The Beer List: Surprise! Edition

This is The Beer List. It’s an opportunity, once every two weeks, for the staff here at BP Wrigleyville to get together (virtually, of course) and respond briefly to one small, usually quite open-ended, question. Despite the strenuous efforts of certain members of the writing crew to make it so, it has nothing to do with beer and is therefore agnostic between, for random example, Miller Light and Daisy Cutter. This week’s question is this: Which Cubs player has most surprised you (in a good OR bad way) this season? A player can be chosen twice: once for positive, once for negative.

(1) Arismendy Alcantara—Bad. The biggest surprise for me this year has been Arismendy Alcantara’s inability to make adjustments on pitches on the outside part of the plate. Note that the player himself is not the surprise here; seeing him for about 400 plate appearances almost every day between MLB and the DWL gave me a good idea of what kind of hitter he is. He’s got strength in his wrists and quick enough hands to punish any pitcher who dares pitch him inside. The surprise here is that he hasn’t done anything that even resembles an adjustment to covering that outside breaking ball to force pitchers to come back inside on him, where his strengths lie.

It saddens me, really. Quick-twitch athletes who can provide that much value on both sides of the game don’t really come around too often. Alcantara could be a .270/.350/.450 hitter with the legs to steal 25 bags, but that all starts with getting on base and making good contact. That’ll never happen with a pull-happy approach and a hole on the outside part of the plate. —Stan Croussett

(2) Starlin Castro—Good and Bad. A three-time All-Star; inconsistent. Nearly 1,000 hits; prone to defensive lapses. Exceedingly accomplished at such a young age; immature. 38.4 career VORP at 21 years old; -3.3 VORP in his age-25 season. No matter what Castro has accomplished in his short career, it seems someone has always been there to counter said accomplishment. And, to be honest, 2015 has not been pretty on the field for Castro. A promising April (.325/.349/.410) quickly spiralled into the deepest slump of his career. After he proved unable to pull himself out of it, Joe Maddon eventually replaced him at shortstop with Addison Russell.

But this year, this year, Castro has accomplished something no snarky beat writer or BP stathead can explain away. He took his demotion with class. He approached his job—whatever job that may be on a given day—with a smile. He diligently helped Russell with the ever-so-difficult major-league transition. He switched positions. This year, Castro became a leader. —Isaac Bennett

(3) Fifth Starter Carousel—Bad. Fifth starter turnover throughout a season isn’t terribly uncommon, but the Cubs’ long-time plan to hoard starter-quality arms—Tsuyoshi Wada, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, Dallas Beeler, etc.—hasn’t prevented them from needing to go outside the organization to fill that spot. The Cubs’ top four have been remarkably healthy, thankfully, but ineffectiveness and injuries have forced six pitchers to take 26 starts on the back end: Wada, Wood, Beeler, Dan Haren, Clayton Richard, and Donn Roach.

Those six have combined for a 7.95 ERA (very bad), 7.7 K/9 (decent), and 3.4 BB/9 (average) over 123 1/3 innings, which comes to over nine percent of the Cubs’ total innings pitched this season. The team planned for some more stability in that spot, but had to acquire both Richard and Haren in order to find not-terrible innings. Luckily, there’s only a month left of the season, so Haren won’t see too many more innings, and they’ll rely on their very good top three in the playoffs. —Zack Moser

