Comeback Cubs: Reasons Why Chicago Will Go On a Second Half Run
Despite all the struggles this season, Cubs fans have loudly declared that one winning streak is all the team needs to snap out of its season-long courtship with mediocrity.
The All-Star break has come and gone and the Cubs still haven’t put together that substantive winning streak like everybody thought they would. The Cubs find themselves below .500 at 43–45 looking skyward at the upstart Milwaukee Brewers who lead the National League Central by a healthy 5.5 games.
Returning to their roots of eternal optimism amid disappointment, Cubs fans continue to insist that a second-half surge is inevitable. Are these bold predictions entrenched in feasible reality or are they the desperate wishes of this new breed of winning-drunk Cubs fans?
The Cubs are due for a second half run and that winning streak that we’ve all been waiting for will eventually materialize. Here’s why the Cubs will be much better during the second half.
Positive Regression From the Offense
The Cubs sluggish offense (20th in runs; 18th in OPS; 28th in batting average) was the result of almost every hitter on the roster underperforming compared to a season ago.
Yellow highlighted names are hitters with OPS’s and batting averages that were lower than last season. Blue underlined names are players with just one of those statistics currently lower than a season ago (charts snipped from BaseballReference.com).
Here are the numbers from 2016 for your viewing pleasure.
Kyle Schwarber has obviously struggled monumentally this season, but his injury-shortened 2016 makes a comparison between the two seasons futile. Jason Heyward and modestly-used utility man Tommy La Stella are the only players on the current roster (that also played for the Cubs last season) who have improved both these numbers across the two seasons.
If you are a believer in the power of WAR, here is the Cubs position players’ WARs this season compared to last season at the All-Star break (charts snipped from FanGraphs.com).
So far in 2017…
Compared to the first half of 2016….
WAR takes into account all facets of a player’s game and it’s easy to extrapolate from the above charts that almost every player that was on the Cubs for both seasons has taken a step back this season in multiple areas of their respective games.
There is another issue compounding the Cubs offensive slumber. This season, the team has a .230 batting average with runners in scoring position which is fourth-worst in MLB. Last season, the Cubs were similarly challenged in this department, but still averaged a .252 batting average with runners in scoring position which was 21st-best in MLB.
The point of all these numbers? Positive statistical regression seems inevitable because the long, 162-game season serves as the ultimate statistical equalizer. It’s cliché, but the Cubs are too talented offensively to remain in the MLB cellar in all of these categories for long.
Prior to the break, several of the Chicago Cubs key hitters began to show signs of life. Kris Bryant slashed .353/.450/.676 in the ten games prior to the All-Star break, while his buddy Anthony Rizzo slashed .320/.429/.608 during the month of June then followed this up with a nice .269/.406/.577 start to July. Representing the Cubs nicest surprise offensively, Willson Contreras has slashed .300/.364/.600 in his last twenty games.
The Cubs offense will likely improve in the second half simply because the law of averages says it probably won’t be as bad as it was during the first half.
Kyle Hendricks’ Return Stabilizes Starting Rotation
The Professor will return to a classroom (or ballpark) near you sooner rather than later. However, according to MLB.com writer Carrie Muskat, Kyle Hendricks will need at least one more rehab assignment before the Cubs put him back on the MLB roster.
In a rehab assignment with Double-A Tennessee on Monday, he pitched 3.1 innings surrendering two hits and one run. Most importantly, he said he was pain free.
Hand felt great, no pain or anything at all. Feel was just OK in the first two innings but got better in the third. -Kyle Hendricks in a text message
Hendricks has been on the disabled list since June 8 (retroactive to June 5) due to tendinitis inflammation in the middle finger of his right hand. He sported a disappointing 4.09 ERA in his 11 starts prior to the injury, but was still arguably the Cubs best starting pitcher when he was healthy.
The Cubs hope that the extended rest period the injury afforded him will allow Hendricks to regain the dominance he displayed last season. With Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta underperforming, the Cubs have lacked a true rotational ace this season.
