Recapping 2018: Chicago Cubs Edition | The Process Report

Recapping 2018: Chicago Cubs Edition

With the end of the regular season comes a time for reflection for the majority of baseball fans. What went right? What went wrong? You probably have a few ideas where your teams fell short or exceeded expectations, but what about a completely emotionless point of view? Throughout this season I have shown what batter and pitcher production looks like when we regress balls in play to look more like what the players should have seen using exit velocity and launch angle. The offseason will be no different as I take a team by team look at how the season fared for the team, while going a little deeper on a handful of players from each. The order will mirror the final team rankings running in reverse order so you can expect to find some depression leading to elation here. It’s going to take some time, but I would like to get one to two of these out each week which should allow for every team being covered before our glorious game returns to continue threshing our hearts. Here’s a link to the report for this club from last offseason.

Past:

30 – 21: BAL CWS MIA TEX KCR SFG SDP DET MIN CIN

20 – 11: ARI LAA PIT CHC

Over the past almost twenty years the Chicago Cubs have often been pretty good. The early aughts showed teams that would often have a down year, but could usually be counted on to win 85+ games and remain a contender deep into a season. Then they burnt everything to the ground to begin a five-year plan from 2010 – 14, in which, the team spun off every piece not nailed down, while being very uncommitted to winning games on the field. What came after fully justified the choice as the team showed a big jump in wins and then gave little ground back. The period-high payroll these past three years, pegged to 2018 dollars, shows a team spending money at the right time to supplement the wealth of players built from within. This runs counter to what we saw with Arizona and Pittsburgh who probably waited too long to buttress the team, preferring to see spending as something you do to replace talent rather than to supplement. The Cubs have a shiny ring and plenty of playoff revenue to boast about, but let’s see why this 95-win team in reality graded out as more middle of the pack.

The pitching was mostly pretty good with a couple of hiccups early and a more prolonged bad run in the middle. You can see a fairly wide gap between expected and actual production early on, which most likely speaks to the effort the Cubs put into having a good defensive team on the field every night. While these metrics see the Cubs as a league average team, essentially, in reality they performed much better, and this is similar with comparisons of ERA to FIP, xFIP or SIERA. A team with a strong defense can and should see better pitching outcomes than expectations might indicate when those expectations are based on average defenders. I don’t know how much of that you want to put on the pitcher, if any, but it should get credited somewhere as it looks like a good explainer for why the team saw results on balls in play being 6.9% better than expected, whereas the rest of the league is roughly half that level.

Speaking of hiccups, staff ace Kyle Hendricks went through a pretty bad one in the middle of his season before getting back to being quite good. The rough patch looks to coincide with a walk spike where his strikeouts also dipped, so maybe he was going through something there. The rest of the time you see a low walk rate with an average or better strikeout rate. He also does a good job of nullifying hard contact, though there does seem to be some interplay with the strikeout rate. When he’s able to get both going at the same time he’s one of the very best pitchers in the game, but more often he’s got one or the other working and that’s just fine, too.

Kyle Hendricks

Another reason the Cubs outperformed their .500 or so record was due to a really freaking good bullpen. The team worked Steve Cishek like a dog, but if he’s capable of the workload there are few better to have out there. The walk rate was a bit high, but you can see a lot of that was early in the season. The strikeouts fell off, but he was still punching out around a quarter of batters. Jesse Chavez didn’t amass enough chances to model the data, but you can see above just how good he was with Chicago. He became extremely important when perfectly adequate Pedro Strop blew out his hammy in September. Chavez also proved useful for being able to get strikeouts without a ton of walks where most of his new colleagues were prone to the walk. C.J. Edwards Jr. was no slouch in that regard, and you can see the dramatically falling strikeout rate, as well, which was probably another reason the team got Chavez.

Steve Cishek

Carl Edwards Jr.

