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NLDS Preview: Cubs vs. Giants

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Cubs vs. Giants is the most intriguing matchup in the first round.


How fast time flies. Seems like yesterday when I experienced one of the greatest moments of my life as I watched the Cubs clinch their first NLCS  berth in 12 years at Wrigley Field. We all know what she wrote next, but even after a sweep at the hands of the Mets, the season went as well as anyone could’ve expected. The Cubs were back – a lurking juggernaut ready to take over the baseball landscape for years to come.

Here we are, one year later, and the Cubs finished the 2016 season with 103 wins and wrapped up the NL Central division two weeks early. Five years ago, I never thought I’d see that day. The thing about baseball, though, is that come Friday night, those 103 wins and that division title mean nothing whatsoever. Baseball is more random than any sport, where shitty players can become unsung heroes and great players can become scapegoats in the blink of an eye. The best team seldom wins. It’s a clean slate, and everyone is back to a level playing field.

Over the past 36 hours, the supernatural nightmare that every Cubs fan deals with has worsened significantly. The Billy Goat Curse is one thing, but the “Even Year” Theory is a whole other, what with the Giants getting hot at the right time and looking poised to win another World Series in an even year. No one wants to play this Giants team, but no one wants to play this Cubs team, either. The Cubs were the best team in the league all season – maybe the best Cubs team ever assembled (anyone born before 1900 want to prove me wrong?) – while the Giants nearly became the first team ever to have the best record in the first half of a season and miss the playoffs entirely. The time is now for the Cubs to write the wrongs of the previous 108 years and solidify themselves as one of the best teams of all time. Will they rise to the occasion, or fall victim to the supernatural and wilt under pressure? I’m very excited yet very nervous to find out.

Let’s get to the matchup.

Hitting

By all accounts, the Cubs had the best offense in the National League this season. Led by MVP candidates Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, they finished second to the Rockies in runs scored (808) and OPS (.772), first in walk rate (10.4%) and 10th in strikeout rate (21.1%). For some perspective, the Cubs scored 119 runs more runs than last year and struck out 221 fewer times, emphasizing how much better this team is offensively compared to the 2015 version. They also were, by far, better than any time at avoiding double plays, posting the highest double play efficiency in the league.

The Giants, though, are no slouches either. What they lack in power (only 130 home runs total without anyone hitting over 17), they make up for in patience and grit. They posted a 9.1% walk rate and struck out in only 17.7% of their plate appearances – far less than any team in the league. Just like the Cubs, they grind away during every at bat, placing near the top of the league in pitches per plate appearance and regularly pushing opposing pitchers out of games early. Mainstay catcher Buster Posey is the Giants’ most dangerous hitter in this context, as he very rarely strikes out and regularly puts the ball in play. You saw the Giants do this exact thing against the Mets by forcing Noah Syndergaard out of the game before the eighth inning and feasting on their bullpen to win.

If you think back to last year, you might remember that the Cubs were one of the worst teams in the majors at hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP). This year, however, they improved a lot, jumping from the bottom tier to the middle by slashing .252/.351/.420 compared to the Giants’ .250/.328/.378 line. The two guys to watch here are the aforementioned Rizzo and Giants right fielder Hunter Pence, as they are each team’s most clutch hitter and biggest run producer. Rizzo led the league in plate appearances with RISP and hit .344 in such situations, while Pence hit .321 in far less appearances due to injury. The Cubs are still weak at producing with RISP with two outs, but they have been better than the Giants there as well.

It will be very interesting to see how Joe Maddon continues to juggle the never-ending lineup combinations at his disposal. Assuming he’s healthy, and given his incredible success last October (7-for-19 with three homers and five RBI), I’d anticipate we’ll see Jorge Soler in the lineup and playing left field when a lefty is on the mound (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Moore). Against righties, expect to see Kris Bryant starting in left field and Javier Baez at third base. Whatever the case may be, the Cubs were a far superior team at the plate this season, and their lineup is absolutely loaded from top to bottom. When Jason Heyward finally breaks out, just remember that you heard it here first (and forget you heard that here when he continues to suck).

Advantage: Cubs

Starting Pitching

As I’ll explain later, the Cubs defense is a major reason why the starting rotation holds the lowest ERA (2.96), lowest BABIP (.252), highest strand rate (78.6%) and highest win probability added in the league, all by very wide margins. They also have a top-three K-BB%. Statistically speaking, the Giants rotation has been a step or two behind, but that’s all about to change. Let’s get to the matchups.

Game 1: Johnny Cueto (18-5, 2.79) vs. Jon Lester (19-4, 2.44)

For the majority of his career, Johnny Cueto has been a bona fide ace, and that has not changed since he signed with the Giants last winter. The problem for everyone else in the league is that he’s locked in as the number two starter in their rotation. He had a really strange 2015 season, as he got traded from Cincinnati to Kansas City in July, had the worst couple of months of his career, got shellacked throughout the playoffs and then threw a complete game shutout in the World Series. Because the Cubs are so familiar with Cueto (he has 24 starts against them in his career), it would not surprise me to see the Cubs get to him, as he’s proven capable of imploding. But given his recent success (1.78 ERA in September) and Cy Young-caliber season, it’s safe to assume that he’ll pitch very well.

Lester, of course, was perhaps the best pitcher in the NL this season and had what same say was the best season of his 11-year career. He’s coming off an epic second half (10-1, 1.76 ERA, 0.93 WHIP) and an even better September (5-0, 0.48 ERA, 0.69 WHIP) that led to an NL Pitcher of the Month award. Lester was also phenomenal at home this season, and I don’t see that changing Friday night. There is no one in the Cubs rotation that I trust more than Lester, and his career 2.85 ERA in the postseason has allowed me to sleep like a baby this week.

Game 2: Jeff Samardzija (12-11, 3.81) vs. Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13)

Welcome back, Jeff Samardzija. After a brutal June/July (shocking, I know), Shark settled down and ended up finishing the season very strong. However, in his lone start against the Cubs on September 1, they attacked him in the early going and forced him out of the game by the fifth inning. Like with Cueto, the Cubs are very familiar with Samardzija’s stuff since he, ya know, played for them for seven years. When he’s off, he’s off. When he’s on, he’s decent. He instills no fear in me and should instill no fear in you.

I’m sure you all are aware of Kyle Hendricks’ fairytale season up until this point, so I won’t harp it on much. Precision is Hendricks’ trademark, and after posting a league-leading 2.13 ERA and 24.9% soft-hit rate, Hendricks’ (silent) confidence is through the roof. He owns the best changeup in baseball, and his 1.32 ERA at Wrigley Field was likely one of the driving forces behind Joe Maddon’s decision to start him in Game 2. All of the above gives me reason to believe that this game is going to be all Cubs.

Game 3: Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10) vs. Madison Bumgarner (15-9, 2.74)

This is the matchup that will keep Cubs fans up at night. If you are unaware with Bumgarner’s work up until now, then I don’t even know how you stumbled across a baseball-related article, let alone this one. But at just 27 years of age, Bumgarner is already being considered by many to be the greatest postseason pitcher of all time, and his start against the Mets on Wednesday night only added to his legend. In 54.2 postseason innings on the road, Bumgarner has a 0.50 ERA; in 23 win-or-go-home postseason innings, he has yet to give up a single run (yes, this game will be in San Francisco, but that stat is too ridiculous to not mention). He has been an integral part (and in one case, nearly the only part) of three World Series-winning teams, and he never, ever seems to let the moment get to him. It is appalling what he has been able to accomplish, and you have to expect that any game he pitches will result in a loss for the opponent – he’s just that absurdly good in October.

Arrieta concerns me more than any player on the roster, and for good reason. No one expected him to live up to his 2015 season since what he did had never been done before, but he has been pedestrian at best since mid-June and has not looked the same. His walk rate was way up this season (9.6% vs. 5.5% last season), as his command and control haven’t consistently been there for him. He has made it a habit of getting behind in the count, which has not allowed him to throw his nasty slider/cutter effectively. There’s also the belief that Arrieta has been slightly over-rotating during his delivery, which might be nothing but could be something. Nevertheless, if the Cubs lose one of the first two games in the series, they could be in some serious trouble as they head to San Francisco with Madison Bumgarner waiting. That scares the shit out of me.

Game 4: John Lackey (11-8, 3.35) vs. Matt Moore (6-5, 4.08)

Matt Moore was once a highly touted pitcher coming up through the Tampa Bay Rays system, but he has never been the same since his Tommy John surgery in 2014. The Rays gave up on him this season and sent him to the Giants at the trade deadline, where he’s had yet another up and down season. A 3.16 ERA in August rose to 6.56 in September, and it’s hard to say which Moore will show up on a given night. It’s worth noting, though, that although Moore has never pitched against the Cubs, they are the best team in the NL against lefties, and Moore has a tendency to give up homers as well.

John Lackey is an October warrior, and he was brought to Chicago on a two-year deal for this very moment. He has a career 3.11 ERA in the postseason and has pitched in and won multiple World Series games. The man didn’t come here for a haircut – he came here for jewelry. He came here to get it on. Gotta feel great about Game 4.

The Cubs and Giants have the two deepest rotations in the postseason, but having Madison Bumgarner, even if it ends up being for just one game, pushes the needle too far for me. Because of him, the slight edge (and it’s slight)

goes to the Giants.

Advantage: Giants

Relief Pitching

The Giants’ bullpen is an absolute mess. They led the league in blown saves (30), including nine in September, which nearly cost them a postseason appearance. Per ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, the Giants lost more games (nine) that they entered the ninth inning with a lead than any team in baseball – five of which came in September. They lost 10 games that they led by three or more runs, most in the major leagues. They have flip-flopped closers multiple times, going from Sergio Romo to Santiago Casilla back to Romo. As mentioned earlier, the Cubs are amongst the best in the league at grinding at-bats and forcing starting pitchers out of games early. If they can continue to emphasize patience at the plate, the Cubs will force Bruce Bochy to go to his bullpen early and often, which could very well end up being the key to the entire series.

The Cubs’ bullpen, on the other hand, has been consistently good all season. As expected, The addition of Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline has been a massive one. In 26.2innings, Chapman saved 16 games and owns a miniscule 1.01 ERA with 46 K’s and only 12 hits allowed. His 101+ MPH fastball combined with his 91-92 MPH slider makes him nearly unhittable; once he gets the ball, it’s game-set-match.

That said, not everything has been sunshine and rainbows with this unit. Setup man Hector Rondon came out hot after a DL stint for a strained triceps back in August, but he has given up seven earned runs in his last 2.2 innings and finished the month of September with an 8.53 ERA; Pedro Strop missed six weeks in August/September recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery and has only 3.2 innings under his belt since coming back; Travis Wood got rocked by righties this year and turned himself into a LOOGY (Lefty One-Out Guy) for the first time in his career; C.J. Edwards, who looked otherworldly in the first half of the season, had a rough final two months of the season (6.00 ERA in August, 5.79 ERA in September). And yet, I’m not too worried about any of this, and after the second halves Justin Grimm and Mike Montgomery had, the seven of these guys still form arguably the most formidable bullpen in the playoffs.

Advantage: Cubs

Defense

With respect to Yadier Molina, catcher Buster Posey (catcher) and defending Gold Glove shortstop Brandon Crawford are the two best defensive players in the NL at their respective positions and are the odds-on favorites to win Gold Gloves this season. Crawford, who was second in the NL in defensive runs saved, forms a dynamic double-play combination with second baseman Joe Panik. The outfield trio of Hunter Pence, Denard Span and Angel Pagan was expected to be above average, but each of them regressed this season. Given the experience they all have in the postseason, expect each of them to step it up again.

As for the Cubs, well, they may have the greatest defense of all time. 22-year old Addison Russell has continued to make his case for best shortstop in the NL but trails Crawford for now; Javier Baez is the league’s most valuable swiss army knife, playing plus-defense at three different positions (second base, third base, shortstop); right fielder Jason Heyward a lock to win his fourth Gold Glove in five years; Dexter Fowler has turned himself into an above average center fielder, by FanGraphs standards, by playing a bit deeper this season; and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who combines fearlessness with grace as well as anyone in baseball, is the most valuable first basemen (from a defensive standpoint) with his league-leading 11 defensive runs saved.

Per Baseball Prospectus, the Cubs, as a whole, led the Major Leagues in Defensive Efficiency by a ridiculous margin. Their score of .745 is the highest by any team since 1982 (San Diego). The gap between the Cubs and the second-ranked Blue Jays is higher than the gap between the Blue Jays and the 27th-ranked Mets. Is that even real? Seems impossible, but I can assure you that it’s not.

Advantage: Cubs

Manager 

Joe Maddon is the f***ing man. He is absolutely incredible at managing a bullpen, developing talent, building a great culture and putting players in the best position to succeed. But as great as he is at all of these things, there is no way he can get the edge here over Bruce Bochy. Bochy has won three World Series championships in the past six years, and he always seems to push the right buttons. Until proven otherwise, Bochy is the best manager in baseball. Period.

Advantage: Giants

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Of the three potential Wild Card teams, the Giants were the one team that no one wanted to face. Naturally, it turned out the exact way no Cubs fan wanted it to, but at least the “be careful what you wish for” saying can get tossed out the window. I truly believe the winner of this series will end up getting to the World Series. The Cubs will to find a way to win this one, but it won’t be without some gray hairs and a series of heart attacks.

Prediction: Cubs in 5 

 

 

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2013 Midseason Evaluation of Cubs Hitters

The Cubs have scored a surprising 384 runs in the first half of the season, good for sixth-best in the NL.

It has been another tough summer for baseball fans on the north side of Chicago. Save for Travis Wood’s fantastic first half, the front office making serious moves in the international market by signing Baseball America’s top two international prospects (Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres), and the recent signing of second overall draft pick Kris Bryant, the Cubs have done nothing to make headlines or tickle anyone’s fancy. Fortunately, no one in their right mind came into the 2013 season with any expectations after the embarrassing 61-win performance we witnessed last year. However, it has been hard for Cubs fans to feel anything but discouraged as we approach the dog days of summer with no hope and minimal interest in the actual product on the field.

Amidst all the trade talk over the past few weeks and negativity coming from talking heads, the Cubs have surprisingly played borderline watchable baseball. The Pythagorean Theorem suggests they should actually be three games better than they are now (45-48 compared to 42-51), which would put them only two games out of the fifth and final wild card spot instead of the five games that currently separate them. That theorem, which takes into account runs scored (384) and runs given up (394), indicates that, if the Cubs can minimize the unfortunate late game collapses that have haunted them all season, they should be able to finish the season with 79 wins, a major improvement from last year and an encouraging progression going forward. Their starting rotation, no thanks to the overpaid Edwin Jackson, has been great, ranking seventh in the National League in ERA (3.76), second in opponent batting average (.238), third in WHIP (1.21) and third in quality starts (57).

On the contrary, their bullpen has been absolutely abysmal, ranking second to last in the NL in ERA (4.35), and their hitting has been sub-par. The Cubs rank 11th in the NL and 25th in the Majors in team batting average (.243), yet they have somehow scored a pleasantly surprising 384 runs – good for sixth best in their league. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why that is, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that they lead the NL with 28 home runs hit with runners in scoring position. Individually, though, which hitters have specifically helped transform the Cubs from one of the three worst run-scoring teams in all of baseball to middle of the pack?

