This past weekend, the Chicago Cubs hit blackjack, scoring 21 unanswered runs against the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates in game three of their four-game series. Over the course of that set, the Cubs outscored the Bucs 29-12, but dropped the other three games. The division race will be heavily influenced by which team can most effectively destroy the Pirates; the Cubs did their faint October hopes no favors by losing this series. (Numbers in parentheses are NL rank heading into the week.)
Of course, the Cubs already started a new week of action, starting a matchup with the defending champs down in Atlanta, but before we get too deep into that showdown, let’s take a look back at what we learned last week.
- Record: 2-5, .286 (T-13)
- Runs scored: 40 (1) Runs allowed: 28 (9)
- Player of the Week: Nico Hoerner, 198 wRC+, 0.5 WAR
Nico Hoerner is the kind of player MLB is trying to emphasize: the anti-three true outcomes guy. His walk percentage is just 2.0 (compared the MLB average of 9.0), and his strikeout rate is 14 (against the average of 23). He has yet to hit a homer. And as he showed last week, that brand of baseball can be serious fun.
His weekly slash line was .450/.476/.550 and he ran the bases well, including a steal in his only attempt. While he was busy creating runs, he was also suppressing them: he leads all Cubs in OAA, and is tied for second in the MLB shortstop rankings. I had wondered whether the Cubs would be better off leaving Hoerner at second, where he played Gold Glove-caliber defense last year. So far, I’m happily wrong.
Kyle Hendricks returned to form this week, pitching seven shutout innings against the Pirates in that 21-0 obliteration. (I’ll admit it, I just like writing “21-0”.) These were not exactly high leverage innings, but it’s good see at least a glimmer of the Hendricks of old: he surrendered just one extra base hit and issued no walks. His first start of the week was scarier: a 90-pitch slog in which he failed to escape the fifth inning. Let’s hope that second start is a better harbinger. And, heck, let’s hope 21-0 is a harbinger.
What we learned this week
With Hoerner leading the way, the Cubs are putting the ball in play a lot more often than they did last season. Their three true outcomes (TTO) percentage (that is, the percentage of plate appearances ending in a strikeout, walk or homer) is 33.5, down from 38.6 last year. Of the Cubs’ eight qualifying hitters, six are striking out below the league average of 23.1 percent. And the Cubs are actually walking more than they did last season, keyed by Seiya Suzuki’s insane 20.6 percent walk rate.
Many of the rules changes that MLB is tinkering with are designed either directly or indirectly to get more balls in play. The big league returns so far show meager progress: the TTO percentage this year is 34.5. down from 35.2 in 2021. So on this issue at least, the Cubs are trailblazing. Whether more fun baseball will also be more winning baseball remains to be seen.
What we questioned this week
The Cubs are just 12th in the NL in starter innings. David Ross has done an astute job of managing a depleted and unsettled pitching staff, but the trail ahead turns sharply steeper. Beginning in May, the roster size will shrink from 28 back to 26, with a maximum of 13 pitchers. In addition, the Cubs will be facing 2021 postseason teams until May 9, when they travel to playoff-caliber San Diego for three games. The Cubs won’t see a relatively easy opponent again until they visit the Diamondbacks beginning May 13.
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This will be a challenging stretch for Ross, who has so far managed several games as though they were playoff contests, hooking starters early and heavily using his deep (and so far effective) pen. That strategy will be much harder to pull off once the rosters shrink, and in the face of sustained pressure from some of MLB’s better offenses. Expect to see names like Manny Rodriguez, Locke St. John, and Adrian Sampson coming soon to a box score near you; pitchers with options remaining are about to become almost as valuable as guys with high spin rates.