The Cubs’ division lead over the Brewers has yo-yoed between a slim half-game and a somewhat cozy five games for what seems like forever, even as the Cubs went 18-11 over a hellish stretch of 30 straight days with a game scheduled. Panic reached a fever pitch the week of the Washington rainouts and Brewers three-game set, with some wondering if the Cubs would be able to hang on to their precarious lead. As the Cubs stare down a now-meaningful three-game set with St. Louis in the final weekend of the season with Milwaukee breathing less down their neck than directly on it, the panic has settled in once again.
The humanity! Would the Cubs be able to stave off the charging Brewers without Kris Bryant, Brandon Morrow, Kyle Schwarber, and Jason Heyward? Without an effective Carl Edwards Jr. or Steve Cishek? With Albert Almora, Willson Contreras, and Ian Happ hitting worse than they ever have?
Of course they can’t! cynics charged.
Of course they can! replied the optimists, who I suppose exist in this post-2016 World Series world.
After observing the Cubs starting pitching finally catching up to its lofty expectations, I found myself—you know, most of the time—in the optimist camp. Even at 80 or 90 percent, this team is pretty damn good. They hobbled through that interminable stretch of scheduled games and threatening weather (and its attendant postponements, reschedulings, and MLB stubbornness) without coughing up the best record in the National League. That’s not for nothing, and despite the utter failure of MLB to make prescient decisions—like canceling the Friday and Sunday games of the Washington series instead of waiting around for three hours, or rescheduling an unnecessary Cubs-Nats tilt to the end of the season—the Cubs have survived. For now.
The point is, most of that handwringing was moot: either the Cubs would be fine due to good roster building, roster management, and performance, or they wouldn’t be fine due to bad roster building, roster management, and performance. Perhaps this seems rote, as we all know the best way to win baseball games is to acquire good players and keep them healthy and put them in spots to perform well. For the most part, the Cubs organization has done just that. After all, they’ve made three straight National League Championship Series and won a World Series.
But, I must ask, couldn’t more be attainable?
Why hasn’t this Cubs team grabbed hold of the National League and delivered a performance worthy of succeeding 2016? Why has this team continued to look lost for significant portions of the past two seasons, even adjusting for injury and age? Why are the Brewers once again hot on the Cubs’ heels, threatening to take the division race down to the wire? Obviously, these are big questions with big answers—answers that I, a humble baseball writer and fan, can’t arrive at without the knowledge and experience harbored by the architects of the first Cubs championship in a century.
There have to be reasons for this second-half slump, though, that extend beyond fatigue and injury. Identifying those reasons is a two-step process: first, finding the players or corps of players that has failed to perform as well as expected; second, tracing the contributing factors to those failures, the why, and casting the blame upon players, coaches, or front office personnel.
This will be the first of three parts, each focusing on a different part of the team. Part two will run Friday, and part three will run Monday, after the division has been decided (or, the same day as a Central Division Game 163—yikes!).
And so: the first two cardinal sins (not a pun, really, I swear) that could cost the Cubs the division title, and force them to play a Wild Card game.
The Tyler Chatwood Experience
Since the starting pitching has performed very well in the past month or so, it’s quite clear that they are not the primary culprit for the Cubs’ dwindling division lead and second-half woes. Yu Darvish’s disappointing start to the season and subsequent injury slashed the margin for error among the starters by quite a bit, but one can’t blame Darvish for being hurt, or the front office for landing the best starter on the free agent market. The rest of the rotation has teetered between great and lousy at various points of the season, and overall has not performed as expected, but a strong finish by José Quintana, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Cole Hamels will do quite a bit to dissuade those who doubted the Cubs’ veteran rotation.
Slotting in behind the Cubs’ four aces, however, was Tyler Chatwood. After signing a three-year contract to fill out the rotation and get the hell out of Colorado, Chatwood proceeded to make 20 starts and walk hitters at a historic rate. We all know the story, so I won’t belabor it, but Chatwood still leads the league with 95 walks, despite appearing in only five games since the beginning of August (marking his demotion to the bullpen) and logging nine and two-thirds innings. The pitcher with the second-most walks, Lucas Giolito, has nine fewer in 70 (!) fewer innings. In some ways, we were witness to history—although more in the “watched a gladiator get eaten by a lion” sort than the “saw the Cubs win the World Series” sort.
So, Chatwood sucked. He was an unmitigated failure, despite his steely demeanor and respectable work ethic. But Chatwood’s performance in itself was perhaps not the biggest problem with the front office’s bold (reckless?) strategy to pull the righty out of the mile-high air. Chatwood couldn’t get out of the the fifth inning in seven of 20 starts (once in a spot start situation), and he completed the fifth only three times, placing great strain on the Cubs bullpen. This was exacerbated by Joe Maddon and the front office’s insistence on giving Chatwood more and more rope before finally saying “uncle” in August.
