Today is the almost-halfway mark of the season. The Cubs have played 79 games and are one game over .500 at 40-39, ½ game behind the first place Brewers (as of the time of posting). It is also the tenth anniversary of Aramis Ramirez’s walk-off two-run homer against the Brewers, which started us on the road to the 2007 Central Division title.1 After that game, we were 39-39 and 6½ games behind Milwaukee.
Still, even though we are actually in a better position today than we were ten years ago, it just doesn’t feel right this year. Why? Several reasons.
First, the starting pitching just isn’t there. Nobody is as good as last year (though Lester is close), and Hendricks is on the DL. Arrieta only occasionally pitches like last year, but it is far too occasionally. Lackey isn’t as good, and our fifth starters aren’t matching Jason Hammel. (I realize Jason Hammel this year isn’t matching Jason Hammel last year, but maybe that just shows how good the starting pitching was last year.) Can the starters turn it around? Maybe Hendricks can come back after he’s off the DL, and Lester should be fine. But Lackey’s getting old. And Arrieta? I doubt we will see the old consistent dominance.
The hitting, especially with runners in scoring position, is abysmal. Our batting average with runners in scoring position was not good last year.3 However, we hit so much, and pitched so well, it didn’t matter. This year it does.
Perhaps the biggest problem (maybe tied with starting pitching) is our defense – and lack of smart baseball. The defense just isn’t there this year. Plus we’re playing sloppy, making mental mistakes we shouldn’t be making. Joe Maddon likes versatility in his players. (You have to have it when you are carrying thirteen pitchers.) He likes guys who are able to play multiple positions. The trouble with versatility, however, is that guys usually aren’t as good defensively in their second or third position, as in their first.4
I was at the game on June 21 against the Padres. When I heard Kris Bryant was starting in right field, I was worried. I realize you can’t expect Kris to be Jason Heyward (nobody is), but right field is a really difficult position at Wrigley Field. Lou Brock never did get it, and he was traded to St. Louis, where he played left field – and went to the Hall of Fame. What I worried about happened in the fifth inning. The Padres batter hit a liner right at Kris. Kris misjudged the ball, and it went over his head for a double. When the next batter singled, the Padres had their second run in a 3 to 2 win. The Cubs weren’t making that kind of mistake last year.
Finally, you have to wonder a little about some of the things Joe Maddon is doing. Missed in the big brouhaha over Miguel Montero’s comments about Jake Arrieta on Tuesday and the Cubs releasing Montero on Wednesday, was the point Fangraphs made after Tuesday’s game. With Arrieta’s slow delivery to the plate, and Miggy’s slow pop time, their conclusion was “Montero and Arrieta should not be working together.” That’s on Joe.5
1 Here’s the video:
2 Also, remember Brett Anderson? (I didn’t think so.)
3 According to Paul Sullivan, the Cubs batted .252 with runners in scoring position last year during the regular season. That was 21st in the majors. As of yesterday 14, their average this year with RISP was .232, which is 27th.
4 Obviously, Javier Baez is an exception.
5 Another question about Joe: Miggy got in trouble right after the World Series last year for complaining about his lack of playing time in the postseason and the fact Joe didn’t talk to him about it. The reaction at the time was all about how Montero shouldn’t have been complaining. I didn’t hear anybody (or at least not many people) ask why Joe couldn’t have talked to Miggy about it at the time. How long would that have taken?
UPDATE (6/30/17 2:37 pm): Corrected two misspelling of "Arrieta" in the third paragraph.