**For all of you who happened to read my posts from last summer evaluating Cubs and White Sox hitters, the next few paragraphs will sound identical in order to explain the math behind everything (since it has been over a year), so feel free to skip to the chart.**

If you can recall from last summer, I wrote a post titled “By the Numbers: Evaluating the Impact of Cubs and Sox Hitters,” in which I used Bill James’ Runs Created Formula in an attempt to compute the number of runs “created” by a hitter throughout the course of a season (refer to the book Mathletics). Simply put, if a team consisted of nine of the same player, such as nine Starlin Castros, approximately how many runs would they have scored thus far this season and, more importantly, how many runs would they score for their team per game? Instead of using sabermetric measurements that most casual fans don’t understand, such as wins above replacement (WAR), the runs created formula gives us the ability to evaluate the true value that each hitter has brought to his respective lineup so far. Like last time, I gathered each player’s statistics and computed the runs created and game outs used for each hitter using:

Runs created = ((hits + BB + HBP) X (Total Bases))  ÷   (AB + BB + HBP)

Game outs used = .982(AB) – hits + GIDP + SF + SAC + CS

As pointed out last year, according to Mathletics, “approximately 1.8% of all at bats result in errors. Hitters also create ‘extra’ outs through sacrifice flies (SF), sacrifice bunts (SAC), caught stealing (CS), and grounding into double plays (GIDP).” Hence why we must take .982 of every at-bat instead of 1. Game outs used must then be divided by 26.72 (the total number of game outs available in a game, taking into account the .018 approximate number of errors per 27 outs in a MLB game) in order to determine the number of games’ worth of outs used by each hitter. That, ultimately, leaves the most important equation as the final step:

Runs created per game =  runs created  ÷  games’ worth of outs

Obviously, runs created per game tells you more about a hitter’s value than total runs created because the latter does not differentiate between bad hitters with a lot of plate appearances and great hitters with less plate appearances. That being said, take a look at the numbers below:

Capture

Overall, the Cubs have gotten a lot more production at the plate out of the catcher, third base and right field positions. Cody Ransom may be leading the way with 8.45 runs created/game, but his 97 at-bats is nowhere near enough to justify his true worth to the lineup, so it’d be best to look past him. This year’s version of Luis Valbuena, though, has been much better at the plate than last year’s version, and he has been a saint compared to the atrocious excuse for a Major League third baseman that was Ian Stewart. He’s fifth on the team in homers (8), fourth in RBI’s (29), and first in on-base percentage (.345) amongst all Cubs hitters with more than 125 at-bats.

The backstop combination of Dioner Navarro and Welington Castillo has been serviceable, which is an enormous upgrade from Geovany Soto and his .199 batting average. At the All-Star break last year (right before he was traded to Texas), Soto was sporting a measly 2.80 runs created/game. Through this season’s first half, the switch-hitting Navarro and right-handed Castillo are creating a combined 4.99 runs per game, almost twice the value of Soto. Navarro is hitting an incredible .536 (15-for-28) against lefties, while Castillo is hitting .290 (51-for-136) against righties, making them a very formidable duo at the plate. Neither of them remind anyone of Yadier Molina when it comes to defense and calling games (Castillo leads NL catchers in errors with eight), but given how few hitting catchers there are in the league these days, both men have ultimately made the Cubs a better hitting team.

Nate Schierholtz has become a legit trade piece for the Cubs.

Nate Schierholtz, whom the Cubs signed in the offseason to platoon in right field, has been one of the better players on the team from the start. His positive play has helped him gain the trust of Dale Sveum, who continuously slots him into the lineup whenever the Cubs face a right-handed pitcher (holds a superb .862 OPS against right-handers this season). Although he’s not an every day player (he rarely plays against lefties), Schierholtz ranks third on the team with 34 RBI’s and holds the highest batting average (.269) of any Cub with over 200 at-bats. He has already hit a career-high 11 home runs and is on pace for 483 at-bats, which is nearly one and a half times his current career-high at-bat total of 335. It’s nice to see a player of Schierholtz’ caliber having this kind of success for such a young team lacking talent and plate discipline, and he has turned himself into a legitimate trade chip for contending teams, such as the Pirates, looking for a left-handed bat. Whether the Cubs pull the trigger and trade him for a piece or two at the deadline remains to be seen.

Outside of a solid six-week span from the middle of April through the end of May, Anthony Rizzo has been somewhat of a disappointment with a 17.9% strikeout rate and lowly .241 batting average. However, he leads the team in RBI’s (54), extra-base hits (42), and walks (41), so we can’t sit here and nit-pick.  He’s also creating over five runs per game, which should increase significantly over the next couple of years as the Cubs begin to surround Rizzo with the influx of talent that’s currently dominating in the minors. It shouldn’t shock anyone to see Rizzo improve upon his .267 BABIP (it was .310 last season) in the second half and boost his average to around .260-.270 by season’s end.

Starlin Castro has been a massive disappointment this season.

