|Sportsbook||Win NL Central||Win NL Pennant||World Series|
|Over/Under Season Win Total: 85.5 (BetOnline)|
There are a lot of fanbases out there that would love to consider 84-78 a terrible year. As fans, and even as bettors, we take a lot for granted. One of the hardest things to do in professional sports is to be consistent. To set a standard and maintain it year over year. The Chicago Cubs set new standards with their four-year run from 2015-18. They won their first World Series in 108 years and won at least 92 games every season.
They fell short of that standard in 2019 with 84 wins. Even though the Cubs only finished seven games back of the division-winning Cardinals, which was the smallest gap for any third-place team, it was pretty clear that changes needed to be made. Joe Maddon and the Cubs kind of, sort of, mutually parted ways. That felt like a catalyst for an offseason full of news.
And yet it hasn’t been. Owner Tom Ricketts is among those that have cried poor in advance of arguably the biggest CBA negotiation in league history. Nothing has changed. The underwhelming, underachieving cast of characters that made up the 2019 season is almost entirely in tact. The same starters are all in place in the lineup and there aren’t many different nameplates in the clubhouse for starters or position players.
There hasn’t even been a token reshuffling of the deck. It is hard to feel optimistic about a team like that and those types of feelings often permeate the betting markets. The winner of the offseason almost always gets a bump and more often than not falls short of expectation. Teams that don’t do anything are chastised for their lack of proactivity and aggression. The Cubs are a good team with an awesome core of position players and enough working parts in the rotation to be a threat. They play in a big market with a world-renowned brand that allows for a good amount of offseason spending to plug holes and improve the ballclub. For some reason, it hasn’t happened and the Cubs will be lambasted and punished in the lead-up to the season for what, quite frankly, appears to be apathy.
For better or worse, I have a bone to pick with the analytically-inclined organizations in baseball that make a decision based on the alternate standings metrics. Believe me, I consider them and even use them as a handicapping tool in my win total picks. I fully grasp the importance and the suggestive nature of these metrics. But, I think using them as a crutch is a mistake.
The Cubs were 89-73 per BaseRuns, which would have put them just one game behind the Cardinals and four games ahead of the Brewers, so, the Cubs would have been a Wild Card team. By 3rd Order Win %, the Cubs were 88-74, or second in the NL Central and in the WC Game against the Braves. The Cubs were also 90-72 by Pythagorean Win-Loss. What happens when these numbers all come together to suggest bad luck is that front offices simply take it for granted and assume that regression to the expectation will occur.
I’ve seen the Indians do this for years. Sports are unpredictable. Baseball, inherently, is prone to a lot of variance. The Cubs are relying on some things that may never come to fruition at the expense of spending money on the ballclub and actively taking steps to improve the talent level of the team.
Let’s see if that course of action, or, well, inaction, is enough to allow the Cubs to bounce back and go over their season win total with a new manager in World Series hero David Ross.
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+78 (5.03/4.55)|
|3rd Order Win% Record||88.0-74.0|
|Record in One-Run Games||19-27|
|Additions: Jason Kipnis, Ben Taylor, Caleb Simpson, Corban Joseph, Jeremy Jeffress, Steven Souza Jr., Josh Phegley, Tyler Olson, Jason Adam, Carlos Asuaje, Ryan Tepera, Ian Miller, Hernan Perez, Noel Cuevas, Dan Winkler, Casey Sadler, Alfonso Rivas, Jharel Cotton, Trevor Megill, CD Pelham|
|Losses: Addison Russell, Allen Webster, Ben Zobrist, Brandon Kintzler, Cole Hamels, Derek Holland, Jonathan Lucroy, Nick Castellanos, Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Xavier Cedeno, David Phelps, Kendall Graveman, Tony Barnette, Clayton Daniel, Tony Kemp|
The allegedly cash-poor Cubs went from shopping for designer labels to shopping at Family Dollar. I’m just going to come right out and say it. This is an embarrassing offseason for the Cubs. I can understand why they’d look at the advanced standings metrics from last season and hope for the best, but you have to proactively try and go get that, particularly in a division that appears to be there for the taking.
The best thing that happened this winter for the Cubs is that Kris Bryant’s request for an extra year of service time was denied, which, coincidentally, is one of many reasons why a labor stoppage is coming in the not too distant future.
Anyway, the Cubs signed some guys and not a single one of them is a surefire Major Leaguer on Opening Day. Hernan Perez and Steven Souza Jr. look like good bets to make the roster as bench options.
If you want to say that there are no openings in the everyday lineup for the Cubs or that the rotation is already set with roster guys or guys like Adbert Alzolay or Colin Rea, go right ahead. A team of the Cubs’ magnitude crying poor is embarrassing for the sport.
