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.

It seems that this blog has turned into a blog devoted solely to analyzing Aramis Ramirez’s newfound plate discipline.  Whatever; let’s look at the numbers:

P/PA career: 3.70

P/PA 2008 to date: 4.12

SwgA% (percentage of pitches swung at) career: 50%

SwgA% 2008 to date: 45%

Strk% (percentage of pitches that are strikes) career: 64%

Strk% 2008 to date: 59%

What do these numbers mean?  Well, not only has Aramis started taking more pitches than in the past, but pretty much all the “additional” pitches he’s taken have been balls!  You would expect that an increase in plate discipline, all else being equal, would lead to an increase in the number of called strikes—as well as the number of balls—but this has not been the case.

So what’s going on?  A few possibilities:

1) Nothing.  For some odd reason, ARam has faced a cross-section of pitchers who have thrown more easily identifiable balls than he has seen in the past.  This is pretty unlikely.

2) Overall increase in discipline.  He’s seeing the ball better and not letting himself swing at pitches out of the zone.

3) Better recognition of a specific pitch.  There’s some pitch—a splitter, curveball, something—that has enticed him to swing in the past that he is now able to lay off.  This pitch almost always ends up a ball.

I have a hypothesis along the lines of option 3, but I need more time to test it. 

I wrote a post about a month ago about Aramis Ramirez’ newfound patience this year.  At the time of the post, the Cubs had played about 20 games or so, and I posited that Aramis’ increased pitches per plate appearance (P/PA), walk rate, and strikeout rate were probably just small-sample-size artifacts.  What’s happened since then?

P/PA: Career: 3.70; 2008 as of last post: 4.02; 2008 as of now: 4.10

Walk Rate (actually percentage): Career: 6.95 %; 2007: 7.71 %; 2008 as of last post: 14.0 %; 2008 as of now: 13.7 %

K Rate (actually percentage): Career: 13.7 %; 2007: 11.8 %; 2008 as of last post: 12.9 %; 2008 as of now: 15.1 %

So what’s going on?  We obviously need more data, but the odds are certainly higher than they were a month ago that Ramirez really has changed his hitting style a bit this year, giving up some contact in favor of more power and waiting out pitchers more.  This is an interesting development that we will have to keep an eye on the whole summer.

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?

This is a big series.  Luckily, the Cubs miss Brandon Webb, but they do have to contend with Dan Haren today and Randy Johnson, who kills the Cubs, on Sunday.  The Cubs have their three best starters going: Lilly today, Dempster tomorrow, and Z on Sunday.  Let’s win a friggin’ series, huh?

Seeing Randy Johnson’s name listed in the schedule got me to thinking: when he gets into the Hall of Fame, which cap will he wear?  It turns out that good arguments can be made for the Mariners and for the D’Backs, though I would tend to lean towards the D’Backs.  Johnson won more games with the Mariners (130) than he has with the D’Backs (109 and counting), but he compiled a lower winning percentage (.637 to .673).  But we all know wins are a stupid stat; what about VORP?

Unfortunately, I do not know where to find historical VORP data for free; if you do, please leave a comment.  I can look at the PRAR (pitching runs above replacement) numbers for Johnson, adjusted for all time.  Johnson put up a total of 706 PRAR during his tenure with the Mariners; so far, he has accumulated 684 with the D’Backs.  Interestingly, if we look at PRAA (pitching runs above average), Johnson’s D’Backs totals surpass his Mariners totals by a wide margin (235 to 170).

What can we conclude from all this data?  Well, probably what any reasonably observant baseball fan already knows: that Johnson has probably pitched at a higher level with the D’Backs, but that he spent more time with the Mariners.

Looking at the all numbers, and making some reasonable assumptions about what Johnson will do in the future, it seems obvious that he should go in as a Diamondback.  This is disappointing to me since I don’t really like the D’Backs, and not just because of the 2007 playoffs: they seem to me a bland franchise with a fickle fanbase (5th lowest attendance/game in the NL last year despite having a good team) and bad uniforms.

But what if Johnson’s career were to end today (or, more likely, Sunday)?  I think it’s obvious that he should still go in as a Diamondback, seeing as his performance level has been higher with them and the counting numbers are in the same ballpark for the two teams, but would the win-obsessed powers-that-be in the Hall see things this way and look past the 20-game disparity in win totals?  I suspect that they would end up putting a D’Backs cap on him, but not for the right reasons: VORP and PRAA mean nothing to them (probably), but Cy Youngs (4 as a D’Back vs 1 as a Mariner) and postseason success (the 2001 World Series MVP award) do.  So regardless of what happens to him in the future, Johnson will probably be the D’Backs’ first HoF inductee, and he should be.

 

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.