A Reflection on the First Half

This All Star break feels like a reprieve. After three months of underperformance, disappointment, and frustration, there is genuine relief in this: four days where the Cubs will not be showing up to play baseball.

In that respect, it’ll be just like every day following a win in the first half.

Since none of us have experienced a championship hangover of any magnitude before, maybe we need to ask other fanbases about this. So if any Yankee, Red Sox, or Giant fans are reading this, please let us know: are title defenses supposed to be soul crushing? (Actually, hold on a sec…I realized I just asked Yankee fans a question that presupposed having a soul. My bad.)

When the general manager of the team refers to the 2017 season as a “slog”, that’s a pretty good sign that something has gone awry with The Plan. Just about the only things keeping 2017 from becoming the first part of Major League II are Pat Hughes’s sobriety and the lack of vaguely racist groundskeepers teaching us the Japanese words for “They’re shitty again.”

So after our dreams came true only eight short months ago, why are we letting the Cubs get to us like this? Why has a year that should be devoted to 162 games of afterglow baseball be so maddening and frustrating?

I think part of the reason lies in just how exponentially great the last two years were. The thrill ride of non-stop joy of 2015 and the dominant ascension of the 2016 champions gave us the most amazing consecutive seasons of baseball we’ve ever experienced. After all of that, I’m just not ready to immediately go back to being mediocre. I assume you aren’t either.

It would be a little different if this team was similar in makeup to the 2009 Cubs—a core of players at the very end of their peak years who took a couple shots at the big prize before their inevitable declines set in. Don’t get me wrong–that’s not to say it would be any more enjoyable. Not a single Cub fan has watched the 2017 group and tweeted, “Why didn’t they fill their hole at Sociopath?! #FireTheo”

But at least their performance would make sense. Depressing, hopeless sense that we at BP could explain and cover up with a blend of snark and aging pop culture references. (“The Cubs, like Britney Spears, are at a Crossroads. And they are just as watchable…”)

This, however…this team…I’ve got nothing. There is no reference that can possibly convey just how bizarre and surreal this kind of disappointment is. (“If you liked the lighthearted fun of Eraserhead but wished it came with a cowboy hat, you’ll love any John Lackey start!”)

Part of the reason why the 2017 Cubs have been so agonizing is because they go against everything we’ve come to accept about how rebuilds are supposed to work. The Plan is meant to go something like this: team tears down its major league roster, stockpiles talent in the minor leagues, patiently waits as that talent develops and eventually reaches the majors, sneaks up on the rest of baseball with a surprise playoff appearance, and then contends for several seasons hopefully winning a championship along the way.

So far, so good. That’s how several teams have worked this process from the Braves and Indians of the 1990s to the Royals and Astros of today. Nowhere in The Plan does it say “win a championship, then immediately morph into the same crap team that led to the tear down in the first place.”

The only way to match that kind of elation and immediate disappointment would be if Angels in the Outfield tacked on a secret post credits scene where Christopher Lloyd celebrates Anaheim’s pennant with a cry of “All hail Xenu!”

More to the point, the 2017 Cubs have also been so frustrating to follow because they’re making their smartest fans and executives sound dumb. For over three months, we’ve watched the performances of Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, and Addison Russell assured in our knowledge that their struggles are small sample size aberrations and that they’ll reach something close to their career numbers by the time the season is over.

Except that their numbers just…won’t…move. It’s maddening. Every day of watching the Cubs offense is like staring at the team statistics and screaming “Stabilize already, God dammit!”

You know you’re taking this well when you curse out a line of numbers more than Ryan Braun.

Until those statistics move in a positive direction, the Cubs find themselves looking an awful lot like the 2016 Astros, who possessed a similar amount of great young talent. Unfortunately, they surrounded it with offensive black holes like Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez (77 and 65 OPS+ respectively). Their starting pitching also played a significant role in their downfall, with an off year from Dallas Keuchel leading the way.

Like the 2017 Cubs, this exciting group of young players that looked to be in the middle of a lengthy run of contention found itself with a very mediocre run differential (+23) and Pythagorean record (83-79). The good news, of course, is that since then it’s become abundantly clear that their window is still wide open and that season was an aberration.

The bad news is that it took them an offseason to fix their problems.

So until that comes, the Cubs have two and a half months of baseball to play. Which at this point sounds like a threat. That’s certainly still enough time for their true talent to show up. Last year, I wrote about how weird it was to have our annual Cub fan optimism grounded in reality. The story of this season appears to be about how stupefying it can become when the game of baseball treats logic and rationality the way Kyle Farnsworth treats an oscillating fan.

And after 88 games of this, I’m beginning to see his point.

Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports

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