There is a method to the PECOTA madness when it comes to the Chicago Cubs. The talk of Baseball Prospectus’s projection system was the low expectation for the Cubs, who are listed as a team very capable of having more losses than wins in 2019. The team has used this as something of a rallying cry and Cubs fans have taken to social media to voice their displeasure.
The Cubs went 95-68, lost the NL Central to the Brewers in Game 163, and lost to the Rockies in the one-game elimination round. Usually, we see negative projections like this from teams that overachieved by run differential of BaseRuns. The Cubs were 94-69 by Pyth W-L and +4 via BaseRuns at 91-72, so there may be a little bit of pessimism in that regard.
But, we’re here looking for game-by-game betting spots and players to watch. There aren’t a lot of outliers for the Cubs. They were 51-31 at home and 44-37 on the road. They were 26-25 in one-run games and had a big split, as most teams do, with a 49-46 record against teams at or above .500 and a 46-22 record against losing teams. Only the Red Sox had more wins against right-handed starting pitchers.
Ah, but as we look deeper, the Cubs were 40-30 after the All-Star Break, but only +2 in run differential. This does appear to have been a team that got pretty fortunate in the second half of the season.
Money Line Spots
This will be a fascinating Cubs season. The numbers-heavy crowd has serious concerns about this team. More traditional handicappers, or even trends bettors, are going to have a more favorable outlook on the Cubs. I’ll be watching lines very closely with this team early on in the season.
The Cubs struggled to hit for power last season. They only had three hitters with at least 20 home runs. Compare that to the 2017 season when there were six. Maybe the Cubs will be overpriced in favorable offensive matchups. That could certainly be a possibility.
Jon Lester will be a fade candidate early and often this season after posting a 3.32 ERA with a 4.39 FIP and a 4.43 xFIP. His 80.3 percent LOB% doesn’t jive with his low strikeout rate and he also posted a HR/FB% that was actually right around league average. A lot of times, xFIP isn’t really applicable because a pitcher will never be around league average. Lester was right in that ballpark, so his 3.32 ERA is most certainly ripe for regression.
I’ll be part of the group looking to fade Lester. Cole Hamels is another candidate with a 2.36 ERA and a 3.59 xFIP after he had a 4.72/5.20/4.19 pitcher slash in Texas over his first 114.1 innings last season.
The Cubs were sixth in wOBA on pitches of 95+ mph last season. They were 17th, going from .325 to .314 in wOBA, on pitches or 94 mph or less. They were also 17th against pitchers that ranked in the bottom third in strikeouts + walks. Essentially, the Cubs struggled against control artists that pitch to contact, which makes sense, since they are more dependent on drawing walks than most offensive teams. That will be a fade spot as well.
Something I tracked last season is that the Cubs were 64-36 when they walked at least three times in a game. That means they were 31-32 when they didn’t. I’m sure most teams look something like that, but the Cubs are very reliant on the free pass.
To the last points, we can also look to play unders with the Cubs in those games as well. When they aren’t going to walk a lot, they aren’t going to score a lot of runs, unless the power numbers happen to come back up. Also, they simply match up well with hard-throwers for whatever reason. The irony is that totals usually go up when soft-tossers or pitch-to-contact guys are on the mound. That seems like a detriment for the Cubs.
As it is, the Cubs were a great under team at 88-73-2 to the under. With the expected pitching regression, though, we could see that number inch closer to a 50/50 split. It is a sign of how the offense wasn’t as good as expected. Like with sides, I’ll be watching the totals very closely with this team.
Individual Players to Watch
Yu Darvish – I already talked at length about Jon Lester, so let’s look at Yu Darvish. Darvish has had a light workload this spring, as the Cubs hope for him to make it through the season relatively unscathed. Darvish only pitched 40 innings last season and they weren’t pretty, as he posted a 4.95/4.86/4.24 slash line. The strikeouts were still there, but he had major walk rate issues.
Why did Darvish have walk problems? Hitters stopped chasing. He didn’t throw enough competitive fastballs or good breaking balls. His O-Swing% went down from 32.1 percent to 26.9 percent. He did still get a good amount of swings and misses in the zone, but just didn’t get those chases. He still managed an above average swinging strike rate. He’s a guy I tentatively like going forward this season.