The Chicago Cubs have been struggling to start the season, sitting at 18-19 and residing in fourth place in the NL Central. For a team that is expected to be the best in baseball for the second consecutive year, this start has some worrying.
As the Chicago Cubs’ struggles continue, I couldn’t help but think back to that month last summer when Dexter Fowler was off the diamond and the North Siders appeared beatable for the first time. With Fowler out the Cubs went 18-18, which is right in line with their record two weeks into May. The big problem for the Cubbies is that Fowler joined the enemy this winter, signing with the St. Louis Cardinals, so their problems won’t be fixed by his impending return.
For starters, here are some offensive stats from the time period that Fowler missed last year compared to the first six weeks of the 2017 season.
Last season, the Cubs ranked 15th in wRC+ without Fowler at 103, just three percent above league average, but for the entire 2016 season they finished with a 106 wRC+, so the drop-off wasn’t an enormous one. This season that mark is well below league average at just 89, tied with a rebuilding Atlanta Braves squad and just ahead of a struggling Blue Jay team at 87.
The team batting average also hasn’t quite been the same without Fowler. For the entire 2016 season the club finished with a cumulative mark of .256, 14th in baseball. Without him that number took a slight dip to .249 and dropped them to 24th during that time period. This season the club is batting just .236, 25th in the game and tied with the Jays and just ahead of the offensively challenged San Francisco Giants. It’s also just ten points higher than the Kansas City Royals, and they scored right around 20 runs the entire month of April.
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Finally, a year ago the Cubs ranked third in baseball in runs scored. Without Fowler they dropped to 18th. This season they’re faring a little better at 13th in the majors.
So not having Fowler on the team is having a huge impact, right? Well, yes and no. Part of the team’s struggles have been at the plate, but another part of the game comes on the mound. Last season the Cubs ranked first in team ERA (3.15), and so far this season they rank 8th with a combined 3.83. In that span without Fowler last season, their team ERA rose all the way up to 4.72. Fowler was nearly the definition of average in center last season, and Albert Almora has been holding steady in the field in his own right.
On the bright side here, their team FIP from last season was 3.77, well above their team ERA, and this season they are coming in at a slightly higher 3.97, but it’s not such a big difference that a panic must ensue.
John Lackey, now 38, and Jake Arrieta with his 5.44 ERA and drop in velocity are certainly worth fretting over in the short term, but the Cubs still have plenty of depth in their farm system to make a deal at the deadline to address any shortcomings that they may have in a couple of months. There are going to be plenty of soon-to-be free agent pitchers on the market this summer from Yu Darvish to Johnny Cueto to the oft-rumored Jose Quintana and his years of control.
The Cubs aren’t blowing the doors off of 2017, but it’s hard to expect them to after winning their first World Series title in 108 years. They’re getting everyone’s best shot this time around after living up to last year’s hype, and the majority of the players on the roster had to live up to that hype. There could be some October hangover lingering around, but it’s more from the workload involved than the winning.
The Cubs’ division is improving faster than we all thought, but it’s still hard to see the Reds and Brewers keeping up the pace that they’re on, leaving the Cardinals in their way the rest of the season. If they can’t overtake the Red Birds, then there should at least be a wild card spot available to them.
The Cubs aren’t a bad club, they’re just not playing like the 100+ win team that everyone predicted. They’ll rattle off eight in a row before long, reclaim first in the NL Central, and make us all forget about the first six weeks of the season. For them to compete this postseason however, they’ll need to get more production out of their bats.