(4) Justin Grimm—Good. My pleasant surprise for the year is Justin Grimm.  It’s not that his 1.17 ERA and 2.15 FIP are so much better than his career marks (4.64; 3.61), it’s my learned distrust of middle relievers stringing together consecutive quality seasons. Grimm tossed 69 innings in 73 appearances in 2014, and my priors are that middle relievers who carry such a heavy load don’t do quite so well in the next season. This year, however, his ERA would be the best for a Cub reliever since 1950 (minimum 50 games), and his FIP would trail only Sean Marshall’s 2011 season, Carlos Marmol’s 2010 season, and Bruce Sutter’s 1977 and 1979 seasons. In fact, I looked back to 1950 at every season where a Cub reliever appeared in 60 or more games in one season, then at least 50 in the following season in a middle relief (non-closer) role. The only middle reliever to even approach Grimm’s 2015 numbers for ERA and FIP in a season following heavy usage was Marshall (2.26 ERA, 1.83 FIP in 2011, 2.65 ERA, 2.3 FIP in 2010). Bill Campbell (1983) , Paul Assenmacher (1991), Lindy McDaniel (1965), and Carlos Marmol (2008) were the only non-closers with a sub-3.00 ERA or FIP in a season coming off heavy usage. Justin Grimm, your season has been  tremendous [Ed.: With the exception of last night.]. And surprisingly so! —Michael Wenz

(5) Kyle Hendricks—Good. If put on the spot, many Cubs fans would probably argue that Kyle Hendricks has been disappointing this season, but that’s just not the case. Sure, it’s looked ugly lately, with Hendricks sporting a 6.86 ERA over his last four starts. But on the season, his cFIP is rated 42nd among starters with 100 innings pitched or more, his DRA is ranked 50th, and he’s striking out more batters per nine innings than Jeff Samardzija, Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, and Sonny Gray. And he’s done all this while having tossed 142 1/3 innings in 25 starts and being worth 2.4 fWAR to date. Oh, and that fWAR ranks him 31st among all qualified starters in major league baseball.

By almost all advanced measures, Hendricks has been at the very least a number three starter this season. Part of that has been him pitching well and part of it has been Joe Maddon protecting him by consistently getting him out of games before things get out of hand. Considering that Hendricks falls fourth in the Cubs’ depth chart, what they’ve gotten from their 25-year-old starter has been extremely solid. —Ryan Davis

(6) Jonathan Herrera—Bad. Remember that terrible light beer your friend brought to your party as a kind of back up beer, in case everyone drank the tasty six packs they had brought but wanted to still hang out? The beer that’s been hanging out in your fridge for months that you’ve forgotten to drink or give back or throw out? The beer that’s hitting .231/.244/.314? Yeah, that beer is Jonathan Herrera. In Spring Training, most thought that Starlin Castro, Tommy La Stella, and Javier Baez would nail down the middle infield and infield backup spots. Injuries and off-field things kept La Stella and Baez off the roster, and Castro has struggled mightily, factors that have led to Herrera being ensconced in the Cubs’ 25-man the entire season. That’s a bad surprise on its own, with no further analysis necessary. —Zack Moser

(7) Billy McKinney—Good. He’s been written about a lot, by yours truly and other outlets, but it still amazes me how well the Cubs did in acquiring McKinney as the second piece in the Addison Russell trade. The center fielder with a left-field skill set has displayed an innate feel for the barrel all year and blossomed into a bona fide top prospect for the Cubs. That said, his overall profile isn’t terribly impressive in spite of the production. He doesn’t have the athleticism to stick in center and his major-league production forecast looks like that of an everyday guy rather than a star. Whatever. That’s still a tremendous win for the Cubs. Not every prospect has to be a star in order to win a trade. Sometimes getting an everyday outfielder to go along with a player like Russell is more than enough. —Mauricio Rubio

(8) Miguel Montero—Good. Miguel Montero’s offense has been a pleasant surprise. When the Cubs acquired him via trade for two low-level pitching prospects (Jefferson Mejia and Zack Godley), the perception was that he was a skilled pitch framer and defensive catcher whose days of contributing significantly to an offense were likely in the past: Montero hadn’t produced an OPS over .700 or a WARP over 0.7 since 2012.

