Cubs

One projection system predicts Cubs will be 13 games worse in 2019

One projection system predicts Cubs will be 13 games worse in 2019

Count PECOTA among the 2019 Cubs haters. 

In fact, we may have a new clubhouse leader in that department.

The Baseball Prospectus projection system unveiled its 2019 picks Thursday morning and they believe the Cubs will finish third in the National League Central...with only 82 wins.

The projection is for the 2019 Cubs to struggle to finish above .500? That's wild. Did the negative portion of Cubs Twitter hijack the system?

A year ago at this time, PECOTA projected the Cubs would win 89 games and claim the division crown with the Cardinals (84 wins) and Brewers (83) not far behind.

What's changed so much with the system in a year? The Cubs return almost the exact same roster from a team that won 95 games (and was projected to win 89 by PECOTA) plus a full season of Cole Hamels and the minor additions of Daniel Descalso, Brad Brach and Tony Barnette.

So why the major step back?

The answer lies in run prevention, namely the aging pitching staff.

The Cubs scored 761 runs last season, which makes their projection of 739 for 2019 seem a little light but otherwise on par. 

The "RA" column (runs against), however, is a different story. The Cubs gave up only 645 runs in 2018, but PECOTA projects them to surrender 730 runs this year, a difference of nearly a half-run per game.

How is that possible? A combination of really poor defense and some unkind pitching projections.

The Cubs have had one of the league's better defensive units the last few seasons (with record-setting glovework in 2016), but PECOTA lists only Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward as positive defenders (plus Addison Russell after he returns from suspension). Meanwhile, Willson Contreras' defensive projection is appalling mainly due to to poor pitch-framing metrics. Somehow, Javy Baez and Albert Almora Jr. are also negative defenders by the projection system.

As for the pitching side, only a handful of players are slated for an ERA below 4.00: Jose Quintana (3.96), Kyle Hendricks (3.92), Brandon Morrow (3.92), Yu Darvish (3.78) and Steve Cishek (3.92).

PECOTA projects Pedro Strop for a 4.03 ERA and 1.28 WHIP despite the fact he hasn't hit either number since 2013 and sports a 2.63 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 6 seasons with the Cubs.

The projection system is also unkind to Jon Lester (4.38 ERA, 1.32 WHIP) and Cole Hamels (4.06 ERA, 1.27 WHIP) as they enter their age-35 seasons.

Offensively, PECOTA essentially projects each player to put up a similar line to their 2018 season with a couple of notable exceptions: The system sees Baez and Ben Zobrist taking major steps backward. 

At the end of the day, this is just one projection system that doesn't actually impact real life in any way beyond the fact that it's fun to talk about. 

There's no guarantee the Cubs will make the playoffs or finish above third in what is shaping up to be a really tough division, but it's hard to see so much going wrong for this team that they only win 82 games this year. There's simply too much talent and this same roster found a way to 95 wins last year despite a host of misfortune.

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Alec Mills emerging as a quiet contributor in Cubs' late-season bullpen

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USA TODAY

Alec Mills emerging as a quiet contributor in Cubs' late-season bullpen

Alec Mills is about as under-the-radar as you can be as a Cubs player these days.

He's never been a top prospect, he doesn't throw hard (his fastball has been clocked at just 89.3 mph this season), and his demeanor on and off the mound is far from flashy.

Yet he continues to get outs in a quiet, efficient manner.

Sound like anybody else you know?

Joe Maddon has said several times over the past couple years that Mills reminds him of Kyle Hendricks and 14 games into Mills' Cubs career, it's hard to argue with that.

Over the last week, the 27-year-old right-hander has picked up his first MLB win (Monday) and save (Friday) while emerging as another solid piece out of the Cubs' September bullpen that has been without Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler of late.

The Cubs eventually won Monday night's game 8-2, but Mills was called on to protect a 3-2 game in the fifth and sixth innings and bridged the gap to Rowan Wick by permitting only a single in the two frames.

