It’s the beginning of October, which not only means that Halloween is around the corner and you might even hear the first ominous tinkle of mall Christmas music, 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.
Given what’s around the corner in Pittsburgh, you could be forgiven for spending this week a little bit more focused on the future than the past. The Cubs are succeeding in a way they haven’t since—at the very minimum—the 2008 season, and the future for North Side baseball has rarely looked rosier in Chicago. But let me tell you this: the September these Cubs just finished is worth remembering. Setting individual performances aside for the moment (we’ll get to those shortly) allows us to focus on the team’s overall record in September, which was marvelous: at 19-9, the Cubs put up a second consecutive month of .679 baseball. And that, in turn, means that this Tweet, regarding the Cubs’ record since being swept by the Phillies in late July, has the joyful ring of truth:
Since that point, the Cubs have gone 42-19 (.689). https://t.co/fw41YMK2LU
— Rian Watt (@rianwatt) October 1, 2015
Yes, it was a good month for the Chicago Cubs. Entering play on October 1st, they sit 2.5 games behind the Pirates for home field advantage in the Wild Card game, 10.0 games ahead of the long-since-eliminated Giants in the overall Wild Card race, and one game ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays for the third-best record in baseball. None of these things—none of these things—are things I would have been confident predicting for the team on April 1st. And yet, here they are. How did they get here?
(5) Chris Denorfia, 0.5 fWAR: Well, Chris Denorfia played his part. He hasn’t been the Cubs’ best hitter all season (in fact, with a .264 TAv, he’s been one of the worst semi-regulars) but he’s been a solid veteran presence in a clubhouse heavy on youth, and a passable right-handed platoon for the more-heralded Chris Coghlan. In September, however, Denorfia turned it on, hitting .412/.500/.824 to go alongside a 10 percent walk rate over 20 plate appearances. Not bad for a guy making just $2.6 million this year. Denorfia’s top play of the month—and, indeed, of the season—came just three days ago, against the Royals at Wrigley Field. Kyle Hendricks, Yordano Ventura, and assorted relievers in various shades of blue had shut down both offenses for the better part of 11 innings, until Denorfia strode to the dish for a pinch-hitting appearance to lead off the bottom of the 11th. No sooner had Miguel Almonte delivered his first pitch of the sequence—a fastball that caught way too much of the zone—than did Denorfia deposit it ten rows deep into the left-field bleachers, winning the game and closing the Cubs’ home slate of regular season games at Wrigley. It was the Cubs’ 13th walkoff of the season—the most in the majors—and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time ever that a pinch-hitter had hit a walkoff home run to end a 1-0 game in extras. Not bad, Mr. Denorfia. Not bad.
(4) Anthony Rizzo, 0.6 fWAR: Ho hum, another above-average month from Anthony Rizzo. If we’re not careful, we’ll start getting used to this. Rizzo’s batting average (.255) was a little down this month, but that’s no particular cause for concern given that his OBP (.378) and walk rate (12.6 percent) continued to look solid. It was just another totally dependable month from the Cubs’ on-field leader, whose shining moment came in the fifth inning of the September 17th game against the Pirates. The Cubs were trailing 4-3, and Rizzo came up to face Pittsburgh’s Charlie Morton with Chris Coghlan on second and nobody out. It took one pitch—a ball–for Rizzo to get ready. He turned on Morton’s second pitch, launching it into the right-field bleachers and putting the Cubs up 5-4.
Also worth noting this month: Rizzo’s plunking in Tuesday night’s game against the Reds gave him 30 hit-by-pitches this season to go alongside his 30 home runs. That makes him the first player since Don Baylor in 1986 to join the second, less-exciting 30-30 club. Congratulations, Anthony.
(3) Addison Russell, 0.6 fWAR: Russell’s solid performance this month, as it has been all year, was driven by superb defensive play (3.1 defensive runs saved; by far the best on the team) and a barely passable offensive line (.228/.322/.380). In the last week, though—and here I can only speak anecdotally—it does seem as if Russell’s been barreling the ball up a bit better, thereby driving the ball with authority to the gaps. I don’t know. I do know that Russell is a great opportunity to ditch the conventions of this feature and go with a defensive play as Russell’s top play of the month. It came against the Cardinals, to end the game:
If that isn’t beautiful to you, I don’t know what to tell you. The first step, the footwork, the quick hands, the instincs—they’re all there. This kid is going to win a Gold Glove one day.
