Recap


I wrote earlier in the season about an article I read in which the author suggested thinking of the baseball season as consisting of nine 18-game chunks.  Believe it or not (I can’t), we are now through five such chunks; how have things gone?

Chunk 1: 12-6.  The Cubs obviously started off strong.  It’s probably worth noting that the Cubs went 6-0 against the Pirates in this chunk.

Chunk 2: 9-9.  This stretch included the 2-4 road trip to Cincinnati and St. Louis and the series loss at home to the Brewers, but it also included the first two games of the Arizona sweep and the two-game Mets trouncing.

Chunk 3: 12-6.  The sweep of the Dodgers at home, 3 out of 4 from the Padres, and more; a good chunk.

Chunk 4: 12-6.  This chunk included the West Coast road trip and the home sweep of the Braves.

Chunk 5: 9-9.  The just-completed chunk included both series with the White Sox and the Cardinals series.

In a way, none of this means anything: you can find an 18-game stretch in which the Cubs played like crap and an 18-game chunk in which they were nearly unbeatable; the divisions between the chunks quoted here are somewhat arbitrary.  Still, I think it says something that none of these chunks are 6-12—this is a team that won’t stay down for too long.

When I first heard rumors that the Cubs were thinking about getting Harden a few days ago, I thought “please don’t lose Pie or Vitters or Gallagher for a guy who can’t stay healthy.”  Well, the Cubs only had to give up Gallagher of those three, and they also managed to get back Chad Gaudin, a useful back-of-the-rotation starter/reliever.  Still, I’m a bit worried: when you deal with Billy Beane, you usually lose the trade, especially if you’re getting a pitcher back.  I think that there are two ways to look at this trade:

1) Beane “knows something” or simply has a strong feeling that Harden is going to go down again soon, making the trade essentially a four-for-one which will almost certainly favor the A’s.

2) Beane doesn’t know anything (much) more than we do: Harden is a huge injury liability.  There are then roughly three outcomes: Harden stays mostly healthy this year and next, in which case the Cubs win the trade by a lot; Harden suffers nagging injuries but still pitches well when healthy, in which case the trade is probably a wash; or Harden goes down soon and contributes nothing.

I’m willing to give Beane the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s not pulling a Kenny Williams with Mike Sirotka, in which case it seems to me a pretty fair trade, on average, though one that has a small potential to greatly favor the Cubs and a larger potential to slightly favor the A’s.

At the beginning of the season, I made a list of things that I felt had to happen for the Cubs to be a good team (i.e., win 90+ games); since the Cubs are assuredly a good team—bordering, perhaps, on greatness—let’s go through that list and see how many of my preconditions have been met.

1) Ramirez, Lee, Soriano, and Zambrano need to stay healthy. This should be pretty obvious. The Cubs’ offense is largely built around Ramirez, Lee, and Soriano, and the Cubs can ill afford to lose any of them for any extended period. Zambrano is even more important.

Well, Ramirez and Lee have been healthy, but the Cubs have lost Soriano twice now, and Zambrano will now miss at least two starts.  Still, there have been no season-ending injuries.  I’m willing to call this condition half-met.

2) Two of Soto, Fukudome, and Pie need to live up to their projections. PECOTA has Soto at .273/.352/.470, Pie at .291/.344/.479, and Fukudome at .281/.401/.504 for 2008. If all three of those guys meet or exceed those numbers and stay healthy (and #1 happens), the Brewers may as well pack it up—the Cubs will cruise to the division title. However, I think that even if only two of those three live up to their projections the Cubs are in good shape.

Fukudome’s power hasn’t shown up (and might not at all), but the OBP is right where PECOTA pegged it to be.  Soto has, of course, exceeded all expectations, while Pie struggled and is currently out of the picture.  I think Soto and Fukudome have lived up to expectations, on aggregate, and so I call this condition met.

3) Lilly and Hill can’t backslide too much. A large part of the Cubs’ success last year was built on having three solidly above average starters in Zambrano, Hill, and Lilly make 100 starts. None of the three had a great year—in fact, it was the worst year of Zambrano’s career since 2002—but it’s amazing how useful 100 starts worth of merely good pitching is. Now, like a lot of people, I fully expect Zambrano to have a better year this year than last, but what about Hill and Lilly? Lilly had the best year of his career last year, and, while a lot of that was the result of coming to a weaker division/league, some was probably not. I think we should expect Lilly to have a worse year this year—not a lot worse, but worse. Hill, I think, should be better than he was last year, but his spring performance hasn’t really made me feel so confident. If Lilly and Hill combine for the kind of year they had collectively last year, the Cubs will be fine. Even if they backslide a little, things will probably be OK. But if both take a step back, the Cubs’ rotation suddenly looks…crappy.

