Mired in Mediocrity: Newly Unfamiliar Territory for Cubs Fans
Lifelong Chicago Cubs fans would chuckle at the thought that being mired in mediocrity was unfamiliar territory. But after posting 97 and 103 wins over the last two years, the bar has been raised for the defending World Series Champions. Hovering just above .500 near the mid-point of the season is not what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had in mind when the pair embarked on building a team capable of winning multiple championships.
Entire NL Central Mired in Mediocrity
The good news for the Cubs is that the rest of the division is mired in mediocrity as well. The Cubs sit only a game back, and zero back in the loss column, of the surprising division leader, the Milwaukee Brewers. It was anticipated that the team from the North side of Chicago would be battling with their longtime nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals, and possibly the Pittsburgh Pirates for the NL Central Crown. However, both of those teams are sub-.500, and the Pirates are considering parting with ace Gerrit Cole at the trade deadline, with the New York Yankees considered the primary suitor. The Yankees currently have the second-best farm system and, given their penchant for doing whatever is necessary to win the World Series, it’s likely that Pittsburgh will be able to acquire the prospects they covet.
More telling of the Cubs mediocre 2017 is their position in the Wild Card standings. They currently sit 6.5 games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies for the two Wild Card spots, so winning the division may be their best shot at making the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
Offense Similar to 2016
While there’s no doubt the defection of offensive catalyst, Dexter Fowler, to the aforementioned Cardinals and the lack of a viable replacement in the leadoff spot has damaged the Cubs offense, the numbers don’t show a significant downturn. Through 77 games, the Cubs team slash line comes in at .239/.326/.428, down slightly from the .256/.343/.429 in 2016. They’re averaging 4.62 runs per game, a tick lower than the 4.98 they posted for a full season in 2016. These numbers don’t correlate to a drop in winning percentage from .573 in the first three months of 2016 to the current .513.
Defense Still Solid
With the developing Willson Contreras serving as the primary catcher and the defensively-challenged Kyle Schwarber playing full time in left, team defense was an obvious suspect as the culprit behind the team’s reduced winning percentage. Interestingly, the Cubs team fielding percentage of .983 is identical to that of 2016, while the differences in Range Factor and Zone Ratings between this season and last are negligible.
Surely, it’s the Pitching
It must be the pitching. In 2016, the team ERA for the entire season was 3.15; through the first 77 games of 2017, it has increased nearly a full run to 3.98. This translates to the team giving up an average of 4.36 runs per game, compared to the 3.43 runs against average they posted in 2016.
Drilling down further exposes the starters as the primary offenders for the jump in ERA. Last year’s stalwart, the currently disabled Kyle Hendricks, is up almost two runs per game. Jake Arrieta is giving up 1.5 more runs than he did in the 2016 campaign, and Jon Lester and John Lackey both show an increase of 1.39. Most telling is the fifth spot in the rotation. The departed Jason Hammel posted a respectable 3.83 in 30 starts last year. His replacements, Brett Anderson (8.18 in six starts) and Eddie Butler (a more reasonable 3.71 in nine starts) are also key perpetrators in the decline.
Still in Good Position for the Stretch Run
Despite being mired in mediocrity for much of the first half of the season, the Cubs are in good position to win the division. They’ve shown stretches of good play along the way, but haven’t been able to deliver the consistency required to win a division title that’s up for grabs. Sustained winning usually comes with reliable pitching. Whether they acquire a starter, guys get healthy, or simply find a way to return to form will determine if Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have built the dynasty they were looking for.