Caught Looking: Cubs Winning with Elite Run Differential, Big Performances by PCA and Horton, Steele Dominant Since Last July

Please don’t tell me you remain skeptical of the Cubs’ chances in 2023. Yes, they swept the hapless 3-16 A’s in Oakland, but three of the four straight series they’ve won came against teams that are potentially playoff-bound. Regardless of the outcomes, this team is awfully fun to watch. They can score at will and have the best pitching in the National League. That’s the best recipe for success I’ve ever seen.

Chicago has outscored opponents 99-60 through 17 games. They’ve won six games by five or more runs and are 7-2 in interleague play. If there’s one negative at this point, it’s that the Cubs dropped two of three to the Brewers to open the season. They’re 4-1 with Seiya Suzuki in the lineup and 9-1 when one of Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele, or Hayden Wesneski is starting. We haven’t seen this type of domination since 2016 and the Cubs haven’t been this fun to watch since then, either.

That said, nobody is crowning them future champions, though they currently have a 64.7% chance of making the playoffs and a 1.8% chance of winning the World Series per Baseball Reference. How’s that for quantifying hope?

Midwest Farm Report

The minor league Cubs got stellar performances from Pete Crow-Armstrong and Cade Horton this week. Crow-Armstrong hit his first home run of the year for Double-A Tennessee and he smoked the shit out of the ball. His swing is clean, quick, and effortless, and I can’t wait to see him once he gets to Chicago.

Horton pitched for Myrtle Beach Wednesday night and threw four hitless innings with seven strikeouts. I was down on his selection in last year’s draft until the Cubs parlayed it into the overslot signing of Jackson Ferris. Horton looks every bit the ace we’ve been told he could be, at least so far. He was relatively unknown coming out of Oklahoma due to a lack of experience and nobody really knew his skillset when he was drafted. If you’re still unaware, he relies on a high-RPM slider with elite vertical drop as his primary offering. He looks a lot like Carlos Rodón in that respect.

Horton’s fastball, however, is his kill pitch. It’s a high-spin, cut-carry offering that sits 95-96 mph, though he can dial it up to 99 when needed. He generates a lot of soft contact and has an exceptional whiff rate. His fastball will remind you a little of Steele’s if you’re looking for a comp. He and Steele will, in fact, make an excellent 1-2 combination at the top of Chicago’s rotation starting later next year and into 2025.

Getting back to PCA, we’re all aware of his very loud skills and it can be frustrating waiting on him to advance through the system. Jed Hoyer quickly pivoted to Cody Bellinger to buy Crow-Armstrong another year of development. It was a brilliant signing and the transition from veteran to rookie is expected to go smoothly. Bellinger could theoretically return next season, but a mutual option makes that doubtful. Keeping that in mind, Hoyer must believe PCA will be ready for the bigs next March, if not sooner.

Big League Chew

Steele is on a helluva streak going back to last season. A lot of fans are hesitant to anoint him as the staff ace, but he sure pitches like one. According to Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic, only Justin Verlander, Dylan Cease, Shohei Ohtani, and Julio Urías have a better ERA than Steele ($) since last June. Steele’s strikeout rate has always hovered around 25%, but his walk rate has dropped nearly four points during his current streak.

If you want to be nitpicky, you could say that Steele is a little too inefficient. He needed 89 pitches to get through six innings Wednesday night and that’s common for his starts. Clayton Kershaw and Jon Lester had similar issues at the start of their careers. Once everything clicks, Steele could be even better than he is now.

On the other hand, you can’t argue with success. Steele has now thrown 11 straight quality starts and he’s allowed two runs or less in each of them. It’s more impressive that Steele has been mowing down hitters with a two-pitch mix. He’s strictly slider-fastball, but Tucker Barnhart said Steele’s repertoire is a little more extensive.

“It’s super impressive,” Barnhart said. “You typically see that out of relievers, the two-pitch mix. But it’s funky, it’s relentless. His fastball just kind of goes away. Sometimes his slider turns into a curveball. Sometimes his curveball turns into a slider. So it looks maybe like two pitches, but sometimes it’s three, maybe four, even if he throws a straight heater and then he throws a fastball that cuts. But it shows how good both of those pitches are.”

The Cubs have won 10 of their last 13 on the strength of their pitching, and their offense has turned more than a few of those games into routs. They’re 50-37 (.575) since last July and show no signs of pumping the brakes. Team chemistry is off the charts and the Cubs have the look of a playoff team. If that happens, they’ll need strong pitching to successfully navigate the postseason.

Most fans won’t like this comparison, but the current Cubs remind me a lot of the 2005 White Sox. All the ingredients are there: Hot start, good road record, speed on the basepaths, and just enough power. The greatest common denominator is elite starting pitching, which carried the ChiSox to a championship in ’05 thanks to a nearly perfect postseason run. It’s a little too early to drop that prediction on the Cubs this year, but it’s certainly worth dreaming about.

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