Is the Cubs plan working?

Is the Cubs plan working?

There was a moment in my radio interview where I let my optimism slip through.  I talked about getting to .500.  If they can get to that in a relatively weak division ...who knows what can happen?

I was a bit surprised.  I didn't plan on saying anything like that, but when Josh Houchins talked about the Cubs playing better ball lately, I realized I wasn't the only one who noticed.  Tom has said the same thing and so have many of the commenters.  Maybe I'm getting carried away.

Maybe not.

The Cubs rank in the top 10 in the baseball in FIP.  Their pitching has been solid, particularly the top 3 of Garza, Dempster, and Samardzija.  Maholm has been very good of late and Volstad, the source of frustation for many fans, has been better than the numbers indicate.  His FIP is just 3.38 and I think even he is on the verge of being a solid contributor if they can fix his problems with men on base.  His strand rate is an unsustainably low 46.3%.  He will improve that and with that, so will his overall numbers.

The staff as a whole has allowed the 2nd lowest slugging percentage in the NL and the 5th lowest OBP.

The downside this season has been the walk rate, which ranks as the 3rd worst in all of baseball.  The bullpen has allowed a disproportionate number of those walks. We've stressed out a bit about the bullpen, and rightfully so.   They have saved only 4 of their 8 save chances.  If they'd have saved 7 of 8, the Cubs would be 15-14 right now. But even the bullpen has performed better lately and has been the key to a few victories recently, including Sunday when they pitched 5 scoreless innings to give the team a chance to come back and win in extra innings.

The defense is also improved.  The Cubs rank 10th in baseball in team UZR/150 which is a statistic that takes all defensive aspects (range, errors, etc.) into account.  Last year they ranked 19th.  They rank 1st in OOZ (out of zone plays) so far this season, so the Cubs have been converting tough plays into outs more than any other team this season.  Last year they ranked 28th.

The offense has struggled and has had to scratch out runs.  They rank 19th in OBP which isn't an improvement over last season but considering they lost some big bats in the offseason, the Cubs have to be happy they've kept that number from dropping.  Part of that is that Bryan LaHair has done a more than adequate job of replacing Carlos Pena.  In fact, LaHair (4.30) and two other new starters, David DeJesus (4.10) and Ian Stewart (4.06), rank in the top 20 in all of baseball in pitches seen per AB.  While it hasn't always seemed that way, those two players have been solid acquisitions who fit the Cubs new vision, the so-called "Cubs Way".

They also have two more players, Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo, who will join the team later who excel in this category as well.  New addition Adrian Cardenas is also a player who grinds out ABs and may replace a slumping Barney down the road.  So the OBP and pitches seen per AB should actually increase as the year goes on.

The weakness has been slugging, which ranks 24th in all of baseball, but again, the Cubs have reinforcements in Iowa on the way who should help improve that ranking.  It's also worth noting that Ian Stewart and Geovany Soto have started to rebound after horrendous starts and are hitting the ball with authority of late.  We also can't expect Alfonso Soriano to be a singles hitter for the rest of the season.

And what about that aggressive baserunning?  Has it helped?  According to BSR, it has helped -- dramatically.  BSR, which, as I understand it, is actually a measure of UBR (Ultimate Base Running), the Cubs rank 3rd with 3.2 runs added so far.  The Cubs ranked 29th last year -- second to last -- with a negative ranking (-12.0).  In other words, their base running cost the Cubs runs, and ultimately victories, last season.  This year, it has added runs.

While you may see some unsightly batting averages and ERAs on the team, there are some behind the scenes numbers where the Cubs have improved substantially already, and the Cubs haven't even commenced rebuilding in earnest yet.  The record may not show it yet, but the Cubs are headed in the right direction and it appears that The Cubs Way is transforming the team's approach to winning baseball games.

Stay tuned.  The Cubs are getting better and the best is yet to come.

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  • I can't help noticing that this increased emphasis on fundamentals, which fans have been begging for forever now, appears to be paying almost immediate dividends. A further indictment of the previous regime, I'd think. It's difficult to even envision where we'll be in two or three years after shedding Soriano, Marmol, etc. in favor of heading further down this road.

  • In reply to Ken Begg:

    Exactly Ken. They're working on those little things and they are adding up lately. Those things matter over the course of a season. The Cubs approach has been much more fun to watch this season. I hope it leads to better results but even if it doesn't, it feels like they're headed in the right direction for a change.

  • Walk rate reminds me that Marmol loaded the bases before he got out of the 8th last night. It doesn't seem to make a lot of difference to me whether he is on the verge of blowing it in the 8th or 9th, except that the Cubs had a chance to pad their lead in the bottom of the 8th.

  • In reply to jack:

    I do want to see that walk rate go down. That's one thing the Cubs set out to do but haven't been as successful at yet.

