Making the Grade: A brief look at the Cubs after 81 games

 

Here we are on July 4 and the Cubs have hit the literal halfway point of the season with a 51-30 record. That’s not bad, but many of you seem concerned about the team’s 14-17 record against teams with winning records.

So, I found myself wondering about how teams who don’t put a winning record together against winning teams fare in October. It felt like a reasonable question and it didn’t take too long to answer.

The 2015 Mets went 62-34 against teams with losing records, but 28-38 against teams at or above .500. Further, the Mets had a bit of a rough patch in the summer when they went 25-27 in June and July.

This isn’t to say the 2016 Cubs are the 2015 Mets, but know that what happens in the regular season isn’t predictive of what will happen in October. I mean, we’re only 10 years removed from an 83-win Cardinals team winning the World Series. Anything can happen in a small-sample size of a series.

Postseason baseball is all about getting a chance to roll the dice in October.  And if you have to play the role of bumslayer along the way, so be it.

Since today is July 4 and I assume you’re likely busy traveling, cooking, consuming baseball or some combination of the three. This also probably means you don’t want to be glued to the web all day. But if you do want to spend some time reading, here is this:

C: The struggle is real with Miguel Montero, who owns a -0.4 fWAR, which ranks 35th among 36 catchers who have accumulated at least 130 plate appearances. Only A.J. Pierzynski (-1.2) is worse. Montero spent time on the DL with a back injury and hasn’t looked right since. Meanwhile, David Ross has a 1.3 fWAR that ranks higher than Brian McCann (1.1), Matt Wieters (1.0) and Yadier Molina (0.3). I haven’t seen enough of Willson Contreras to give him a grade, but plays with a certain enthusiasm that would have football analysts pegging him as a “high-motor guys.”

1B: Anthony Rizzo is one of two MVP-worthy candidates on the Cubs if he stays healthy and the Cubs stay in contention. Rizzo’s 2.9 fWAR ranks second behind only a resurgent Wil Myers (3.3) of the Padres, while his 156 wRC+ is the best at his position and ranks fifth in all of baseball.

2B: Ben Zobrist has cooled considerably (.218/.336/.386; .314 wOBA, 94 wRC+ since June 1), but is still a very valuable player. The big knock on Zobrist right now is that he doesn’t get to as many balls as he used to because 35-year-old second basemen don’t usually have elite range. Zobrist, whose 3.0 fWAR ranks fourth among MLB second basemen, has also pitched in as a serviceable outfielder.

3B: Kris Bryant should be talked about as one of the best all-around players in baseball. He carries a 4.1 fWAR, while balancing three defensive positions. When Bryant plays the outfield, Javier Baez has posted a 1.2 fWAR in 200 plate appearances. He owns a minuscule 3.5 BB%, but has cut his K% down to 23.5%. Baez has shown elite athleticism and defensive skills at multiple positions to go along with a league average bat (98 wRC+).

SS: Addison Russell leaves something to be desired offensively (18th in wRC+, 19th in wOBA) but grades out well defensively (5th in Defensive Runs Saved, 7th in dWAR, 10th in Defensive Runs Above Average). His 1.3 fWAR ranks 14th among MLB shortstops, but his 3.2 fWAR over the past calendar year ranks eighth at his position. His defense gives him a high floor, but the offensive potential gives him a high ceiling and something to watch for in the second half.

LF: Only Jorge Soler has played more innings in left field than Bryant, but Soler’s grade is incomplete because injuries (again) have stunted his development at the plate and in the field. So, we’ll talk about Bryant some more because he owns the second highest UZR/150 rating among left fielders (min. 230 innings) to go along with a UZR/150 which ranks seventh among third basemen.

CF: Dexter Fowler is having the kind of career year that gets you one more major contract. His 2.8 fWAR ranks fifth among MLB center fielders and is having his best defensive year, according to DRS (3) and UZR/150 (3.2). His hamstring injury has left the Cubs offense shuffling to find consistency.

RF: Jason Heyward plays elite outfield defense — ranks second behind White Sox right fielder Adam Eaton in DRS (13), UZR/150 (30.8) and Defensive Runs Above Average (8.0) — but has been an offensive liability. His wOBA and wRC+ each rank last among the 22 qualifying right fielders. His best offensive attribute has been his ability to coax a walk (10.5 BB%) while getting his strikeout rate below 20 percent. The most annoying aspect of Heyward’s slow start isn’t the 49.3 percent ground ball rate that is near his career average, but the 18.3 percent infield fly ball rate that is his highest since 2011 (21.8%) and significantly higher than his career 12.9 IFFB%.

SP: Four of the Cubs’ five starters (Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks) rank among the top 30 in fWAR, FIP and xFIP. Arrieta, Lackey and Lester each rank in the top 20 in strikeout rate, while Hendricks, Arrieta and Lester each rank in the top-25 in soft contact rate.

What about the pitching? It’s been pretty good, as far as starters are concerned.

Jason Hammel is probably going to end up as a 2-WAR starter at a relative bargain ($9 million salary in 2016). His slider has been top-notch (8.8 runs saved, per Fangraphs ranks 9th in baseball), but when he doesn’t have it, there isn’t much he can give the Cubs.

RP: It appears the Cubs are an arm (or two) short in the bullpen. Both Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop have strikeout rates at 34 percent or higher, but those guys can’t carry the entire load over the course of 162 and be expected to be dominant in the postseason. Travis Wood is serviceable, but Justin Grimm’s struggles have set this unit back.