May 24, 2017

IS IT A DUNN DEAL?

Kyle Schwarber continues to get a lot of attention in Chicago. He is a fan favorite. He is a likeable, blue collar player. He has done great things since arriving on the scene. He has the most post-season home runs in franchise history. His epic return for the World Series after a serious knee injury is a story of legend.

But what is Schwarber?

Is he the new Bambino? Or is he something else?

People are perplexed because Schwarber has the label of being a "pure" hitter. He gets contact. He can drive the ball. He has a good eye. He is an "on base" machine. But the myth may have overtaken the man.

Schwarber's first season in 2015 showed promise. At 22, he played in 69 games, had 232 AB, hit 16 HR, 43 RBI. His batting average was only .246. He struck out 77 times (+33% of the time).

In 2016, his season was lost due to an outfield collision. He returned to become a World Series hero.

Now, at age 24, he has played 41 games. In 156 AB, he has 7 HR and 19 RBI. He has a .186 BA. He has struck out 51 times (32.7%).  The low batting average and continued high strike out totals is a real concern.

A comparison that comes to mind is Adam Dunn. Chicago fans remember Dunn's time as a struggling White Sox at the end of his career.

Dunn debuted at age 21 for the Reds. In 2001, he played in 56 games, hit 19 HR, 43 RBI, hit .262.
In his first full season at age 22, he hit 26 HR, 71 RBI, .249 BA.
In his third year, he hit 27 HR, 57 RBI, .215 BA.

Dunn played in 14 seasons. He ended his career with 462 HR, 1168 RBI and .237 BA.

The question is whether you would accept Schwarber with a Dunne-like career.

The expectations and initial comparisons had him starting at Babe Ruth to being another Anthony Rizzo, a .300 hitting power bat near the top of the order. But Schwarber has yet to sustain a high batting average in his major league career. 

The Cubs want to keep Schwarber in the daily line up because of his bat. But look at the other players missing time because of it: Almora, Happ and Jay. Happ has taken the local media by storm. In 31 AB, he has hit 2 HR, 5 RBI, .323 BA playing mostly out of position in the OF.

The log jam of young players is a positive for the Cubs. But there will be a point of diminishing returns if they do not receive sufficient playing time in order succeed.

Schwarber was once considered an untouchable trade chip. We will have to see if the front office changes its mind on him.

May 18, 2017

NEW ARM OLD STORY

Steve Stone once said that all bullpen arms are failed starters.

The Cubs under Theo have failed to draft and develop one starter of their own.

The streak continues even though the team called up one fading prospect.

The Cubs have optioned infielder Jeimer Candelario to Triple-A Iowa and added Pierce Johnson to their bullpen.

Johnson — the first pitcher the Theo Epstein regime drafted for the Cubs — will be available to make his big-league debut against the Cincinnati Reds.

Johnson — the 43rd overall pick out of Missouri State University in 2012 and the compensation for losing free agent Aramis Ramirez — struggled with command issues and health problems as a starter and pivoted toward a bullpen role last summer.

Johnson went 2-0 with a 3.21 ERA in 12 appearances for Iowa this season, putting up 21 strikeouts against 11 walks and 15 hits through 14 innings.

But when Johnson was drafted, the front office painted the picture that he was the prototype pitcher the Cubs would stock pile in the minors. It never happened. Even though more than 50% of all Cub draft selections have been pitchers, none have made the majors as a starter. The inability to develop a home grown starter is the black hole in the Cubs organization. Every team is desperate for pitching, especially quality inning-eating starters. The premium spot is an ace starter. The inability to develop starters has led the Cubs to the market to overspend on free agents and pitchers on the decline in their careers.

But as we have seen this season, a starting rotation can crumble quickly. A five-man Opening Day rotation now looks for a 5th starter, and two replacements for Arrieta and Lackey when their deals expire at the end of the year. Some predict that Arrieta and Lackey may not last the entire season. It then gets to the proposition of Peter stealing to pay Paul; trading the depth of position prospects to either rent or take on a bad contract at the deadline for an experienced major league starter.

May 16, 2017

A TIME FOR CONCERN

The Cubs stand 18-17 record, 3.5 GB the Cardinals in the NL Central.

Some pundits believe that there is no reason to panic. Everything will be fine. The Cubs will come around. The team has too much talent to fail.

Except that is mere hope and expectation. An objective view of the 2017 season finds:

1. 22.8% of the season has been completed.
2. The Cubs record is upside down from last season.
3. The 2016 Cubs had two starters who hit over .290, hit 30 HRs and drove in 100 RBIs.
4. The 2017 club has only one player hitting over .290 or on pace to hit 30 HR (with 7, Bryant).
5. No current player is on pace to drive in 100 RBI.
6. No Cub starting pitcher is on pace to win 20 games, let alone 18 (accomplished by 2 last year).
7. The only starter on pace to exceed his win total from 2016 is Lackey (on +1 pace to win 12 games).
8. There is no current starter on the team who can replace Hammel's 15 win total from 2016.

