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.
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.