In the second half of this season, the Cubs have approached the baseball world in full force, and they've become one of the most dynamic, fascinating and promising teams to watch. In July, the front office made some pitching related trades that a few fans may have deemed "questionable" at the time, but the Cubs have continued to pitch well. They've brought up some of the power players that we watched thrive in Iowa every night, leaving fans only dreaming of the day that they would arrive at Wrigley. The future is now and yes, it is bright.
But let's take a look back just a few months to what this team looked like in April. In a nutshell, it was most definitely not as intriguing and impressive as it is right now. None of the Cubs top prospects we wait patiently to see at the plate each night had been brought up yet, and their pitching staff was what we assumed to be stellar, but the bats in the lineup provided menial run support for quality outings. Remember how many games it took for Jeff Samardzija to garner his first W?
Just for fun, maybe even a little bit of shock value, let's compare the typical lineup we saw in the first half of the season, to what we see now. All stats listed are these player current numbers, just to see what we would be dealing with in the present time should the lineup have not changed throughout the season, and what we are working with now:
Not only is looking at the difference in names a drastic change and improvement, but look at the number of players that have changed in this lineup; only three players are the same as the opening day lineup, and the quality of player they've been replaced with is a superior indication of what the future holds. But let's look a little further.
The one thing that would catch anyone's eye right away is the addition of power hitting that has been added to this lineup. The opening day roster included players that all had a SLG% of .375 and under with the exception of Castro and Rizzo. Not good. Now, looking at the current typical lineup, the power hitters are thriving. The only players in a typical Cubs lineup now that aren't hitting above .375 SLG% are, hey look at that - only Welington Castillo. Yes, I included Soler's Triple A numbers because his stats are still a tad warped after playing in just four major league games (his SLG% in the MLB is currently 1.267), and this would be his truest measure of his talents at this point. The Cubs SLG% as a team has improved from .355 in April, to .422 in July and .400 in August. The slight downward trend in August is most likely the effect of the team's doubles dropping in August, going down from 48 in July to 38 in August which will affect SLG%, a stat that is derived from "total bases". Home runs in August have flourished, capping the month at 39, up from 29 in July. The Cubs had a 10-16 record for July with a .385 winning percentage, but let's go back a little further. In April, the Cubs had an incredibly discouraging start to the 2014 season, ending the month with a 9-17 record. August, however, has been a different story. The "kids" are here, and the numbers show it. The Cubs are 16-14 and have a winning percentage above .500 for August, with Alcantara, Baez, and Soler all in the lineup - and with Valbuena and Castillo recently producing well at the plate.
The addition of the young talent found in Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, and even the "new look" Logan Watkins, etc. is obviously what should be credited for the Cubs recent success. At 6'5", 215lbs, Jorge Soler's power is eminent and such an asset to this Cubs lineup. His HR/FB ratio is currently 75%, which indicates stellar power. According to FanGraphs, Soler has currently hit 6 FBs, 3 GBs and 2 LDs, while swinging at 61% of pitches inside the strike zone and 31% of pitches outside of the strike zone, and making contact 61% of the time on all pitches seen. It's only been four games, but he's already hit three home runs and had his first multi-homer game, while driving in seven runs. Nothing short of impressive.
Baez on the other hand, tends to have a little less plate discipline, which seems to be an area of concern for a few Cubs fans - but as others have said - he is always going to be a high strikeout type of player. On the same scale of stats we looked at for Soler, Baez has swung 45% of the time on pitches outside the strike zone, and 59% of the time on pitches inside the strike zone. He makes contact on 59% of all pitches he sees, and 82% of the time on pitches inside the zone. One of the things that Cubs fans did take notice of a few nights ago, was just how close Baez came to hitting a home run that ended up being a deep flyball off of the usually untouchable Reds closer Aroldis Chapman and his elusive 101-mph fastball. I'm pretty sure if Javy can still do that during this time of league adjustment and less than 30 major league games under his belt, he will be able to adjust beautifully in the future.
On opening day, Cubs pitching wasn't really much of a troublesome issue. Of course, Edwin Jackson, who is still a part of the rotation once he's off the DL at this point, started off his season with three straight losses and only pitched six innings or less in those starts. But let's take a look at the Cubs former and current rotation, again, stats are all present day except were noted.
The numbers have vastly improved on the backs of two new pitchers, Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada, who have yet to disappoint - especially Hendricks. Hendricks currently holds an ERA of 1.91 since his debut on July 10th and has only allowed 14 earned runs and 3 home runs in 56 innings pitched. He also has an ERA+, for those of you who pay attention this stat, of 219. Remember, the ranking scale for ERA+ is 100 = league average, and anything on the plus side of that is above league average. Hendricks has become quite the buzz in the Cubs pitching world, known for his cerebral approach on the mound, he also has great control and maturity. He has become a must see player every start.
Tsuyoshi Wada has also been an interesting addition to the Cubs rotation. He recently took a no-hitter into the seventh during his last start at Wrigley, before giving up a home run which would be his only hit of the night, exiting thereafter with one out in the seventh inning. Wada is on just his ninth major league start at the age of 33, and debuted just this year with the Cubs. He holds a 2.56 ERA and has allowed just 13 earned runs with 5 home runs in 51 innings pitched. Wada relies mostly on his fourseam fastball that averages around 90mph and his slider that tops out around 82mph. He also has a sinking slider and a splitter in his repertoire.
Though the current back end of the rotation has caused more question than the "new guys", there is no denying that this rotation has been cleaned up from what it could be, should Samardzija and Hammel have stayed in Chicago and went on the downward trend they are currently on with the A's, with the Cubs. Samardzija and Hammel have improved in their last starts with Oakland, but are still considered to be less impressive than their replacements in the Cubs rotation. Another undeniable asset the Cubs have had in their arsenal recently is their bullpen. The Cubs bullpen has had a 1.81 ERA and only allowed seven earned runs in the month of August, since trading James Russell to Atlanta and sending Brian Schlitter down to Iowa after a small stint on the DL.
The Cubs have made some drastic changes and so far they're working out. The last half of the season has been undoubtedly the perfect time to add these new minor leaguers to the mix and give them their first taste of life in the bigs. It leaves an adequate amount of time for them to do some league adjusting, while not having to scrutinize and pressure them just yet. The offseason is going to be a busy one of the Cubs, who's front office staff have openly stated recently that they will be looking to acquire veteran pitching for the 2015 season, and hopefully once we see the rest of these prospects next season, things will begin to look like a well oiled machine on the North Side. The future is bright as ever.
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