  • John great stuff as always. I'm really excited about watching this team on a daily basis win or lose. Last night I thought that Marmol was going to blow it again, but something happened that I think may carry over for him. After he got that 1st out on the perfectly defended shift his body language seemed to change. I haven't seen him look that way all season or even last season. He had an intensity after that we haven't seen since he was a dominating set-up guy back in the Lou days. Not sure if it will make any difference, but sometimes when you've been struggling and your teammates pick you up with a big defensive play it

  • In reply to irishivy75:

    You never know. Sometimes it takes one good outing where everything clicks. Hopefully this gets Marmol's confidence back. This bullpen needs him.

  • In reply to irishivy75:

    And thanks!

  • when you get good pitching then all seems much better with any baseball team. I've enjoyed this nice run by the Cubs and look forward to an improvement in the quality of baseball we'll see from them in the years ahead. But let's not get too giddy here, they're still at best a close to .500 team that is getting an incredible streak of lights out pitching from 4 of their 5 starters. There will be some dismal times ahead this year. The best part of it is to see the improved and professional coaching going on--that is the backbone for development.

  • In reply to Cuyler:

    Probably, but I didn't expect them to be .500 when the year started and I like how they're going about improving exactly what they said they were going to improve. It's a process, though, and I don't think 2012 is the Cubs year...but it's nice to see some progress.

  • .....can make all the difference in getting your confidence back. If we can get the bullpen straightened out I honestly think this Cubs team can compete THIS year. If Soriano and Soto can start carrying their weight from the right side of the plate LOOK OUT. I'm just being overly optimistic, but at this point why not. The Cubs stock is definately rising. Look around at the power rankings around the country. We're not the only ones noticing.

  • In reply to irishivy75:

    Why not? I think the odds of them contending are small, but stranger things have happened. I'm most grateful that there seems to be a structure and plan in place and that things appear to be moving forward.

  • John,

    Good article and I do appreciate the positive outlook. It's not pie in the sky or unrealistic...but a good argument for continued patience backed up by numbers. I, for one, needed it. I think it is in our DNA to be pessimistic as Cubs fans. If they can get the bullpen straightened up and the power heats up with the weather, things might not look too bad, even for a "rebuilding" year. Then I think the full plan comes together...assets at the major league level, assets in the minors and money to spend on free agents where there are holes Sounds like a plan for success in three years!

  • In reply to jimmy mac1:

    Thanks! I was interested in a few things beyond the usual numbers. Specifically some of the things that the new front office has been stressing. They have improved some of the little things but they need to get the walks down, straighten out the bullpen, and get some of their sluggers on track.

    But things do seem to be coming together, even if it's slowly. I think by July, the Cubs will be ready to move to the next phase.

  • Barney had better change his approach soon or he's a goner. Walk rate is unacceptable unless he is hitting the ball ..... and hitting it into gaps. He's doing neither. That OBP he's sporting is a drag on run production. I've always liked the kid, but I'm ready for a productive 2nd baseman again....

  • In reply to Cubswin4harry:

    I'm a little disappointed in Barney's start. After a good spring,he seems to be regressing to the bad habits he started last last year. Right now he doesn't look like a starter but I'm sure he'll be given ample chance to work it out.

  • Not only is the best of the cubs yet to come, but the worst of the league is yet to come as well. We've yet to play the pirates or astros who we should definitely pound on.

  • In reply to Andrew:

    Good point. It's been a tough schedule so far.

  • In reply to Andrew:

    Why should the Cubs definitely pound on the Pirates or Astros? Both teams have better records than the Cubs do right now.

    I'm not trying to be a pessimist (or maybe I am) but let's not get carried away after winning 9 of 15. Get excited if they get over .500 and the Cardinals calm down a bit.

  • In reply to Jimmy Greenfield:

    I hear you Jimmy. I'm more excited about making progress in the way they play than having realistic hopes they'll contend. They've improved in little ways that don't cost much and have been done with the current personnel or low cost additions.

    I'm happy for better baseball, even if the results don't show it in the end.

  • In reply to Jimmy Greenfield:

    I suppose they should pound on them relative to how they have fared against much better competition. The run differentials of the pirates and astros are worse than the cubs right now as well.

  • With Soriano's reduced power numbers, would moving him back to second base increase his value? The reason I ask is if we can't deal him, and need to open up a spot for both Rizzo and LaHair to play later in the season, maybe that's a way we could go.

  • In reply to Carne Harris:

    Moving him to 2B would increase his offensive value based on positional value, but his defense would be a huge disaster. Sori was a bad defender when he was young and had good legs, he'd be awful now. He's always had bad hands, now he'd add bad range -- and neither are fixable at this point.

