Week in Review: 5/16 – 5/22 – Cubs bats bounce back
Editor’s Note: This piece published several days late this week – but still offers a look back at last week’s Cubs action and some items of note.
The Chicago Cubs bats came alive as the team outscored their opponents by nine runs but still had a losing week. Heading into action Thursday, the Cubs are tied with the Pirates in the NL Central; that’s never a good thing. Numbers in parentheses are NL rank last week.
- Record: 3-4, .375 (9)
- Runs scored: 36 (4) Runs Allowed: 27 (8)
- Player of the Week: Wade Miley, 2.08 ERA, 13 IP, 0 HR, 50% GB
Yes, Wade Miley’s two starts came against the two worst offensive teams in the Senior Circuit (Pirates and Snakes), but that’s not his fault. Miley did his best to put a fitful, injury-shadowed start to the season in the rearview, with two excellent performances featuring the grounder-heavy approach that made him an appealing signing for the Cubs. His release by the bandbox-dwelling Reds is looking ever more like an outtake from Major League.
Miley benefitted from a bit of luck: the opposition hit just .194 against him in balls in play. But he cleaned up the walks that plagued his first start against the Padres, walking just two last week against nine strikeouts.
While Miley was a pitching standout (along with the indefatigable Keegan Thompson and the eye-opening Justin Steele), the hitting last week was broad front assault. Seven guys had a wRC+ over 140, including a player recently Villar-ified in this space. Perhaps Jonathan follows Cubbies Crib; in any case he busted out a can of whoop-a**, garnering two each of homers, doubles and stolen bases. His 193 wRC+ led all qualifying Cubs hitters.
What we learned last week
Christopher Morel had us at hello. His joyous first pitch homer in his first major league plate appearance made national news. During the week he added another homer, a stolen base, and showed good range. Perhaps the Cubs have finally filled their long-open vacancy for center field.
After any binge, however, the hangover lies in malevolent wait. Morel’s sip of coffee last week displayed hitting ability far exceeding anything he had shown in the minors. Steamer, the Fangraphs projection system that often seems to be the most hitter-friendly for prospects, sees a league average hitter with good pop, weak plate discipline and a slightly above-average glove. If Morel could hit this projection consistently that would make him the best center fielder the Cubs have had since at least Dexter Fowler.
And public projection systems probably do not account for recent player development enhancements. Those have accelerated since the beginning of Morel’s projection window, and are probably significantly better than when the various projection systems were initially developed. In the long run maybe it all washes out: MLB teams’ player development abilities will probably eventually converge, and pitchers are getting better quicker as well (maybe even faster than hitters).
But for now part of the Cubs plan is to steal a player development march on their opponents. Examination of team spending practices tends to focus on the major league payroll, but player development spending is uncapped (er – excuse me – untaxed) and has at least the potential to generate more marginal wins than a big ticket contract with
Jason Heyward a veteran free-agent. Watching Morel will be fun. Watching him beat those projections (or not) will be instructive.
What we questioned last week
Kyle Hendricks came tumbling back to Earth, unlike his pitches, many of which went into orbit. His ERA was (look away, younger or more sensitive viewers) 12.60, and his FIP was even worse. Hendricks now has a flyball rate of 41.6 percent, easily the worst of his career and better only than Locke St. John on the Cubs staff this season. (I think my abortive efforts to become a brilliant yet enigmatic espionage agent would have fared better if I’d been named “Locke St. John.”)
The flyball rates on Hendricks’ individual pitches have barely changed from last year (so, no, this isn’t just a Wrigley wind thing). What’s changed is that Hendricks is throwing his flyballiest pitch, the four seamer, more often. Last year he threw it just under 18 percent of the time; this season it’s over 30.
The experiment is not going well. Hendricks has surrendered six homers using the four-seamer through the first few weeks of the season, compared to seven four seam dingers for all of last year. The pitch generated a respectable 29.9 percent whiffs last year; this year the whiff rate just over half that. His average four seam velocity has dropped (according to Statcast) from 87.3 to 87.0. That seems like too small a drop to matter, but at some point the declining velocity difference between his four seamer and his signature pitch, the changeup, must become problematic.
Hendricks has started nine games this year. He broke 87 with his four seamer in four of them, surrendering no homers. He gave up ten homers in the other five games. In theory, more rest would allow Hendricks to build back his velo a bit, but that hasn’t happened this year. He’s given up seven of those ten homers on five days rest, during which he failed to break 87.
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It appears that Hendricks needs to somehow find a little bit of additional four-seam velocity more consistently. Few players on the Cubs are easier to root for than Hendricks, and few are smarter. Let’s hope the Professor can master perhaps the most difficult assignment of his career.