spot. He has a .227 batting average on the season, while striking out 100 times with 43 walks (2.33 K/BB ratio). He has a current on-base percentage of .320, which is the third lowest among active Cubs players. The only players this season with a lower on base percentage are Albert Almora and Addison Russell. Personally, I still do not understand why Schwarber is still manning the lead-off spot.
In fact, the lead-off spot should possibly be manned by a player that most Cubs fans have disliked for the past three seasons. Jason Heyward is putting together his best season for the Cubs this year. Heyward is batting .266 on the season, with 14 HR’s and 37 RBI’s. He currently has an on-base percentage of .355, and has struck out 59 times, while garnering 40 base on balls. This equates to a 1.48 K/BB ratio, which is the second best on the team, only trailing Anthony Rizzo (his is 1.2). He also currently is tied for the team lead in stolen bases (five).
A positive for the Cubs this season is that many different guys have contributed to the Cubs’ offensive success. Javier Baez has 22 home runs, Anthony Rizzo has 19, Willson Contreras has 18, Kris Bryant has 17, Kyle Schwarber has 18, Jason Heyward has 14, and David Bote has 9. They have also gotten significant contributions recently from back-up catcher Victor Caratini, and newly called-up Robel Garcia.
On the negative side, the Cubs have gotten very little production from Albert Almora, Addison Russell, and Daniel Descalso. Their averages are .250, .244, and .186 respectively, and they have combined for 15 home runs and 53 RBI’s. Descalso’s and Russell’s poor offensive performance have led to the Garcia call-up, and Garcia will be cutting into their playing time in the near future. Almora’s lack of production in center field led to the Cubs taking a shot with veteran Carlos Gonzalez, which also was a failure as he was designated for assignment.
While there are positives to build upon, there were a decent amount of negatives in the first half of the season. As a team, they must improve with runners in scoring position if they want to continue being a playoff contender.
The bullpen has been very inconsistent this year for the Chicago Cubs. After it was announced that Brandon Morrow would not be returning for at least the first half of the season, the Cubs’ closer spot was up for grabs. Pedro Strop got his chance at it, but also spent time on the injured list this season. The Cubs went out and signed Craig Kimbrel to lock down the back end of the bullpen, but he has a 12.27 ERA in his four games so far.
Some bright spots for the bullpen include Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler. Cishek has a 2.75 ERA on the season, while Kintzler has an ERA of 1.98. On the other side of the coin, Brad Brach has an ERA of 6.11, and Strop has an ERA of 3.92. The long relief has been inconsistent as well, with Mike Montgomery having an ERA of 5.67 and Tyler Chatwood having an ERA of 4.40. Other names that have come and gone so far this season include Carl Edwards (5.40 ERA), Allen Webster (4.91 ERA), Adbert Alzolay (7.15 ERA), and Randy Rosario (5.19).
If the Cubs are going to make a playoff run, they are going to need their bullpen to be much better in the second half of the season. Craig Kimbrel will need to settle in to his role as Cubs closer, and they will probably need to add an arm or two at the trade deadline.
Bringing It All Together
I am a believer that the glass is half full. On offense, the Cubs have been terrible with runners in scoring position. The pitching staff has been inconsistent, with guys pitching below their full potential, and seeing some injuries. The bullpen has seen a wide range of arms this season, and has been very inconsistent.
Given all of these facts, the Cubs are still leading the NL Central by 0.5 games. They have not played well since May, and have hopefully not played their best baseball of the season. They open the second half of the season with a nine game home-stand, with six games against divisional opponents (Pirates and Reds).
This home-stand will set the tone for the rest of the season. If we go 6-3 or 7-2 on this home-stand, we can hopefully open up a lead in the division. I expect the Cubs to be buyers at the trade deadline and look for them to make a playoff run if we start the second half hot. If this home-stand does not go well, look for a lot to change on the north side of Chicago in July.
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