"What he did [Monday], he gave the game form again," Maddon said. "Really good pitches and a variety of pitches to both lefties and righties. Give the guy credit, man. Every time he shows up, he does something good for us. And does it in a very quiet, professional manner. He's outstanding."

Like Maddon said, Mills has quietly had a lot of success in the big leagues. In each of the last two seasons, he's made five relief appearances and two starts and has combined for 44.1 innings in a Cubs uniform with a 3.65 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 10.2 K/9. 

Not bad for a guy who rides the Chicago-to-Iowa shuttle as much as any other arm.

"It's confidence, being here every day," Mills said. "The more you come here, the more normal it is. I think when you're going down and coming up from the minors, it's still kind of a shock to be in here, experience these things and be in this environment. But the more you're here, the more normal it gets. Just trying to settle in and be you."

Who knows how much Mills will pitch over the final week-and-a-half of the regular season or what situations he will be tasked with. But he's clearly earning the trust of Maddon and his teammates by answering the bell whenever his name is called.

As for his similarities to Hendricks, Mills is happy to hear his name mentioned in the same light as the 2016 NL ERA champ.

"I definitely look at him and try to pick things up," Mills said. "Every time he throws a bullpen, I'm in there watching. We've talked before. We are similar in that nature, but we are also quite different the way we grip pitches, throw pitches, stuff like that. As far as mindset, we've talked and stuff. 

"It's the highest of compliments for me. That's a guy who's shown that just by being yourself and pitching the way you know how, you can be very successful."

 

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Yu Darvish makes history, but Cubs lose crucial game

Yu Darvish makes history, but Cubs lose crucial game

Things didn't get off to a great start for Yu Darvish Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but he managed to right the ship quickly.

After allowing three of the first four batters of the game to score, Darvish struck out 10 of the next 12 Reds that strolled to the plate.

That included a stretch of eight Reds in a row, which set a new Cubs franchise record:

Darvish and Kyle Schwarber (3 hits, 2 RBI) were the only bright spots on the night for the Cubs as they dropped a crucial game 4-2.

The Cardinals also lost, so the Cubs didn't lose any ground in the division, but they did fall to 1.5 games behind the Nationals in the Wild-Card race. Milwaukee won, meaning the Brewers are now tied with the Cubs for the final playoff spot in the National League.

Darvish finished with 13 strikeouts in 7 innings Tuesday night, but gave up all 4 Reds runs.

It makes back-to-back incredible performances from the veteran in the whiff department, as he has 27 strikeouts over his last two starts — second-best in Cubs history:

"I'm in a pretty good place [right now], but still, we lost," he said. "We need wins at this point, so I'm still frustrated."

As the Cubs make their push toward October, Darvish has been right up there with Kyle Hendricks as the most reliable members of the rotation. 

Given the way last year went and his slow start to 2019, the Cubs could not have asked for more from Darvish in the second half of the season while also pitching through some forearm tightness. Since the All-Star Break, the 33-year-old right-hander has a 2.70 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 106 strikeouts against only 7 walks in 73.1 innings.

His performance has been especially huge since veterans Cole Hamels and Jon Lester have struggled to find consistency over the last couple months.

"We're seeing the real version of [Darvish] as a person, not just as a baseball player," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said before Tuesday's game. "I think the comfortability level of him with everybody — the media, the coaching staff, the city, every aspect of it has played into it. 

"When he's in a good place and he's mentally feeling good and physically feeling good and he's comfortable, the sky's the limit with him and what he can do. He's got the freedom here to be more of himself in that we don't put a lot of restrictions on him and what he wants to do. As long as we kinda have the same focus and same goals, we're all on the same team. 

"I feel like he's getting to the point now where he's himself. You see that every time out. He's an ultra competitor; he's an uber planner. His routines are outstanding. He's just ready to go out there and dominate every time he gets the ball."