Theoretically, Hendricks’ return to the rotation would give the Cubs an opportunity to excuse John Lackey or Mike Montgomery (5.20 and 5.40 ERA respectively) from the rotation in favor of the emerging Eddie Butler (3.88 ERA). However, realistically, the Cubs will probably salvage Lackey as the fifth starter, move Butler to Triple-A Iowa, and put Montgomery back into the bullpen.
Regardless of how the rotation shakes up, there’s really no downside to having one of your best players return from injury. Even if Hendricks struggles like he did during his first 11 starts of the season, he still is an upgrade to most of the other pitchers in the rotation. Hendricks had a six-game stretch from April 25 to May 24 this season where he posted a 1.96 ERA, proving that he is still able to produce at an elite level for extended stretches.
If he pitches like that when he returns, it would provide a huge boost to this Chicago Cubs team.
Jose Quintana Stabilizes the Starting Rotation
In case you live under a rock and missed this bombshell, the Chicago Cubs acquired starting pitcher Jose Quintana from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for prospects Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Matt Rose, and Bryant Flete.
It was an almost perfect trade scenario for the Chicago Cubs. They acquired a young, quality, cost-controlled pitcher to fortify the starting rotation without surrendering any MLB talent.
Quintana adds another frontline starter to a Cubs rotation that theoretically already has three pitchers that fit this profile (Arrieta, Lester, and Hendricks have all underwhelmed, but we’ve seen what they can do at their best).
In retrospect, this trade was a best case scenario for a Chicago Cubs team in desperate need of a starting rotation shakeup. Expect the Cubs starters to put that 4.66 first half ERA in the rearview mirror as they rev up their engines for a more charateriscally dominant second half.
With Hendricks entering the final stages of his rehabilitation, the Cubs injury report has finally become a skeleton of its former self.
Right now, Lackey is on the 10-day disabled list with plantar fasciitis although his return is imminent. Former fifth starter Brett Anderson remains on the disabled list with a lower back strain. This is probably a blessing in disguise given his unsightly 8.18 ERA through his first six starts of the season.
The Cubs are healthy right now after sustaining injury blow after injury blow during the first half of the season.
Hendricks has been out since June 5 with the middle finger tendinitis, Ben Zobrist missed the last 18 days of June with a wrist injury, Jason Heyward missed 16 days with a right hand laceration, and Kris Bryant and Addison Russell missed a few games apiece with a minor ankle sprain and shoulder soreness respectively.
With the 2017 All-Star festivities awkwardly Cub-less, players had a chance to hit the reset button and take care of nagging aches and pains. It gives a starting rotation that’s still feeling the effects of the extended World Series championship workload last season time to recoup. It gives Russell time to sort things out in his personal life as these extracurricular issues noticeably impacted his on-field performances throughout the first half of the season.
The Cubs enter the second half of the 2017 season mostly healthy, and that bodes well for their chances to make a legitimate run at the Brewers.
Finally, a softer schedule could catalyze a Chicago Cubs second half surge.
Sixteen of the Cubs final 23 series this season come against teams with below .500 records. They play the Brewers ten times, so there are plenty of opportunities for upward movement in the standings. Milwaukee and Washington are the only current first place teams (combining for a total of 13 games) that the Cubs have to play in the second half. In the first half, they played 23 games against teams that are currently in first place.
The Brewers have amassed a substantial lead in the NL Central; however, the length of an MLB season means the race for the division crown is far from decided. All signs point to a Chicago Cubs second-half run, and the pressure is on Milwaukee to absorb the blow.
Paul Steeno spent 11 years pretending he was good at running. After hanging up the track spikes and officially becoming an elite hobby jogger, he decided to do something that he was actually good at: like writing about the Cubs. He is also a perpetually frustrated Chicago Bulls fan. This one time he got super lucky and ran 3:52 in the 1500 meter run.