Welcome to Wild Card Wednesday! With the Cubs (thankfully) not partaking in the Wild Card wackiness this year, we’re doing a lot of looking forward this week on BP Wrigleyville. But that also means that we’re blessed with a tiny slice of time in which we can look back at the regular season that was. So, I thought I’d dust off the trusty ol’ recap format one more time, to reflect on some of the biggest moments from the best Cubs season in living memory.
Top Plays (WPA):
3. On July 7, the Cubs trailed the lowly Braves 2-1 in the eighth and were in the throes of their first sustained losing skid of the season. With runners on second and third and two outs, recently-called-up Willson Contreras lined a Jim Johnson fastball back up the middle, where it skipped past the center fielder and to the wall (+.054). It gave the Cubs a 3-2 lead, and was an early moment that cemented Contreras’ role on this team. The Cubs actually went on to lose this game 4-3 in eleven innings, but Contreras’ celebration on third base was a highlight in itself:
2. This one came in the Cubs’ home opener. The Cubs trailed the Reds 3-2 in the eighth, with one out and two men on, when Addison Russell stepped in against the aptly named Jumbo Diaz. This at-bat, which ended in the left field bleachers, would provide the first really lasting highlight from a season full of them (+0.540).
Russell developed a reputation for coming up clutch this season, and it’s easy to see why this narrative started. More than that, though, I think we mostly just saw Russell develop into a star this season, and this was the first major moment of that journey.
1. The biggest positive WPA shift of the season occurred more recently than you might think—on Sunday. Remember that? Down 4-3 in the ninth, Matt Szczur hit a two-out, two-run double down the right field line in a 1-2 count, putting them up 5-4, and propelling them to a very nice 103rd victory (+0.690). With the playoff picture long since decided, and against Raisel Iglesias and the Reds, this didn’t really matter, of course, but it was another moment that illuminated the depth and winning culture of this Cubs roster. It didn’t matter, but, heading into the playoffs, it kind of felt like it did. As JD said: “Why Not?”
Bottom Plays (WPA):
Not everything was rosy all year long, though it seems somewhat unnecessary to dwell too long on these moments in such a successful year. Here we go:
3. The Cubs struggled through much of July, and their frustration came to a head against the Mariners on July 7th. Up 1-0 but with Mariner runners on the corners, they brought in recently-acquired Aroldis Chapman as a fireman in the eighth. Leonys Martin delivered an unlikely double to center, knocking in two runs and giving Seattle the lead and the win (-0.490). This game was followed the next night by perhaps the craziest win of the year, so we mercifully forgot it rather quickly.
2. On May 11th, the Padres’ Brett Wallace hit a three-run homer off of Pedro Strop and made the game 6-4 in the seventh inning(-0.510). This was the first game of a doubleheader and also the first game of the Cubs’ first losing streak of the year (they lost that night, too). This is crazy, because, as you’ll notice, this didn’t happen until May.
1. This one actually kind of stunk. After a rain delay and some back-and-forth baseball, the Cubs finally led the Rockies 6-5 at Coors Field in the middle of the night on August 19th. Ryan Raburn stepped in against Aroldis Chapman, who was looking to hold a hard-won lead. He did not. Instead, with a man on first, Raburn hit a #WeirdBaseball double to right. Javy Baez threw the relay home too far up the third base line, it rolled into the dugout, the umpires sent Raburn home, and, suddenly, the game was over (-0.770).
It was a rare ugly moment in a season generally bereft of them, but the Cubs quickly recovered.
Key Moment: It’s hard to pick just one moment because of the Cubs’ year-long consistency. That said, the call-up of Willson Contreras was key to a team that, at the time, was struggling with health and production at catcher. Miguel Montero was banged up in May and through most of the summer, Tim Federowicz just wasn’t cutting it, and David Ross was old. Contreras represented a true need at the time he came up (on June 17), and, boy, did he deliver. He homered on the first pitch he saw, and then proceeded to play three and a half months of excellent baseball, providing the Cubs with 2.4 WARP in just 283 plate appearances split flexibly between left field and catcher. The relief he provided allowed Montero to get healthy and Ross to get the days of rest that he needed. He’s just an incredible luxury for the Cubs, and he will be in whatever role they use him in the playoffs.
Here, take another look:
Trend to Watch: The Cubs’ pitching was historically good this year, and this is largely because the Cubs’ defense was historically great. The Cubs converted 74.5 percent of balls in play into outs this year (an insane .255 BABIP against), which is best rate this century, and which was 2.8 percent higher than the second-place Blue Jays. The least efficient team in baseball, the Diamondbacks, were only 3.7 percent lower than the Jays, so the Cubs were several standard deviations above the rest of the pack. No other team has even converted more 73 percent of balls into outs since the 2011 Rays, and the 2001 Mariners are the only other team to get to 74.0 percent, which they hit exactly. Basically, the Cubs had the best defense, by BABIP, in modern baseball history.
This comes from three sources. The first is the soft contact the Cubs’ pitchers induce. The second is their excellent defense. And the third, likely, is luck. In the large sample of the regular season, the first two factors played out as we would expect them too: they made the Cubs really, really good. In a small, playoff-sized sample, it will certainly help to have the first two, but the third can suddenly swing a game quickly, and make or break a series. The Cubs had a .195 BABIP in their NLCS against the Mets last year, partially because of the Mets good pitching, and largely because of bad luck. This year, they will have to keep doing what they’ve been doing all season long, and then, well, just hope for the best. The continuation of this defense-fueled BABIP is my trend to watch in the playoffs.
Coming Next: Lester. Hendricks. Arrieta. Lackey. We will preview the NLDS in full very soon. For now remember that, no matter what, the Cubs were the best team in baseball this year, and that the there is a future even beyond the playoffs, as bright and exciting as they are right now. After putting up 200 wins over the past two regular seasons, there is no reason to think the Cubs won’t continue to be the class of the NL Central for years to come. So, the future is coming next, and it is good.
Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports.