The Cubs Still Aren't a Good Team, But They're Getting Good at Winning

The Cubs Still Aren't a Good Team, But They're Getting Good at Winning

The Cubs are undefeated in July!

Granted, the month is only 2 days old, but still. Jake Arrieta dominated the Red Sox on Monday night and Edwin Jackson & Co. did more of the same on Tuesday. Sure, the offense hasn't done much, scoring just 2 runs in each of the games so far, but  you don't need much when your opponent scores only 1 run.

A little less than a month ago, I had written a post titled: The Cubs Aren't a Bad Team, They're Just Bad at Winning. Of course, at the time I wrote it, the Cubs were already 3 games into a 5-game winning streak and had captured 4 of 5. However, they were sitting at 11 games under .500 at 23-34.

And while their current mark of 36-46 might appear to be only a tiny improvement, I think it's important to look a little deeper at the record. After all, if you're just staring at the forest, you sometimes miss the beauty and detail of some of its individual trees.

Let's first consider the number of series the Cubs have won in each month. You might not think that's a big deal, but if you go out and win 2 of 3 time and time again, you're going to end up with a darn good mark at the end of the season. The Oakland A's have the best record in baseball with a .614 winning percentage; winning series on a regular basis matter.

In the month of April, the Cubs didn't win a single series. They split a couple, sure, but no wins. Then in May, they took two, winning 2 of 3 against the Cardinals to open the month (Arrieta pitched the clincher) and then doing the same to the Brewers (or is it Broors?) two weeks later.

But despite collecting a few scattered wins, the Cubs sat at 20-33 as May wound to a close. But then the calendar turned to June and things started to turn around. The Northsiders swept Ron Santo's least favorite team (that's the Mets for the uninitiated) to kick off the month and then took 2 of 3 from Miami.

After a Pirate-shaped speedbump, the Cubs took down the Phillies and then the Marlins again, before one more dropping 2 of 3 to the Bucs. Still, that was 4 series wins in the month, if you're counting. And with Arrieta's dominant outing and the team effort on Tuesday, they've already guaranteed a winning start to July.

At the end of the day though, it's all about wins and losses. Okay, so let's look at what the Cubs have been doing in that regard. I mentioned earlier that the Cubs opened May by taking 2 of 3 from the Red Birds. Actually, they took the first 2 games from their division foes. However, all the Cubs did after that was drop 7 of their next 8 and 10 of their next 12, including 3 of 4 to the White Sox and a sweep at the hands of the Braves.

Things were looking very ugly on the North Side, as the Cubs sat 14 games under only 40 games into the season. If you did nothing more than look at the Cubs' record in May (11-16), you'd see the same old story and you'd be falling into the same narrative trap.

And I guess that's all well and good if you just want to be lazy or if you're one of those folks who likes to lament the fact that the Cubs just trade all their good players every year. Woe is me, they're just going to trade Arrieta and Bryant and Baez anyway. Let me go find some thistles to eat; hey, Winnie the Pooh, can you tack my tail back on?

Sure, if you simply looked at the month of May and saw that record, you might be content to file it away as a lost cause. But somewhere along the way, the Cubs started to get better, started to turn right the ship that had been listing drunkenly to one side or the other.

Since that low-water mark on May 16th, the Cubs have gone 23-19. They had (gasp!) an over-.500 month of June and they're carrying that right into July. In Fenway, of all places. It's clear that this team still has lots of holes, though maybe not as many as Junior Lake's swing. Good golly, Miss Molly, I bet his heat map has more blue than the Cubs road unis.

But despite some individual struggles, the Cubs are finding ways to win. And please don't confuse that with Hawk's TWTW; I mean simply that they're doing little things right, or maybe just not doing big things wrong. Starlin Castro, in particular, has been a revelation.

Not as though this kid was some kind of unknown, but there were certainly more than a few Cubs fans willing to ship him out for whatever they could get in return. But with a plate approach that looks much more mature and refined, Castro is performing in the cleanup spot and leading the team in hits (93), avg (.286) and RBI (47).

And the defense? Castro's always had range for days and the ability to make the spectacular plays, but it's the routine balls that have given him issues. He's far from perfect (11 E's and a -.2 dWAR), but 8 of his errors came in the first 2 months of the season.

