The Cubs’ pitching staff is an abject mess right now. It’s roughly that simple. Okay, it isn’t, but we’ll get into why soon enough. For now, that first sentence is a sufficient explanation of the team’s 15th loss in 20 games.
Top Play (WPA): Things began so promisingly. A one-out Kris Bryant walk begat a two-out, two-run, first-pitch home run from Ben Zobrist, giving the Cubs a 2-0 lead before Jon Lester even took the mound (+0.203 WPA). It hardly had the feel of a killing blow—early leads haven’t been terribly uncommon for the Cubs, even during this brutal three-week stretch. Still, it seemed like a good omen.
Bottom Play (WPA): It wasn’t. Lester got out of the first inning unscathed, but the Cubs squandered a lead-off double in the second inning, and Lester was terrible in the bottom of that frame, walking two and hitting a batter with the bases loaded. A Willson Contreras error compounded the problem, and the Pirates took a 3-2 lead.
That would set the tone for the game, and it remained a seesaw affair until the Pirates’ half of the fourth inning. Adam Warren took over for Lester at the start of that inning, with the score tied at 5-5. Warren had what has been his typical lack of fastball command throughout this outing, leading to a single and a walk, but he had two outs and a 1-2 count on Andrew McCutchen with runners on second and third. If he gets out of that jam, the game might go very differently. He didn’t. McCutchen singled cleanly through the left side of the infield, and two runs scored (-0.226 WPA). Things spiraled from there, for Warren, and for the Cubs in general.
Key Moment: Take a half-step back. The Cubs cobbled together an ugly two-run rally to take a 4-3 lead in the top of the third inning, taking advantage of a defensive miscue by the Pirates and then using their speed and aggressiveness to steal a run. Lester had thrown 44 pitches through two innings, but here was yet another chance for him to get right, pitch a few clean frames, and put the Cubs on the path to victory.
The lead lasted not a single batter. McCutchen launched an 0-1 fastball that had way, way too much of the plate into the left-field stands, and the game was tied. Lester got the next two hitters, but then gave in after a few two-strike foul balls by Sean Rodriguez, and watched the lefty-mashing Rodriguez yank another pitch into the stands, giving the Pirates a 5-4 edge. That was the moment when it became clear that this might be another one of those nights for the Cubs, and a very short night for Lester.
Trend to Watch: Over the 30 days prior to Saturday night’s loss, the Cubs’ five starters had the following ERAs:
- Jake Arrieta: 4.72
- Jon Lester: 4.34
- John Lackey: 5.97
- Jason Hammel: 5.94
- Kyle Hendricks: 1.91
As always, ERA is lying to you a little. Hendricks really has been the best of the bunch, pretty easily, but he’s given up six unearned runs and six earned runs over that span, so mentally, roughly double his ERA to get a fair picture. Still, he’s pitching fine, and giving the Cubs chances to win. His rotation mates aren’t. Lester (with the abettance of Warren) certainly didn’t on Saturday.
That’s not to say this is a bad pitching staff in dire need of fixing. Quite the opposite is true. The Cubs have very good starting pitchers who are all pitching very badly right now. A long list of things combine to explain that; here are a few of them.
- Terrible, God-Awful Luck. This is by far the biggest factor. Over a full month of games, no Cubs starter has given up home runs on fewer than 11.4 percent of their fly balls allowed. For Hammel and Lester, the figure over that span is north of 25 percent. There are legitimate reasons why opposing batters are hitting the ball harder against all five starters, and against those two, especially, but none of them explain that kind of spike. Only bad luck does. Arrieta and Lackey, meanwhile, each have strand rates south of 70 percent over this stretch. Bad sequences happen. Fly balls fly a little too far. Mistakes all seem to cost you big-time. It’s just how baseball works. Although, speaking of those fly balls…
- The ball is so hilariously juiced this year. Now, this is obviously something every team has to live with, but the baseball is unbelievably juiced this season. Since 2010, the highest seasonal rate of home runs per fly ball was 11.8 percent, back in 2012. This year, so far, the league-wide number is 13.4 percent. The ball is jumping, and that’s a problem for teams whose pitchers don’t miss bats at a ridiculous rate. The Cubs did a masterful job of inducing weak contact over the first six or eight weeks of the season, but since the start of June, they’ve been playing in some very warm temperatures, on good hitters’ days, and they’re feeling the full brunt of the juiced ball. It’s something to which they’ll have to adjust, but a few things going on with the roster and the schedule have combined to make that adjustment a tough one for the Cubs in particular.
- Willson Contreras Becoming a Primary Catcher. In limited chances, Contreras has good framing numbers so far in MLB (2.2 framing runs). That’s odd, given his very poor stats last year and this year in the minors (-5.4 framing runs this season at Iowa, for instance), but let’s grant, for the moment, its legitimacy. Contreras has still been a problem for the Cubs’ pitching staff, particularly in light of the juiced ball. Unlike Miguel Montero and David Ross, who have both the veteran confidence to call for a well-executed pitch to the corner or a chase-inducing breaking ball in a tricky count and the rapport with the staff to sell them on it, Contreras is a give-in guy. He’s unwilling to have his pitchers racking up walks, at least where he can help it, but that reluctance has led to too many pitches in the good part of the hitting zone, and contributed to the problem of increasingly hard contact. Montero and Ross know that discretion is very, very often the better part of valor in today’s MLB. Contreras has a lot to learn. (I also think, going by the eye test and his past numbers, that he’s a below-average framer.)
