The Unlikeliest of Heroes

The Cubs have ridden the top rotation and offense in the game, thus far, to the best record in all of baseball. At the time of this writing, the Cubs as a team rank first in runs per game, first in run differential, first in ERA, second in OBP, second  in VORP, and second in TAv. Last season the Cubs’ offensive leaders in these categories were Rizzo, Bryant, Schwarber, Montero, and Fowler. With the addition of Heyward and Zobrist, plus the re-signing of Fowler, many would expect that these seven guys are doing most of the damage for such a potent offense. Yet so far this season, that has not been the case, and it’s surprising to see who exactly has been producing for the Cubs. Here’s a chart:

1 Dexter Fowler 95 .347 .474 .613 1.6 14.8
2 Kris Bryant 94 .289 .372 .506 1.0 8.9
3 Anthony Rizzo 99 .218 .384 .577 0.9 7.8
4 Ben Zobrist 91 .260 .396 .356 0.6 5.0
5 David Ross 39 .267 .351 .500 0.6 4.7
6 Tommy La Stella 29 .400 .483 .720 0.4 4.3
7 Matt Szczur 30 .333 .400 .593 0.4 4.0

In terms of VORP the team looks much like you would have expected. Dexter Fowler’s hot start has him on top, followed then by Bryant, Rizzo and Zobrist.  The four guys at the top are close to what many would have predicted before the season. You could argue Fowler being atop the list is surprising, especially since he didn’t get signed until Spring Training started, but it wouldn’t be all that shocking if he was near the top of VORP since he was last year as well. David Ross’ strong start to the season places him 5th, followed by two backups in Tommy La Stella and Matt Szczur.

1 Tommy La Stella 29 .400 .483 .720 0.4 .416
2 Dexter Fowler 95 .347 .474 .613 1.6 .388
3 Matt Szczur 30 .333 .400 .593 0.4 .361
4 Munenori Kawasaki 2 .500 .500 .500 0.0 .348
5 Anthony Rizzo 99 .218 .384 .577 0.9 .332
6 Kris Bryant 94 .289 .372 .506 1.0 .331
7 Jason Hammel 10 .300 .300 .400 0.2 .326

TAv is where things start getting crazy.  Tommy La Stella leads the team followed by Fowler. Szczur ranks third and has been a pleasant surprise to start the year. Never a highly touted prospect, Szczur has shown a great approach at the plate along with some sneaky power after a reworking of his swing. Jim Callis, a few years ago, saw Szczur hit bomb after bomb after bomb in a batting practice down in Arizona. If Szczur taps into some of that power, the logjam in the outfield  gets even more complicated and that’s not even considering Albert Almora is hitting .366 in Triple-A right now. We’ll ignore Kawasaki due his sample being a whopping two plate appearances. After that we finally find Rizzo and Bryant at 5th and 6th right ahead of… Jason Hammel? The Hammer has been crushing it! He has three hits that have knocked in three runs and he’s also scored (funnily enough) three runs in his 10 plate appearances.

Rank Name WPA WPA/LI Clutch
1 Addison Russell 0.78 0.18 0.80
2 Matt Szczur 0.21 0.17 0.49
3 Anthony Rizzo 0.75 0.40 0.48
4 Jorge Soler 0.17 -0.12 0.34
5 Jason Hammel 0.25 0.06 0.18
6 Jake Arrieta 0.14 0.11 0.15
7 Jon Lester 0 -0.06 0.06

It’s Fangraphs’ Clutch Score that throws everything off the rails and really tells the story of the Cubs 2016 offense to start the season. Clutch Score takes into account the Win Expectancy from each plate appearance compared to how critical the situation is. The only mainstay is Rizzo sitting within the top seven. The rest of the list is two bench players, three starting pitchers, and the number eight hitter leading the entire team. To be fair, Addison Russell will be a great player, and probably soon, and Soler is still a highly touted young player who is getting more-than-expected playing time thanks to the Schwarber injury. Nevertheless, it is only Rizzo out of the guys you’d assume  to be on here going into the season. The other six you’d expect are mostly littered throughout the bottom of the 22-player list; Montero is 9th, Zobrist is 16th, Bryant is 17th, Fowler is 18th, and Heyward is 20th.

On the surface, the team’s offensive statistics look amongst the league’s best but so far the offensive production has come from unexpected players. Despite several of their best players not performing at the level of expectations, the loss of Kyle Schwarber for the season plus Montero for an extended period of time, the team just keeps scoring. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s the bottom of the order with Russell or a guy off the bench like Szczur, the timely hits keep coming. While much of this will change as the season progresses, the hot start the Cubs are experiencing could have seen several more losses if the team’s role players weren’t exceeding expectations.

But the scary thought, at least for other teams, is what happens when the usual suspects start performing to their normal level? The answer is 1999. The Cubs are already near the top of every offensive category through the first month of the season.  Since 1950, only the 1999 Indians have broken the 1,000 run barrier, and the Cubs are currently on pace to do so despite early injuries and the struggles of a number of their everyday regulars. There is also the fact that the Cubs have matched their best start since 1907; the first year of their back-to-back World Series wins. The Cubs also tied their record for the most wins they’ve ever accumulated in the first month of the season even though they had two postponed games this week. Last year the Cubs #weregood, this year, they are on pace to be #historicallygreat and they still have a lot of room for improvement.

Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry—USA Today Sports.

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