My point here, which I’m not really sure I made very clearly, was that at least one of the two lefties had to be almost as good this year as last year.  Hill, of course, fell off the face of the earth and appears to be suffering from either an injury or (more likely) a severe lack of confidence, while Lilly has been mediocre on the whole, though much better since his bad start.  Even if we remove Lilly’s bad start (his first four starts of the year) from consideration, he’s allowing more homers and walks than last year—that increase on control he showed last year appears to have been a fluke.  I expect that Lilly will probably finish the season with an ERA in the low 4’s and a VORP lower (though not significantly lower) than last year, and that this condition will have been met.  Right now, however, I’m afraid I have to say that it hasn’t.

4) Two of Wood, Marmol, and Howry need to have good years. The Cubs’ bullpen is built around these three power arms, and they need at least two of them to live up to expectations. The rest of the Cubs’ bullpen is solid but unremarkable, but these three have the potential to be one of the best late inning trios since Piniella’s Nasty Boys in the early 90s. Given Wood’s injury history and Marmol’s youth and tendency towards wildness, I think it’s pretty unlikely that all three have good years.

Check!

So clearly the Cubs are exceeding expectations even while failing to fulfill all my criteria.  How do I explain this?  Well, I have one name for you: Ryan Dempster.  This is the person that I (and a lot of other Cubs fans) have been wrong about the most.  I fully expected the “Dempster as a starter” experiment to fail miserably, but thus far he has been the Cubs’ best starter in terms of WPA (win probability added) and ERA, and second best in terms of VORP.  Now let’s not kid ourselves: Dempster’s BAbip is 80 points lower than his career average, and he ranks first in the NL in FIP-ERA (a measure of luck).  Still, even if he were to post a 3.90 ERA (3.90 is his FIP), he would be one of the better starters in the NL and a good bit better than most of us imagined he would be.  In short, then: yes, Dempster’s been lucky, and yes, a regression to the mean is imminent, but there’s good evidence that that mean might not be so bad.

Today, Lou brought in Chad Fox with the bases loaded in a tie game.  Yesterday, he used Marmol to pitch the 9th in a 5-run game.  WTF?

Three somewhat unrelated things today:

1) I like Rich Hill, and not just because he’s a (relatively) young Cubs pitcher with a lot of upside. I like that he introduced the Cubs before a game on national TV last year as Kip from Napoleon Dynamite; I like that Ozzie Guillen, a piece of shit if ever there was one, called him a piece of shit. I like that he managed to survive the wrath of Cubs fans who wanted him traded ASAP in 2006 (honestly, though, he probably didn’t notice) and came back to put up a very good season last year. And I hate the way Lou and the Cubs’ staff have handled Hill this year, showing no confidence in him and seemingly setting him up to fail. All that being said, he’s not right, and the move to Iowa is probably the right one, provided it is temporary and the Cubs bring him up and reinstate him in the rotation as soon as he finds his command. His mechanics look off this year (at least they did in the couple starts I saw him make), and obviously he can’t find the plate. Better for him to start every fifth day in Iowa and find his command there without taxing the bullpen and hurting the big club. But please, Rich, figure it out quickly.

2) Whenever the Cubs load the bases with nobody out, as they did last night in the 7th inning, my significant other and I look at each other and say, “uh oh.” Why? Well, because it seems to us that the Cubs tend to score either 0 or 1 runs in these situations, and almost never any more. I decided to look into this figure out if our perceptions were right or if we were selectively remembering the disappointing rallies. Turns out we were pretty much right. This year, the Cubs have loaded the bases with nobody out 9 times, and the frequency of runs scored looks like this:

0 runs: 1

1 run: 5

2 runs: 1

5 runs: 2

That’s an average of just under 2 runs per inning. This seems a little low, but what’s “normal”? I don’t have any league-wide data for the past couple years, but Tom Tango has data from 1999-2002. For those years, teams failed to score more than one run after loading the bases with no outs just 38.3% of the time; the Cubs have failed to score more than one run after loading the bases with no outs two thirds of the time this year. It should of course be noted that this is an extremely small sample size: even small samples think this sample is tiny. We can’t conclude that the Cubs suck in these situations based on 9 events. Luckily, there is a slightly larger (but still small) sample that we can look at: the 2007 Cubs.

The 2007 Cubs were even worse than the 2008 Cubs at scoring with the bases loaded and nobody out, failing to score more than one run on 12 out of 19 occasions and coming up empty 6 times. I’ve included a little graphic below comparing the 2007/2008 Cubs’ numbers with the 1999-2002 league-wide numbers from Tom Tango’s site. Remember that we are dealing with a small sample size with the Cubs numbers and that the league numbers are from a more offense-heavy period; still, the Cubs suck.

The average number of runs scored after loading the bases with no outs for the league from 1999-2002 was 2.417; the Cubs have averaged 1.464 runs in these situations over the last two years, almost a full run lower! It’s striking how bad the Cubs are at scoring runs after loading the bases with no outs, and a look back at the games in which they’ve struggled to do so reveals a number of close losses.

This is probably just a small-sample-size fluke, but here are a couple of other explanations, some plausible and some far-fetched:

a) the Cubs feel the weight of their sad history the most in high-pressure situations, causing them to choke

b) the Cubs have been unlucky on batted balls in play in these situations (similar to small-sample-size fluke, I suppose)

c) the Cubs have been unlucky to have their weaker hitters come up in these situations.

I’m done doing research on this topic, so I have no interest in trying to find evidence to support/refute b or c above.

3) Fun fact: the Cubs have lost their last three series two games to one, but they have outscored their opponents in all three series. Pythagoras says: the Cubs will win the division.

That was the first “kick in the balls” loss I’ve seen this year, ladies and gentlemen. That hurt. Many more to come, I’m sure; let’s just hope the Cubs can deliver some painful blows of their own to opposing teams.

Are the Cardinals for real?

NO. NO. NO. IF YOU ARE WORRYING ABOUT THE CARDINALS, STOP. THEY ARE A FLUKE.

How can I be so sure?

1) Schedule

The Cards have been playing craptacular teams all year. They have only played 5 games against teams at or above .500; in contrast, the Cubs have played 11.

2) Fluky Pitching

By “fluky,” I don’t mean “low BAbip.” The Cards’ pitching staff has a BAbip against of .275, only a few points lower than the Cubs’ .278. What I mean by fluky is “not giving up nearly as many home runs or walks as you would expect given the personnel.” The Cardinals rank first in the NL in walks allowed and third in homers allowed. That’s nice, but given the personnel on the pitching staff, is it sustainable? No. Wainwright is legit, and Piñeiro may in fact be a Dave Duncan reclamation project success story. But Wellemeyer? Looper? No no no no no. They will regress. It will hurt.

This team, especially the offense, will certainly be better than anybody expected. It appears that Ankiel was not a fluke, that Duncan is a useful platoon dude, and of course Pujols is a beast. But no matter how good Dave Duncan is, the pitchers on that staff—especially the starters—are going to start giving up more walks and homers, and their inability to strike people out at a good clip (ranked 12th in the NL as of today) will not help matters. The Cardinals might finish at .500, but they aren’t really in the same class as the Cubs and Brewers. Now for the matchups:

Tonight: Hill vs. Wainwright

The Cubs own Wainwright. OWN him. The Cards haven’t really seen much of Hill.

Saturday Afternoon: Lilly vs. Lohse

Unfortunately, this game is on Fox. Knowing how much Tim and Joe love the Cardinals, we will probably “get” to hear them on this game. Bluh. Anyway, Lilly has actually been pretty damn good against the Cards, while Lohse has sucked against the Cubs (although he did beat Lilly last year in a pitchers’ duel at Wrigley on April 15th).

Sunday Night: Marquis vs. Wellemeyer

Marquis has been so-so against his former team; most of the current Cubs haven’t seen former Cub Wellemeyer.

Look, I understand that baseball is a game of large fluctuations and surprises. The worst team can beat the best team any day of the week; I get it. All that being said, I’ll be a little disappointed if the Cubs can’t take two of three in St. Louis: two of the three pitching matchups clearly favor the Cubs (Wainwright might be a better pitcher than Hill overall, but the Cubs own him), and the third is probably a toss-up. So let’s head on down I-55 to the Gateway City and make some of the “greatest fans in baseball” cry.

EDIT: Yesterday’s game appears to have been a Pyrrhic victory of sorts for the Brew Crew.  Hate to see a good young pitcher sidelined by injury; we saw that far too many times with the Cubs, and it’s simply heartbreaking.  I hope he makes a full recovery.

I wrote a few weeks ago about four things the Cubs need to do to be a great (i.e., 90+ wins) team. I didn’t rank those things in any order, but looking back it seems clear that one of those things is probably necessary for the Cubs to be a merely good team: namely, Lilly and Hill need to collectively come close to their performance from last year. So far, they have fallen far short, and that, more than anything else that has happened on this young season, makes me worry. I have to wonder if Lilly is nursing an injury since his velocity is down from last year; in Hill’s case, I suspect the problem is largely mental (and perhaps a bit mechanical). Of the two, I’m actually more confident in Hill’s ability to get back on track, though of course the Cubs seem to be dead set on preventing him from doing so.

There are, of course, some encouraging things about this Cubs team: the offense looks like it will be solid (i.e., at least league average), perhaps even good (i.e., top five in league, with Soto, Fukudome, and DeRosa providing nice support for the “big boys.” Theriot still sucks, of course, but his numbers so far are low even for him—he’ll improve. The bullpen also looks to be fairly solid, and will certainly improve as Howry finds his form. All of these good things, however, will probably be for naught if Hill and/or Lilly can’t find themselves soon.

The Reds come into town tomorrow for a three-game set that will feature the following pitching matchups:

Tuesday: Fogg vs. Dempster

Wednesday: Harang vs. Zambrano

Thursday: Volquez vs. Lilly

Circle Wednesday, kids: that’s a hell of a matchup. It is not, however, a new one, as Z and that ugly fat dude faced off FOUR TIMES last year! The Reds won all four games, but perhaps the Cubbies can start to turn that trend around. Still, a betting man would favor the Reds. The current Cubs have a collective 1.003 OPS off of Fogg, so let’s call the first game of the series a Cubs win. No Cubs have batted against Thursday starter Edinson Volquez, so the Reds will definitely win that one. Projection, then: Reds win the series, 2-1.

EDIT: Apparently ESPN was wrong yesterday: Harang goes tonight and Fogg goes tomorrow night.  I’m still betting on a 2-1 series win for the Reds.

At the beginning of the season, I picked the Cubs to win 86 games and miss the playoffs. They won 85 and made the playoffs, thanks in large part to a massive Brewers collapse (thanks, Ben Sheets’ fragile body!) and some good luck. It was, in many respects, a weird year: Carlos Zambrano see-sawed back and forth between excellence and incompetence, the entire pitching staff experienced periods of unbelievable good luck, Derrek Lee hit like two homers the first half of the year, and Jason Marquis threw the team’s only shutout. And yet, when you look at the final numbers for the Cubs’ important players, they’re not too far off from what you would have predicted at the beginning of the season if you were, say, a computer projection system like ZiPS:

Rich Hill projected: 3.65 ERA, 9.77 K/9, 2.88 BB/9, 1.29 HR/9

Rich Hill actual: 3.92 ERA, 8.45 K/9, 2.91, 1.25 HR/9

Not bad, ZiPS. Of course, Hill looked like he was gonna go 25-0 after his first few brilliant starts, but he ended up being pretty much the pitcher a smart projection system thought he would be (a little worse, actually). What about, say, Aramis Ramirez?

Aramis Ramirez projected: .296/.355/.559, 35 HR, 538 AB (15.37 AB/HR)

Aramis Ramirez actual: .310/.366/.549, 26 HR, 506 AB (19.46 AB/HR)

ZiPS overestimated the playing time (Ramirez, of course, got injured a couple times) and the power, but got everything else pretty much exactly right.

I could go on, but I won’t. The point I want to make is simply this: the Cubs, despite the weird way in which they did it, pretty much performed as you would have expected them to perform this year. I truly believe that this IS, at its core, a mid-80s win team. If everyone stays healthy and has a good year (that means luck, of course, would need to be on their side), maybe they reach 90 wins. This is NOT a juggernaut that underperformed, but neither is it a sub-.500 team that got lucky. It is a slightly above average team with good starting pitching, a very nice top of the lineup, a mediocre bullpen, and an unbelievably sucky bottom of the lineup.

The nice thing about performing “as expected” is that Hendry and the rest of the Cubs’ brass know the team needs to improve. Had a bunch of guys had career years at the same time and the Cubs won 90 games, they might have been tempted to stand pat (2006 White Sox, anyone?), but the need for improvement is now evident. Let’s go through the team and see what needs to be done. First, the position players:

C: This position was an offensive black hole for the Cubs for most of the season, and the defense wasn’t so great, either. The solution, in my mind, is simple: put Geovany Soto there, and let him play. No, he won’t be Mike Piazza, despite what some eternally optimistic Cubs fans might think, but he will almost undoubtedly be better and cheaper than what the Cubs had this year.