Starlin Castro has been absolutely brutal in all aspects of the game this year. Not only are his numbers laughable, but his fielding has not improved a damn lick as he, once again, ranks second in the Majors in errors (14). There’s really no explanation for Castro’s regression as he gets older and approaches his prime (ages 27-29), but his lack of focus, immaturity and mediocre work ethic sure as hell aren’t helping. At the dish, he has been arguably the least valuable Cub to date with his 3.43 runs created/game, .243 batting average (compared to his career .287 BA), and nearly 5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (72 K’s, 15 BB’s). Just two years ago, during his 21-year-old season, Castro created a solid 5.47 runs per game, which puts into perspective how far he and his bat have plummeted since then. With this being the first full season of Castro’s 7-year, $60 million contract, Cubs fans can only pray that what they’re witnessing is nothing more than a three and a half month-long slump. Look for him to pick up his game over the next few months. If he doesn’t, those “trade Castro” rumors may quickly turn into something of a reality.

There’s a lot to look forward to as the trade deadline nears, with the usual suspects, namely Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano, back on the market. The Cubs lineup has been much more productive than anyone expected this season, giving them more intriguing bats to trade than they had at this point last season. Over the past year, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have proven that no veteran with a team-friendly contract is safe. Players such as Schierholtz, David Dejesus, Valbuena and Soriano (he certainly doesn’t have a team-friendly contract, but he’s still on the trade block) have all had relatively good seasons and can bring something positive to the table for a contender looking for an extra bat. As the month winds down, the professional fate of these men will be decided, and Cubs fans can gear up for yet another meaningless October.

Rizzo’s Deal The New Norm In Baseball

The Cubs hope to cash in on their long-term gamble with prized possession Anthony Rizzo.

**This article was written by https://www.fanduel.com**

The Chicago Cubs made a lot of positive headlines last week when they locked up rising star Anthony Rizzo with a seven-year, $41 million deal. At just 23 years old and with less than a year of service time at the MLB level, some old school thinkers might be shaking their heads at this type of deal. However, this is the new norm not only with the Cubs, but with baseball in general.

With teams looking to reduce payroll and be smarter overall with their money, the game of baseball is getting younger. A lot of this is due to the stricter drug testing, which is reducing not only power numbers, but longevity as well. Baseball is back to stressing speed and defense just as much as the long ball.

Rizzo brings it all at this point, but the fact that he is just 23 years old and still somewhat unproven is a concern for people. Considering how much free agents receive on the open market in the prime of their careers though, seven years for just $41 million could end up being a steal.

There is always risk involved with a deal like this, both for the player and the club. Rizzo could explode and become one of the best players in baseball and daily fantasy sports, like Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki. Both players are underpaid at the moment, and they still have quite a bit of time left on their contracts.

Then you look at a guy like Grady Sizemore. The Cleveland Indians locked him up early in his career, and he of course had all the signs of a future star. Injuries got the best of him, and it seems unlikely that he will ever fully get back to his old self.

After being a part of two trades before settling into the majors, Rizzo doesn’t fit the bill of these other stars in farm systems. He is, by all accounts, a hard worker, a great club house guy and obviously someone the Cubs want to have as a face of the franchise to go along with Starlin Castro. This is a deal more and more teams are willing to make with young talent, and now the must Cubs wait and see if this way of spending can help them turn the franchise around.

Jackson and Vitters Get Their Numbers Called

Brett Jackson (left) and Josh Vitters (right) got their numbers called yesterday for the Cubs, thus continuing the organization’s youth movement.

It’s about damn time. In a span of 41 days, the Cubs have called up three of their very best prospects from Iowa: Anthony Rizzo on June 26, with both Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters following suit yesterday. Even in the midst of a five-game losing streak, I have nothing but positive feelings about what has finally come to be: the Cubs’ front office has officially made way for the future of the ball club, giving Jackson and Vitters the opportunity to showcase their talents for the last two months of the all-but-lost 2012 season. Whether or not they’re completely ready for the big leagues remains to be seen, but you’ve got to think that, with nearly negative production from third base and Bryan Lahair struggling mightily since the early part of the season, the two youngsters are here to stay for the rest of the season.

It has been a pretty rough few years in the minors for Josh Vitters, but the former third overall pick in the 2007 draft finally broke out for the Iowa Cubs this season. By sporting .304/.356/.513/ splits along with 17 homers and 68 RBIs, it was only a matter of time until the highly touted third baseman got his number called. Sure, his defense needs a lot of work (23 errors for Iowa), but it’s nothing that can’t be improved upon. Repetition is the most important thing for a young ball player, and Vitters will be sure to get a lot of it over the next two months. Word on the street is that he will only play against left-handed pitchers, but I won’t believe it until I see it. Not only is Luis Valbuena anemic offensively (.198 BA) and won’t have any impact on the future of this team, but Vitters is coming off a successful minor league campaign in which he hit .290 in 279 at-bats against righties at Iowa. Dale Sveum would be making a gigantic mistake if he decided to follow through on this rumor. Vitters wasn’t in the lineup yesterday against the Dodgers, but with lefty Eric Stults on the mound for San Diego tonight, I fully expect to see him make his major league debut as a starting third baseman.

Once Anthony Rizzo left Iowa and never looked back, Brett Jackson became the top prospect in the Cubs organization. He has 20-20 potential at the big league level and has the ability to play all three outfield spots very effectively. His promotion means that we won’t be seeing Tony Campana back in a Cub uniform any time soon, and it also pushes David DeJesus to right field (where he should be) and Bryan Lahair to the bench (also where he should be). Jackson looked very solid in his debut yesterday, going 2/4 with a run scored and a walk.

