As much as I’d love to take credit for the Cubs’ excellent play over the last week or so by assuming that my inability to watch them spurred their winning ways, I don’t think that’d be fair. There’s no karmic influence or other supernatural force at work here. Instead, what we’re seeing is simply a matter of a very good team with a ton of talent putting it all together.
Wait, Evan, are you saying that the Cubs are…good?
Yes, contrary to what some folks would have you believe, the 25 men currently filling out the active roster — along with some who aren’t on it right now — represent a better group than any other in the National League. And you wanna know the best part? They haven’t even been playing to their full potential yet.
Before proceeding, I should admit that I’ve not been able to follow the games very closely over the last week and have relied upon clips, box scores, and Twitter outbursts for most of my information. However, there are a few trends that are unmistakable even from thousands of miles away and six hours ahead, so let’s take a look at those.
Jason Heyward’s rebirth
This is something that has actually been brewing for a while, though his walk-off grand slam (which in this case is set to Titanic music) kind of pushed it to the forefront. Heyward has been making much better contact this year, absolutely crushing fastballs and doing a much better job of barreling the ball up. Much of that can rightfully be attributed to better usage against lefty pitching, though even his performance against southpaws may be improving.
Not long ago, I was borderline irate over the fact that Heyward was left in to face Andrew Miller when the Cubs had right-handed hitters available. As of a week ago, the right fielder was slashing .223/.285/.301 with a wRC+ of 56 against lefties as a Cub. He had hit three home runs and had tallied 14 extra-base hits against them in that time and hadn’t homered since June 13 of last year.
We can’t put anything into only four plate appearances since then, but Heyward’s slam came against lefty Adam Morgan and two of his three hits in the Cubs’ extra-inning win in Milwaukee were against lefties. You could make the argument that Morgan is a big-time reverse-split guy, and I’ll give you some credit for that one. Still, it was a good sign.
The same can be said of Boone Logan, against whom Heyward doubled in a pair of runs Monday night. Once a solid option out of the ‘pen, Logan is looking every bit like a man suffering from adamatium poisoning. He’s allowing an 1.132 OPS and .480 wOBA to lefty batters and is a significant drain on what has otherwise been the best relief corps in baseball.
Of course, I could be in the Brewers’ bullpen and it’d still be great because of Josh Hader, who’s been nothing short of dominant this season. The lanky lefty reliever came into Monday’s matchup with Heyward allowing a .057/.175/.057 slash to left-handed hitters, so making any contact at all would have been a plus. Heyward’s game-tying RBI single against Hader was unexpected for several reasons, but it was another mark of his improvement.
Since May 25 (65 PAs), Heyward is slashing .381/.400/.556 with a .409 wOBA and 160 wRC+ buoyed by eight extra-base hits. Much of that has come since being moved up in the order, where he’s suddenly become a weapon. It’s no longer a pejorative to say “Jason Heyward is a real No. 2 hitter.”
The Cubs first baseman entered the month of May slashing .149/.259/.189 with only a 4.7 percent walk rate and a 31 wRC+ that meant he was 69 percent worse than the average hitter. That, my friends, is not nice. Then he went on a little run for nine games that got him over the Mendoza line and up to only 11 percent below the average hitter’s production.
Rizzo followed that by going hitless in four games to once again drop below .200 and keep his K-rate (14.7%) nearly twice as high has his walk rate (7.7%). And that’s when isht got real. Since that oh-fer run, Rizzo has slashed .321/.408/.571 with a .400 wOBA and 154 wRC+ and more walks than strikeouts.
Even though he’s slowed down in June — though only to a slight degree — Rizzo’s resurgence has him trending back toward his remarkably consistent career averages. It was only a matter of time before that happened, but it felt as though his early slump was lingering much longer than usual. Having that production back in the heart of the order has been huge.
There’s a lot more to it than just ERA, but Cubs starters have posted a 2.34 in June. That’s second in MLB during that time, though they’ve been near the top in that category all season. Their 57.2 innings pitched ranks eighth this month, which is very encouraging since the Cubs’ rotation ranks 21st in MLB when it comes to innings pitched on the season. They still walk too many men, but going deeper into games is imperative moving forward.
One of the most frustrating things about the early part of the season was that the Cubs just couldn’t seem to string together multiple wins without multiple losses. They would win two, lose three, win four, lose two, etc. Or at least that’s how it seemed.
Since dropping a pair of walk-offs to the Cards in early May, however, the Cubs have have strung together four streaks of three or more wins and have lost consecutive games only twice. They are 21-10 in that time and have gone 12-4 since losing twice to the Indians at Wrigley.
As of post time, the Cubs are in first place in the Central and boast the NL’s best record. They are six games ahead of where they were last season at this same point (31-31), which bodes well for their ability to close out seasons with a big kick.
There are certainly some other aspects of the Cubs’ winning ways of late that I have completely glossed over. Among other things, the problem with following from afar is that you miss all the nuances of each individual game. While we view the painting of the season more and more in its entirety as the games pile up, it’s those individual brushstrokes that tell the real-time story.
That’s something I’m looking forward to getting back to, though I must admit that it can be nice to reset your perspective from time to time. And when it comes to the Cubs and how well they’re playing, I’d say more than a few people have had to change their points of view over the last couple weeks.