Because of Chatwood’s established role, the front office did little to build quality rotation depth that could replace an injured starter for an extended period—or step in for Chatwood in the event of complete ineffectiveness. Mike Montgomery was the first runner-up for the rotation, and he had been starting games for the club since the end of May as Darvish’s replacement. Montgomery’s removal from the bullpen so early in the season had a domino effect, as the club no longer had an outstanding long reliever to eat innings and provide balance (more on that momentarily). So, to whom could the Cubs turn to displace Chatwood?
Jen-Ho Tseng, Duane Underwood, Adbert Alzolay, Luke Farrell, Alec Mills. Fine emergency depth, but nary a long-term starter in the bunch for 2018. Alzolay, the pitcher with the highest ceiling, injured his lat in May, and so the Cubs forced themselves to ride with Chatwood much longer.
A front office can only do so much to create rotation depth, as there are few teams with even five major-league quality starters on their roster, let alone six or seven of those guys who can hang around in the bullpen or Triple-A. But putting one’s eggs in the Chatwood basket proved disastrous, not only because of Chatwood’s poor pitching and the unfortunate loss of Darvish, but because of the effects Chatwood’s performance had on the bullpen and organizational pitching depth.
Which brings us to the second, closely related reason for the Cubs’ frustrating season and possibly losing the division crown…
An unbalanced and exhausted bullpen, despite depth
Against all odds (okay, maybe just some odds), the bullpen has been the part of the roster that has been most consistent this season for the Cubs. Lots of credit goes to the front office for building a unique, formidable ‘pen, adding the brittle-but-electric Morrow and the rubbery Steve Cishek to a corps already featuring Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, and Mike Montgomery. Epstein and Hoyer brought back Brian Duensing, retained the previously dominant Justin Wilson, and accumulated some decent depth at Triple-A Iowa. The bullpen was poised to be good—possibly the best of the Cubs’ current run of success.
But, as we have recently found, it wasn’t bulletproof. The oft-injured Morrow ended up, well, injured after appearing in 35 games, and he has missed the final two-plus months of the season. Montgomery was forced into a starting role early due to Darvish’s injury, remaining in the rotation even after the team acquired Cole Hamels due to Chatwood’s struggles. There’s a possibility that the latter even contributed to the former, as Maddon went to the well with Morrow more times than the righty could handle, partly due to a Montgomery-less bullpen forced to cover more innings with the rotation struggling.
Steve Cishek logged a boatload of innings and is now third in the NL in relief appearances. In the second half, there are four Cubs relievers in the NL’s top 18 in appearances: Cishek, Jesse Chávez, Wilson, and Edwards. While Chávez and Wilson have excelled, Cishek and Edwards have lost their effectiveness. Cishek has struck out 29 percent of hitters in the second half, but he’s walked nine percent, and he’s induced a freakishly low soft contact rate of 17 percent. Edwards has forgotten how to strike people out and find the zone, with strikeout rate of 19 percent compared to a walk rate of 16 percent. Without expanded rosters, this bullpen could be in even worse shape, and that’s without considering the preventable loss of Strop.
The bullpen is hobbling into the playoffs on the backs of a pair of guys who weren’t even with the team to start the year (Chávez, Jorge de la Rosa) and the former pariah Wilson. But the ‘pen has had issues other than exhaustion, too, that are consistent with their trends in recent years.
Despite muscling through the season and sporting the third-best ERA among relief corps, this bullpen doesn’t strike out enough hitters and walks far too many hitters. They’re 17th in the majors in strikeout percentage and the third-worst team in walk percentage, whereas last year they were sixth in strikeout percentage and the worst in walk percentage. The bullpen hasn’t improved their walk numbers while their strikeout rate has dropped four points.
This was supposed to be one of the areas in which the Cubs hoped to improve after firing Chris Bosio and bringing aboard Jim Hickey, but their major-league pitching apparatus has failed to plug the holes in the dam that grow bigger by the day. There’s plenty of blame to go around in this regard: Edwards for his lost second half; Maddon for handling Morrow and Cishek and Strop with abandon; Hickey and the coaching staff for failing to help their pitchers improve; and the front office for not hedging their bets with Morrow’s injury history. The latter could possibly have been solved if the team had traded from depth for pitching, but more on that later.
We’ll move away from the pitching staff, which overall has still been excellent (if mismanaged), and focus on two positions that the Cubs have failed to optimize: catcher and shortstop.
Lead photo courtesy @Cubs on Twitter