As promising as Cub fans make him out to be, though, Jackson certainly comes in with some red flags. His huge strikeout rate (158 strikeouts in 407 at-bats this season) is definitely a concern, and his batting average at Iowa dropped from .297 in 2011 (48 games) to .256 this season (106 games). It wouldn’t surprise me to see him start out slowly as he adapts to major league pitching; however, Jackson draws a lot of walks (47 this season with a .338 on-base percentage) and has that rare power-speed combination, which he demonstrated at Iowa by hitting 15 home runs and converting 27 of 32 stolen base attempts, that can help make up for some of his offensive shortcomings. Batting second in front of Anthony Rizzo should also benefit him majorly and give him the opportunity to score a ton of runs in the future (led Iowa with 66 runs scored).

The Cubs youth movement has started to go into full effect. They now have 11 players on their 25-man roster who were not with the team on Opening Day. There will be many growing pains from here on out, but that’s to be expected. It would be wise for Cubs fans to keep their expectations rather low and not be too critical of these young guys, as this is both their first major league stints. Remember, it was only a year ago that Anthony Rizzo completely shat the bed during his first call-up experience in San Diego; look what a little more time in the minor leagues did for him. Jackson and Vitters will use these two months to understand what it takes to be successful in the National League and figure out what they must improve on during the offseason and beyond. It will continue to take time and patience, but soon enough, the Cubs will no longer be considered a rebuilding project. And it will all have started with the promotions of Rizzo, Jackson and Vitters during the summer of 2012.

Midseason Evaluation of Cubs Hitters

It’s been a rough year for a majority of Cubs hitters so far. And that’s an understatement.

Is it really only July? Can this horrible nightmare of a season just end so that Cubs fans don’t have to experience this pain anymore? Basketball and football season can’t come any sooner. It’s been a loooong season to say the least, but given how well the Cubs have played as of late, I’ve been feeling pretty good. Prettyy, prettyy, prettyy, prettyy good. Since the call-up of Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs have gone a solid 8-4 including two series wins against the Mets, a four-game split with the Braves and a sweep of the currently last-place Astros. With Rizzo now holding down the three-spot in the Cubs lineup, and producing while he’s at it, I have actually been able to turn on WGN or Comcast on a (nearly) nightly basis with at least some excitement. Even so, this season has been a lost cause since before it even started, so there’s only so much we can look forward to as the second half takes off on Friday. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t assess and evaluate the value that each hitter has brought to the Cubs lineup thus far. If anything, it will help us figure out what kind of future some of these guys have on the North Side.

**For all of you who happened to read my post from Tuesday evaluating White Sox hitters, the next few paragraphs will sound identical in order to explain the math behind everything once again, so feel free to skip to the chart.**

If you can recall from a couple of months back, I wrote a post titled “By the Numbers: Evaluating the Impact of Cubs and Sox Hitters,” in which I used Bill James’ Runs Created Formula in an attempt to compute the number of runs “created” by a hitter throughout the course of a season (refer to the book Mathletics). Simply put, if a team consisted of nine of the same player, such as nine Starlin Castros, approximately how many runs would they have scored thus far this season and, more importantly, how many runs would they score for their team per game? Instead of using sabermetric measurements that most casual fans don’t understand, such as wins above replacement (WAR), the runs created formula gives us the ability to evaluate the true value that each hitter has brought to his respective lineup thus far this season. Like last time, I gathered each player’s statistics and computed the runs created and game outs used for each hitter using:

Runs created = ((hits + BB + HBP) X (Total Bases))  ÷   (AB + BB + HBP)

Game outs used = .982(AB) – hits + GIDP + SF + SAC + CS

Remember, according to Mathletics, “approximately 1.8% of all at bats result in errors. Hitters also create ‘extra’ outs through sacrifice flies (SF), sacrifice bunts (SAC), caught stealing (CS), and grounding into double plays (GIDP).” Hence why we must take .982 of every at-bat instead of 1. Game outs used must then be divided by 26.72 (the total number of game outs available in a game, taking into account the .018 approximate number of errors per 27 outs in a MLB game) in order to determine the number of games’ worth of outs used by each hitter. That, ultimately, leaves the most important equation as the final step:

Runs created per game =  runs created  ÷  games’ worth of outs

Obviously, runs created per game tells you more about a hitter’s value than total runs created because the latter does not differentiate between bad hitters with a lot of plate appearances and great hitters with less plate appearances. That being said, take a look at the numbers below:

The incredible impact that Anthony Rizzo has had on this Cubs team just 12 games in doesn’t need to be explained again. Obviously that 10.40 number will go down soon enough, but to have four doubles, four homers and a .688 slugging percentage so far is very impressive. Instead of continuing to bore you with my Rizzo ass-kissing, though, let’s focus on some other hitters.

Who knew that Reed Johnson was this valuable to the Cubs lineup? Given he’s had limited opportunities to get on base as he continues to platoon in the outfield, it’s still pretty great to see him leading the team (not counting Rizzo) with a .302 batting average. WIth free agency approaching after this season for Johnson, don’t be surprised to see the Cubs shop him around, or even trade him, before the July 31 deadline. He could give contenders some solid depth in the outfield and even provide good value as a pinch hitter, as he has batted .478 (11/23 ) this season in pinch-hitting situations.

