The Chicago Cubs officially ended the first half of their 2016 season on Sunday with a brutal 14-3 loss to the New York Mets, their fourth straight in a sweep at the hands of their 2015 National League Championship Series opponents. Chicago has lost 12 of their last 20 and Cubs fans around the world are in a panic. I’m here today to bring you one simple message: Relax…it’s going to be okay.
The 2015 Chicago Cubs were a sight to see. Winning 97 games, good for third-best in the Majors (and in their own division), Jake Arrieta owning the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Wild Card Game (and just about everybody else in baseball the last two months of the regular season), beating the rival St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS; the Cubs seemed destined to end their 107-year championship drought, only for things to come crashing down in the aforementioned series with New York last October. The Cubs’ inexperience and youth was on full display in the NLCS, but as 2016 rolled around, championship hopes were high once again as Chicago entered the season as one of the favorites to win the World Series.
The Cubs made some key acquisitions in the offseason with the signings of Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist. Some of Chicago’s younger players like reigning NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant and Addison Russell gained some valuable big-league experience, and Anthony Rizzo is the kind of consistent player you want leading a ball club. There were some questions about the Cubs’ pitching staff coming into the year. How could Jake Arrieta possibly follow up his historic second half? Would Jon Lester bounce back after a sub-.500 record? Would the Cubs’ three, four and five guys be good enough to keep Chicago competitive throughout the season?
The Chicago Cubs got off to a hot start (well, minus the Kyle Schwarber injury anyway) and won 25 of their first 31 games. The only time any Cubs team started better than that was in 1907 and that team won the first of two consecutive World Series titles. Sure, this Cubs team lost games 32 and 33 in a doubleheader against the Padres, but it took them more than a month to lose consecutive contests. Chicago fans know that this team can get hot at any time (the longest winning streak this season has been eight), but lately, things have fizzled a little bit and Cubs’ fans hands are reaching for the panic button. But this is baseball. You’re not going to win every day. You’re not going to win every series. It just doesn’t work that way. More than any other sport, any team can win on any given day. Over the course of 162 games, things aren’t going to go your way all the time. So again, my advice to Chicago Cubs fans: Relax. There’s still a lot of things going right on the North Side.
If we went back to the beginning of the season and I told you that at the halfway point, the Chicago Cubs would have the best record in baseball, an eight-game lead in the National League Central and the best starting pitching staff in the Majors, would you have taken it and been ecstatic about it? Me too. And that’s exactly what the Cubs have right now. At 51-30 heading into Monday’s matinee with the Cincinnati Reds, they’ve got the best record in MLB (mere percentage points ahead of the Rangers and Giants, but we’re taking it), an eight-game advantage on the Cardinals (and 10.5 on the Pirates) in the division and a pitching staff that has been outstanding, no matter what happened at Citi Field over the weekend.
Cubs ace Jake Arrieta hasn’t had his best stuff lately, but guess what, pitchers lose. And let’s get real here. There’s no possible way that he could go on forever pitching the way he ended the year last season. I mean, he certainly had Cubs fans believing that for a while this season, but reality set in a bit. The guy’s human and has lost a few games. Big deal. There’s not an elite pitcher in the game that doesn’t lose. Have we Cubs fans gotten so spoiled that we’re complaining about a pitcher who’s 12-3 with a 2.33 ERA? Seriously, come on. Now, Jon Lester did get rocked on Sunday, I mean seriously rocked, but again, it’s going to happen. Be happy with the fact that at nine wins on the year, he’s only two shy of matching his total from last season. And even after the debacle against the Mets caused his ERA to jump from 2.03 to 2.67, that’s still good for 10th in MLB. In fact, the five Cubs starters are all in the top 35 in ERA. Jake Arrieta (2.33, 4th), Jon Lester (2.67, 8th), Kyle Hendricks (2.76, 14th), John Lackey (3.27, 28th), Jason Hammel (3.45, 35th) have all been rock solid for Chicago all season long. Yes, I’ve got no problem admitting that the bullpen can be a little shaky at times and will likely be upgraded at the trade deadline, but the entire staff as a whole has been fantastic. Cubs pitching has allowed the fewest runs in baseball, has held their opponents to the lowest batting average, is tied for second in shutouts and is third in strikeouts. And a quick note on Hendricks, who some view as a weak link in the rotation. In his six losses, the Cubs have scored a combined nine runs. Just saying.
