October 2, 2018

Worrisome? More Like Worried a Lot

There's something I've been extremely concerned about with this Cubs team throughout the second half.

Is it the inconsistent starting rotation? Well, on the season the starters put up just 8.9 WAR, topping only the Giants, Padres, Reds, and Marlins, not coincidentally the four worst teams in the league. That 11th place finish is quite a fall from their Jake-Arrieta-fever-dream heyday:

Ouch. But that's not it.

How about the injury-ravaged bullpen? I mean, I have already posted one extremely well-received bullpen-related complaint. And while the relievers did finish fifth in WAR (4.0), more than one-third of that total is currently unavailable with Pedro Strop (0.8) and Brandon Morrow (0.6) out.

Still, that's not it, either.

So it's gotta be the bats, right? Despite being of an age where, if they're not going to improve, they should at the very least not decline, five of the Cubs' seven (semi-)regulars age 26 or younger actually got worse this season.

*Tom Hanks voice* WILLLLLLLLLLLLLSON! Anyway, you can see that thanks to Javier Baez's 33-point gain, the average wRC+ only dropped three points. But the Average-No-Javy dropped by nine points, to just barely above league average.

Most of this was caused by a severe power outage.

Every single non-Baez returning player—even Ben Zobrist, who actually saw his wRC+ jump by a whopping 41 points (even more than Baez's!)—had their ISO drop from last year, by an average of 50 points. That's, uh, significant. For context, almost all of Baez offensive breakout can be attributed to an increase in power, as seen in both his HR/FB (up to 24.3% from 19.7 a year ago) and the resultant increased ISO (also buoyed by a career best 22.1% line-drive rate). Baez's ISO increased 57 points this year. Essentially, the average Cub regular lost as much power as Baez gained.

Double ouch. And yet, we still haven't hit on it. But it starts with this:

Those are first half records on the left, second half on the right. And the Cubs, who ended the first half with a .591 winning percentage, plummeted all the way down to a .580 winning percentage in the second half. That 11-point plunge can only mean one thing: they are clearly terrible and we might as well welcome them to they're "doom!"

Damn that was a long way to go to sneak in a Killface reference. Because by wins and losses, the Cubs have basically been the same team, although they did go from the best record in the NL in the first half to the fourth-best in the second. But take a closer look at the first half standings, this time with runs scored / allowed and the associated expected win-loss records:

In the first half, the Cubs had the best record, but were also quite nearly the league's unluckiest team in terms of run differential, as they underperformed their expected win total by three. They then followed it up with this:

I've sorted by Pythagorean expectancy, where the Cubs were the 10th-best team in the National League in the second half. While based on how the last few days have gone it might not have seemed like it, the Cubs were exceptionally lucky in the second half. The luckiest team in the entire league, in fact, and by a pretty substantial margin. And that is what has worried me the most: Since the All-Star break, the Cubs have the underpinnings of a decidedly average team.

Now, here's the beauty of it all: This team still won 95 games! They (essentially) tied for the best record in the National League! They've made the playoffs for the fourth straight year! Their run of success is completely unprecedented in my time on the planet, and, quite frankly, we've all been spoiled by it. Because despite the unreliable rotation, the thin bullpen, and the regressing bats, this is still baseball, and the Cubs have a shot to win the whole damn thing. And given that they've already won one more World Series than I ever thought I'd see in my lifetime, I'll most certainly take it. Worries and all.

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