The Cubs by the numbers: They may not be as bad as we think

I think it's easy to look at the record and conclude that the Cubs are a terrible team.  They are in last place at 5-9 and they have had some ugly losses.  But there is some reason for optimism.

  • Six of those nine losses have been against the Atlanta Braves and the San Francisco Giants.  3 of those 6 losses have been by one run and one additional loss was in extra innings.
  • The Cubs are just (-10) in run differential, far less than other teams with comparable records.  Miami, for example, has a run differential is (-42).  They aren't even in most of their games.  The Cleveland Indians (-20),  Houston Astros (-21),  Philadelphia Phillies (-23), Toronto Blue Jays (-25), and the Los Angeles Angels (-27) have had run differentials at least twice as high.
  • The Cubs have the 7th best ERA in the NL.  They have held their opponents to the 3rd lowest slugging percentage, they are 2nd in strikeouts per 9 innings.
  • The offense has been poor overall, but actually acceptable vs. RHP.  They have a .744 OPS, which ranks 5th in the NL.

Jed Hoyer feels the team is better than their record,

“It’s been frustrating with the results. The wins and losses, they are what they are, and that’s our record, but given some of the production, we should have more wins than we do."

“It’s always bad when you can’t close out games,” Hoyer said. “If you want to look for a silver lining, we’ve been in a lot of games and we should’ve won more. If you’re getting blown out night after night and don’t have the talent to compete, I think it would be more frustrating. I think the way we’ve played is probably the most frustrating brand of baseball. There’s nothing worse than winning a game for 2 hours 45 minutes and then losing. I think that starts to wear on a team. As the game goes, the most frustrating brand of baseball is winning for most of the night and losing in the end, and we need to stop that. Obviously, the bullpen needs to tighten up and the defense needs to tighten up, too.”

So why are they performing poorly?  Part of it, of course, is the offense, but much of it has to do with sloppy play.  The Cubs margin for error in this area is small, as Theo Epstein has noted.

 “[There's been] some sloppy play that we need to eradicate sooner rather than later. The bullpen is off to a slow start which can make for some tough losses.

“We’re not that talented that we can get away with playing sloppy ball, so we need to fix that,”

They've been poor at the little things.  They have by far thrown the most wild pitches (13), they have allowed the most stolen bases (14), they've hit the most batters (10) and they are tied for first with the most blown saves (4).  They have allowed the 4th most walks, though that isn't as bad as it sounds.  They've walked just 5 more batters than the 5th best team, but with all the other little things, the Cubs need to do better.

Much of those poor numbers, as you might expect, have come from the bullpen. The bullpen ERA is 2nd worst in the NL despite the staff as a whole being 7th.  The bullpen ERA is 5.73 , while the starters' ERA is just 3.15.  They have thrown 6 wild pitches, 4 more than the average NL team.

While errors aren't a tell-tale sign of bad defense, it is a sign of the sloppy play that Theo Epstein talked about.  The Cubs have the 4th most errors in the NL.

The Cubs hitters have been poor overall, but they've been downright non-competitive vs. LHP.

  • The slash line this year as team vs. LHP is a woeful .193/.264/.289.  It adds up to a .552 OPS which, incredibly, is still better than two teams -- the Pirates and the Phillies.  Their OPS against RHP as noted earlier,  is much more respectable.

The Cubs have made some steps to address the bullpen situation already.  They've removed Carlos Marmol,  who cost them two wins on his own, from the closer role.  They've added Kameron Loe, who throws strikes and generates ground balls, and they've added Kevin Gregg as an option at the back of the bullpen.  Whether that shakeup will make a difference remains to be seen, but at least it's clear the Cubs are aware of the problem.

The Cubs defense, outside the errors, has been solid and should get a boost with the return of Darwin Barney.

That performance vs. RHP needs to improve.  It's a small sample size so far for both Scott Hairston (2 for 15, 1 HR) and Dave Sappelt (1 for 19), the two main platoon players, so the Cubs will wait and see if they heat up with the weather.  The alternative is to play David DeJesus full time,  but he batted .133 last year vs. LHP without a single extra base hit.  Nate Schierholtz was not much better (.175/.206/.238) and may not be the answer either.  The Cubs were hoping to use both players vs. RHP only where they could maximize their production. That part of the plan has worked so far.  Now it's time for Hairston, Sappelt, and whomever plays 3B vs LHP (Cody Ransom?) to pick up the slack and hold up their end of the deal.