Pedro Strop

He wouldn’t be the only deadline addition, though, as the Cubs also picked up Cole Hamels from the Texas Rangers where we saw that things weren’t exactly going well. He was much better with Chicago where he walked a few less, struck out a few more, but benefitted mightily from the defense behind him. There was some small improvement as his twOBA* went from .413 in Texas to .382 in Chicago. A modest improvement that brought him much closer to the average, but his actual went from .402 to a much better .322 that allowed his surface numbers to look very strong as a Cubbie. You can see the wide gap below, and when both perspectives met up  it was on the wrong side of average. This looks like some initial success in a new league, but he gradually got hit harder and at more damaging angles. He continued to strike guys out around the aveage, but the walk continued to be an issue. He looks an awful lot like another lefty that used to be more highly regarded in Derek Holland who we looked at with the San Francisco Giants. It will be interesting to see what Holland signs for knowing that Hamels had his $20 million option exercised.

Cole Hamels

A couple of trades with American League Central weak sisters have given Chicago the services of Justin Wilson and Jose Quintana who come next on the board. Wilson got off to a nice start, and while he continued to get good results his expectations told another story. Striking out north of 30% covers a lot of sins, and at least when he was below that figure he was walking people merely at an average rate rather than the tough to navigate 15-20% band he was stuck at for much of the year. Quintana was mostly around the average before an extraordinary stretch in his second quarter, and while he also closed well, there was a bunch of sustained bad performance in between. Walking more and striking out less was a big part of the problem, but you can also see that batters were doing a better job of elevating the ball off of Quintana for much of the season.

Justin Wilson

Jose Quintana

While we could look at Yu Darvish’s short sample or Mike Montgomery’s regression or Tyler Chatwood’s laughably high walk rate I want to close the pitchers by looking at Jon Lester. He was the poster boy for the team’s early season overperformance on balls in play, though eventually his actual results would catch up to and even surpass the much higher expectations. His strong close to the season, however, looks pretty well justified. It looks like Lester might have been grinding through something as his walk rate spiked mid-year and coincided with some of his worst strikeout performance. A fairly dramatic improvement to his exit velocity seems to indicate him getting over whatever was his issue, but begs the question of whether the wheels are starting to come off one of the older starting pitchers in the game. It might behoove the team to manage his workload a little more this year, which might be doable considering the numerous other traditional starters already in house.

Jon Lester

 

 

 

While the pitchers had some solid justification for beating expectations the bats do not quite tell that tale. Their xwRC+ of 100 matches up identically with more mainstream metrics like wRC+ found at Fangraphs, and you can see equal stretches of under and over performance. They were frequently a good deal above average, but there were early tremors that indicated all might not be right in Wrigleyville. The last two months of the season showed much more of trough than the peak with fairly consistent below average performance. While the team focused on arms at the deadline, it might have been the case that they could have used a stick, too. More on that in a sec.

The best of the bunch was clearly Anthony Rizzo who again placed himself amongst the great bats in the game. You can see above that he gets there by so rarely striking out while still walking at a good rate. That means a ton of balls in play, where he shows above average expected production. He did show a decent-sized gap in his actual production, which was not the case last year despite very similar xwOBA* figures, and it looks like a big part of that came over the first half of the season when he was elevating the ball more often. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t hit the ball hard enough to carry higher angles, but those flyballs are going to lead to a higher variance between actual and expected as that actual become more and more binary out or home run, while expectations are going to split the difference. Once he got back to being more of a line drive hitter you can see how everything took off. It might cost him a few homers on the baseball card, but that doesn’t make him less of a middle of the order bat.

Anthony Rizzo

These next two guys were key contributors to the team’s World Series win, and continue to put up good numbers this past season. While Kyle Schwarber might leave a lot to be desired in the field, there are few doubts about his bat. You can see that his walk rate fell apart later in the year, which contributed to his more pedestrian finish, but there was also a steady climb in his launch angle, which like Rizzo meant more variance. Schwarber’s underperformance last most of the season unlike Rizzo, and probably left fans wanting more, but this was a strong season where it looks like he saw fortune go against him quite often. Similarly, Zobrist was consistently an above average hitter who also saw his walk rate deteriorate in the second half of the season. Where they differ is in the spray chart where you can see that Schwarber lives in the nitro zone and it’s suburbs while Zobrist peppers angles well below that arena, but still in productive areas. Those liners look a lot better when there are some walks mixed in, but once again Zobrist showed that Father Time will have to wait another year.

