Cubs

Cubs survived what went wrong against Giants, showing how they can keep advancing through October

Cubs survived what went wrong against Giants, showing how they can keep advancing through October

SAN FRANCISCO – The Cubs are built as a team of checks and balances, blunt veterans who didn’t come here for a haircut and young players acting like they’ve been here forever. A thumping American League-style lineup has the mix-and-match parts to play the National League game. An elite defensive unit works in concert with the pitching staff. The Geek Department supports Joe Maddon’s coaching staff. An Ivy League front office nailed so many decisions through scouting and intuition.

Still, the best team in baseball, a 103-win machine during the regular season, encountered the broad message Maddon sent during his pre-playoffs meeting: Things will go wrong.

Meaning the Cubs will be defined by how they react to bad calls, bad bounces, bad performances, nonstop scrutiny and hostile environments. This team didn’t sulk or panic during the NL Division Series, responding to the awesome challenge presented by the San Francisco Giants, showing how to keep surviving and advancing through October.

“You’re going to have to scramble for some wins if you’re going to win in the postseason,” general manager Jed Hoyer said late Tuesday night amid the celebration on the West Coast, standing soaking wet in the middle of AT&T Park’s visiting clubhouse.

“Things aren’t going to go right. Obviously, Game 1 went perfect. You get eight innings out of Jon (Lester). That’s great. That doesn’t happen all the time. You got to be able to scramble in the postseason.”

The Cubs needed only four games to eliminate a Giant franchise that has the confidence and muscle memory from winning World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs postseason gear right here]

Even with two extremely reliable starting pitchers – Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey – not lasting beyond the fourth inning in Games 2 and 4. And superstar closer Aroldis Chapman blowing the six-out save in what became a 13-inning loss in Game 3.

Together, Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant committed five errors. Dexter Fowler, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell combined went 4-for-45 (.089 average) with one extra-base hit. Up until that ninth-inning rally in Game 4, pitchers Hendricks, Travis Wood and Jake Arrieta drove in almost half of the team’s runs during the NLDS.

“It shows that it doesn’t have to be the MVP candidate in Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo to win us the ballgame every night,” Arrieta said. “Guys step up, like Javy (Baez). It’s a timely hit from Kyle, a huge home run from Travis. Everybody contributes.

“To be able to have that contribution from up and down the order versus just a couple of guys really makes us a dangerous ballclub.

“If certain guys get pitched around, we know the guys behind them can handle the task of providing offense and (helping pick them up). It’s just really nice to see the growth (and) continued development of these young players at such a high level on such a big stage.”

Baez changed the entire direction of this NLDS with one swing in the eighth inning of Game 1, reacting to a Johnny Cueto quick pitch and launching it out toward Waveland Avenue. The wind knocked the ball down before it landed in the Wrigley Field basket instead of Angel Pagan’s glove, the difference in a 1-0 game.

The Plan can think of everything – every possible matchup, variable and contingency – but there is still an element of luck. Ben Zobrist – an influential player on the Kansas City Royals team that won last year’s World Series – put it this way: “Any time you’re in tight games and you’re playing against good teams, you have to get breaks.”

But the bullpen also backed up the shortened Hendricks and Lackey starts by limiting the Giants to two runs across 10-plus innings, securing a Game 2 win and keeping the Cubs within striking distance for that Game 4 comeback.

Chapman – the kind of high-octane reliever the Giants failed to acquire at the trade deadline – notched three saves. Baez – who doesn’t even have a set position on a team this talented – made so many defensive plays look easy that his human-highlight-film reputation is going national.

The Cubs can now line up Lester for another tone-setting Game 1 against either the Washington Nationals or Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series that begins Saturday night at Wrigley Field.

What can possibly go wrong? The Cubs still have so many different ways to weather two more postseason rounds and win eight more games.

“They play for one another,” bench coach Dave Martinez said. “Every day, it’s somebody different.”

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

As the Cubs put the finishing touches on a sweep in Miami, they are now roughly 1/10 of the way through the 2019 season.

If they had their way, they obviously would've preferred to boast a better record than the current 8-9 mark through 17 games, but things are trending in the right direction for most of the club. (Playing a three-game set against the hapless Marlins will certainly help the good vibes.)

But since the Cubs got out to a 1-6 start, they've gone 7-3 and now have a +18 run differential, good for second in the Naional League.

That puts the Cubs on pace to win 76 games with a +171 run differential. For perpsective, the 2018 Cubs won 95 games with only a +116 run differential.

A lot can happen over the 90 percent of the season that remains and The Small Sample Size crowd is out in full force in April, as usual. By themselves, none of these stats really mean anything or tell us much beyond "Player X is off to a hot start" or "Pitcher Y is struggling." 

But that doesn't mean we should just ignore the stats and pace some players are on. Where's the fun in that? 

So let's take a look at some of the early-season stats surrounding the 2019 Cubs:

Javy Baez

El Mago has been red-hot of late, collecting 11 hits in his last 18 at-bats. That currently puts him on a season pace of:

229 hits, 143 runs, 48 doubles, 57 homers, 152 RBI

You can bet he'd finish near the top of NL MVP voting once again if he maintained that pace all year long. (However, he'd still probably lose to Christian Yelich, who picked up right where he left off last season and is currently on pace for 77 homers and 222 RBI. Seriously.)

Baez is the poster child for the small sample size claim. He was hitting just .232 with a .735 OPS as of Saturday morning, and his season pace would've looked a whole lot different had this article come out then. He's in the midst of an upswing, so these numbers are skewed. 

However, with the way he's driving the ball to the opposite field right now and turning singles into doubles, don't be surprised if he approaches the 83 extra-base hits he put up last year.

Willson Contreras

On pace for: 57 HR, 114 RBI, 86 BB, 143 K

...and that's in only 448 projected at-bats. 

Those would certainly be NL MVP caliber numbers from a guy some expected to challenge for the award after his blistering stretch in the middle of 2017. Contreras was so hot that he actually might've approached 30 homers and 100 RBI that year if he hadn't hurt his hamstring and missed a month.

If he stays healthy, his record-setting start to 2019 helps make those benchmarks seem like a possibility once again.

Contreras won't maintain his 1.224 OPS or .766 slugging percentage all season, but he looks like a completely different hitter than he was last year, when he hit just 7 homers in the first half and had only 10 all season.

Jason Heyward

On pace for: 38 HR, 105 RBI, 133 R, 95 BB, 57 K

To put those in perspective, here's Heyward's season average in each category during his first three years in a Cubs uniform: 

9 HR, 55 RBI, 62 R, 46 BB, 73 K

So even with a serious regression from his hot start, it wouldn't take much from Heyward the rest of the way to top his 2016-18 average stat line. 

The power is definitely eye-catching, but the walk-to-strikeout ratio is particularly noteworthy. His command of the strike zone is a huge reason why he's been able to hit .353 with a 1.052 OPS in the first 1/10 of the season.

Heyward has looked so good, he's now hitting fifth in the Cubs — a spot that once belonged to...

Kyle Schwarber

On pace for: 29 HR, 57 RBI, 48 BB, 181 K

Schwarber is in the midst of a tough stretch right now, so these numbers look off — especially the strikeouts (he's whiffed 12 times in his last 5 games). The power is still there, but the RBI total remains low and even the walks are suspiciously below his standards.

Schwarber has a career 13.4 percent walk rate and drew free passes at a 15.3 percent clip last year. This season, he's all the way down to 8.8 percent. 

Daniel Descalso 

On pace for: 86 RBI

Where is everybody who mocked the Descalso signing over the winter? In hiding right now, probably. 

The veteran has been exactly as advertised in the early going, with a professional and advanced approach at the plate. That includes a 7-for-12 mark with runners in scoring position (plus 4-for-7 with runners in scoring position and two outs). 