At the time of the May 16th turning point, Castro had 7 errors in only 40 games; in the 42 games since, he's made only 4 miscues. That might not seem like much to celebrate, but my neighbors seem to think it's enough to merit a series of bottle rockets and firecrackers. At least, I think they're happy about Starlin and not just needlessly lighting fireworks during the entire week leading up to the 4th.

I'm sure the saber junkies can add a little to my unscientific view of Castro and the Cubs, but I've watched them enough to know that I'm seeing something different lately. It's entirely possible that this thing is only held together with duct tape and dumb luck, but it looks like more to me.

The long-term signees like Castro and Rizzo are living up to their billing, but more than that, some of the unheralded pieces this front office has acquired have been quietly putting together solid seasons. If these guys don't watch out, the're going to play themselves right out of a top-10 draft pick.

And while late-season surges were basically frowned upon in the past, given the need to replenish the farm system, this doesn't feel the same. You know that feeling of helplessness when you wake up in the middle of the night with a full bladder and no light to guide you?

Mind clouded by sleep and a singular drive to seek relief, you proceed gingerly, hands out in search of touchstones and hoping not to bang into anything too solid or sharp. But eventually, you begin to make out shapes and your blind fumbling turns into cautious confidence. Soon, your pupils dilate fully and you're able to navigate easily.

Tom wrote the other day that it's okay if the Cubs start winning now, and it looks to me that that's exactly what they're doing. But they still need to watch out for that bedpost; it's a doozy.

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  • Looks like my prediction of 45 wins is off the table.

    However, one can also note that many of these opponents are in .400 territory, including Boston .452, Phila. .434, Mets .440 and Marlins .482 (apparently falling behind the Nats).

    None of this has done the Cubs any good in the NL Central (all other teams are over .500) or in the draft sweepstakes (Phila., Colo., Az., Tampa, and Houston leading there).

    But Boston's .452 seems to belie the theory that Theo's theory brings consistent success. And the current Cubs games are now watchable.

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    Does anyone else get the feeling that the front office didn't really know what they had when they started the season? What I mean is, do you think that they miscalculated? We all know how tight of a financial noose Sam Zell has on the Ricketts, but this team has lost 13 one-run games.

    What's the difference between a team that wins half of those one run games and one that loses? It's 2-3 extra baserunners per game. So we're talking about Seth Smith and Angel Pagan types.

    Very exciting times ahead, but it makes me wonder if they missed the boat given how great the pitching has been lately.

  • In reply to Phil James:

    Sam Zell doesn't have any interest in the team. Some bankers may have $500 million in loans outstanding, but the Tribune bankruptcy estate got whatever it got in the sale, less the residual 3% interest the reorganized Tribune Co. kept as a tax dodge.

    The only conclusion that could be drawn from your "the FO didn't know" is that it planned the abysmal start, rather than the over.500 June. If the goal is to win the draft sweepstakes, they have 2 months to trade away the functional parts of the team. Otherwise, since most of the remaining elements are cheap, the proper FO response would be "we're sorry to have started this badly, but now we will build on what we discovered in June." Still doesn't look like they can overcome any of the other teams in the division standings, though.

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    In reply to Phil James:

    I'm not sure that they didn't know what they had, but rather that they haven't been able to suppress it very well. That sounds worse than what I meant it to, but I do believe they were/are attempting to keep wins artificially low. That will make a lot of people alternately cringe and/or ball their fists in anger, but it's probably close to the truth, if perhaps overly simplified.

    I've maintained, and I'm not alone, that the Cubs can go from 90 losses to 90 wins, and I think that's what the FO wanted too. They don't want incremental improvement, which gives you a couple years of mediocrity. Rather, the preference would be to build to critical mass and then let the team explode into contention.

    As jack noted, and I think I did in the post, being marginally better actually hurts them; the Cubs will pick lower but will still be well out of playoff contention. I think the FO wanted to be really bad and then immediately flip to being really good, based upon a combination of spending and the ascension of farm talent. But the play of Castro and Rizzo, Arrieta and Valbuena, etc, has this team competing for the middle of the pack rather than eating its dust.

    So they probably could have tried for a couple mid-level bats instead of the swing-and-miss on Tanaka, and that might have gotten them even closer to contention. So in that regard, they probably did underestimate just how much better their two long-term pieces (3 with Arrieta, though he doesn't have the extension) would be.

  • They wouldn't get to where this org wants to go this year no matter how good the pitching is.

    I'm just happy with the direction towards next year being the year they make a stride.

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