We’re now almost a week past the sad end to the Cubs’ 2015 season, and it’s now a bit easier to look back on the year with a clear head. And what a season it was. I thought it might be fun to roll out one final Wrigleyville “game” recap, using the format we have all year, but now celebrating the season as a whole rather than any particular game. You ready? Let’s remember some key moments, relive some highs and lows, and peek ahead to what is sure to be an exciting 2015-2016 offseason.
Top Plays (WPA):
1. Kris Bryant’s walk-off homer 7/27 vs. Rockies (.913). The top WPA play of this season came courtesy of presumptive NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant. In the bottom of the ninth inning on July 27th, the Cubs were perhaps at their lowest point of the season. They had sputtered a bit in the first few weeks after the All-Star break, and those struggles culminated when the Cubs got swept (and, worse, no-hit) by the Phillies at home between July 24th and 26th. The Cubs then hosted the Rockies on July 27th, and took a 7-4 lead into the top of the ninth. But the Cubs’ shaky midseason bullpen unraveled. Jason Motte and Rafael Soriano combined to allow four runs, and the already-struggling Cubs suddenly trailed 8-7 going into the bottom half of the ninth in front of a very dejected Wrigley crowd. Then, everything changed. With two outs and Dexter Fowler on first, Bryant did this to a baseball:
Momentum and turning point narratives are probably less important than many believe, and wins are born more of skill than of fortitude and grit. But in the story of the 2015 Cubs (and, hopefully, the Epstein-era Cubs), this home run will likely be remembered as symbolic of the moment that the young Cubs broke out and never looked back. From July 27th onward, the Cubs played at a torrid 46-19 pace, not stopping until they hit the Mets in the NLCS. The last two months of the 2015 season were the most fun I’ve ever had as a Cubs fan, and they were literally and figuratively launched by Bryant on that late July night at Wrigley.
2. Dexter Fowler’s 4/12 two-run homer vs. Rockies (.670). This early-season dinger came off of former Cub LaTroy Hawkins in Colorado. It turned a 5-4 deficit into a 6-5 lead with two outs in the ninth, and gave the Cubs a vital early season victory.
3. Anthony Rizzo’s 7/30 three-run homer vs. Milwaukee (.605). The Cubs trailed the Brewers 2-0 in the eighth inning of this game until Rizzo crushed this shot into the right field bleachers. Chicago would go on to win this game 5-2, and sweep the Brewers as part of a stretch of games that saw them win 15 of 16. Rizzo, incidentally, led all of the MLB with 7.75 WPA this year.
Bottom Plays (WPA):
1. Jhonny Peralta’s 7/8 two-run homer off Pedro Strop (.759). This crushing homer came with two outs in the ninth, as Pedro Strop looked to close out a 5-4 victory against the Cardinals at Wrigley. This was one of several moments this year in which Strop struggled against St. Louis, leading to a narrative that was probably due more to small sample size than any actual mental block. The Cardinals ended up taking this frustrating pre-All Star Break series two games out of three, and many pointed to this home run as a moment that could have swung the division down the stretch. None of these narratives ended up mattering much in the NLDS, though, as the Cubs won the series 3-1.
2. Carlos Gonzalez’s 7/27 two-run homer off Rafael Soriano (.525). This home run, which gave the Rockies an 8-7 lead in the ninth, was mostly forgotten because of the Bryant homer that followed in the bottom of the ninth. Soriano had been signed to shore up the backend of the Cubs bullpen, but he never really put it together for the Chicago and was designated for assignment in August. Trevor Cahill and Fernando Rodney ended up filling the role the Cubs had envisioned for Soriano down the stretch.
3. Wil Myers’ 4/17 three-run homer off Brian Schlitter (.518). This seventh-inning homer made it 5-4 Padres and spoiled Kris Bryant’s much-hyped debut at Wrigley. Bryant himself struggled that day, going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. As expected, though, Bryant took off in the weeks to come, putting to rest the tired story about his call-up and service time. Schlitter wasn’t so lucky, and made his last appearance for the Cubs on June 14th.
Key Moment: This season’s key moment was Jake Arrieta’s Wild Card game start in Pittsburgh, on Wednesday, October 7th. In the Cubs’ highest-leverage game since at least 2008, Arrieta produced a typically dominant performance with something just a bit less than his best stuff. He threw a complete-game shutout, with eleven strikeouts, no walks, and only four hits. He also drew a HBP and stole a base in the Cubs’ 4-0 victory.
This start in Pittsburgh capped off a well-documented run of dominance that it is still worth taking (at least) one more look at. On the season, Arrieta put up a 1.77 ERA/2.31 DRA slash line and a DRA-based WARP of 7.41. That’s of course ridiculous in and of itself, but what Arrieta did over the last several months of the season is nothing short of historic. From August 1st through the Wild Card game, he threw 97 1/3 innings and allowed just four earned runs; that’s good for an ERA of 0.37. He had 100 strikeouts over that period, againast only 14 walks, and his run of dominance included a sparkling no-hitter against the Dodgers on the national stage.
Though Arrieta struggled a little bit in his final two postseason starts, there might be nobody in major-league baseball who is better physically and mentally equipped to learn from these outings and come back strong in 2016. His incredible 2015 made him a Cy Young frontrunner and a household name across the league. And on an October night in Pittsburgh, with the Cubs’ season hanging in the balance, he delivered the most important performance of Chicago’s season.
Trend to Watch: There are plenty of important trends to watch in the coming days. The Cubs are offensively deep and getting even better: will they trade from this position of strength to shore up a thinner pitching staff? (Rian Watt thinks so.) The Cubs enjoyed good health this season: could they survive an injury or two if they are not so lucky? The Cubs strike out a lot: does this matter in the playoffs? BP Wrigleyville will grapple with all of these trends and questions in the coming days.
Now though–big picture–here’s the most important trend of all: after their long protracted drought and their bottom-up organizational rebuild, the Chicago Cubs are winning playoff series! For the deserving Cubs fans who have waited through it all, there is finally something to celebrate in Wrigleyville. Here’s the video so that you can relive this one more time:
Here’s hoping the Cubs have many more scenes like this to savor in years to come. I have a hunch that they will.
Coming Next: Next comes what is sure to be a long, exciting, and important offseason. We here at Wrigleyville will strive to cover it from every angle and bring you the best analysis and reaction possible, from arbitration, through free agency and Winter Meeting trade rumors, to Joe Maddon’s presumably-very-ugly Christmas sweater (don’t let me down, Joe!). But what we’ll all really be waiting for is the coming of spring and the 2016 Cubs season. Pitchers and catchers will report in mid-February; Spring Training games will likely begin in earnest the first week of March. And then the Cubs will take the field in Anaheim on April 5th for Opening Day. We’re already anxious. Onward.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.