Reliving the 2017 Season: Chicago Cubs Edition | The Process Report

Reliving the 2017 Season: 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 team. The order will mirror next June’s draft slotting 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 two to three of these out each week which should allow for every team being covered before our glorious game returns to continue threshing our hearts.




10 – 1:  MIL COL NYY

Fresh off their first World Series win since a goat was act not so kindly asked to give up it’s seat the Chicago Cubs came into last season looking to lay the foundation for a dynasty that could live on for another hundred years. The 2016 club was one of the greatest assembled with no hyperbole intended. They were that good. Built from a variety of high draft picks, savvy trades and the type of revenue that affords wild expenditures in free agency the team hoped to carry that spirit forward over the next half decade or so. It didn’t quite go to plan last year.

You can see above that the team looks to have harbored a bit of a World Series hangover after playing deep into the night for the second year in a row. The offense was below average, but close enough to not elicit panic, and the pitching was a little better than that so the team was often in games if not outright burying opponents. Then the team started to add on. Numerous trades were made for players that could play a key role not only in 2017, but also in the years to follow due to oodles of team control. This would be vital with a small handful of players eligible for free agency after the season.

By the middle of the season the offense had found their stride buoyed by a couple of excellent performers. The pitching got a little better, but was still mostly in that better than average range with few blowups over any sort of meaningful period. The cost in players to put this team dang near over the top was massive as a fully mature system was robbed of anything else that resembled upside. Ultimately, the cost was not worth the price as the team fell short of winning their second consecutive World Series, but the pieces are in place for the team to run it back in this upcoming season.

Cubs pitchers demonstrated an above average ability on the season that I peg at being worth 43 runs better than the average. This was built on a big strikeout rate that unfortunately came with a higher than average walk rate in tow. The team limited contact to a below average expectation with actual results coming in even slightly better. The hitter side is fairly similar with well above average walk rates coming with slightly higher strikeout numbers. The contact approached league average with observed results looking even a little stronger. This unit looks to have been worth around 18 runs more than the average so you are looking at a club that didn’t excel in either facet, but was solid in both. We have seen many clubs dragged down by their weaknesses even when they have a great strength, but very few that played both ways well. The Cubs fit that mold.

The team received above average production from several players, though none was bigger than Anthony Rizzo. The slugging first baseman carried the offense by walking, and getting hit, more than he struck out, but also driving the ball at an above average clip. He was backed by Kris Bryant who is asked to do a little more on defense, but is still expected to play a vital offensive role. Then we get to a few guys that didn’t put in full seasons, but still were considered critical parts to the offense. Willson Contreras is the catcher that doesn’t hit like one, but he also might be proving to be pretty poor behind the dish. Former catcher of the future Kyle Schwarber has no business in a Major League outfield, but he is proving to be a feared hitter. Rookie Ian Happ made the jump and his first season looked an awful lot like what Schwarber did so you have to wonder if the team can afford to carry both players when the latter looks like such a great fit at designated hitter.

Many clubs reviewed feature good or bad players with very little in the middle. The Cubs featured three players in Jon Jay, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist who received plenty of opportunity and hit like league average players. That means there isn’t much surplus with the bat, but each is a heck of a defender with Zobrist making up in providing lineup grease for whatever step he has lost in the field. Having good glove, average bats is an important part of any team. Every team has a guy or two that can hit, but being able to run out lineups that don’t feature black holes or auto outs are the hallmark of the true contender.

To that end there were a few players that came in a good deal below average, but each plays primarily an up the middle position. Addison Russell and Javier Baez give manager Joe Maddon some swiss army knife options in the field, but neither should be expected to do much with the bat. They both strike out far too often, but at least Russell gives the walk more than a passing glance. The power gap isn’t all that large, either, from an expectations perspective, but when looking at actual results you can see that Baez had a considerable edge last year. Albert Almora Jr. is probably destined to be more of a role player as he is on the short side of the platoon, but the glove is fine enough that the team should have a role for him even if he is never an everyday player.