As for Alfonso Soriano, I’m pleasantly surprised at how good he has been this season. When I evaluated the Cubs hitters back in early May, Soriano was creating a whopping 2.98 runs per game. That number is now up to 5.36, as he scorched through May and June to the tune of 55 hits, 15 home runs, 27 runs, 35 RBIs and .288/.361/.577 splits. That’s easily better than any two month span he’s had since his first two seasons in Chicago, proving that maybe, just maybe, he has una poco gasolina still left in that Dominican tank of his. Although I don’t admit it often, I actually am very proud of how well Soriano has played this season, but if any American League GM feels that The ‘Fons can bring some necessary hitting to his lineup as a DH and is willing to acquire him via trade (Epstein and Hoyer are more than willing to eat a substantial portion of his contract), I’d be all for it.

Easily the most shocking runs created/game number on this list is that of Starlin Castro. God knows how much he’s been killing my fantasy lineup lately (batted .264 in June, batting .207 in July), but 4.73 runs created per game? Is that a joke? The problem continues to be his ridiculous inability to walk. I know I’ve been over this before, but it’s as if Castro is legitimately allergic to patience. Amongst every day players on the team, Castro ranks last in walks with 12 and owns a .314 on-base percentage. We all know how awful those numbers are, but when you know that Castro is second on the team in average at .291 but last in OBP, it makes everything that much worse. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching the kid play and think he’s one of the most natural hitters in the game today, but if he doesn’t learn to mature at the plate and start getting on base more, I’m going to punch another hole in my basement wall – next to the other five holes from losing Madden and NBA Live games to the computer way back when.

A few more takeaways before calling it a night: David DeJesus isn’t as good as this list makes him out to be – the Cubs lineup is obviously just really, really bad. He walks a fair amount, provides solid defense in right field and has a hot wife, but that’s pretty much it.

I’d like to thank my lord and savior (Tebow style), whomever that may be, for not forcing me to watch Ian Stewart in a Cubs uniform ever again. He’s out for the rest of the season after having wrist surgery, and he admitted on Twitter the other day that he probably won’t be back after his one-year deal expires this offseason. Needless to say, I’m really happy about that Tyler Colvin for Stewart swap. Colvin’s only batting .305 on the season with 10 homers and 27 RBIs in his last 26 games. No big deal. And oh, by the way, Luis Valubena isn’t the answer at third base either. Josh Vitters, your time to shine is approaching faster than anyone would think.

Lastly, Geovany Soto. He sucks. A lot. I’m not going to waste anyone’s time raving about how gawful (God + awful) this man is at the plate and behind it, because the numbers (.177 batting average and 12 RBIs) should speak for themselves. Given the way he’s played this season, he doesn’t belong in the Major Leagues anymore. It’s sad. But it’s true. Steve Clevenger’s a nice catcher to have, but he can only play against righties, as he’s hitting an embarrassing .105 against lefties this year. Hopefully Wellington Castillo will start to improve soon.

Anthony Rizzo Has Given Cubs Fans Hope

The call-up of Anthony Rizzo has brought Cubs fans some much-needed excitement.

On June 26, 2012, a national holiday in the eyes of Cub fans was born: Rizzo Day. I woke up as happy as ever yesterday morning knowing that the highly touted first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, was going to be debuting in Cub pinstripes just twelve hours later. My phone contained numerous “Happy Rizzo Day” texts and tweets, and ecstatic fans greeted me face-to-face by with that same phrase. Needless to say, it was unquestionably the most memorable day of the 2012 season thus far (and probably will be), and with good reason. The centerpiece of the Cubs’ exciting future finally got the call and was immediately slotted into the third spot in Dale Sveum’s batting order. How did the call come to be, though? Let’s backtrack a bit.

Right around this time last year (earlier part of June), Rizzo was the “most celebrated Padres call-up since Roberto Alomar in 1988” after making Triple A pitching his bitch for 93 games. Mostly everyone knows what took place after that promotion to San Diego. Rizzo struggled mightily against major league pitching, was demoted back to the minors just over a month later and recalled in September for another shot. He ended the season with a combined .141 batting average, one home run, nine RBIs and 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats. However, Jed Hoyer, who had taken Rizzo with him from Boston to San Diego, did not give up on him and, after accepting the job as the Cubs General Manager, traded the flame-throwing Andrew Cashner just to get him to the Northside.

Since then, the 22-year-old Rizzo changed his swing and worked his ass off to gain his confidence back. He did nothing but torch Triple A pitching once again, this time in an Iowa Cubs uniform. Through 70 games with Iowa, Rizzo managed to lead the entire Pacific Coast League in home runs (23), total bases (179), slugging percentage (.696) and OPS (a ridiculous 1.101). He was also third in RBIs (62), sixth in batting average (.342) and ninth in on-base percentage (.405). Unbelievable. Cubs fans, including myself, have been desperately waiting for Rizzo’s arrival to the Friendly Confines all season long, but because this season has been a lost cause since day one, the Cubs front office smartly decided to wait to call him up until there were less than 104 days left in the season, making him eligible for free agency in 2018 instead of 2017. If Rizzo becomes what the Cubs are hoping for, that one extra year will be huge and should save them millions.

