It’s the beginning of August, which means not only that the dog days of summer are officially here, but also that I, as I have since
the beginning of time the beginning of the season, will sit down and write about the top Cubs’ contributors and moments from the previous month. If you want a brief technical summary of what this means, please feel free to jump over to the original version of this series, in which I lay out the criteria I use to pick the players and plays for these recaps. If you don’t care, and just want to move on to the good stuff, please note only that the top plays I indicate are the top plays for each player I mention, and may or may not (probably not) correspond to the top plays of the month overall.
It didn’t feel like it at times, but the Cubs actually finished July with their second-highest monthly winning percentage (.556) of the season, trailing only April’s mark (.600), which they put up over seven fewer games. Imagine what might have happened in July if they hadn’t been swept by the Phillies! (Actually, you don’t have to: their record would have been 18-9, and they would be a mere 6.5 games back in the division.) A great deal of the credit for that record goes to the pitching staff, who put up the highest pitching fWAR in the majors in July (5.3)—by a long shot—despite paltry support from an offense that managed just a 75 wRC+ for the month (27th in the majors).
Speaking of that offense, they weren’t all bad. Here are the five best Cubs position players in July, by fWAR:
(5) Chris Coghlan, 0.3 fWAR—Coghlan’s had an interesting season. He started relatively hot, cooled off in May and June, and has had a pretty nice run lately. Still, his success in July was almost entirely due to his glove, as his .219/.305/.384 monthly line is nothing to write home about. Coghlan seemed to make a pretty play in left nearly every day, and displayed a more-accurate-than-expected arm on a number of occasions. His top play of the month came on July 24, against those doggone Phillies, when he blasted a two-run home run to right field off of Philadelphia’s Jerome Williams, putting the Cubs ahead 3-1. Obviously, the Cubs didn’t win that game, eventually falling in extras courtesy of Jeff Francouer, but Coghlan did his darndest to help his team to victory.
(4) Addison Russell, 0.4—Watch out, world: Russell is heating up. But we’re not here to talk about August’s results, this is a space for July discussion only. And it turns out that Russell had a pretty darn good July, particularly after the All-Star Break. His .244/.322/.321 line on the month isn’t the prettiest thing in the world, but it’s buttressed by several sparkling plays at second base and a .313/.365/.417 line after the break. Russell’s top play of the month came on July 7, against the Cardinals’ Seth Maness, when he hit that controversial side-spinning bouncer past Mark Reynolds at first base, in the sixth inning of a 2-1 game. Miguel Montero scored, tying the game. Maness was ejected, and the Cubs went on to complete a doubleheader sweep of the Cards. (More on that game later.) Losses to the Phillies, wins against the Cardinals. It was that strange of a month.
(3) Kyle Schwarber, 0.5—Oh, Kyle Schwarber. For a guy who didn’t even make his July debut until after the All-Star break, Schwarber has managed to turn a lot of heads in his brief time in Chicago. He’s patient, he drives the ball, and he knows what he’s looking for at the plate. All of that—plus some time behind the plate— has added up to a .302/.412/.488 monthly line and the third-highest fWAR total from any position player on the team this month. Schwarber’s top play came (you probably remember it) against the Reds’ Nate Adcock, when Schwarber homered in the thirteenth to put the Cubs up for good, 5-4. That bomb was actually Schwarber’s second of the day, as he’d homered in the ninth to tie the game. The kid is good.
(2) Anthony Rizzo, 0.5—But maybe not quite as good, yet, as that other slugging lefty, Anthony Rizzo. After a prolonged slump to start the month, Rizzo finished strong and put up a .250/.372/.413 line over 113 mostly solid plate appearances, contributing flashy defensive play at first base in the bargain. His top play of the month was also his top play of the year, when he took Brewers reliever Will Smith deep on July 30, putting the Cubs up 3-2 in the eighth inning of a game they’d been losing from the get-go. That single play improved the Cubs’ chances by 60.5 percent, which is—let me check my figures here—a lot.
(1) Dexter Fowler, 0.7—Remember at the beginning of the season, when it seemed that Fowler was on base every time he came to the plate? He’s doing that again. Over the month of July, Fowler put up a .275/.411/.396 line that translated to a 131 wRC+ and a whole lot of value for the Cubs. If he keeps up this performance, and one or more of the big boys lurking below him in the lineup keep doing their jobs, opposing offenses are going to have a real hard time in August. Fowler’s top play, like Russell’s, came on July 7 against the Cardinals, when with the score tied in the seventh inning, and runners on first and third, Fowler grounded back to the pitcher. Wait, that’s it? That was his top play? Yeah, it was. Watch, and see what happened next:
(5) Travis Wood, 0.5—Wood has handled his demotion from the rotation with aplomb, putting up a second consecutive solid month in long relief. This month, his FIP (1.55) suggests that he’s been even better than his already-excellent ERA (2.87) suggests, and that squares with the eye test for this month. His best moment came on July 3, when with two out in the eighth inning of a one-run game, he managed to strike out J.T. Realmuto and strand the bases loaded. The Marlins, sadly, went on to win that game 2-1.
(4) Hector Rondon, 0.5—Rondon is now kinda sorta maybe-but-don’t-call-him-that the Cubs’ closer, after manager Joe Maddon moved away from the flamethrowing Jason Motte. He’s had a solid month and, really, a solid year, despite a few hiccups along the way. His top play came on July 22, against the Reds, when with the bases loaded in a tie game he managed to get Todd Frazier to bounce one (sharply) back at him. The ball caromed off Rondon’s left buttock, but right to Anthony Rizzo, who pegged Skip Schumkaer at the plate to preserve the tie.
(3) Kyle Hendricks, 0.8—Hendricks seems like one of those guys who could pitch in the big leagues for 20 years, and people would still be surprised that he succeeds with his stuff. In any event, he’s succeded this month, putting up an excellent 2.90 ERA over 31 innings pitched. His top moment came on July 5, when he managed to retire Justin Bour in the seventh inning of a one-run game, leaving runners on first and second. That wasn’t the end of the story, of course, but it was a solid moment for Hendricks in a game the Cubs ended up winning.
(2) Jake Arrieta, 1.4—People keep wondering when he’s going to slow down, and he keeps being good. Arrieta, who will cost a lot to extend, put up another superb month in July, throwing 42 2/3 innings with a miniscule 1.90 ERA (2.17 FIP). His best moment came on July 2, when with the Cubs leading 2-1 and a man on second, Arrieta got his opposing number (Jacob DeGrom) to line a comebacker right to him, allowing Arrieta to pick the runner off at third.
(1) Jon Lester, 1.8—Well, this is what you want to see. Lester was hired this offseason to be the Cubs’ ace, and since April, he’s pitched like one. This month, Lester threw 43 1/3 innings, put up a 1.63 ERA and a 1.61 FIP, and struck out nearly ten batters for every walk he issued. That’s an ace, and it resulted in the best performance by any Cub in the month of July. Lester’s best moment—you’re going to like this, it’s hilarious—came on the very first day of the month, when he faced Bartolo Colon, New York’s Most Feared Hitter*, with the bases loaded in a tie game. At that point, Lester managed to get Colon to fly out to right field to end the threat. You’ll have to take my word for it, because as far as I can tell, no video footage of this glorious event exists. Watch, if you would prefer, a summary of that entire start for Lester:
All in all, a very strange month. Were it not for a series of walkoffs (Schwarber; Bryant) and huge individual games (Rizzo, in particular) the Cubs could easily have entered August in a double-digit divisional hole and several games under .500 for the month. Instead, they find themselves, as of this week, in position for a playoff berth and facing a light schedule going forward. You don’t want to talk too much about destiny, particularly on a site affiliated with Baseball Prospectus, but it’s hard for the fan in me to watch this team and not think that something good is going to come of the season. It might be heartbreak, in the form of a Wild Card loss; it might be heartbreak, in the form of an NLCS Game 7; and, most horribly, it might be heartbreak, in the form of a World Series loss. But you’ve got to believe that there’s something big coming for this team. Onwards into August.
Lead photo courtesy of Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports