When Kyle Schwarber went down earlier this season, the easy take was that the injury was the beginning of a season-long, Cubs-being-Cubs scenario in which the season goes from dream-come-true to disaster, in the fashion that only Chicago Cub seasons can. That may be overstating it a bit, but the loss of Schwarber certainly was not anything to be encouraged by. It just might, however, prove to be somewhere between a blessing in disguise and inconsequential collateral damage of playing professional sports. Want proof? Take as gander at the Chicago Cubs run differential.
When looking over the Cubs production thus far, there’s some jaw-dropping numbers and performances, highlighted by Jake Arrieta’s (most recent) no-hitter. But there’s so much more that indicates a substantial amount – and a sustainable level – of success to look forward to. Their record is great (14-5 at the time of this writing), but records this early can be deceiving, because any team can artificially inflate their record with a couple of random, lucky, close wins that really are not much use as indicators of ability.
Over a meaningful sample size, a team’s win/loss record in one-run games usually adjusts itself to around .500. In baseball, and perhaps all sports, winning close games is often more attributable to luck than any sort of ability to magically perform better in tight situations. Having a good bullpen can help, but only so much. In the one-run games where a team is down a run, even the best bullpens can only keep a team down by one, to state the obvious. In a related story, if the Cubs do have any question marks, it would be their bullpen.
Moreover, the statistic that should most embolden the North Side of Chicago is run differential. With the exception of in-division rival St. Louis, the Chicago Cubs run differential is lapping the field. As it stands, the Cubs are plus-sixty-eight in that column. The next best is the aforementioned Cardinals, at plus-forty. Nobody else in the majors comes within half of the Cubs’ number.
In terms of individual performance(s), the Cubs are a collection of unsustainable production mixed with players whose level of play should find its way to that of something more reflective of their career numbers to date. For example, it would be ridiculous to think that Dexter Fowler will carry his absurd .385 batting average through the remainder of the season. Likewise, it would be equally wrong to assume Anthony Rizzo (currently hitting just .203) will endure a season-long slump. If everything settles around a rational mean average, the Cubs production stay where it is currently, albeit coming from different places.
On the pitching side, any reasonable baseball fan could make the argument that Arrieta is bound to come back down to earth at some point. But every time he takes the mound, he disproves this manner of thinking, and tosses gem, after gem, after gem. Furthermore, the Cubs are equipped with the elite, front-of-the-line arms in Arrieta and in Jon Lester, who has a championship track record come the postseason. They also have the solid back-end pitchers in John Lackey, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Kendricks, who offer the outline to a season in which no start is wasted. The offense is assured that whoever is on the mound will provide the opportunity for the bats to win it, even if they can only muster a couple runs. Essentially, with the starting pitchers they have, the Cubs, from the moment the final note of the national anthem is played, are a couple hits or walks and a big swing away from putting the game out of reach.
As for the Schwarber injury, the Cubs were probably the most well-equipped team in baseball to handle an injury of that magnitude. Not only was Chicago seemingly set to go into the season with their roster set before they unexpectedly landed starting center-fielder Fowler late in free agency, but their manager, Joe Maddon, is at his best when he can tinker with lineups and match-ups (not to mention that he’s pretty widely regarded as baseball’s best manager, period). With Schwarber healthy, the Cubs’ lineup was about as concrete as it any lineup could get. They had Schwarber in left, Fowler in center, and Jason Heyward (who was set to be the opening day starter in center, before the Fowler pick-up shifted him over to his natural position) in right. The infield boasted superstar-in-making Kris Bryant at third, super-prospect Addison Russell at short, Ben Zobrist (more on him later) at second, Rizzo at first, and Miguel Montero behind the plate.
With all that firepower, there was little room for Maddon’s patented day-to-day flexibility. Beyond that, they also had the luxury of having highly-hyped Javier Baez to play shortstop or second base if/when needed, and outfielder Jorge Soler, who was also once thought of glowingly, and who was penciled into the starting right-fielder spot until Fowler inked his deal. With the Schwarber injury, Soler is now being counted on (again), but expectations are much more manageable for him.
Now for über-fielder Zobrist. Before Schwarber got hurt, Zobrist’s versatility was pretty limited to being the everyday second baseman. Maddon is back in his comfort zone in having a player he can play virtually anywhere in the field and maximize lineup flexibility without losing anything in the field (they’re probably better defensively without him), or losing much on offense, outside of some raw power. The thing that most managers shy away from – changing lineups to put players in the best position to success – Maddon excels at, and now he can field a team in an infinite number of ways. Zobrist can play anywhere except pitcher and catcher, and Bryant has some outfield experience to along with Fowler and Heyward, who can play all three outfield positions.
The Cubs’ lineup is now Joe Maddon’s toy: a powerful, run-scoring lump of clay to be molded into whatever piece of art Maddon chooses to create on that particular day. Case in point: When the Villanova men’s basketball team won the NCAA National Championship, Maddon gave reserve outfielder (and Villanova grad) Matt Szczur his first start of the season… because why not let March Madness dictate your Major League Baseball managerial decisions, right? (For what it’s worth, the career-.229 hitting Szczur went 2-4 that day, scored two runs, and hit one of his four career home runs.) Suffice it to say: If you have a problem with Joe Maddon, you have a problem with yourself.
This early in the season, if you’re looking for good indicator of future success, look no further than run differential. Essentially, it treats the season as a single, on-going game between a team and the rest of the league. The Cubs are winning that game 119-51. Check all prior notions of Chicago Cubs baseball at the proverbial entrance gate, because the Cubs are just plain ‘ol winning.