- Joe Maddon’s poor execution of the preseason plan. There’s an argument to be made, in light of this rough patch, that Maddon was right to use his starters considerably more over the first six weeks than he said he would, and not to trust his middle relievers, and to bank wins so that adversity like this could be weathered. However, it still has to be said that Maddon has mismanaged the pitching staff this season. He so mistrusted Clayton Richard early on that Richard rusted out, and is now in the minors trying to get his head right and changing Band-Aids really quickly so no one notices that his blister (if it ever existed) is long since healed. He stretched out his starters past 100 pitches a whole bunch of times over the first two months, something he said he wouldn’t do. He kept trying Adam Warren in different roles, never finding one he particularly liked, apparently, and Warren (again, partially thanks to a surprising loss of fastball command) has flopped in his projected super utility pitching role. The starters and the high-leverage relief arms (the only three Maddon trusts—Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Travis Wood) are much more worn down right now than they ought to be, largely because of Maddon’s misuse. Fatigue is a huge reason why Arrieta, Lackey, Rondon and Strop have all struggled lately. Of course, that fatigue isn’t entirely to be blamed on Maddon.
- The Warren Gambit. Sending Warren—who wasn’t pitching well but was a vital piece of the team’s bullpen depth—to the minors to stretch out and give the starters an extra day on each side of the All-Star break was a fringy decision necessitated by the organization’s lack of starting pitching depth and a schedule hiccup. It’s worked out just about as badly as it possibly could have. Warren pitched well in his spot start Wednesday, but only managed five innings, which meant four had to be gobbled up by the weary relief corps. Since Warren’s demotion, the arms who have tried to fill his spot (and that of Neil Ramirez, and of Richard) have only shown why they were emergency options, rather than real ones. The simultaneous implosion of the starting rotation has meant a whole lot of work for those underqualified hurlers, magnifying the problem.
- 24 Games in 24 Days. Well, that’s what it will be tomorrow, at least, and 14 of those will have been on the road (including 11 in a row, in fairly distant cities), and when your pitching hits a snag like the one the Cubs have hit, you just need a day off, and it hasn’t come. On the other side of the break, a lot of arms will be fresher, and some of these problems will be solved.
Other problems, of course, will need to be solved in other ways. The Cubs might need to adjust something about their game-planning to account for the fact that the league has found a way to lift the ball against them, and do damage in the process. They definitely need to get some guys straightened out psychologically. They should, and almost certainly will, add some new and talented blood to the mix. It will also help when the position players come back from the break with some time out of spikes under their belts and a renewed quickness to react to balls off the bat.
Also of note: the Cubs were 3-for-17 with runners in scoring position on Saturday night. That’s not a trend with any explanation. They’re just sequencing poorly lately, with the added and unfortunate wrinkle of having a slightly diminished lineup (no Dexter Fowler). It’s bad luck, that’s all it is, and it’ll come around. If you’re looking for someone to tell you it’s okay to be frustrated and maybe even to panic, because the Cubs have had a rough month on the mound and a rough fortnight hitting in the clutch, look elsewhere. Baseball works this way. The Cubs are very talented. So are the Cardinals, Pirates, and many of the Cubs’ recent opponents. Long stretches of bad luck don’t change the identity of a team, and you have to be able to deal with them without getting off your level. If you can’t, go watch football. The Cubs aren’t playing to their full potential, but rare are the teams who do for a full season, and even at this lessened level, the Cubs are playing competitive baseball and could be much better off than they are.
What’s Next: The First Half comes to a (who’d have thought this would be the word, a month ago?) merciful end on Sunday, when John Lackey tries to find whatever he’s lost lately, and Jon Niese tries to find whatever he lost a few years ago in New York. Game time is 12:35 PM CT, and it’s on WGN.
Looking further ahead: what comes next is the Cubs continuing to build a team that will be well-positioned to consistently compete for the next several years. Don’t expect this front office to go out looking for ways to save the season. For one thing, the Cubs will lead their division by 5.5 games or more going into the break, so the season doesn’t need saving. For another, this season will not and should not be prioritized over all future ones. The Cubs have faced a lot of adversity all year. It’s not a given that this team will win the division, let alone the pennant or World Series.
Theo Epstein will not and should not lean out over his skis in a desperate effort to make that happen, because the truth is that this team has some long-term questions to answer and holes to fill. If this (or any facsimile of this, as opposed to something like his 2014-15 self) is the real Jake Arrieta, or if Jon Lester is beginning to move into the somewhat inevitable decline phase for a workhorse ace starter, the Cubs are thin on pitching, both right now and down the road. It might make sense for the organization to move to address that, without necessarily giving this 2016 team the massive boost for which some people are waiting. To be sure, a trade for an elite reliever would be a gross misuse of the club’s resources right now.
Pat Gillick’s Blue Jays won at least 86 games 11 years in a row, from 1983-93. They were similarly built around an excellent core of young position players, and Gillick made a large number of savvy moves to sustain their success, but they still didn’t win a World Series until 1992. Be prepared for the possibility that the Cubs are less like the (very lucky, low on staying power) recent Royals and more like those Blue Jays teams.
Just some words of wisdom.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports