Chicago Cubs

Posted by Baseball Bob at 12:39
Jan 192011

This was not a good year to be a Cubs fan. In fact, you have to go back more than 100 years to find a GREAT year to be a Cubs fan, which probably eliminates most of us. Russ posted his misery index, and the Cubs fans are number one, which is the first time in a long time that they have won anything!

The definition of an average team would be .500. The blandest season in the world would be to alternate wins and losses, never more than a game above or below .500 all season, ending up 81-81. No team has ever done that, or come close, really, but the Cubs started out like they might. They were within 2 games of .500 for the first dozen games, but a 4-game losing streak (to add insult to injury, it was to the Astros and the Mets) put them at 5-9, and alternating made it 6-10. A 4-game win streak and they were back to even at 10-10. Three losses and three wins made it 13-13. Three more losses and they appeared to be in a 3 on 3 off pattern, but they broke it the wrong way, winning one and then losing 4 more, and suddenly it was 14-20 and .500 no longer seemed probable, and seemed more desirable than ever. Two-game losing streaks surrounded a 3-game and 4-game win streak, though, and they closed to 22-24, and alternating took them to 24-26, facing the Pirates with a chance to get back to even. Oops, the Pirates swept them and now they’re 24-30.

Alternating again brought them to 27-33 but again they broke the pattern the wrong way to 27-35. From June 17 to June 27 their pattern (3 repeats) was to lose the first two games of a series, but win the finale, which put them at 33-42. More .500 ball brought them to 38-47. Brian used to talk about nice, steady, .500 ball (referring to the Phillies) but the Cubs season was, unfortunately, periods of steady .500 ball, punctuated by losing streaks of 3 or 4 games. Not exactly how it was drawn up pre-season! At the all-star break they stood at 39-50, clearly poised to not win again this year.

They started the second half W-L-W-L-W-L-W, and broke the pattern on the up-side. After another L-W they stood at 45-53, one over .500 for the second half. Sadly, a road trip to Houston, Colorado and Milwaukee resulted in an 7-game losing streak (they won the first and last games only) and they came home to 4 more losses to suddenly put them at 47-65 – as far below .500 in 22 games as they had been in the first 89! Their pattern from there was win one, lose 3, win two, lose 5 (now 51-74), and while they now rallied against some bad teams (Nats, Mets, Pirates) to 59-77 they lost 2 of 3 to the Astros. The Cubs did have a brief happy stretch, winning 2 of 3 from the Brewers, sweeping the Cardinals (to basically end their post-season hopes) and the Marlins to climb to 68-81. That 6-game streak needed to become 19 to get back to .500 for the season, but instead the Cubs won 7 of those last 13 games, finishing the season as they started it, with nice, steady .500 ball. At no point were they above .500 for the season.

Lou Piniella announced that this would be his last season managing the Cubs, and then couldn’t stand it and called it quits early. It was a truly forgettable season, which I will now try to help us remember.

Overall 75-87 D

The Cubs scored 685 runs (4.2/G) while allowing 767 (4.7/G) both numbers below league average (4.3). By the Pythagorean formula you would expect a team with those numbers to win about 72 games, so the Cubs were, in some sense, LUCKY to win as many games as they did. In reality, the formula is not THAT accurate – the Cubs were very close to where you would expect them to be, which is to say unremarkable.

The Cubs were not a young team – of their 8 most regular position players, only 2 were under 30. Of their 6 starters with 18 or more starts, 3 were under and 3 over. They did sport a young bullpen, with every pitcher throwing 26 or more innings under 30.

They finished 5th in the NL Central, which in turn was the worst division in baseball, and 13th of 16 NL teams, beating only the Nats, Pirates and Diamondbacks. No matter how you look at it, this is a bad team.

Hitters 66.25-95.75 F

Runs
<3 58
3 21
4 14
5 25
6 8
6+ 36

Despite playing in Wrigley Field, a traditional hitter’s park which played very well for hitters in 2010 (Park factor for runs 1.170, which means scoring was 17% above average) my non-park-adjusted runs scored evaluation puts the Cubs WAY below their own poor record, when evaluating the hitters.

The lack of scoring was a total team effort: they had exactly ONE player above 111 in OPS+, and that would be the one with the fewest PA of any regular: their all-star catcher, Geovany Soto, whose .280/.393/.497/890 at age 27 suggests that he is, at least at present, among the elite of the NL. His 3.2 bWAR was the best among the hitters by an entire win.

The other under-30 guy was certainly the most exciting player on the Cubs in this lackluster season: 20-year-old rookie shortstop Starlin Castro, the Cubs’ ONLY .300 hitter (exactly .300 actually) whose 755 OPS (OPS+ 97) at age 20 suggests that he may well have a great career ahead (it is a valid principal that nearly all great players start young – if you can hit ML pitching at 20, you are probably headed for a long career, as you have lots of growth ahead of you). Unfortunately, Baseball-Reference.com doesn’t think he’ll make it as a shortstop, giving him 1.6 WAR for his hitting but -1.2 for his fielding. FanGraphs is not so sure, as they have the numbers as 2.2 and -0.2 for 2.0 fWAR. I think the Cubs would be foolish to do anything except continue to work on his SS skills, as he will be much more valuable as a SS than anywhere else, and he IS only 20.

Again using fWAR, the Cubs had one hitter above 3 (Soto) and only one hitter above 2 (!) which was ex-Phillie Marlon Byrd. Byrd plays a pretty good center field, and hit a league average .293/.346/.429/775 OPS+ 102. This is solid production from CF, but a 32-year-old 2.2 WAR player is not the cornerstone of a winning team.

Continuing in WAR order, this team had only two (!!) more players above ONE fWAR, the very expense Kosuke Fukudome and Alfonso Soriano, both corner outfielders, at 1.6 and 1.4 respectively, 33 and 34 years old, and $14M and $19M. Those are expensive wins, folks.

Speaking of expensive, Derrek Lee (traded) earned 0.7 fWAR at first base. Jeff Baker, a 29-year-old utility infielder, earned more than that (0.9) in 224 PA (to 475 for Lee), primarily for stellar defense, and was also traded. Rounding out the rest of the regulars, former future superstar Aramis Ramirez (-0.7 fWAR $16.75M) and Ryan Theriot (-0.7 fWAR and traded). Theriot was particularly inept at the plate (OPS+ 70) where he drove in 21 runs in 412 PA before the trade (way to go Dodgers!).

There was another small bright spot in Tyler Corvin, the Cubs’ fourth outfielder, who struggled in the field but slugged .516 in nearly 400 PA (18 doubles and 20 HRs) for an OPS+ of 109. At 24, he could be a part of a future Cub resurgence.

Starters 95-57 A

Starter GS IP ERA W-L Deserves
Ryan Dempster 34 215.1 3.85 15-12 20.75-13.25
Randy Wells 32 194.1 4.26 8-14 18-14
Tom Gorzelanny 23 136.1 4.09 7-9 12.75-10.25
Carlos Silva 21 113.0 4.22 10-6 12.25-8.75
Carlos Zambrano 20 129.2 3.33 11-6 12.25-7.75
Ted Lilly† 18 117.0 3.69 3-8 12.25-5.75
Casey Coleman 8 57.0 4.11 4-2 4.5-3.5
Thomas Diamond 3 29.0 6.83 1-3 0.75-2.25
Jeff Samardzija 3 19.1 8.38 2-2 1.5-1.5

The Cubs’ starters deserved better, MUCH better. EVERY Cub starter except late season experiment Thomas Diamond pitched well enough (by my metric) to have a winning record, most of them a VERY winning record. If the Cubs had had an average hitting team and an average bullpen, my metric suggests they would have won 95 games, nearly the best in the NL. Even with the odd handling of Carlos Zambrano and the trading of Lilly, both described below, the Cubs’ rotation didn’t miss a beat. And remember that my metric is NOT park-adjusted (it uses game scores, which are the same in all parks) and this was an extreme hitter’s park in 2010; the Cubs’ rotation was BETTER than this metric suggests!