While the desired success in pitch framing has indeed come to fruition (8th in MLB in +/- runs and +/- calls), his offensive production has bounced back to levels not seen from him since that 2012 season. Montero’s batting average is down, but his OBP, OPS, OPS+, and WARP are all above his career averages. Even though he has played in only 86 of 124 games (which may actually be contributing to his success), he has more home runs (14) than he had in all of 2013 (11) or 2014 (13). If he hits four more home runs, he will tie his career high (18) set in 2011, when he was an All-Star. —Jeff Lamb

(9) Anthony Rizzo—Good. It had been a rocky ride for Rizzo since he became a Cub. When the team traded for him in 2011, we (as fans) looked at his .141 batting average and hoped Epstein and company were making the right call. In 2012, we saw what he could do for half of a season and were sold: this was the first baseman of the future, and someone whom the Cubs could build the team around. Then 2013 came and went and a fair number of us panicked—Rizzo had regressed badly, and basically became a platoon hitter. So when Rizzo finally broke out in 2014 with a .913 OPS, 32 home runs, and his first All-Star selection, we were relieved and promised never to doubt Epstein again. Everything was going to be OK.

This year Rizzo is making sure that things are more than just OK by taking his game to another level. We would’ve been happy to just get another season of 2014 vintage, but he’s decided to take that fantastic .300 batting average against lefties from last year and juice it up to .321. It’s not a fluke either—he changed his approach by crowding the plate (leading to his league-leading 24 HBP) to take away the inside pitch that was jamming him. The fact that Rizzo isn’t coasting on the success he had in 2014 tells me so he’s driven to get the most out of his talent that he might get even better. That’s not really a surprise, but it sure is pleasant. —Carlos Portocarrero

(10) Hector Rondon—Good. It’s not that I’m surprised by Rondon’s 2015 success. After all, in 2014, he recorded 29 saves alongside a 2.42 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, with peripheral numbers that suggested his success was not just the product of a flukey season (2.53 DRA and .286 BABIP against). However, the reason I selected the tall righty for this exercise was because he has not merely replicated last season’s sterling numbers, but has actually improved upon them, this time for a team in the midst of a pennant race.

In 2015, Rondon has been excellent by just about every statistical measure: he has 24 saves, a 1.55 ERA, an 0.98 WHIP, a 2.60 DRA, and a 62 DRA-. Among relievers, Rondon is seven percentage points above the league average in left-on-base rate (81.9 percent) and five percent above the league groundball rate (50.3 percent). And a season after throwing more than 50 percent four-seam fastballs, Rondon’s 2015 go-to pitch, his slider (34.8 percent usage rate), has been nearly unhittable, with opposing batters managing a batting average of just .173, and a slugging percentage of .222. Rondon has become a major weapon down the stretch: in the second half, he has allowed just one earned run, and his season-long numbers at Wrigley (1.11 ERA, 0.835 WHIP, 27.2 percent strikeout rate, 0 home runs) are otherworldly. Two months ago some fans were clamoring for Jonathan Papelbon, but Rondon is now a dominant closer on one of baseball’s best teams. Who needs Papelbon? Bring on September. —Andrew Felper

(11) Travis Wood—Good and Bad. In a perfect world (from the Cubs’ perspective at least) Wood would have stuck the landing at the back end of the starting rotation. The Cubs would be a better, stronger team if Wood had been able to cut it in that role, reducing the need for what has been an atrocious set of performances from the quintet of Wada, Beeler, Roach, Richard, and Haren.

Alas, it didn’t happen. After seven brutal starts, Joe Maddon moved Wood to the bullpen. At the time, he had an ERA pushing 6.00. Since then, however, Wood has established himself as a legitimate left-handed relief option, and not just as a specialist. In fact, Maddon has made no effort whatsoever to shield Wood from right-handers so far, and yet, Wood has a 3.64 ERA as a fairly versatile reliever. He’s faced at least four batters in 10 straight appearances, and he’s averaging about 5.8 batters faced per game. Crucially, he’s also missing bats, something his stuff as a starter didn’t necessarily suggest he would do. He has a 28 percent strikeout rate out of the bullpen, and is allowing zero power. Once October rolls around, Maddon will be able to use Wood a bit more judiciously, and he has a chance to really become a middle-inning playoff stopper. —Matt Trueblood

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