Sometimes highly touted prospects don’t work out, and sometimes they turn into Anthony Rizzo. One of the most complete players in the game who also happened to sign a sweetheart deal before it was clear just how good he could be, Rizzo is a delight to watch. He gets hit enough that it makes the wrist bones ache to watch him sometimes, and rival pitchers have to hate not being able to throw the ball even an inch off the plate inside to him. However, all those bruises do lead to meaningful trips on base and help him keep his strikeout rate and an incredibly low rate for a masher. He experienced a lull early in the season before getting back to business. From there he fluctuated between good and great for the majority of the season. He seemed to crash hard at the end of the season with actual production proving to be a leading indicator in this case. Perhaps all those hit by pitches ended up costing him his health when he needed it most for the postseason or maybe it was just a blip. Obviously, he is an enormous star in fantasy, as well as reality, and especially so in leagues where he will crazily qualify as a second baseman thanks to the wiles of Ol’ Merlot Joe.

The second head of the snake looks an awful lot like the first. Bryant did incredibly well to reduce his strikeout rate following an MVP-season where that was, perhaps, the only knock on him. Doing this without losing the walks was a positive, but you have to wonder if it hurt his production on balls in play any. His .392 xwOBA* is above the league average around .375, but not ridiculously so like his first Spring Training when he hit all the homers or his rookie season that saw him trading contact for power and winning his end of the deal. Yes, he saw substantially better results than his exit velocities and launch angles would lead you to believe he deserved, and yes, some players are able to sustainably do that. Perhaps he is one of those players. The largest discrepancy was very early on, but you can see other periods with enough of a gap that you have to wonder if he was being a little fortunate. I’d expect him to continue to be an outstanding hitter going forward. One curious thing is that his production was fairly stable over the course of the season without any crazy slumps or prodigious periods. I do not know if this speaks to a mature approach with little room for growth or if the turn away from the strikeout has allowed his production to be less volatile, while still quite good. Either way we’re looking at one of the most fun players to watch in the game.

Rizzo and Bryant are clearly a cut above Kyle Schwarber and the rest of the club. Those are the true stars that can play everyday at a high level both in the field and beside the plate. Often, when a highly touted player does not turn into that kind of star fans can end up feeling a little let down. When that type of player has glaring deficiencies like an inability to catch non-routine fly balls then fans are given ample opportunity to voice that frustration. That should not detract from the type of player that Schwarber is, or was. You can see above that he was an above average hitter for much of the season, but during that first stretch of good play he wasn’t seeing the results at all. His observed performance would have seen him demoted on a more reactionary team, but the Cubs stuck to their guns and ultimately were rewarded by seeing his actuals fall into line with his expectations. The prior period’s underperformance was large enough and long enough that it was always going to soak his season-long numbers, but looking at should instead of the did shows he was a fairly similar guy over both periods. He’s a bit miscast on this team, but they have so many good defenders that are held back by the stick that it doesn’t hurt to have one that goes the other way.

It is hard to fathom that only a couple of years ago any team in the league could have poached Willson Contreras for little more than a few dozen thousands of dollars via the Rule-V draft. It goes to show that even the very best in the game struggle to highlight future big leaguers, but the Cubs have been paid handsomely for their gamble to not protect the player. He stayed in house and has proven to be a dreamboat behind the plate. His production evolution last year was fairly remarkable as he clearly made a shift during the season. The first half left a lot to be desired with subpar production being held up by the fact that nobody on his position hits. He was experiencing better than expected results for the most part, something that would continue for much of the season, but you can see that he slowly got better and was able to hold on to those gains throughout the close of the season. While many catchers are ready to die by the end of the season, Contreras seemed like he had fresh legs. Obviously, he is one of the best catcher options in your fantasy realms.

With so much of the organizational focus falling on the batters it was always going to be interesting to see what the Cubs would do about the arms. Signing Jon Lester to a truckload of money was a start, but the team also moved an equally large dumper of prospects into the more friendly contract and performance of Jose Quintana during the middle of this season. Add in other home-tweaked, if not grown, guys like Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks and you’re looking at the foundation for a fine rotation. John Lackey was bad, but you always figured one of the two years he was signed for would be dismal, and it’s not like he was unusably bad this past season, just merely the worst on a fairly good staff.

Before getting to the bullpen an opposing team would have to go through swingman/spot starter Mike Montgomery, and so it will go here. Montgomery should absolutely want to start, as any pitcher would, but the problem is that he has demonstrated an ability to be very, very good, in a role. It proved to be a vital role in a pen where many of the bulls have shown enough demonstrated weaknesses that the smart manager has to be careful with how they are used. C.J. Edwards was virtually unhittable, but a lot of that was due to over half of his batters faced ending up in a walk or a strikeout. Add in some fortune on those balls in play and you would agree that we have seen better relief aces if you’ve come this far with me. Duensing and Strop are fine when used situationally, and the big stud Wade Davis gave up league average production on balls in play to go with an incredibly high walk rate. These were good arms, but none of them were great and often enough their performance held the team back from going somewhere special.

People have been waiting for Jon Lester to show his age for a while now. They’ll have to be satisfied with endless loops of Lester staring over to first base with eyes that wished they could be the ones throwing the ball instead of his arm. He saw a fairly gross start to the year, in which, he looked strong, but the results did not match. Things fell mostly in line from there other than a largish gap toward the end of the season that again showed worse results than he deserved. That entire close to the season might leave some a little weary, but on a team that was playing for very little it is quite possible the team had him out there conserving energy rather than being his best, though, a hidden injury would make for a convenient excuse that is at least plausible given the mileage on the tires. The rest of the season he was quite strong with some volatility, but generally being a better than average pitcher in the game.

Former pitchers love to watch command and control guys like Kyle Hendricks. The cut change that Hendricks throws, similar to Matt Andriese of the Rays, can be a devastating pitch regardless of velocity. Having a unique pitch that few guys throw means batters expect a pitch to do one thing before it moves in the opposite direction. As you can imagine, hilarity ensues. A rocky start was mostly hidden by his actuals, while the rest of the season was kind of a ho-hum experience of him quietly being a better than average starter. The depths are especially nice and give some credence to his Cy Young candidacy in the year prior, but they were not so dominant as to take that campaign seriously going forward. Still, this is a fine mid-rotation arm that plays up even more due to the defense behind him.

As previously mentioned, Montgomery has proven himself a real weapon out of the bullpen even if he has aspirations and the capability to be a back-end starter. Here is how he fared over the year within each of these roles:

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He was fairly predictable as a reliever clocking in around the league average in expectations with significantly better actual results. He even improved the former as the year rolled on to become a real weapon. His time as a starter saw a lot more volatility. He was quite good for stretches, but the more the league saw of him, both in-game and over time, his results got substantially worse. This would lead me to believe that, while it would be nice for him to work out as a starter he may provide more value to the club by being a weapon out of the pen who occasionally makes a start if it makes for fewer headaches.

Only spending half a season with the Cubs proved to be a fine call in retrospect as the team still won the division, but it is hard to believe that they saved anything on the return while getting little more than more information. Quintana was mostly fine with the Cubs with a fairly poor start getting ironed out in short order and never even really creeping into the box score. He showed himself to be an average or so arm for much of his tenure, though a late season strong spurt did come with even better actual results. The strikeout increase is nice to see, but it appears to have come with a fairly large uptick in contact quality. Tough to draw broad conclusions when a guy has to adjust to a new league and seems to have done that. As always, Quintana will probably fly under the radar in your leagues, but should a fine mid-rotation option that might be able to build upon better quality of information from his new overlords. I’d be happy to end up with him at his usual solid, but not spectacularly high price.


Winding this thing down and getting some of the better teams into the database is going to shake these things up a little bit. Below you will find the top and bottom 20 hitters and pitchers for teams that have already been reviewed. Further down you will find the teams ranked by their hitting and pitching aggregate lines and then lastly the rankings of the combined xwRAA components.


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