One of the oddest notes on the Cubs’ season was the handling of erstwhile ace Carlos Zambrano, certainly considered the Cubs’ second-best starter as the season began. Zambrano started off poorly, as many pitchers do (see CC Sabathia) with a GS 9 on April 5. 5 days later he was fine, throwing 7 innings for a GS 60 (Good), followed by a 41 (Mediocre) and a 58 (Decent). At that point he stood 1-2 (he lost the 58, tough loss) with a 7.45 ERA, but most of the bad ERA was that opening day wipeout (1.1 IP 8 ER) – since then in 3 starts he was 1-1 4.00, perfectly acceptable. But the Cubs’ young bullpen was struggling, and Zambrano was PERCEIVED as struggling, so he was sent to the bullpen to set up (!) for Marmol. His bullpen stint lasted until May, 13 outings (scored 4 by me, A+), and he returned to the rotation June 4. He posted GS of 39 (Bad), 48 (Mediocre), 45 (Mediocre), and to that point his season was 2-5 5.66. He completed June with a 63 (Good) and a 30 (Bad), and was 3-6 5.66, and was put on the DL with shoulder issues. He came off on July 31, back in the bullpen, where he had 3 outings (1 yikes, 1 ineffective, 1 effective) before returning to the rotation August 9. He made 5 starts in August, with GS of 47, 48, 55, 71, 61 – he was clearly (finally!) rounding into form, and his lost season actually stood at 6-6 4.36; not an ace but certainly a useful pitcher on a dreadful team. And in a flashback he made 6 starts in September and October, with GS of 67 (Good), 84 (Outstanding), 58 (Decent), 69 (Good), 78 (Excellent) and 59 (Good) to finish 11-6 3.33! Bullpen, indeed!

Ted Lilly, whose return from the DL triggered the Zambrano to the bullpen experiment (too many starters), had a classic hard-luck (read: no support) season. He won his first start with a GS 68 and then lost with a 33 and a 40 (fine, so far). He then lost again with a 54 (tough loss), got a no-decision with another 54, and lost again with a 55 (tougher). He then threw a 73 (7-inning scoreless 3-hitter) for a no decision (major beef) and lost again with a 57 to be 1-5 but with a 3.61 ERA. He had an Awful 26 for a loss, and threw an Outstanding 82 to claim his second win, took a ND with a 64 (beef) and won with a 65, to stand 3-6 3.12 by the end of June. He had two truly bad outings (19 and 22) to move to 3-8 4.08 leading up to the all-star game, but afterwards he was very good indeed, posting consecutive games of 66, 65, 64 but all were no decision! The Dodgers were able to overlook his 3-8 record, picked him up and he went 7-4 for them to finish 10-12 3.62.

Gorzelanny was also tried for a stretch in the bullpen (again, too many starters, I guess) despite no reported injury. He was 2-5 3.66 as a starter through the end of May, and by my metric deserved a 5.75-3.25 record when he went to the bullpen. Pitching 6 times in relief, he recorded 4 effective outings and 2 ineffective, before returning to the rotation.

Randy Wells, 27, somewhat lived up to the promise of his 2009 rookie year (12-10 3.05). While he was only 8-14 4.26, my metric suggests that he should have won a lot more games than that, and that he pitched very well much of the time. Plus he threw 194 innings without breaking down, a good sign for the future.

Here are the ERA+ numbers for the Cubs starters: Dempster 113, Wells 102, Gorzelanny 106, Zambrano 131, Lilly 118, and Silva 103. fWAR sees their value as Dempster 2.7, Wells 2.9, Gorzelanny 1.8, Zambrano 2.7, Lilly 2.0, and Silva 1.8. Truly an outstanding rotation, especially for such a mediocre team!

Relievers 43/138 C-

Reliever Games IP ERA Value Grade
Sean Marshall 62 74.2 2.65 26 A+
Carlos Marmol 77 77.2 2.55 39 A+
James Russell 57 49.0 4.96 5 C-
Andrew Cashner 53 54.1 4.80 6 C
Justin Berg 41 40.0 5.18 5 C
John Grabow 28 25.2 7.36 -19 F
Bob Howry† 24 20.2 5.66 -2 F
Marcos Mateo 21 21.2 5.82 -1 F
Jeff Stevens 18 17.2 6.11 -2 F
Carlos Zambrano 16 129.2 3.33 2 C
Thomas Diamond 13 29.0 6.83 -2 F
Scott Maine 13 13.0 2.08 5 A+
Esmailin Caridad 8 4.0 11.25 -4 F
Jeff Gray 7 9.1 6.75 -1 F
Brian Schlitter 7 8.0 12.38 -6 F
Tom Gorzelanny 6 136.1 4.09 2 A
Mitch Atkins 5 10.0 6.30 -2 F
Casey Coleman 4 57.0 4.11 -2 F
Jeff Samardzija 4 19.1 8.38 -6 F

The Cubs’ bullpen was a case of great strength harnessed to great weakness. Marmol and Marshall were among the best at what they do, especially Marmol. His relief value of 39 is one of the best I have ever seen. I know that you don’t have a good context for what that number means, but let me put it this way: if the score had been 27, it would STILL be rated an A+. Perhaps for each .05 more, I should add a +. In that case Marmol’s season would be A+++. Mariano Rivera’s incredible 2010 scores at 44.

