Cubs Have Had Poor Effort Against Elite Arms, Still Too Early for Big Conclusions

My favorite way to watch a season unfurl is from the perspective of a Cubs general manager. I enjoy analyzing the accrual of individual performances and different team facets with an eye toward how these can affect a team’s playoff and World Series chances.

This year, I’m especially focused on the team’s performance against elite-quality playoff arms, which was the team’s pronounced Achilles Heel in the 2017 playoffs. Unfortunately, with nearly one-quarter of the schedule over, the Cubs have played only two short series against potential playoff teams outside the division (Atlanta and Cleveland) and have faced just a handful of top playoff-quality starters.

For this discussion, I define “top playoff-quality starters” as simply being in either league’s Top 20 for ERA or K/9 innings. The Cubs have faced these six starters who fit this definition:

  • Caleb Smith, Miami – 12.03 K/9 (4th in MLB)
  • Sean Newcomb, Atlanta – 10.41 K/9 (20th in MLB), 2.51 ERA (17th in MLB)
  • Mike Foltynewicz, Atlanta – 10.91 K/9 (16th in MLB), 2.87 ERA (17th in NL)
  • Trevor Bauer, Cleveland – 10.06 K/9 (14th in AL), 3.00 ERA (10th in AL)
  • Miles Mikolas, St. Louis – 2.51 ERA (17th in MLB)
  • Michael Wacha, St. Louis – 3.09 ERA (20th in NL)

Unfortunately, this is too small a sample for significant conclusions. For the record, the Cubs won just two of those games; the first was the team’s big doldrums-busting come-from-behind victory over Atlanta’s bullpen and the second was a scale-model redux Tuesday night. These six pitchers also combined for a 1.32 ERA and 10.5 K/9 rate over 34 innings, with the Cubs achieving a .658 OPS.

By comparison, the Cubs were 2-5 against elite arms last postseason, thanks to an anemic playoff OPS of .539. That said, this year’s OPS against elite arms is more comparable to the Cubs’ 2016 postseason OPS of .692 over 17 games (11 of which they won). So spin those small-sample numbers as you wish.

The good news is the Cubs should face a higher fraction of elite starters over the next month and a half. They struggled against Foltynewicz, managing just a single run against 10 strikeouts, but will miss Newcomb. The following week, Cleveland’s Bauer and Carlos Carrasco could very well start at Wrigley.

The June schedule then sets up as the most challenging month with 21 of 28 games against playoff-caliber teams (yes, I’m still counting the Dodgers as playoff-caliber). This means potentially facing the following elite starters: LA’s Kershaw and Walker Buehler; Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta; the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom; Pittsburgh’s Trevor Williams; Minnesota’s Kyle Gibson; and intra-division match-ups with St. Louis and Milwaukee.

This will provide far more games to appease my inner GM. More importantly, the real Cubs front office will get a larger sample size for review. This will help decide whether to gamble on the same postseason lineup as last year or consider trade-deadline changes.

So stay tuned. The most competitive and interesting part of the schedule is close upon us.

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