Descalso has been having some great at-bats, but there's no way those numbers will continue at their current pace all season. So don't bet on 85+ RBI, especially when he's only on track for 419 at-bats.

Ben Zobrist

On pace for: .379 OBP, 86 BB, 67 K, 48 R, 0 XBH

Zobrist turns 38 next month, but there's no way he suddenly lost all of his power. This is a guy who put up double digit homers every season from 2008 through 2017 before hitting only 9 last year. Age may be catching up to him a bit and sapping some of his slug, but he still hit 28 doubles last year in 455 at-bats.

He continues to keep his strikeouts and walks nearly even, as even with a 2-strikeout performance Wednesday night, Zobrist still has more free passes than whiffs this season. Between his 86-walk pace, the .379 OBP and the fact he spends most of his time in the leadoff spot in the Cubs order, it's surprising he's only scored 5 runs so far. That should change once Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo start heating up.

Speaking of...

Bryzzo

We don't need to worry about a pace for Bryant and Rizzo. Everybody knows they're struggling. 

This is the only stat you need to know:

Just wait until these guys start hitting. This Cubs offense is going to be a force to be reckoned with all year. (Unless, you know, they "break" in the second half again...)

Now, on to the run prevention...

Pitching stats are not as much fun to project out over a full season simply because they don't play every day and the small sample size carries even more weight (especially for relief pitchers). 

But here are a few fun pace stats for some Cubs arms:

—Cole Hamels is on pace for 29 wins and 0 losses.

—Jose Quintana is projected for 276 strikeouts in 200 innings. (His career high in whiffs was 207 in only 188.2 innings in 2017.)

—Jon Lester is on pace for only 29 starts, which would be the first time he failed to take the ball at least 30 times in a season since 2007.

—Brad Brach is on track for 95 walks in 67.2 innings. He's never walked more than 38 batters in a season (and that came in 79.1 innings in 2015). 

—Kyle Hendricks is ticketed for 133 runs allowed...but only 76 of those would be earned. The Cubs defense has done him no favors to begin the year.

—Pedro Strop is projected to lead the Cubs in saves with...10. He is the only Cubs pitcher to pick up a save through 17 games and he has just the 1 (from April 11 against the Pirates).

—Steve Cishek is on pace for only 67 appearances — a pretty big step down from the 80 games he pitched in a season ago.

—Brandon Kintzler is projected to give up only 58 baserunners in 76.2 innings (48 hits, 10 walks) while striking out 86 batters. He has never finished a season (in which he's made at least 10 appearances) with more strikeouts than innings pitched and his career-low WHIP was 1.065 in 2013, when he surrendered 82 baserunners in 77 innings.

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CubsTalk Podcast: Todd Hollandsworth gives an outside perspective

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USA TODAY

CubsTalk Podcast: Todd Hollandsworth gives an outside perspective

Former Cubs TV analyst Todd Hollandsworth talks with Luke & Kap and gives an outside perspective on the 2019 Cubs.

—Holly talks about being in the the TV booth and on the road every day with the Marlins. (0:46)

—Todd shares his thoughts on the 2019 Cubs and how the team was built through the draft. (1:51)

—Holly breaks down Jose Quintana's recent run of great starts. He Also talks about Yu Darvish and if what we saw Monday was for real. (4:03)

—Todd talks about the N.L. Central. Draws similarities to the N.L. East. He says the Cubs still win the division - IF they pitch. (5:37)

—Holly shares his thoughts on former Marlin Christian Yelich and his dominant start to the 2019 season. (8:05)

—Todd talks about the "Yelich" trade and how the deal has worked out (so far) for the Marlins. (11:09)

—Holly discusses Javy Baez sliding into second base and the replay review system in MLB. Where do they go next? How can MLB fix the problem with aggressive base-running vs. being too cautious when sliding. (13:17)

 

Cubs Talk Podcast

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