Their combined 2.88 ERA leads the league and the only other team to have even four in the top 35 are those pesky New York Mets. You’d have to go all the way down to number 69 to find their fifth guy, Matt Harvey, who’s having a really tough year. And just to close up with this Mets thing anyway, the Cubs went 7-0 against New York in the regular season last year only to get swept out of the playoffs. So did the weekend sweep sting a little bit? Sure. But is it the end of the world? Absolutely not. Calm down. And Chicago gets another crack at them in a couple of weeks anyway as part of a tough six-game stretch that includes three with the Rangers and three with the Mets coming out of the All-Star break. But at least they’re all at the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, where the Cubs are 25-11, good for the best home record in the National League.
As for the Chicago offense, if you look at some of the numbers, there’s certainly a few mysteries in there. I mean, Jason Heyward is still batting just a little over.230, Jorge Soler was only hitting.223 before he went on the disabled list and Miguel Montero isn’t even at.200. But that’s the beauty of the Cubs’ depth, especially since so many guys have hit the DL this season. Javier Baez is proving to be one of the best young players on this Cubs roster and has shown the ability to be able to play just about anywhere and really should be considered at some point to be the everyday third baseman, given Kris Bryant’s ability to move around the diamond as well. Albert Almora is hitting over.300 since being called up and has shown some defensive brilliance as well. The Cubs’ catcher of the future (or maybe even the present), Willson Contreras, has been smashing the ball since his arrival to the Majors and should only get better as time goes on.
Bryant and Rizzo are both just doing what they do and both are on pace for at least 40 home runs and 120 runs batted in for the year. Ben Zobrist has proven that he’s still a very valuable asset and when healthy, as he should be again soon, Dexter Fowler has shown why the Cubs wanted him back so badly this past offseason.
Even with some of the offensive problems that the Cubs encounter from time to time, Chicago still knows how to put runs on the board and have done so in bunches on numerous occasions in the first half. They’ve hit double digits six times and have scored five or more runs 43 times. They’ve scored the third-most runs in baseball (423) and the Cubs are way ahead of the pack in run differential at +149, a full 49 ahead of the second-place Washington Nationals, despite the fact that they’re only ranked 15th in team batting average (.254). And yet, the Cubs are ranked second in on-base percentage (.346), somewhat due to the fact that they lead the league in walks (347). They’re also getting a little help from the hit-by-pitch numbers, which they also lead (53). They’re tied for seventh with 108 team home runs but they’re still striking out a bit as well, ranking sixth in that department (707). All this to say that the Chicago Cubs can and will continue to score runs….a lot more runs.
Look, I could sit here and throw numbers at you for days in a Moneyball-esque kind of way, but the point is this: The Chicago Cubs are seven games ahead of where they were a year ago at this point. They’re about to have a nice number of players in the All-Star Game and they’re still on pace to win 102 games. Again, if I gave you that number at the start of the year, would you have taken it? Barring a large number of injuries or a 1969-type collapse (sorry, Ron Santo), the Chicago Cubs are going to be in the playoffs for the second consecutive season and come October will have a real shot at winning this thing. But until then, just enjoy the dog days and stop worrying so much. I’m quite certain there will be another tough stretch or two in there somewhere and Cubs fans just have to hope that they can fight through it and be ready to get hot when they need to. Is the regular season important? Absolutely, especially when it comes to getting home-field advantage. But the Cubs going through some of these tough one or two-week stretches will only build more and more team character. Joe Maddon has got these guys relaxed and just enjoying the game of baseball and when the time comes to step it up in the fall, we just have to hope that the Cubs are ready to get hot…especially with the Giants playing well in an even-numbered year. Seriously, how strange is that trend with them?
Look, I know it’s been 108 years since the Cubs won a title. Believe me, I understand the frustration that you felt in watching New York sweep Chicago again. Trust me, I want the Cubs to win every game and every series just as much as you do, but it’s just not realistic and there’s no reason to hit the ledge every time things get bad for a minute. Baseball is and always will be a game of streaks. One minute you’re hot. The next minute you’re not. The Chicago Cubs are just having one of those stretches that comes with every Major League season and World Series or not, I’m just happy to be excited about baseball at the halfway point for a second straight year. I know that moral victories aren’t the ultimate goal for Chicago in 2016 and that ultimate goal is still very much in reach, much closer than it’s been in a long time…even with the recent rough patch. So take your hand away from that panic button and just enjoy the ride.
I mean, it’s the Chicago Cubs. What’s the worst that could happen?
[Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images]