But behind these two the Cubs eventually settled on several OK relievers (Russell, Cashner and Berg) who rate as C (remember, though, that C is AVERAGE) but before that they experimented with a LOT of guys who flunked the test – I have NEVER seen so MANY negative ratings on one staff, and it is not like they are close, -1 in 50 outings, many of them are -5 in only 8 outings. Yes, they were mostly small samples, and maybe these guys really can pitch, but to get a negative rating you have to be WORSE than ineffective every other day (that rates as zero) – and yikes (not to mention YIKES!) can really get to a manager a whole lot less volatile than Piniella. Still, Piniella stuck stubbornly to the modern formula: his starters averaged 6.2 IP/start, and 44% of his innings were pitched by the bullpen. If ever there were a team for trying Nolan Ryan’s philosophy of stretching out your starters for an extra inning, this one was it!

Summary

The Cubs hitting was so bad that they took an outstanding rotation and an average bullpen and turned in a 75-87 season. Hard to do! And they did this with one of the larger payrolls in baseball at $144.4M (third behind the Red Sox and the Yankees).

The fact of the matter, though, is that it is somewhat easier to fix this problem than the problem of a team with NO strengths. It is worth repeating that if the rotation and bullpen perform this year the way they did last year, then an AVERAGE offense would allow them to win 95 games. Of course, the overpaid, underperforming group they have now is nowhere near average, and is not easy to move for better players. Still, it is a better problem to have than to need to be looking for hitters AND starters AND relievers.

On to 2011

But for the presence of the doormat Pirates, the Cubs could well be considered the worst team in the worst division in baseball. But still, they are not necessarily that far from being in contention: the Reds had an outstanding season, but it was a surprise and out of context and history suggests a regression to the mean. If the second-place Cardinals are the standard of contention in this division, then 86 wins means contending, and the Cubs “only” have to improve by 11 to meet that standard. This is somewhat unlikely, but not by any means out of the realm of possibility. The Padres this season demonstrated that you can be competitive with no offense at all (well, OK, they scored just 20 fewer than the Cubs in an extreme pitcher’s park, but you get the idea), and the Cubs DO have an outstanding rotation.

Again using Cot’s baseball contracts as my source, here are the players under contract in Chicago for 2011:

Geovany Soto C $3M
Koyie Hill C Arb
Carlos Pena 1B $10M
Blake DeWitt 2B Pre-Arb
Aramis Ramirez 3B $14,6M
Starlin Castro SS Pre-Arb
Jeff Baker UT $1.75M
Alfonso Soriano LF $18M
Marlon Byrd CF $5.5M
Kosuke Fukudome RF $13.5M
Tyler Colvin OF Pre-Arb
Carlos Zambrano SP $17.875M
Ryan Dempster SP $13.5M
Carlos Silva SP $11.5M
Matt Garza SP Arb
Tom Gorzelanny SP Arb
Randy Wells SP Pre-Arb
Jeff Samardzija P $3M
John Grabow P $4.8M
Carlos Marmol RP Arb
Kerry Wood RP $1.5M
Sean Marshall RP Arb
Justin Berg RP Pre-Arb
Esmailin Caridad RP Pre-Arb

This is not quite a roster, containing only 11 position players, but it IS a team. And, once again, the Cubs have six starting pitchers, having defied my analysis (why won’t they LISTEN to me??) and picked up Matt Garza from Tampa Bay to “bolster” the rotation. They also re-signed Kerry Wood, which I find interesting and a bit frustrating. (Why frustrating? Well, the Yankees wanted Wood back, to set up for Rivera. They wound up offering $5M+ to Rafael Soriano to do this, and presumably would have offered somewhat less to Wood, say $3M. But Wood wanted to close, and so: he signs up for $1.5 with his old team to set up for Marmol. Hard to follow) Wood should bolster the bullpen, giving them potentially three good end-game options (Marmol, Marshall, and Wood). They also signed Carlos Pena to replace the departed Derrek Lee.

