The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

 

Cubs' Chances and Chamberlain's Change of Pace

I've got a piece today in the New York Sun, writing about the Chicago Cubs' recent tear and their chances of winning the NL Central. The piece was held for a day -- in the interim the Cubs lost their last two games to narrow their lead to one game -- and it also received something of an indelicate editing job, with key sentences cut from the top of the piece rather than the bottom, so I'm going to run a "director's cut" excerpt here:
It's been a rough century for the Cubs. They haven't won a World Series since 1908, and they haven't captured a pennant since 1945 despite the best efforts of superstars like Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg, and Sammy Sosa. They've punctuated that dry spell with agonizing collapses — their late-season fade in 1969, a squandered 2-0 lead in a best-of-five Championship Series in 1984, and the Steve Bartman debacle in 2003 — and watched as the Red Sox and crosstown White Sox have overcome similarly epic championship droughts. History has not been kind, but at long last, this may finally be the Cubs' year.

On the surface, the team simply appears to be solid contenders, perhaps a bit improved off of last year's NL Central-winning 85-77 record. Their two-game lead in the division isn't overly generous, and at 28-18, they trail the Diamondbacks by half a game in the race for the league's best record. However, thanks to a recent 9-2 tear in which they outscored opponents 67-35, they have the majors' best run differential through Tuesday, at +76 runs. It's not like they're playing far above their heads, either. This spring, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA forecasting system tagged the Cubs for 93 wins, tops in the division and second only to the Mets among NL teams.

Leading the way for the Cubs is an offensive juggernaut that's scoring a major league-best 5.7 runs per game while hitting .285 AVG/.371 OBP/.448 SLG, tops the NL in the first two categories, and second in the latter. Left fielder Alfonso Soriano has powered the recent streak with a 21-for-44 tear that included seven homers in six games, but he's had plenty of help. Indeed, the Cubs are getting above-average production at every position except center field, with first baseman Derrek Lee, second baseman Mark DeRosa, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, and shortstop Ryan Theriot all getting on base above a .400 clip.

On-base percentage is the offensive statistic which best correlates with run scoring, and historically, it's been an Achilles heel for the Cubs. Former manager Dusty Baker showed a maddening tendency to favor free swingers over disciplined hitters; as a result, the Cubs never placed higher than 11th in OBP during his four-year tenure (2003-2006), but it wasn't all Baker, as the problem goes back much, much further. The team hasn't led the league in OBP since 1972, and has only placed in the top three four times - 1972, 1975, 1984 and 1989, the latter two playoff seasons - since 1945, when the club ranked second.

Under new skipper Lou Piniella, last year's unit ranked ninth in the league with a .333 OBP, up from a dead-last .319 mark in Baker's final year. This year's offense has been bolstered by the additions of Soto, a top catching prospect who hit a searing .353/.424/.652 at Triple-A Iowa last year, and Fukudome, an import who topped a .430 OBP in the Japanese Pacific League in each of the last three years while drawing comparisons to Bobby Abreu and J.D. Drew for his moderate power/high-OBP skill set.
The race appears tight at the moment, but the two teams hanging with the Cubs, the Cardinals and Astros, were forecast for just 75 and 72 wins, respectively, and the adjusted run differentials suggest a three- and five-game gap between the Cubs and those two teams. Meanwhile, the Brewers, who were forecast for 86 wins, appear dead in the water at the moment, their bullpen frightful and their rotation depth squandered. So my money's on the Cubs.

Meanwhile, I missed Tuesday evening's Yankee debacle but caught some of last night's rout, when recently returned Alex Rodriguez turned Yankee Stadium into his own personal pinball game, going 3-for-4 with two doubles and a homer, a tally that should have been the other way around were it not for a blown home run call, the second in a Yankees game this week. Bigger than that, however, was the fact that Joba Chamberlain threw two innings of scoreless ball to close out Darrell Rasner's fine seven-inning shutout effort. According to Brian Cashman, Chamberlain is beginning the process of being stretched out to join the rotation. Amid all the misdirection the Yankees have been running on this, I'm going to claim victory for having anticipated this the last time I wrote about the pinstripes and talking about it during my two radio hits yesterday. In some quarters this may be spun as a panic move, a reaction to Hank Steinbrenner's recent outbursts, but this isn't Cashman's first rodeo. The math regarding Joba's innings pace suggests that this was the plan all along. Pete Abraham, who agreed with that assessment when I bounced it off him this past weekend, has a trio of good blog entries covering the angles related to this move. Go.

The Hit List beast beckons...

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