1B: Derrek Lee had a weird year, but he still put up a solid .317/.400/.513 line. Granted, much of that was due to an unbelievable first half BAbip of .397, but he regained his power in the second half, belting 16 homers after the All-Star break after hitting only six before. There are better first basemen out there, but Derrek is better than average and under contract—he’s not going anywhere. I expect that next year he’ll probably post better power numbers and worse on-base numbers than this year.

2B: Mark DeRosa was actually good; it appears that his 2006 season was not an aberration. DeRosa has solid on-base skills, something that the Cubs lack at many other positions. I’m sure we’ll see a bit of a regression next year, but I expect he’ll still be a useful player.

SS: Ryan Theriot: nice guy, hard worker, mediocre (at best) baseball player. His defense is solid, if unspectacular, but his bat is so weak that he is, overall, a drain on the team as a starter. The Cubs need to get better at this position, and the answer probably lies outside the organization.

3B: If you honestly want Ramirez gone because you think he’s “lazy” or “doesn’t care,” go fuck yourself. He’s one of the best third basemen in the league.

LF: Soriano will be here for a long, long time.

CF: Another offensive black hole for the Cubs. True, Jacque Jones showed some life in the second half, but he’s still not really an acceptable answer at CF. The Cubs need to put Felix Pie there, or get a good free agent like Torii Hunter or (preferably) Andruw Jones.

RF: Yuck. I like Cliff Floyd, but I won’t be too sad to see him go. A 35-year-old with bad legs is not the guy I want as my starting RF. Given the Cubs’ needs at CF and SS, I think it’s best to save some money here and try an in-house solution: platoon Murton and Jones. It won’t be a spectacular, but it should get the job done, and it will allow the Cubs to focus their money on upgrading two positions that were even more problematic from an offensive standpoint in 2007.

What to do? Assuming the Cubs do the “right thing” and let Soto have the catching job, there are three positions to be filled: SS, CF, and RF. The Cubs probably don’t have the financial flexibility to go after free agents or trade for veterans at all three positions, so I suggest a Jones/Murton platoon at right. That leaves SS and CF. The best option, I think, is to let Pie have the CF job and try to trade for a decent/good shortstop (Renteria?—just signed with Detroit) This would cost the Cubs money for one veteran and some prospects. The next best option is to sign Andruw Jones/Torii Hunter/Aaron Rowand and then use Pie in a trade for a decent/good shortstop. This would cost more money than the first option and the Cubs would lose their best position player prospect. Now let’s look at pitching:

SP1: Carlos is staying.

SP2: Ted Lilly is staying.

SP3: Rich Hill was good this year, and I don’t think he’s hit his ceiling. He needs to improve on the non-pitching parts of his game (fielding, holding runners on, etc.), but he’s a very, very good #3 starter. I think it would be a huge mistake to trade him, even if it did net someone like Renteria.

SP4: Jason Marquis is fine if he’s your fifth starter, but the thought of someone worse than Marquis consistently starting games in the fifth slot is scary. The Cubs need to go into next season with a starter in their rotation better than Marquis to hold down the fourth slot. Who is that? Sean Marshall/Gallagher? Maybe, but as much as I like the “let the kids play” philosophy in general, I’m not sure it’s appropriate for this Cubs team, which is built to win now (or at least soon).

SP5: Jason Marquis is your #5, ladies and gents. I, for one, am OK with that.

Pen: Ryan Dempster should not be closing, but I think he’s an OK reliever. Howry should be moved to the closer role, Marmol should be kept in his “fireman” role, and Wood should be resigned to be a middle reliever. Eyre will still be under contract next year, so he stays. The final two bullpen spots should be for “in-house” youngsters like Hart and Gallagher; signing a free agent reliever is very, very stupid, unless he’s a stud like Joe Nathan (who may be on the market next year).

So the Cubs could use a starter. To sum up, then:

Needs: CF, RF, SS, C, SP

Proposal 1: Platoon Murton and Jones in RF, put Soto at C, give the CF job to Pie, and go to free agent market/trade for good SS, better-than-average SP.

Proposal 2: Platoon Murton and Jones in RF, put Soto at C, go to free agent market/trade for good CF, SS, SP, using Pie as a trade piece.

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