Despite Disappointing Finish, 2018 Was a Success for Cubs

I am still recovering from the events of the Cubs’ last four games. I traveled to Chicago for a family trip from Sunday to Wednesday as the season ended. When we packed, I expected to be back home prior to the beginning of the Cubs’ postseason run. Instead, it was already over by that time. The Cubs lost three of their last four games, scoring a combined three runs in the losses. In the process, they lost a division lead, a tie-breaker, and a Wild Card game. It is almost incomprehensible.

The Cubs face a variety of difficult decisions this offseason, many of which I will be discussing at length over the next few months. The future of Addison Russell, free agent targets, long-term financial planning, and how extensively to turn over the roster. Many of these issues are inter-related and all will be addressed in future posts. But not today. For now, I would like to recap a few thoughts on the 2018 season. What went right, what went wrong, what made no sense.

To begin, I want to make a controversial statement: The 2018 season was a success. The Cubs won 95 games, more than three other division winners. They did so while playing in a division with four teams above .500. They made the postseason.

The key to success in baseball is to make the playoffs year after year. The Cubs have done so in four straight years, averaging over 96 wins in the process. Postseason success is highly uncorrelated to team talent and the teams with the best records often lose. While I want the Cubs to win another World Series as badly as anyone, I dislike the current attitude in professional sports that any outcome other than a championship is a failure. A winning season that is fun to follow should always be considered a success.

There is also no reason to believe the Cubs will not continue to be successful in the future. They went 26-25 in one-run games (traditionally toss-ups) and their actual record matched up with their Pythagorean record, suggesting they largely earned their 95 wins. Even in September when they lost their division lead, they played .571 ball (16-12). The problem was the Brewers went 19-7 (.731) during the month with a +67 run differential. That is just absurd. Consider that the Cubs won three more games in 2018 than in 2017, when they won the division.

All that being said, the Cubs had some significant problems and got quite lucky in the second half. They went 40-30 on a mere +2 run differential in contrast to a 55-38 record on a +114 run differential in the first half. So what went wrong?

I would be remiss if I did not point out that the Cubs got nothing productive out of their free agent starting pitchers. They spent big last offseason on Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. Darvish was inconsistent for two months before going down with a season ending injury; Chatwood lost his command of the strike zone and was relegated to the bullpen by the All-Star break. The Cubs were highly fortunate to find able replacements in Mike Montgomery and Cole Hamels, but the extra workload carried by the bullpen in the early season may have cost them.

But one can hardly blame pitching for the Cubs’ late-season failures. The starting pitching in the second half was excellent, and the bullpen, while not as dominant as in the early season, was perfectly serviceable behind Pedro Strop and Jesse Chavez. Remember, the Cubs surrendered only five runs in the division tie-breaker and Wild Card game combined. It was the offense that truly let them down late. Those two games were emblematic of an offense that had the second most games scoring one or fewer runs (40) in the league, trailing only the lowly Orioles. Hardly good company.

Which brings us to the larger issues.

One was that the Cubs didn’t get consistently meaningful contributions from Bryzzo.  Anthony Rizzo was a replacement level player until the break. Kris Bryant was a shell of himself after his shoulder injury in mid-may. The Cubs never had a single calendar month in which both members of Bryzzo had a .450 slugging percentage, but the good news is there is no reason to believe that should repeat (although there is legitimate concern that Rizzo has now started ice-cold in two consecutive seasons.) While the emergence of Javy Baez as an all-star and MVP candidate is wonderful, Bryzzo is the engine around which the Cubs were built.

A second issue was the disappearance of Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras in the second half. I have been a huge Almora booster for years and his first-half performance signaled the emergence of an All-Star. He had 1.5 bWAR at the quarter pole and slashed .318/.356/.432 against right-handed pitching (his previous weakness) for the first half. He was the spark plug at the top of the order for one of the Cubs’ best runs. Alas, his success was fueled by unsustainably high BABIP. Almora ended the season with only 1.7 bWAR, below the 2+ bWAR he was worth at the break, meaning he was below replacement level in the second half.

Contreras is a similar story. He had 2.8 bWAR by the break and rightfully earned his first All-Star appearance. Yes his home run numbers were down, but that was a conscious choice as Contreras sacrificed some power for improved contact and OBP. Unfortunately, he would end the season with the exact same 2.8 bWAR. The Cubs effectively had two All-Star quality performers disappear on them in the second half. I cannot honestly say whether Contreras’s failures were due to overuse early in the season, injury, or bad luck (probably a combination of all three). Whatever the cause, his offensive disappearance left a huge void.

Kyle Schwarber also largely disappeared in the second half, hitting most of his dingers prior to the break.  His numbers with runners on base and in clutch situations were also abysmal and he failed to blossom beyond a platoon bat. Ian Happ’s control of the strike zone improved, but he could not consistently punish the pitches in the zone when they came. Russell largely had a lost season and now faces a 40-game suspension and a very uncertain future.

The good news is the Cubs still won 95 games with a roster that will largely be returning in 2019. They should also have the financial means, and the motivation, to supplement the offense in free agency.

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