The 2016 Cubs had a winning percentage of .640 (103 wins). If the Cubs "turn it around," as the bandwagon drivers claim, in the next 125 games, the Cubs would win 80 games for a season total of 98 (5 games worse than last year). However, that means that the Cubs have to win every series played for the rest of the season.

As the team has played, it is more realistic to divide the remaining 125 games by three. 42 games at 66 winning percent; 42 games split; 41 games at 33 percent equals 66 more wins (or a total of 84 wins). The Cubs have not had a long win streak this season. The starting pitching and lack of hitting is the reason. Even if you factor in a 9 game win streak, but a third (33%), third (50%) and third (55%), you project only to 63 more wins or a .500 season.

The major excuse is that Kyle Schwarber will eventually hit and drive base runners from the lead off position. Except, his post season legend is more than his current track record. In 106 major league games, 370 AB, he is only hitting .219 with 21 HR and 57 RBI. In a full 162 game season, that only projects to 32 HR, 87 RBI.  In 2017, he is only on pace for 20 HR, 56 RBI. 

He may not get more dramatic contact. In 2016, his strike out ratio was 33.2 %. In 2017, his strike out rate is 32.8%. In the next 500 AB, he has a projected chance to make bat-to-ball contact 20 more times, and at his current BA pace - - - 4.38 more hits. Can all four be game winners? Probably not.

Schwarber is not the only player to blame. It is systemic. And if fans do not want to accept that their team is not the same as last season, then you will have something in common with the Giants fans after their post-championship seasons of despair. 

Then, there is another view that the Cubs' front office will right the ship by acquiring new starting pitching with all the young talent in their organization. It is clear that the Cubs tried to show case 3B Candelario, but he went 1-7 but showed some above average defense. Happ was brought up and hit a home run in his first game, solidifying the minor league Baby Schwarber bat legend. But the problem with Theo and Jed is that they have fallen in love with their young players so much they won't trade them easily. Especially when they view them as insurance against veteran injury (such as the current MASH unit of Heyward (thumb), Russell (shoulder), Zobrist (back), Jay (back).

The last beef is the remark that the season is still early. People oddly place more significance in late season wins than early season wins. But in a 162 game schedule, wins in April count equally with wins in September. There is no "bonus" fraction for winning games at the end of the season. It is a clouded perception because most fan interest peaks after August when the pennant races come into view.

What were the preseason expectations?

100 win season: need to play .656 baseball (better than last year) to achieve goal
95 win season: need to play .616 baseball to achieve goal
90 win season: need to play .567 baseball to achieve goal

Those figures show how far behind the Cubs currently are in their goal to repeat in the NL Central and contend for a second championship.

If the front office, the fans and commentators are not concerned about the state of the Cubs, then they are a mild state of denial.

May 12, 2017

THE BUTLER DID IT!

One trope in mysteries is that a band of people are together in a mansion when during the course of the evening a person is murdered. Everyone immediately begins to suspect every guest, every motive, every nuance, until it is revealed at the end the butler did it.

The Cubs mysterious bad season has a Butler going to the mound to murder the Cardinals.
Or so we hope.

But Eddie Butler has a career 6-16 record in 36 games played (28 GS), with an ERA of 6.50, 1.770 WHIP and a negative 2.7 WAR. And he is touted as the fifth starter savior?

The hope lies in the small Iowa sample size: 5 starts, 1-0 record, 1.17 ERA, 1.109 WHIP in 30 IP with 17 Ks, 8 BB.

Can he hold back the staff's double digit 1st inning ERA disaster?

The Cardinals are in first place, 2.5 games ahead of the slumping Cubs. In St. Louis, the home town folk will want their team to stomp on the Cubs' collective neck to get some real separation in the NL Central.

Joe Maddon has run out of excuses ("fatigue," "championship hangover," "cold weather," "distractions") since the calendar has turned over to May.

Between #1 starter Lester and closer Davis, the pitching staff has been a mess. No one has been consistent. The Cubs had been carrying 9 pitchers in the bullpen just to try to survive long games which led to several starters pitch hitting in extra inning contests.

To compound the pitching woes, the Cubs defense has been below average. One person remarked when Rizzo had the day off, the Cubs fielded four second basemen to play the infield. Zobrist has not been good in any outfield spot. Baez is trying to make every play a Sportscenter highlight reel instead of getting sure outs.

It is clear that the Cubs lack focus. It may be hard to get yourself up to do a daily grind when you have already won a championship, but this team is young and should be hungry enough to continue history by winning multiple championships. That means laid back Joe needs to start sitting players when they screw up to send a message (remember all the tough love Starlin Castro received when he was a Cub?)




May 8, 2017

108 & OUT

It took 6 hours and 5 minutes to shatter many records. The 18 inning Sunday night contest between the Yankees and Cubs was the longest interleague game in history. It also crushed the number of strikeouts in a game with 48. Of the 108 outs, 44.4 percent were by strike out. Yankees set a franchise record by striking out 26 batters in a game, while also recording a history 22 strikeouts on their own.

The Cubs used 22 players, including 8 pitchers. Only 8 batters got a hit during the marathon game.
The Cubs mounted a 9th inning comeback, erasing a 3 run deficit off Yankees star closer, Chapman.

But during the game, Baez hit a stinger foul off the top of his foot. Hobbled, he stayed in the game and played second. Rizzo was hit on the forearm with a fastball. He also stayed in the game in some pain, but an x-ray later showed no broken bones.

The Cubs had 108 outs but could only score 4 runs in 18 innings. The Cubs left 18 runners on base (10 courtesy of Yankee walks). 108 was a magical number in 2016. But in 2017, it merely reflects the doldrums of the post championship hangover the Cubs are experiencing this season.

The Cubs got swept by their mirror cousins. The Yankees, the old money team that used to try to buy championships with expensive free agents, now boasts a young core as talented as the 2016 Cubs. Rookie outfielder Judge leads the majors with 13 HRs. Outfielder Hicks provides speed on the bases. Gregorius and Castro are a young double play combination. The Yanks boast two quality catchers in Sanchez and Romine, who can also play first. 

The Yankees are 20-5 while the Cubs are slumping at 16-15. If this was a statement series or a test of how good your team is, then the Yankees won by a wide margin. The Yankees have quietly emerged as the best team in the AL East because the ongoing bean ball war distraction between the Red Sox and Orioles.

May 3, 2017

THE ROTATION

Pitching coaches will often say in spring training that you have to wait five regular season games to tell how well your starting pitchers are going to be for the season.

The Cubs have reached that point. It is not pretty.

The starting rotation after 16% of their season complete  is not on pace to be an average starter.

Lackey: 2-3, 5.10 ERA, 30 IP, 9 BB, 1.333 WHIP -0.3 WAR
Lester: 0-1, 3.68 ERA, 29.1 IP, 9 BB, 1.432 WHIP 0.3 WAR
Arrieta: 3-1, 4.66 ERA, 29 IP, 8 BB, 1.310 WHIP, -0.1 WAR
Hendricks: 2-1, 4.18 ERA, 28 IP, 12 BB, 1.214 WHIP, 0.2 WAR
Anderson: 2-1, 6.23 ERA, 21.2 IP, 12 BB, 1.846 ERA, -0.5 WAR

The starting rotation has accumulated a total negative 0.4 WAR.


It is the high ERA and high walk totals that is killing the rotation.

May 2, 2017

IT'S NOT EARLY

"It's still early."

That is the catch phrase from those who want to put pink lipstick on a pig.

The sample size is too small to make accurate projections.

But a month into the season with 25 games played does give one pause to reflect on one's team.

The Cubs are in first place with a meager 13-12 record. The .520 pace is only good for a projected 84 wins, a significant decrease from 2016's 103 victories.

The 2016 Cubs started off to a blazing 25-6 record and never looked back.

So, what is the difference?

One could argue the Cubs are still in championship hangover mode. Spring training was more like spa days for the veterans. There was no competition for starting jobs. The players knew they were good because they had bathed in champagne.

The Cubs returned 4 of the 5 starting pitchers who combined to have an exemplary season. But Brett Anderson, the often injured, new #4 starter replacing Jason Hammel has been a disappointment. He looks a little like Travis Wood, but he throws like an arthritic old man.

But none of the other starters have been very sharp. Velocity has been down. The coaching staff is not worried thinking April would be the month to get past any "dead arm" problems.

The bullpen is currently 4-5 with 4 blown saves. Wade Davis seems to be a good closer when he is on, but there is still times his set up men (Uehara, Strop, Montgomery, Rondon) get lit up.

The defense has been disappointing. Javy Baez has made 3 errors in 39 attempts at second base. It may affect his hitting as he is only at .222 BA, .275 OBP, 2 HR, 6 RBI with 21 strikeouts. But Baez is not the leader in Ks. Contreras has 22K/70 AB; Bryant has 27K/99 AB; and Schwarber has 35 K/97 AB.

The team is 7th in the NL with a team BA of .251 but 12th with 227 strikeouts.

Len Casper said that Joe Maddon believes that putting players in "uncomfortable" defensive positions, i.e. playing outside their natural position, helps them relax at the plate. The concentration on defense takes the pressure off their hitting.  In a crazy blow out last night, Maddon had all three of his catchers play new positions: Schwarber made his debut at catcher; Montero played first base; and Contreras played third base. Maddon will be shaking up the line up to get his players to believe the game is still "fun."

When one says it is too early to worry, just remember that games played in April count as much as those played in September. A win is a win and a loss is a loss. Everyone expects the Cubs to play better, especially in a weak division. But April has put the spot light on the team's weaknesses.