  • I have always commented that the Cubs could win the division this year. It's a tough hill to climb, but it is possible. it is definitely not:
    http://www.myspace.com/cubstunes/photos/5005557#%7B%22ImageId%22%3A5005557%7D
    There is a lot to be happy for. I looked at the standings before and we are no longer in last place. Is it going to happen? I have no idea, nobody does. But they are fun to watch and root for. When they lose, it's "let's get 'em tomorrow." not "here we go again."
    I was rereading an article from earlier in the year. It read as typical, let's say stuff that gets the fans hyped to sell a few tickets. However, take this quote from Hendry in 2011:
    "We fully expect to be in contention in the National League Central. (I) don’t have any doubt we can do that.”
    And Sveum in 2012: ""I just let 'em know that's a team that can compete and do really well," he said afterward. "We're not here to rebuild. We're here to try and win the World Series this year."
    The difference is in the results. Say anything you want in Spring training but back it up. This years Cubs appear to be doing just that.

  • In reply to Break The Curse:

    I think the difference this year is that the Cubs have a plan that's based on more than hope. With Hendry, it always seemed like they'd make some acquisitions and hope that they and the holdovers had big years. This team seems more proactive and is actively doing things to improve the ballclub beyond just shuffling chairs.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    That is the key, you see improvement with your eyes as well.

  • We are tied for last place, I get that. But on the upswing.

  • In reply to Break The Curse:

    I think if you look at is a process and in terms of progress the team makes in key areas instead of just bottom line results, then there's reason to be excited about this team.

    It's a different look and feel than the past 3 years.

  • John, Big question. Do the Cubs trade Dempster and Garza at the trade deadline or keep them even though their within reasonable distance of first place? Other teams will definitly be after them if their era's are among the league's best.

  • In reply to Fitz:

    That is a huge question and a bridge they may have to cross. What if, for example, the Cubs are just 5 games out, as they are now? Do you trade Garza and/or Demp?

    My feeling is that if you get a very good offer, you have to consider it but there's no reason to purge for the sake of purging. That's always true, but especially so if the Cubs are playing well.

    The Garza situation is complicated. There's the pending extension. There's his youth and ability to contribute now and down the road. If the Cubs feel they are closer than they originally thought, they may keep Garza, especially if it's a team friendly deal and nobody is offering a package that blows the front office away.

    But what if he wants Cain money? What if a team offers them a boatload of prospects? It wouldn't surprise me to see the Cubs pull the trigger if they think it will benefit the team long term.

    I do think the Cubs will trade Dempster and Maholm if they have the opportunity and it will benefit the team down the road -- even if the Cubs are playing well.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Yes though I doubt Ricketts lets Dempster go. I just really am fearful that emotion will stop us from getting a deal done for him even if the package is good :(

  • In reply to Tom Loxas:

    Demp will resign to a club friendly deal next year. Given he is a FA after this year, hard to see another team offering much of a package at the trading deadline, but I guess we'll see. Point being, no sense in giving him away at the deadline when he'll be a good value next year. Unless he's blocking a young arm, which doesnt seem likely.

  • In reply to Tom Loxas:

    My hope is that Ricketts gives all the power to Theo and Jed on this. One player is not greater than the dream, and emotions can't get in the way of that. The old regime had that problem. If they can trade Demp, do it now! He can't possibly pitch any better than the present.
    Tom, is there a reason you are fearful? Have you heard something we haven't? I am a huge Dempster fan, for his on and off the field behavior. Plus he seems like a great role model to everyone on the team. But in the end, it's a business of winning.

  • In reply to Break The Curse:

    I was thinking the same thing. I think if it's up to Theo/Jed, they'll trade a guy like Dempster unless the Cubs have a legit shot at winning the Central. And I'm hoping Ricketts will stay true to his word and leave the baseball operations to the baseball men.

  • Soriano has not hit for power or average, but he is taking more sliders 3 feet outside in the dirt and going the other way. This helps the team moving runners over and in. Also, he is more intense on defense.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    His defense and willingness to go the opposite way have been a nice surprise. He's in there for his power, so hopefully he can get that back while keeping the other improvements.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Soriano, defensive intensity...does not compute

  • At the risk on sounding like a curmudggeon, getting and staying competitive year in and year out is no east feat.

    I do believe that the approach that is being taken by the mgmt team could led to sustained and repeatable competiveness, but projecitng performance on any kind on a linear plane has proven to make many a prognosticator wrong as often as right.

    By the way, could it be that the league has begun to notice that Starlin Castro will swing at bad balls, and that throwing strikes is not altogether necessary to get him out?

    Could he be the 2nd coming of Manny Sanguillen?