That leads us to where we are now. While Rizzo has the ability to become one of the best first basemen in the National League some day, he is not going to single-handedly save the current team we have on the field. Fans expect him to become the cornerstone of this franchise, and rightly so, but it will take some time. Rizzo should make an immediate impact in the middle of an anemic Cubs lineup that has been dying for a legitimate run producer, but it is the future we need to be thrilled about. Throw him into a lineup with Starlin Castro and promising young hitters like Brett Jackson, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Albert Almora and/or the improved Josh Vitters, and the Cubs offense may develop into one of the best in the big leagues a few years from now. The potential for greatness is certainly there; it’s only a matter of time until we see whether or not that potential pans out.

After going 2/4 with a go-ahead two-out RBI double in his debut last night, Rizzo is here to stay. He seemed to love the pressure of playing in Chicago and the expectations that come with it. After beating cancer and experiencing terrible struggles at the plate in San Diego, Rizzo can handle any adversity that stands in the way of his path to stardom. He knows what it will take to get to that level, so all we can do as fans is stay confident and patient and hope that, sometime in the near future, he can help transform this helpless ball club into a consistent playoff contender. For the first time in four years, I am optimistic about our beloved Cubbies and smell signs of good things to come. If and when the baseball gods do bless us with that wish, I will always remember June 26, 2012 as the day that Anthony Rizzo brought promise and excitement to a fan base that needed it most.

Happy Rizzo Day, indeed.

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Rizzo/Jackson the next Portman/Fulton? Not so fast…

Cubs fans: we gotta be patient with the future bash brothers.

I get it. The Cubs haven’t won a world series since 20 years BEFORE sliced bread. I don’t need Cub haters to keep reminding me. I’m as realistic a sports fan as there is – the Cubs aren’t going anywhere this year either. Unfortunately, some irrationally optimistic Cubs fans I know beg to differ. Just last night, a friend of mine guaranteed me that a) the Cubs would finish at least .500 and b) they have a legitimate shot at winning the division. I’m not lying either. I tried kicking him out of his own house, but that didn’t work. I understand that people like to be hopeful and what not, but c’mon man. I love the Cubs more than life itself, but patience is a virtue. It will take years for Theo and Jed to rebuild this team from basically ground up where He Who Must Not Be Named (eh what the hell, his name is Jim Hendry. And I hate him) left us to rot. That being said, there are a couple of potential stars waiting for their names to be called as they continue to improve in Iowa. Their names: Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson. The problem is that many Cubs fans want them called up NOW. My take on that: absolutely not.

First of all, the Cubs are not going anywhere this year. They will probably finish 5th or 6th in the NL Central – 4th would be a stretch in my opinion (God help me if we finish below the Abysmal Astros in the division, which is exactly where we sit right now). Second of all, I don’t care how well Rizzo has been playing in the minors. We all saw what happened last year. He torched triple A pitching through 90 games or so, cranking 26 homers, driving in 101 runs and posting .331/.404/.652 splits. Ridiculous. But then San Diego called him up, and through 128 at bats, he only had 18 hits and struck out 46 times. Yes, he’s currently batting .364 with 7 homers and 25 RBIs in his first 28 games at Iowa, but is there really any reason to call him up right this second and risk him losing his confidence like last year? I don’t think so. I say Theo waits and lets the kid keep raking in Iowa, then calls him up in August or even September to let him showcase his talents. He’s dealt with the greatest adversity of all in beating cancer, so I have no doubt in my mind that Rizzo will work his ass off and eventually become a machine at the major league level. Plus, no need to push Lahair to the outfield this soon to make room for Rizzo at first. People underrate what switching to an unfamiliar position can do to a hitter’s confidence at the plate.

As for Jackson, let’s just say he can definitely use some more time in the minors. Yes, I know that we traded Marlon Byrd and essentially have a platoon in center field between Tony Campana and Joe Mather. Calling him up just sounds like the right thing to do. But he’s really struggled at the minor league level at times. Here’s ESPN’s Keith Law’s scouting report on him:

“Jackson has solid tools across the board, but they’re mitigated by a longstanding problem with contact that really limits his offensive upside. Jackson has some bat speed with very little load, getting his weight settled late and not letting the ball travel that well. So despite his size and athleticism, he doesn’t project for more than average power. He’s an above-average runner who can handle center field and could be worth five runs a year or so there in a full season, or he could move to left and potentially be plus there.

But he punched out in more than 30 percent of his plate appearances in Triple-A, and only two big leaguers qualified for the batting title in 2011 with that kind of strikeout rate — Drew Stubbs and Mark Reynolds, who had a combined OBP of .322. If Jackson can’t figure out how to make better contact, he’s probably a solid-average regular; but he could be a grade better if his hit tool improves.”

Simply put, he’s a strikeout machine, and he’s currently struggling in the early going at Iowa. Nothing pisses me off more than a .240 hitter who strikes out a ton. I really can’t stand that. Forget the home runs for a second: Mark Reynolds is a career .236 hitter with 996 strikeouts in 740 games. Drew Stubbs is a career .251 hitter with 451 strikeouts in 375 games. I get that Jackson will probably never be Yadier Molina in terms of strikeout numbers. But do you really want to call up Jackson now before he learns how to minimize those holes in his game? I sure don’t. We gotta be patient with him.

In the meantime, we’ll have to wait ’til… 2015? Now that’s being optimistic.