By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) Baseball is a funny game that’s full of just one surety: A season is a series of fallacious streaks and crazy factoids peppered amid 162 games of things eventually making a lot of sense. And then the postseason throws most of it out the window, but what are ya gonna do?
With rare exception, everything evens out in baseball. It’s like a sports ecosystem of sorts, where Darwinian theory eventually prevails after six months. Yet still we who consume the game get caught up in those loud anomalies as suddenly the rules instead of the exceptions.
Such is living with the Chicago Cubs, it seems. They’re defending champs who look better on paper, who are then sluggish, who are then worrisome, who are then good, who are then bad, who are then really bad, who are then good again. And June just started.
So, as you might reflexively hang on the fatalist maybes of every tiny bit of recency bias, maybe as the marathon continues it’s best not to be caught up in individual or team chunks of good or bad that aren’t going to stop chunking in a long season and instead air on the side of logic. That being that the Cubs are a little too big to fail, and it will probably be fine. Just maybe.
The Cubs just swept the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field over the weekend following a six-game losing streak out West. They’re over .500 and a game out of first place in the National League Central, trailing the Milwaukee Brewers. There are five other NL teams that have winning records right now.
Maybe every stretch of wins or losses isn’t a thing then. Getting swept by major future playoff competition in the Dodgers and bottom feeder scum in the Padres are two different kinds of suck that frighten equally. But you’re probably not inclined to think of the Cubs today as that team instead of the one who just waxed the Cardinals.
Maybe all the hoopla of rings and banners early on this season had players focused less on baseball than they needed to be. Now the season is normalizing for the players, and the realities of routine will sand away the early bumps.
Maybe the Cubs haven’t played nearly their best baseball and still have the best odds in Vegas of winning the pennant. Spikes and caverns are due for regressions, and that’s probably no more so than with the starting pitching that’s giving up too many home runs.
Last year, they allowed 1.01 HR/9 (#6 in MLB), and this year, they’re up at 1.26 HR/9 (#20 in MLB). The good news is that homers are a fickle beast, and this is something the Cubs can probably expect to improve going forward. They have the third highest HR/FB% in MLB, behind only the Reds and Astros. John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta are set to get the most significant bounces from some inevitable HR regression, and the lack of long balls should help the team’s pitching staff look a bit better.
Maybe the Cubs are still clearly the best team in a less-than-stellar division. With all due respect to the Brewers — which is little — that thing 90 minutes north isn’t holding up.
“If we win this division 10 games below .500, we still win the division,” Anthony Rizzo recently told the Chicago Tribune. “That’s the goal. Obviously that’s not going to happen. But we want to be in position in September to win the division, and it’s June, so we have three months to put ourselves in position. Who knows? We could run away with it. Another team could run away with it. But it’s one day at a time.”
That’s Rizzo diplomatically saying, “We understand that we got this, so shut up and stop worrying.”
Maybe now that the weather is warm and the balls are flying out, sweeping condemnations of the offense can go away and the “send ‘em down to da minors” phony cure-alls can quiet down. The bulk of worry in this regard has been with Kyle Schwarber, but Craig Edwards at Fangraphs makes a good case as to why what we’ve seen from him so far this season isn’t indicative of what Schwarber’s 2017 in retrospect will likely be.
And how soon we forget that the Cubs offense, despite owning World Series rings, is still incredibly green. Wrote Sam Fels over the weekend of Schwarber:
It’s important to remember that The War Bear was drafted in ’14, got 72 games up into High-A and then 75 games in ’15 at both AA and AAA before he was in the majors for good. That’s 147 games in the minors or barely a season and never one in a chunk. He also then missed a full season, and there never would have been a full gap in his development from the time he probably first picked up a bat (which I’m assuming was in the womb).
We were intoxicated by Schwarber’s 2015 postseason where he slugged .889. You know who had an even bigger postseason? Jorge Soler, who slugged 1.105. And yet we never projected him for greatness because we actually had a regular season sample on him.
Fels reminds us that the struggling Addison Russell had about a season-and-a-half’s worth of minor league games before joining the big club, too. While Russell’s glove will never slump, the bat skills of his and other “kids” are pulsating as these guys mature as ballplayers. Ian Happ is two-homer game capable, like Sunday, and 2-for-18 capable prior to that. The extra-randomness of young bats gets a bit mitigated when they’re alongside those of Rizzo, MVP Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist and the resurgent Jason Heyward.
Maybe we forget that what quietly separates the contenders from the rest of the league is a bullpen, and the Cubs’ has the second-best ERA in the NL right now and best batting average against. And maybe trades are going to happen, too, because the Cubs still have one of the league’s best farm systems, ripe with prospects for the dealing. There will be a name or two on this team in six to eight weeks who will further stabilize the rocky course of this ship that’s very likely to come safely into port.
Maybe after the next Cubs losing streak or popular player slump you’ll forget all this for the sake of immediate heat of the moment. And maybe in October you’ll forget about the forgetting.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.