So the problem areas early on are clear.  It's been the bullpen, performance vs. RHP, and sloppy play in general.  With just average play in those areas, it isn't hard to imagine the Cubs being a .500 team, perhaps more.


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  • John, at what point would you play Schierholtz against lefties? I know his historical stats aren't good, but he's raking and at some point I feel it's worth finding out if he's a full-time player.

  • In reply to mosconml:

    I'd give it at least another month and wait for that weather to warm up. Hairston has historically hit LHP, so no reason to think he can't continue to do so. I think that's more likely to happen than Schierholtz suddenly hitting LHP at age 29 -- though I will say he has shown at times he can hit for average against them, it's just a very hollow average that doesn't play in a corner OF position.

  • Great article john, The team is better than last year. I think part of the rebuild is learning how to win and its going to take time. If the bullpen comes together and production against left handers improve then the record will be better. I'm not that worried about the defense because I think part of the problem is been the weather and the team can't get there pre game work out in.And it doesn't hurt that barney is back.

  • In reply to seankl:

    Thanks Sean. I agree and there may be something to the Cubs just learning to win. It's something that some stat gurus might dismiss, but I think a big part of any game is confidence. You could almost feel it with the Giants that whole series. The Cubs think they can win. The Giants know they can -- they take advantage of mistakes, they overcome their own miscues, there was just a different mentality out there.

  • "The Cubs margin for error in this area is small."

    Yep,... this was one of many of our collectve predictions for the year. It's a team that was going to struggle to consistently score runs (especially against lefties), that was going to lean heavily on a need to play good defense, have good starting pitching, and have an improved bullpen.

    Since the defense has been occasionally erratic, and the back end of the bullpen has been horrible to date,... the close game are tending to go into the Loss column.

    With the exception of Feldman, and one truely horrible outing from Jackson the starting pitching has actually been quite good.

    Wood has been a pleasant surprise - topped only by an even more pleasant surprise from Villanueva - and Shark has occasionally looked truly dominant. If/when Baker and Garza make an appearance - move Feldman into the pen, and things get even better.

    Gotta get rid of the errors, wild pitches, and mental lapses though.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Absolutely agree on all counts. I think this team is a lot closer to being competitive than we think. They need to stop beating themselves with all the mistakes. If they do that, we'll see them string a few wins together.

  • The good news is that the Cubs have been in every game. The bad news is that they have lost most of those late, which makes the team appear less.

    The team has a different feel now that Barney is back. The infield is playing both sides of the ball with more confidence.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Yes. And I think they'll turn things around with those close games as long as they find the right mix in the bullpen. I also think the performance vs. LHP will improve as Sappelt and Hairston get into more of a rhythm.

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    As bad as things have gone, we're 5-9 while the mighty Dodgers are 7-8 and the Blue Jays are 7-9. Statistically, that's essentially equal. And our run differential is better than both of them. There's still time to play -- and if yesterday is indicative of Rizzo and Soriano breaking out of their early season slumps and the bottom of the lineup doing what they're capable of (working counts, forcing the pitcher to make pitches, thus getting the starter out of the game), we really could start to string together some wins.

  • @JonHeymanCBS #cubs acquire julio borbon

    Does he have to be on the 40 man?

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    In reply to Cub Fan Dan:

    Yes, he does have to be added. So, somebody is going to be DFA'ed shortly......and I hope Dave Sappelt rented rather than bought

    Interesting move on Borbon, because we have a bunch of OF, but he is a natural CF, which we don't have on our roster at the moment

  • It's unfortunate that the two outfielders hitting well at AAA are both LH (Bogusevic & Sweeney). Heck, even Brett Jackson is LH although he's hitting his usual mid .200s. I'm not used to the Cubs having too many LH bats, and not enough RH bats.

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    I think that means Sappelt is going down. If Sappelt was hitting it wouldn't be an upgrade but considering his struggles it might be worth a flyer.

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    In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    I think that's probably right. Question is who gets the 40-man axe. Ransom? There's no way Sappelt survives waivers.

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    In reply to Mike Moody:

    The problem is the Cubs need 6 infielders on the 25-man roster.

    If Stewart is ready, that would solve the problem, but not sure he is at this point...then you could DFA Ransom, option Sappelt, and add Borbon

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    In reply to Zonk:

    I think that's the most realistic thing. But what about when Stewart is ready. Who gets the axe? Alberto Gonzalez?