The Cubs didn’t re-sign Nick Castellanos, who was actually sixth among position player fWAR despite only playing 51 games with 225 plate appearances after the trade from Detroit. In fairness to the Cubs, after being extremely critical to this point, it may not be a bad thing to bet on guys like Ian Happ and David Bote. Maybe they didn’t need to go out and get proven hitters at inflated costs when they have some in-house options that show potential.
I’m just a big believer in attempting to limit your variance as much as possible. I’m not sure how Kris Bryant will respond to losing his grievance, but maybe he’ll take his frustrations out on the baseball. It would be nice to see. Bryant has played well enough the last two seasons, but his run from 2015-17 was thought to be what we could expect. He slashed .288/.388/.527 with a .389 wOBA and a 144 wRC+ over those 2,014 plate appearances.
By no means would I say that Bryant has been bad, but he has a .278/.379/.476 slash with a .371 wOBA and a 131 wRC+ over the last two seasons covering 1,091 plate appearances. Bryant has accumulated 7.1 fWAR over the last two seasons, which is lower than his 2016 season alone. Bryant’s power did spike in 2019, going from 13 HR in 457 PA to 31 HR in 634 PA. His wOBA went up 20 points. It was good to see and we’ll see how he does this season, where projection systems place him somewhere between 2018 and 2019.
Anthony Rizzo had a strong bounce back season last year with better fortunes in the BABIP department, more power, and something that was more like his 2014-16 stretch. Once again, though, players that seemed to be setting new standards early in their careers have not fully lived up to them for the Cubs. That said, Rizzo did set a new high in OBP last season and posted the third-best wOBA of his career. He’s been reliable for his career, with 2018 as the outlier season dating back to 2014. He should bat leadoff, but the Cubs seem to be going with Bryant. I’ll save the lineup construction rant for another day.
Kyle Schwarber is still a mess in the field, but a threat in the box with his .250/.339/.531 slash and .357 wOBA. He hit 38 homers, walked 11.5% of the time, and even cut down on his strikeouts in his third full MLB season. Javier Baez didn’t hit 30 homers again, but he did hit 29 in 84 fewer plate appearances. He didn’t replicate his 2018 numbers, but he wasn’t that far off and even carried the high BABIP with some strong exit velocity and contact quality metrics. The K% did go up a little bit, but you’re always going to run that risk with an aggressive swinger. It’s what Baez does when he makes contact that matters.
Willson Contreras isn’t a great defensive catcher, but he’s a great offensive catcher. He would have had a shot at 35 homers had he not been limited to 409 plate appearances. Ian Happ could be a 30-homer cat with more PT this season after hitting 11 in 156 PA last season. David Bote also hit 11, but in 356 PA. He ran a 12.4% BB%. Even Jason Heyward was a league average stick with 21 HR and a quality walk rate.
A lot of guys performed well offensively and the team still struggled. The Cubs were even better with RISP than overall, which is how it generally works for a lot of teams. They had a .259/.353/.480 slash with RISP, a .340 wOBA, and a 108 wRC+. It wasn’t that.
The Cubs felt that they could pinch their pennies and bank on this lineup to be good again. I see no reason why it wouldn’t be, especially with a good backup catcher in Vic Caratini and a lot of versatility on the bench.
Was it Cluster Luck on the pitching side that did the Cubs in? No, not really. The 74.2% LOB% was in the top third of the league. The Cubs weren’t necessarily any worse with runners in scoring position on the pitching side than anybody else. In fact, they were seventh in LOB% in that department, too.
It’s also crazy that the Cubs primarily used five starters. Teams generally have some problems with run prevention when things are in a state of flux. Jose Quintana, Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, and Cole Hamels combined to start 150 of the 162 games. For the most part, too, the starters were just fine. Quintana was hurt by some Cluster Luck with a 65.9% LOB% that drove his ERA up to 4.68 with a solid 3.80 FIP. Lester is a guy that I faded a lot early in the season and his command profile continued to get worse with a 4.46 ERA, a 4.26 FIP, and a 4.35 xFIP. He had a 14.6% HR/FB% and a .347 BABIP against. He just didn’t throw a lot of quality strikes.
Neither did Darvish early in the year, as he ran a 22.8%(!!) HR/FB%, but also finished up with a 3.98/4.18/3.39 pitcher slash. Keep a close eye on that 3.39 xFIP, as Darvish was awful in the first half with a .433 SLG against and 20 HR allowed in 97 IP. He had a 5.01 ERA with a 5.31 FIP and had an 11.7% BB%. In the second half, Darvish still allowed 13 HR in 81.2 innings, but he had an absurd 118/7 K/BB ratio (not a typo) and held opponents to a .254 wOBA. He found it and found it in a big way and I would not be shocked if we get a career year from him. His HR/FB% went from 25.3% to 19.7% from the first half to the second half and I was expect that to come down more.
