A 14-3 drubbing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates back in July sent the World Champion Chicago Cubs headed into the All-Star break trailing the Milwaukee Brewers by an unbelievable 5 ½ games. No one outside of Wisconsin thought the Brew Crew were actually gonna hold on, but folks on the North Side of Chicago would’ve had no choice but to confess they were nervous. Today, though, the postseason is all but in the bag, and manager Joe Maddon is surely already looking at October matchups.
The Cubs were suffering a complete system failure just two months ago. The team OPS was a run-of-the-mill .745, and their runs per game had dropped from 4.99 during their title run to 4.53, thanks in part to a BABIP that had fallen from .302 in 2016 to .280 in the first half of 2017. The main culprit/victim in the Cubbie’s batting order was Ben Zobrist, who last year had an .831 OPS built on a .290 BAbip and 96 walks while plugging holes all over the field on D. This year, however, the 36-year-old super utility player has seen his BAbip plummet to .244, as has his walk rate, leading to an OPS of .691, leading to drop in Zobrist’s oWAR from 4.2 to .5.
And there was a similar story to tell about the pitching staff, which had given up just 3.43 runs per game thanks to an otherworldly .257 BAbip in 2016, only to come screaming back to Earth with a 4.53 runs per game fueled in part by a .290 BABIP. The poster child for the Cubs woes on the mound is clearly Jon Lester, who last year had his best season in six years, going 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA and a .258 BAbip, but this year is just 9-7 with a 4.46 ERA and a .311 BAbip.
But the Cubs’ staff was historically lucky and durable last year. Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks were just the 19th rotation ever with five guys making 29+ starts – that right there makes your team so much more formidable, not having to hand over starts to retreads and “prospects,” but it doesn’t happen twice. They also were supported by one of the best defenses of all time, a team that had a Defensive Efficiency Rating 5.97% better than the league average, the second-highest figure ever.
So will the balls be bouncing in the Cubs’ favor this fall? Well, they’re 32-15 since the All Star break, the second-best record in all of baseball in that time, their 3.84 ERA is 7th-best in the baseball, and their BAbip allowed is .272, still well short of last year’s mark, but good enough for 3rd-best in the bigs. And they’ve been mashing, with their 292 runs and .848 OPS leading all comers, while their .334 BAbip s second-best. It looks like they’ve regressed to their own lofty mean.
They also feature maybe the best corner duo in the game, reigning MVP Kris Bryant at third, and Anthony Rizzo at first. Wilson Contreras has developed into a star, Javier Baez has become one of the game’ most exciting young players, Jayson Heyward has rebounded a little bit from last year’s struggles… There is no shortage of talent on offense or defense.
It’s the pitching, as usual, that is the big question mark, but Arietta has regained his ace form since the break (6-1, 1.59 ERA), as has Hendricks (2-1, 2.31), while Mike Montgomery is pitching like a man possessed (4-0, 2.50), Lackey is pitching like the useful veteran workhorse he is (6-1, 3.83), and Lester is pitching much better than his 4.96 ERA would indicate, with a 4.90 SO/BB ratio and an OPS of just .727.
They’re 3 ½ games up on the Brewers with a month to go, they have a 97.5% chance of making the playoffs, the talent is there, the pistons are firing on all cylinders, and they’re the only young team in baseball that literally knows they have what it takes — it’s way too early to crown the Dodgers as NL Champs.
You can watch the Cubs try to take another step toward the postseason Monday at 1pm ET on ESPN by subscribing to Sling Orange.
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