    Might be Shawn Camp is he has another outing last his last few.

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    In reply to Zonk:

    Fair point. Perhaps Loe or Gregg and bring Dolis back. I just can't see them exposing Sappelt to waivers.

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    In reply to Mike Moody:

    Ill throw something from LF. Dejesus trade in the works?

    Also why get Borbon when Ryan Sweeney is tearing up AAA

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    Possible. The simplest explanation is that the Cubs are trying to add talent wherever possible and adding flexibility for future deals, but there is a roster crunch right now, so I won't rule that out.

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    In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    Even if there isn't anything imminent, I don't think any of us would be surprised if end-game this season is to trade both Soriano and DeJesus. Borbon and Sweeney could step right into their spots.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    Nice pick-up, wish he could hit right-handed.

  • Were you away from your computer again, John?

  • Actually I wasn't this time ;) I was trying to gather info to write up an article on Borbon and had seen you guys had already beat me to it in the comments section. I suppose I could do what MLB Trade Rumors does and put up a quick blurb and then add to it later. Actually I'm continually updating the piece as we speak.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Gonzalez goes.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I was going to say, when the day comes that the Cubs are about to win the World Series, try to be away from your computer.

  • I think they are ptrobably as bad as we think. I'm pretty siure they have the wrong manager.

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    In reply to BLOOMIE1937:

    Who's out there that you believe would be a better fit?

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    In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    marcel I don't mean to beat a dead horse but if the FO really wanted to give a rookie manager a shot then I think Ryno would have been a better fit. He knows the fan mentality, he knows the eccentricities of Wrigley, he knew most of the young guys on the team because he coached them in the minors, and his work ethic is top-notch, I get the impression - superficial I know - that if a guy throws to the wrong base of misses the cutoff man or doesn't get himself in position to cut off, he would hear about it in no uncertain terms.
    It also would have been a bone thrown to some fans that might not have the patience for the long rebuild.

  • New article up on Borbon. Still gathering info.

  • Getting Barney back will probably be a bigger boost to the teams record than his career numbers would suggest. Lillibridge was awful. Sappelt and Hairston have been awful. I have a full grasp of lefty/righty splits and how platooning makes sense because it maximizes values. However, having seen every at bat this season, and given the roster the Cubs opened the season with, platooning has been a huge bust so far. DeJesus and Schierholtz are just more likely to have a good at bat when the team needs one. That's all a manager, a teammate, or a fan who knows the game can ask for. A good at bat. Whether it be looking to do damage in hitters counts or hitting a ground ball to the right side with nobody out and a man on 2nd, I'd rather see Double D come up in a spot than Sappelt, who may as well be Darnell McDonald, Johermyn Chavez, or even Matt Szczur (even though he'd be over matched as well). Time to make a change there and get some new blood on the bench. Valbuena has been pretty solid (not killing us), Schierholtz has been great obviously, and Castillo has shown he can hit (especially with two strikes). Rizzo is driving in runs. Starlin looks good. Soriano needs to heat it up with RISP. Three, maybe four good starters, guys that give you good at bats, and a good bullpen are all you need to be in the hunt! Its a real shame nobody at the back end is "lock down". I really hope they can cultivate that guy before too long. Vizcaino? Johnathan Gray perhaps?? I know both of those guys have top of the rotation potential but a guy like Gray who can touch triple digits in a start could be LIVING 100-102 with a wipe out slider for one inning! Like Aroldis Chapman. The best closer in the league.

  • AND....what is the deal with this Yoanner Negrin gentleman? Guy is 29, Cuban, pitching extremely well at AAA, the Cubs' bullpen is in disarray....why has he not gotten the call yet? There's no harm in seeing what he's got at this point! How long have the Cubs had him? Also glad to see Rondon looking solid and not intimidated in small sample.

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    I think the team is still figuring itself out. Injuries, errors, slow generation of offense, etc. They are all to blame. Playing half of their games when it is 30 some degrees out certainly doesn't help either. If the offense can start to click some, this team could be a lot better than we anticipated. They aren't going to be a playoff team, but they won't hit 100 losses either. The fact they haven't been blown out and have hung in for most of their games, against decent competition too, shows they have the potential to challenge most teams. The biggest thing is getting a little help on offense and the 8-9 spot in the bullpen. It might get worse before it gets better, but I look at the team and see the record we should be if not for little errors.

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