Cubs Month in Review – April 2016
With many publications picking the Cubs to finally break the 108-year old drought with a World Series victory this year, the mantra of Spring Training was all about “embrace the target.” Manager Joe Maddon knew that the Cubs collection of players and high expectations could potentially spell disaster for a young team. Instead, he decided the club should alter history and have done so in spades. Their 17-5 record in April was tops in all of baseball and the team’s best start since 1969. Let’s take a look back at what brought them here.
- Team Record: 17-5
- Team Average: .255
- Team ERA: 2.39
- Top Hitter: Dexter Fowler
- Top Pitcher: Jake Arrieta
- Team Record: 12-8
- Team Average: .251
- Team ERA: 3.71
- Top Hitter: Chris Coghlan
- Top Pitcher: Jake Arrieta
Last season, the Cubs 12-8 record was also a giant leap and their best April since 2008. Their .251 batting average was buoyed by a team that used selectiveness and speed to win ball games. This season’s 17-5 start has made the year before look pedestrian by comparison, but has used a similar formula.
This year’s Cubs have made taking pitches an art form. Their 121 walks led the league by a large margin. More runners on base have led to an explosion of offense. Their 136 runs scored ranked second despite an overall slash line of .255/.364/.432. Even more impressive is that the Cubs put up those quality numbers without the presence of Kyle Schwarber and Miguel Montero, both on the disabled list. Schwarber’s season ended thanks to a knee injury in the second game and Montero followed near the end of the month with a wonky back.
The biggest contributor to the offense has been Dexter Fowler. Maddon starts every Fowler at bat with four simple words, “You go. We go.” The phrase helped trigger a tremendous second half for Fowler last season and it has carried over to this year. He is currently ranked seventh among the league leaders in average (.347), first in OBP (.474), fourth in OPS (1.087) and atop the Cubs lineup reached base safely in 20 of his first 22 games played. A continued strong season could make the offense even scarier especially considering many of the team’s major bats have been struggling.
Anthony Rizzo is a great example of this phenomenon. Although he is leading the team with eight home runs, 19 walks and 25 RBI, his .230 average is uncharacteristic. Jason Heyward has also had a slow start batting just .224/.333/.271. With Fowler exceling at the top, a return to form from two-hole batter Heyward is needed to make this offense go. Addison Russell has also struggled batting just .218, but has had three big hits to win games or start rallies and has shown much improved plate discipline. His 13 walks in April tied his September last year, and his 14 strikeouts is his lowest total yet. Jorge Soler, like Russell has also shown improved plate discipline. He hasn’t quite seized the lion share of at-bats in left field yet thanks to a .186/286/.305 slash line.
In addition to Fowler, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, David Ross, Tommy La Stella and Matt Szczur have also shown good things to start. Bryant batted .289 and has shown versatility splitting time between third base and left field. Zobrist reached base in 15 of his 20 contests and has been a marked improvement on defense over the departed Starlin Castro. Ross’ retirement party has rejuvenated his bat to a batting average almost 100 points higher than what he wound up with at the end of last year. La Stella and Szczur have been fantastic off the bench with Szczur delivering a grand slam and La Stella having three hits in five tries as a pinch hitter.
While the offense has been mostly lights out, the pitching has been unreal. With a 2.39 ERA and 0.98 WHIP, the Cubs have been the league leader in least hits, earned runs and walks allowed so far.
Leading the way is 2015 NL Cy Young award winner Jake Arrieta. He won all five of his starts and pitched a no-hitter on April 21. He hasn’t been as masterful as last season, but with a 1.00 ERA and 0.77 WHIP, not many fans are complaining. Lost in Arrieta’s dominance has been Jason Hammel who has arguably been the Cubs best starting pitcher. In 4 starts, he was 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 22 strikeouts in 24 innings. Jon Lester has been no slouch either, his 1.84 ERA is almost five runs lower than last year’s and he’s looked a lot more comfortable.
The same can’t be said for the other two rotation members John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks. Both use a pitch to contact style and haven’t been nearly as consistent. Lackey’s 14 earned runs are the highest on the team, but the Cubs offense has still managed to help him win three of his five starts. Hendricks hasn’t had too rough of a go of it, but compared to his teammates, his 1-2 record and 3.52 ERA looks pedestrian.
While the starting staff has pitched to a 2.27 ERA, the bullpen’s 2.72 ERA has been assisted by the usual suspects. Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm have again been a dominant trio. Rondon did not give up a run in seven appearances, while notching four saves and 12 strikeouts. Strop led the team in appearances with 11 and his 13 strikeouts paced the team. Grimm was third with 10 strikeouts in seven appearances and posted a 2.57 ERA.
Adam Warren has also been dazzling. The pitcher was acquired in the off-season for Castro and has given up zero runs, two hits and struck out nine batters in seven games. With Warren filling a role as more of a long reliever, Travis Wood has settled into more of a lefty specialist role. He’s second on the team with 10 appearances and has a 3.17 ERA.
Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill and Neil Ramirez haven’t been nearly as stellar as everyone else and will need to pick up their games to provide some balance to the bullpen. Richard has been the worst with a 6.75 ERA in just 2.2 innings and hasn’t pitched since April 23. Cahill has nine appearances, but has four earned runs and five walks in just 7.1 innings. Ramirez has been used mostly in blowouts and mop up duty thanks to decreased velocity. He currently sports a 4.50 ERA and 1.33 WHIP, but has struck out seven batters in six innings.
The Cubs historic first month has been exhilarating and scary for Cubs fans. There’s no doubt with all the talent that the front office had amassed over the past few years, that this team had a potential to be very dangerous. The month of May will be a real test of the club’s resolve thanks to series’ against Washington, St Louis, San Francisco and two series with Pittsburgh. If the team continues to dominate as they have, it’s scary to think what could be in store come October.
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