Hendricks was solid enough with his 3.46 ERA, 3.61 FIP, and 4.26 xFIP. There are some guys where the xFIP doesn’t really matter and Hendricks is one of them. He doesn’t have eye-popping K numbers and will never run a league average HR/FB%. He just induces a bunch of weak contact and has great command, so his xFIP is irrelevant. He’ll be solid again.
Aside from Quintana, who ran the low LOB%, everybody else seemed to perform close to expectation and most of those numbers were fine.
So, was it the Cubs bullpen that led to the huge discrepancy between actual record and the alternate standings metrics? Not really. In fact, that group showed some big signs of negative regression with a 3.98 ERA and a 4.54 FIP. The Cubs bullpen actually had the largest negative difference between ERA and FIP last season. They were third in LOB% and actually got pretty fortunate in a lot of ways. The Cubs were also sixth in fewest number of home runs allowed with men on base.
I guess the 19-27 record in one-run games could be the culprit. But, still, this is my issue with metrics-based organizations and I’m a big believer in analytics and sabermetrics. Just because something should have happened doesn’t mean it will come to fruition the following year.
The Cubs didn’t lose a whole lot from last season’s rotation. They lose Hamels, which is a big loss if Tyler Chatwood, Adbert Alzolay, and Jharel Cotton can’t replace that production. It also puts a depth guy into the rotation, which means adding another if an injury arises.
The bullpen has undergone a facelift. Certainly the hope will be for more than 23 games and better than an 8.00 FIP from Craig Kimbrel. Kyle Ryan is back, but Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Pedro Strop, and Brad Brach were second, third, fourth, and fifth in appearances and all of them are gone. Brach was not very good with a 6.13 ERA. Strop wasn’t either with a 4.97 ERA. Kintzler was very good with a 2.68 ERA and a 3.56 FIP, but Cishek enters the year as a regression candidate with a 2.95 ERA and a 4.54 FIP.
Chicago will rely on Rowan Wick, who had 31 nice appearances last season, and then a whole bunch of acquisitions and flamed-out starters, and what looks to be a lot of really replaceable guys. This is the clear weakness of the team and not a particularly good one to have.
Positives & Negatives
There sure seemed to be quite a disconnect between Joe Maddon, the players, and the rest of the organization when all was said and done. As much as Maddon became a cranky old man late in his Cubs tenure, at least he was something of a known commodity. David Ross is not and, in fact, played alongside a lot of these guys in 2015 and 2016. I think that is an extremely weird dynamic. Will he be manager or friend? Will the players respect him as a coach or continue to view him as a peer? I think it is unique in a lot of ways and, admittedly, I don’t know how it will play out.
The Cubs are the only team in baseball running out a projected rotation with everybody over 30. The Nationals could end up going that route. I am always scared of pitchers as they get older and as the workload mounts. It is a very hard life on the arm. The Cubs do not have good depth on the pitching side at all, with either the bullpen or the rotation.
Pick: Over 85.5
Here is the answer to why the Cubs won 84 games: they went 2-10 in their last 12. That’s it. If you look at them as an 82-68 team with a .546 win percentage and extrapolate that out to 162 games, they would have had 88 or 89 wins. Where are they with the alternate standings metrics? Anywhere from 88-90 wins.
Sometimes there isn’t a big code to crack. It was just fun to keep you in limbo until the end. It is also worth noting that five of those last 10 losses were in one-run games, hence the 19-27 record in those. Otherwise, they were 19-22, which, while not great, falls pretty much in line with how one-run games tend to work.
As a result, I view the Cubs as something of a bounce back team this season. I don’t think they have that high of a ceiling to go out and win 95+ games or something, but I do see them in that 90-win range, which could very well be good enough to win the NL Central.
Admittedly, I don’t love the fact that they didn’t add to this team and I think the bullpen could take quite a step back, especially if Kimbrel doesn’t return to form.
While I do like the Cubs, I won’t be betting their season win total over. I think there is some value in maybe taking a Cubs to win the NL Central future, but there are some worries about the pitching staff. The starters stayed extremely healthy last season and had their numbers helped by Darvish’s second half. There are some concerning trends with Quintana and Lester. Furthermore, this is a team that could opt to trade some guys if Ricketts is really crying poor. Maybe the team parts ways with Bryant. Quintana is an impending FA. Arbitration costs are escalating for Baez, Schwarber, and Contreras. This isn’t a great minor league system outside of Nico Hoerner, who probably makes his MLB debut this season.
All in all, this is a pretty strong pick for guide purposes, but it still doesn’t quite make the cut as a bet heading into the 2020 season.