Here is how I see 2011 for the Cubbies:

Hitters

Here are the projected starters for the Cubs, with their projected (by me, no real science here, I’m too lazy to look up every Bill James projection, or ZIPS) WAR, and the 2010 fWAR at that position (if it is not the same player, he is listed after).

Geovany Soto C 2.5 3.2
Carlos Pena 1B 1.5 0.7 Lee
Blake DeWitt 2B 1 -1 Theriot
Aramis Ramirez 3B 1.6 -0.7
Starlin Castro SS 1.5 0.4
Alfonso Soriano LF 0.7 1.4
Marlon Byrd CF 2.6 2.2
Kosuke Fukudome RF 1.9 1.6

This projects to 4.5 additional wins, plus maybe another from an improved bench. So it appears to be an upgrade, but not a really significant one. Turning to the approach I tried with the Orioles, it appears that the Cubs are looking for “turn back the clock” year, too. EVERY player in their projected lineup, except Castro (who was a rookie last year and so COULDN’T qualify) had his best year of the last three in 2008, three years ago. Not exactly good news. Still, if you are an optimistic (read: slightly blind) Cubs fan, you could project 2011 like this:

Geovany Soto C 4.1 2008
Carlos Pena 1B 2.9 2008
Blake DeWitt 2B 2.3 2008
Aramis Ramirez 3B 4.7 2008
Starlin Castro SS 1.5 Proj
Alfonso Soriano LF 2.2 2008
Marlon Byrd CF 3.6 2008
Kosuke Fukudome RF 3.1 2008

THIS projects to a whopping 17 wins over 2010, putting them solidly in contention at 92 wins, assuming the same pitching as last year (a heady assumption, to be sure).

Starters

Once again, the Cubs “suffer” from an apparent embarrassment of riches. They have Dempster and Zambrano, at 34 and 30 respectively, and consistently fine starters, both reasonably top-of-the-rotation candidates, though neither is Johan Santana. Wells was (according to B-R) the most valuable starter on the staff last year, and is a more-than-adequate number 3.  Gorzelanny and Silva were both scored at 1.8 bWAR last year, far more than most end-of-rotation starters earn.

And then there’s Garza. Fresh off a “disappointing” season, Garza scored at 2.0 fWAR last year, down from 3.6 the year before, and he is only 26. He could, in fact, prove to be the staff ace of this staff, and one of these pitchers (Gorzelanny I’m guessing) will wind up in the bullpen, which could bolster that unit, and then be ready to slide into the rotation when one of the other starters inevitably winds up on the DL.

As surprising as it seems, given how well they pitched last year, it is easy for me to see how this rotation could ADD a few wins to the total over 2011.

Bullpen

Here, the situation is cloudier. Marshall and Marmol were both great last year, and Kerry Wood has been very solid for three years and was outstanding last year (believe it or not, B-R has him as worth MORE than Marmol, between his stops at Cleveland (1.8) and New York (1.4). And the Cubs got him for $1.5M, a true steal. Even given his age and historic fragility, a $5M contract would not have been unreasonable). With three solid bullpen arms, and one of the starters available for long relief, you only need a couple of the many kids to come through as OK options and the bullpen is much better.

One way to look at the 2010 bullpen: I have the value of the entire Cubs bullpen for the entire season at 43, but I have the value of Carlos Marmol ALONE at 39, and Sean Marshall at 26, so these two alone score at 66. If the rest of the bullpen, INCLUDING Kerry Wood, can manage to come in at ZERO then this is an A+ bullpen! The projected bullpen could add several wins.

Summary

If the hitters add 5 wins (NOT the optimistic number but the projected one), the rotation adds 3 wins and the bullpen adds 3 wins, then 75 wins become 86, and 86 COULD compete in this division.

I see the 2011 Cubs as a marginally improved team, but if I were a Cubs fan I would still be looking forward to this year, as opposed (say) to being a Pirates fan.

More realistically I expect that the hitters will improve by their 5-6 games, the starters will regress to the mean by 3-4 games, the bullpen will be up by a game or two, and the Cubs will win about 78 games, and not contend. Sorry about that.

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