(2) Kris Bryant, 1.4 fWAR: Now there’s a big jump. The previous three fWAR totals—0.5, 0.6, and 0.6—are nice, but they pale in comparison to what these top two guys have done. We’ll start with Bryant. First, there’s the ludicrous line: .336/.383/.561, with five home runs and 13 runs scored over 115 plate appearances. Do that over a full season, and you’ll win an MVP. Bryant hasn’t, but he’ll get MVP consideration anyway (although he won’t win; stupid sexy Bryce Harper) on the back of what’s turned into a superb rookie campaign. His top moment of the month came on September 2nd, when he took the Reds’ J.J. Hooper deep in the eighth to score Dexter Fowler and tie the game at four. Just another home run for the Kid. But even he wasn’t the star of the month. That honor belongs to …
(1) Starlin Castro, 1.5 fWAR: Starlin Castro. I love this story. I love this story. I love that Castro has so totally rehabilitated his public persona over the last eight weeks that he now has a case for being one of the three or four most popular Cubs, and I love how he’s done it: by putting his head down in the face of adversity and doing his job. In September, Castro was spectacular. He hit .426/.452/.750 over 74 plate appearances and, at least by fWAR, was the fourth-most valuable player in the National League. Best of all, he started smiling again. I don’t care what Starlin’s top moment by WPA was—this was his best moment of the year:
Just beautiful. It’s been like that all month for Castro, who seems to be peaking at exactly the right time. Speaking of peaking, there’s some pitchers doing good work for the Cubs these days. Let’s talk about them.
(5) Dan Haren, 0.6 fWAR: Haren made what was possibly his last start in a big-league uniform on Tuesday, throwing 7 1/3 shutout innings against the Reds, striking out six, and generally leaving nothing left to be desired from his performance. It’s been sort of like that all month for Haren, who threw 26 2/3 innings this month, striking out 31 and posting a 2.36 ERA. Not bad for an old man. For all these pitchers—with the exception of the top performer—I’m going to avoid choosing WPA-based ‘top moments’ from hereon out. The statistic doesn’t usefully capture the complexities of sequencing or moment when it comes to pitchers, and I’d rather focus on the moments that mattered.
(4) Kyle Hendricks, 0.6 fWAR: Speaking of mattering, Kyle Hendricks became my first ever big-league interview in a month wherein he threw 26 2/3 pretty solid innings. They weren’t all pretty, but he’s quieted August doubters about his role on the team for next year, and now has a pretty solid shot of ending up on a potential NLDS roster. His best start probably came just three nights ago, against the Royals, where he threw six scoreless innings against a very good ballclub:
(3) Travis Wood, 0.6 fWAR: Here’s another guy who’ll matter when the playoffs roll around. Wood has been superb since moving into a long relief role, and has joined forces Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard as manager Joe Maddon’s middle-inning stoppers. He threw just 14 innings this month, but they were superb: 22 strikeouts, just four walks, and a miniscule 0.64 ERA. He also made a spot start in a ‘bullpen game’ against the Cardinals on September 19th, allowing just one run over 2 2/3 innings of work. If he can keep this going into October, the Cubs will be a force to be reckoned with on the mound, and will have significant insurance in case one of their top two starters collapses.
(2) Jon Lester, 1.4 fWAR: Speak of the Lester, and he shall appear. He’s gotten a bit of a hard time by some of the more vocal elements of the fanbase, but Lester has been exactly what the Cubs expected when they signed him this offseason—in many ways, a bit better. In September, he threw 42 innings (the high mark on the team), struck out 41, and posted a 2.36 ERA to go along with a 2.38 FIP. He may not get the Wild Card start, but make no mistake: Jon Lester will be absolutely critical to the Cubs’ postseason hopes. He’s been there before—winning the World Series in 2007 and 2013—and his big-game experience will keep this young team level and calm. His pitching won’t hurt, either. Lester is peaking at just the right time. But he won’t be the most important Cub in October. That’ll be:
(1) Jake Arrieta, 1.6 fWAR: Obviously. The cat’s out of the bag with Arrieta these days, and he’ll receive serious consideration for the MVP along with a certain top-3 finish in Cy Young balloting. Over five September starts, Arrieta allowed just two runs, striking out 39 and walking only four. He nearly threw a perfect game on Sunday Night Baseball—after, earlier in the season, actually throwing a no-hitter on that same show—and earlier threw a complete-game shutout against the Milwaukee Brewers. There’s no telling what he’ll manage in his final start of the season, which’ll come on Friday at Miller Park, but it’s already OK to say it: Arrieta has been the best pitcher for the Chicago Cubs in at least a decade. This season, and this month, have had so many pitching moments of brilliance that I can’t pick just one, so I’ll pick this as Arrieta’s top moment of the month:
When you have an ace who can do that, there’s not much left to say. Onwards to October.
Lead photo courtesy Rick Osentoski—USA Today Sports.