Kyle Schwarber

Ben Zobrist

The aforementioned reason that the team probably didn’t feel the need to go get a bat at the deadline was likely due to feeling they would already be getting one of the best in the game back at some point. It’s pretty clear that Kris Bryant got hurt after around 200 plate appearances and he never really seemed to recover despite being given time to rest and rehab. He will have had six more months of that heading into next year, but the shoulder concerns have to cast clouds where once it was only sunny days. Bryant is one of the very best hitters in the game, and he showed that for a good deal, but playing through the issue resulted in a higher strikeout rate, and we see a much bigger impact in his dwindling exit velocities that careened downward from their initial strong starting point. As a still young man it is reasonable to expect him to get over this, but that is no guarantee. With precious other real options at the hot corner the Cubs are really counting on Bryant getting right, and it puts fantasy leaguers in a bit of a spot where risk and reward need to be weighed carefully.

Kris Bryant

Another reason the team probably felt well fortified at the dish was due to the strong season from Javier Baez. The hacking second sacker still doesn’t walk and still does strike out a good deal of the time, but he also makes loud contact with aplomb as only Scharber and Happ bested him in xwOBA* amongst those that played often. The bit of overperformance helped fuel an MVP candidacy, but good things happen when you put the ball in play. Especially with the thick density he sees in the 100 MPH and up area where he shows plenty of angle to get the ball out of any yard. His lesser stretches occur when he ramps up the strikeouts even more, and due to the lack of walks that means slumps are going to happen. Still, middle infielders aren’t supposed to hit like this and that is what makes him such a treat to watch even if he can often be an easy out for pitchers that execute out of the zone.

Javier Baez

Rounding out the good outfield bats you’ll find two guys that couldn’t be any dissimilar at the plate in Jason Heyward and Ian Happ. Heyward draws a lot of ire from fans because of what he is being paid but he’s mostly an average or better hitter with a very good glove in rightfield. Much of his offensive production comes from the walk, but he also hits the ball hard with some frequency. His bigger issue is that he rarely gets it off the ground at those over 100 MPH velocities so the ceiling is muted when hard hit balls can only really go for singles, at best. Happ, on the other hand, routinely smashes the ball, wait for it, …….. when he makes contact. The things is, he was often striking out above 40% of the time, and nearly always more than 30%. Yes, that comes with an above average, and often wildly so, walk rate, but so few balls in play means he really needs to make them count. A late season tailspin could be chalked up to fatigue or playing through an issue, which might encourage the team to give him more run, and if they like the glove in centerfield he can get by as an average or a little better hitter, but the team will be looking for an answer to these things this year.

Jason Heyward

Ian Happ

Another guy that definitely shows signs of wearing down over the long season was Willson Contreras, which makes sense as most catchers show deterioration over a long season. It shows up most prominently in the fairly linear decline in exit velocity, and in that same chart we see how low he often hits the ball. That shows up better on the spray where you see a few knocks in the nitro zone, but much more of his hard contact is down and on a line. Early on he was an above average performer, but with the falling exit velocity there was also an uptick in strikeouts. The confluence of these two left a below average hitter for much of the season. He was able to outperform in the middle, but eventually everything caught up and he closed the season on his weakest note yet. Getting some more time off might help, but everybody wants a competent backup catcher, and most don’t even have a good starter.

Willson Contreras

 

Below you will find the rest of the prominent players from this past season and how they broke out in four different ways. I will save the commentary here as the charts speak for themselves once you’ve got an idea of what you’re looking at, and by cutting down on the verbiage it allows for looks at more players. Each chart looks at a rolling 100-plate appearance (or ball in play) average with the top left showing each player’s true and actual wOBA* over the course of the season. Top right shows the rolling strikeout and walk plus hit by pitch rates, and the bottom left shows the exit velocity and launch angle combinations for every ball in play. Lastly, the bottom right quadrant shows each player’s exit velocity and launch angle over the course of the season. Feel free to start a conversation on twitter if you have any questions or want to talk about any of these players. More than happy to have those chats.

Albert Almora Jr.

Addison Russell

 

Victor Caratini

Tommy La Stella

 

Daniel Murphy

 

David Bote

 

 

 

 

Tyler Chatwood

 

Brian Duensing

Randy Rosario

Mike Montgomery

Yu Darvish

 

 

 

 

 



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