  • In reply to JK1969:

    Very true. It's one thing to build success in one year. It's quite another to sustain it year after year. The Cubs are nowhere near that right now and it'll take a few years, so if the Cubs have a chance to improve the long term goal, I think they'll do it even if it hurts short term goals a little.

    Castro is a much better hitter than Sanguillen could ever hope to be. I also think the league already knows they can get him to chase balls out of the zone.

  • John, I'm enjoying this current good run..,playing the good teams like St.Louis, LA, and now Atlanta. But, what will show ME a REAL CHANGE, is when we play Houston and Pittsburgh. We've got to win series from these lower levels teams..,home and away. That will show me CNANGE. COMMENTS???

  • In reply to rakmessiah:

    They have to keep that intensity, but I really hope the Cubs don't think they're above playing hard against the less successful teams. After all, they're still among the worst teams in baseball.

    I don't think they'll have a let down but it doesn't mean that they still can't get outplayed by the Houstons and the Pittsburghs of the world.

  • I'm not being optimistic here, I'm going to state the facts. It shouldn't be about "if" the Cubs can compete, they ARE COMPETING. They have beat very good teams, they have hit very good pitchers, they have won a few series, they are getting very good outings from their pitchers, the coaches have been solid and their only 6 games out of first and only 3 games out of 2nd place. They might need to scrape out wins for the moment but the future is in motion. With the call-ups coming relatively soon, it can only get better from here. This team doesn't want to compete they want to WIN the World Series. Don't give up quite yet Cubs fans, we are in for a wild ride. Quote me on that! GO CUBS

  • In reply to johnnywest333:

    Agreed, Johnny. Even the eye test shows the Cubs can at least give these great teams all they can handle...and in many cases, they're actually winning them.

  • never give up - the best motto one can have if they wish to remain a Cub fan.

    Rooting for the biggest underdog in all of sports has proven to be a taxing and often times, hardbreaking endeavor.

  • In reply to JK1969:

    Well said, JK. We all know where you're coming from!

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    Great article and comments today, John! It's nice to know that some of the various metrics (e.g. defense and baserunning) are corroborating what mine eyes tell me. I'm certain the improvements are due to an engaged coaching staff (GASP!) and real upper management (GASP! GASP!) but part of me wonders if part of the story is that nebulous "chemistry" that can make or break a season. I'm not referring to everyone in the clubhouse getting along but more of "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts" idea. I thought the 2010 Giants were good examples of this, but I dunno. It's a vague concept.

    I will say that this year's team is a whole lot more entertaining to watch and cheer for than teams of the last several years so for whatever the reasons, I like it. I like it a lot!

  • In reply to Bobby Douglas:

    Thanks Bobby!

    I never rule out intangibles like chemistry, even though I can't measure them ;) l Whatever chemistry is, the Cubs seem to have it. And I totally agree that the better coaching -- Dave McKay is a real find -- and the front office are big keys.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    One thing that has stuck with me from the Theo and Hoyer introductory pressers is that these are competitive guys. I think it was from the Hoyer presser where he said (something along the lines of) that he hates fighting through 60-win seasons as much as the players. The "every season is sacred" quote has already been mentioned in this thread, so I will just leave it with the reminder that, while long term goals trumps short-term ones when analyzing personel moves, combining long-term goals with on-field competitiveness trumps everything else.

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    In reply to CubsFanInNorway:

    I have a vague recollection of someone in the front office (Theo? Jed? T.R.?) commenting about wanting to shed the "loveable loser" moniker. Regardless, "combining long-term goals with on-field competitiveness trumps everything else" is true.

    Now that I think about it, maybe that's what different about this year's team; there's a sense of competitiveness. The teams of the last several years (even '08) seemed like they had an aura of resignation; that they were the Cubs and they were fated to lose in the long term even if they won in the short term.

    I don't see that with this year's team.

  • In reply to Bobby Douglas:

    They do compete. I'm already getting the sense that they never feel like they're out of any ball game.

  • In reply to CubsFanInNorway:

    They are. I don't think they'll give up short term goals unless it's a big gain for them. So if a team wants Dempster or Garza, they're not going to get low-balled. But if they offer the Cubs a healthy surplus value, I think they'd consider doing that -- especially if the guys are close to the majors.

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    really great article--yeah cubs pitching and defense has been pretty solid! I agree with your take on these veterans, if Cubs are in contention, listen to offers but only trade them for good deals. Don't just trade for the sake of trade because odds are the prospects aren't going to pan out anyway, especially if they're not top-notch prospects.

  • In reply to Gary Kueper:

    Thanks Gary!

    It seems in some ways, being in contention can give the Cubs some leverage. If they feel they can compete sooner rather than later, they can realistically tell teams they're willing to keep younger veterans instead of just giving them up for the sake of rebuilding. Even if the

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