The Chicago Cubs have won the National League Central and will be heading to the playoffs as the NL’s top seed. The Cubs were dominant throughout the year, clinching their playoff spot with over two weeks to go in the season and finishing the year with 103 victories. With this much success it’s easy to forget that the Cubs are a franchise less than five years removed from a 101 loss season. How’d they make such a drastic 180? Here are my five keys to the Cubs success in 2016.
It’s no mystery that pitching carried this team. The Cubs have the best pitching staff in baseball and it’s really not close. The Cubs led all of baseball in ERA (3.15), quality starts (100), WHIP (1.11), and BAA (.212). When you break down who is doing the pitching it becomes even more incredible. This Cubs staff is home to the defending NL Cy Young winner in Jake Arrieta, and the two front runners for this year’s NL Cy Young in Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester. With #162 in the books, Hendricks has officially given the Cubs their first NL ERA title since Ray Prim in 1945. What’s even more incredible is that Kyle Hendricks started the season vying for the fifth spot in the rotation, and is now facing Lester and Max Scherzer for the Cy Young Award.
While Hendricks and Lester have the gaudy numbers, it’s Arrieta that intrigues me the most. The Cubs now have the luxury of starting game 3 of the NLDS with a pitcher who would be the ace on almost every staff in baseball. Command issues have led to an increased walk rate, but his .194 BAA (second to Max Scherzer for the MLB lead) proves that the tools are still there. Take control of the mental side of the game and the Cubs could have the clear upper hand in any pitching matchup they may face.
Bryzzo and Co.
The Cubs are stacked, there’s really no way around it. Not only do they have two front runners for the Cy Young, but they have a two-headed monster vying for the NL MVP as well. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant have combined to hit 71 home runs and 211 RBIs in leading a Cubs offense that is third in runs scored and the MLB leader in run differential. Rizzo is currently in his third consecutive seasons hitting over 30 home runs and his second with over 100 RBIs. This kind of production is the reason he was 10th in the MVP voting in 2014 and 4th one year ago. He’d have a much better chance at the award if it weren’t for the man opposite him in the Cubs infield.
Speaking of, Kris Bryant is not of this world. The 24 year old third baseman better make some room in his trophy case as the hardware just keeps on coming. Following three consecutive seasons where he was crowned the 2013 NCAA POTY, the 2014 MiLB POTY, and the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year, it seems the only thing left to claim would be the NL MVP. So how did Bryant follow up these accomplishments? By blasting 39 home runs, crossing the century mark in RBIs, and playing all over the field to the tune of a 7.7 WAR and a virtual lock on the 2016 NL MVP. Not too bad for your second year in the league.
We’ve talked about Bryzzo, but what about the Co.? Leading the group of emerging stars is 22 year old all-star shortstop, Addison Russell. In just his second season with the big league club, Russell has hit 95 RBIs, 21 home runs, and is quickly becoming one of the most clutch hitters in baseball. Joining the youth movement up the middle for the Cubs is 23 year old super utility man, Javier Baez. The shortstop turned second baseman has provided excellent defense at every position he’s been asked to play and has improved his vision at the plate so much that he is fifth on the Cubs in HRs and RBIs as a (frequently used) bench bat.
The best defense in baseball
To say this Cubs defense is good would be an injustice to the type of season we just watched. Because I know defense is tracked and rated based on some advanced statistics, I’ll try to keep this reader friendly. Defensive efficiency (DEF) is the percentage of any ball in play that is converted into an out and when you look at the numbers from this season you find that history has already been made. Per Fangraphs, The 2016 Chicago Cubs have the single best Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency of all time. This is quite possibly the best defense to ever step foot on a baseball field and by far the best of the 2016 season.
Not convinced? Let’s take a look at their defensive runs saved (DRS). The Cubs have made a mockery of this statistic as Fangraphs currently have them saving 81 runs more than the average MLB team. For reference, the second best in all of baseball is the Houston Astros, at 55 DRS. The Cubs are the only team in baseball to have positive DRS ratings at every position on the field, including on the mound.
Joe Maddon has been vocal about his support for Javy Baez’s pursuit of a gold glove, but there are three of his Cubs teammates who shouldn’t need campaigning. The obvious name here is first year Cub, Jason Heyward. While his bat hasn’t been what most Cubs fans had hoped, his DEF score of 10.6 (8 points higher than 2nd best in the NL) should quiet even the most pessimistic of fans. Anchoring the Cubs infield are all stars Addison Russell and Anthony Rizzo. Russell finds himself in stiff competition at shortstop but completed the season tied for the MLB lead in DRS and fourth in DEF. Anthony Rizzo is the last of my Cubs gold glove picks, holding the MLB lead for first basemen in DRS and finishing 3rd for DEF.
Send in the reinforcements
The Cubs ended their 2015 season with an outfield many teams could only hope (and try to trade) for. They brought back their future stars Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler along with bench pieces Matt Szczur and Chris Coghlan, but didn’t have all three spots firmly in place. The offseason began with some pretty loud rumors about the Cubs interest in Jason Heyward and it wasn’t long before the front office landed the best right fielder in baseball not named Mookie Betts. Following JHey was news that the Cubs had dealt Starlin Castro to the Yankees for a pitcher that stayed on the roster about as long as it’s taken you to get to this part of the article. Taking his place at second base was Illinois native and longtime Cubs target, Ben Zobrist, who has proven he can still hang with the kids joining him in the Cubs infield. Interestingly enough, the biggest offseason signing was a Cub all along.
And where would this team be without Dexter Fowler? There’s a reason Joe Maddon puts the weight of this team on Dexter’s shoulders. The Cubs are a staggering 85-40 when Fowler starts and just 18-18-1 when he doesn’t play at all. For perspective, that team with the “best fans in baseball” had 86 wins total. The switch hitting CF was re-signed late in an offseason that saw the Cubs bring in other big name free agents like the aforementioned Jason Heyward, and Ben Zobrist, but I’d argue it was Fowler’s addition that has made the biggest difference to this team.
To help round out a rotation that finished the season noticeably gassed, the Cubs again dipped into Theo Epstein’s past to sign John Lackey to a two year contract that many called one of the best signings of the offseason. As the season wore on it was clear the Cubs needed some relief help, and boy did they get it. First Theo sent power bat Dan Vogelbach to the Mariners for the young and promising lefty, Mike Montgomery, followed by the splash of the offseason. In a somewhat controversial move, the Cubs picked up Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees in a four player trade headlined by Cubs top prospect, Gleyber Torres.
This is the year!
No more fancy stats. No more acronyms or convoluted awards races. This season is about belief. Belief that the Cubs are the best team in baseball and belief that this is the year they finally reach the promised land and bring the Commissioner’s Trophy back to the north side of Chicago. Yes, it’s been 108 years, we’ve all heard the same old jokes repeated ad nauseum, but with eleven more wins, the Cubs can make those jokes disappear for good.
Jon Lester: “I don’t want to sound like an asshole or anything, but we haven’t really done anything yet.” #Cubs
— Patrick Mooney (@CSNMooney) October 1, 2016
Mets or Giants? Jake Arrieta: "Who gives a s—?"
— Patrick Mooney (@CSNMooney) October 2, 2016
The players are ready. The fans are ready. I’m sure as hell ready.
Hey Chicago, what’d ya say?