Now you have to imagine Tom Ricketts in her dress. Have a nice day.
Last night, as the Dodgers put one on the Cardinals, the Chicago Cubs moved into first place by half a game with the season one-third over. It is specifically not where they’re supposed to be, not where their ownership wanted them to be, and it gives the front office the headache it will tell you it always wanted but deep down was hoping to avoid. Should it continue, the Cubs roster will be playing a game of chicken with their bosses come July 31st.
How did the Cubs get here? Wasn’t this the team that scored seven runs in all of April? Wasn’t this the team that turned to stone at the sight of any pitch over 95 MPH? Well, yes, it is. But they seem to have changed their ways.
The Cubs went 19-8 in May, and their offense no longer makes the baby Jesus cry. They were fourth in runs in the month in the National League and second in on-base percentage. They managed that by cutting their strikeout-rate by three percentage points from April to May and, miracle of miracles, upping their contact-rate by the same amount (all stats from FanGraphs). This had been the major problem with the Cubs for years, that they simply couldn’t get wood on the ball. While some of that is due to the MVP-level play from Kris Bryant, something the Cubs hadn’t gotten in two and a half years or so, the addition of Nico Hoerner at second and a massive improvement in the department from Ian Happ gave the lineup more guys who weren’t just automatic whiffs. Javier Baez still is striking out enough for a convincing argument to set up wind turbines along Wrigley’s third-base line, but upped his power game in May to the tune of a .531 slugging-percentage and seven homers. Joc Pederson also found himself on a heater, hitting .314 in May while cutting his Ks down by a third.
But the real story of the Cubs has been the bullpen they’ve built out of discarded furniture and boxes they found in an alley off Clark St. While Craig Kimbrel is a name everyone knows and has been fantastic, Andrew Chafin, Ryan Tepera, and Dan Winkler have all been excellent to witch’s-curse good. Children Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson have thrown important and effective innings. Could it be the much-mocked “Cubs pitching lab” is something more than just the island of Dr. Weird?
The rotation might have a breakout star in Adbert Alzolay, who in 28.2 May innings struck out 28 and walked two. Ace Kyle Hendricks also seemed to have gotten over whatever allergy he had in April that caused him to toss pitches to the Atlanta Braves underhanded, as he posted a 2.67 ERA in May with his own 26-to-1 K/BB ratio in the month. Zach Davies posted a 1.72 ERA in May as well, though you can’t help but wonder where this Cubs team would be if it had, y’know, the Cy Young-caliber starter it used to have (but was too cheap to pay or get anything above a couple of zygotes for in a trade). Oh right, we can know that, and it’s almost two full wins, according to FanGraphs. But we’ll leave that for now.
Is there some air in the Cubs’ May? You bet your ass there is! The schedule was filled with Reds, Pirates, Tigers, and Nationals. But it also included a three-game sweep of the Dodgers, though none of the three games were actual nine-inning games (a DH and an extra-inning affair). The Cubs are tied for the most one-run wins with 11, though they have nine losses by one-run as well. But their +32 run-difference is best in the NL outside of the NL West, and they’re right on their expected record total.
Are Hoerner, Pederson, and Willson Contreras going to maintain their +.350 BABIP the rest of the season? Probably not. Are Contreras, Baez, Jason Heyward, and Anthony Rizzo still helpless against high heat? Damn skippy, with none of them batting over .200 for the season on fastballs 95 MPH or higher (though Rizzo and Contreras did improve to over .250 in May). Alzolay has never thrown more than 120 innings in a season as a pro, and threw 82 in the previous two seasons combined, plus whatever the alternate-site counts as last year. He’s going to have an introduction with a wall soon. Both he and Davies are also due for some BABIP correction.
We’ll probably find out more about this Cubs team over the next two weeks. They play the Padres six more times, sandwiching a weekend in San Francisco. There’s a four-game set in Los Angeles later in June, as well as a series with the other NL Central contenders-by-default Cards and Brewers.
But the thing about the National League is if you’re not playing one of the three good teams in the West, your schedule is probably pretty soft! July for the Cubs is full of more teams that suck eggs, so if they survive their “Wreck of The Hesperus” through the Padres, Giants, and Dodgers, they are just as likely as anyone else to maintain their standing while playing the goo that comprises the rest of the league.
Which puts their ownership of rich fools and front office full of guys not named Theo in a tough spot. The season started with the criminal trade of Yu Darvish, derisory/farcical extension talks with Anthony Rizzo, and enough trade rumors about Kris Bryant to choke a horse. Javy Baez is also nowhere near an extension. All three are free agents after the season.
The hope, though never spoken in public, had to be the Cubs would cough and leak to no better than a .500 record in the middle of July, and the Ricketts family could rub their hands together and instruct the front office to deal any or all of them for prospects (who have yet to have their balls drop) and get to the $70 million payroll they’ve always dreamed of. But would this family full of petty cowards really trade off pieces from a first-place team? Fuck no they wouldn’t, and if they did they probably wouldn’t step foot inside the stadium again, much less answer any questions about it.
But does that mean Baez, Rizzo, and Bryant can play themselves into extensions? That’s unlikely too, given the obvious desire of ownership to start over, i.e. not have to pay anyone, while they collect all their real estate cash from turning the area around Wrigley into a characterless yuppie Shang-ri-la, or at least more of one. But they may force the team to keep them all together just to see how far they can go one last time.
The ownership tried to handicap this team just enough to keep them from competing. But what they may have done is just keep them from having a real shot at doing something meaningful. Having Darvish around, along with another bat or two they could have signed in the offseason, would have made this team surefire to win the Central and have at least a puncher’s chance in any series. Perhaps the “fuck you” attitude they’ve clearly installed in the roster have given them an extra edge.
Maybe it’s the last time. Maybe it’s forcing a change of direction. What we can say is there’s no team in MLB that has a greater difference in aims between the roster and management, and it’s headed for a crash, soonish.