Here Come the Cubs. But for How Long?

Chicago looks like a playoff contender again, with its bats and arms alike roaring to life this month. Can they keep it up, or will the core of the 2016 championship team finally be broken up?
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Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.

On May 2, the Cubs lost to the Reds, 13–12 in 10 innings, in a game that Cubs manager David Ross commented afterward, “felt like a playoff game.” That may have been true of the game’s back-and-forth nature, but the playoff vibe was certainly not due to his team’s form at the time.

The loss was the Cubs’ seventh in nine games, dropping their record to 12-16. Starting pitcher Trevor Williams—who allowed six runs and was the fourth Chicago starter in five games who failed to reach the fifth inning—said afterwards of the team’s starting pitching to that point: “We really need to do better as a rotation. And we know that.”

Less than a month later, the Cubs’ fortunes have shifted dramatically. And that same rotation has played a key role in what’s been a team-wide resurgence that’s put the Cubs firmly back in the race for the NL Central crown.

The Cubs followed up that loss with a three-game sweep of the Dodgers, and have been hot ever since. Wednesday’s 4–1 win over the Pirates clinched Chicago’s fourth straight series win and 14th win in their last 20 games, bringing the Cubs just a half-game back of the Cardinals for first place. That leads us to the big question: Is any of this for real?

Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) celebrates with catcher Willson Contreras (40) after delivering a final out against the Washington Nationals during the ninth inning at Wrigley Field.

The answer requires some context. Offensively, the Cubs’ surge over the past month or so can be attributed to some new players getting more regular playing time and some familiar faces performing more closely to their career norms.

The insertion of Matt Duffy and Nico Hoerner into the starting lineup has helped bring about more consistent contact and better results on balls in play. Since April 20, the Cubs have scored the fourth-most runs (162) with the fourth-highest batting average (.257) in the majors, per The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma.

While the offense has made steady progress after a slow start, the pitching staff has done a complete 180-degree turn in that span. Cubs starters put together a putrid performance through the season’s first month, with a combined 6.00 ERA and a -0.4 fWAR—both league worsts—through the first 28 games.

Since then, Chicago starters have posted a 3.17 ERA, good for fifth-best in the NL while leading the majors with a 50.6% groundball rate. The team has leaned on virtually the same group of starters to drastically improved results, though whether or not those improvements are built to last remains up for debate.

In an age where teams seem to value velocity more than ever, Cubs starters rank dead last in average fastball velocity (89.9 mph). Unsurprisingly, that’s led to a lot of hard contact and a lot of home runs, with Chicago’s home run rate (1.55 HR/9) the fifth-highest in the league. Though the group has performed better of late, four of the team’s five starters have expected ERAs north of 4.80: Kyle Hendricks (5.08), Jake Arrieta (4.88), Williams (5.15) and Zach Davies (7.08).

A dominant bullpen has helped mask the rotation’s shortcomings. The Cubs’ relief pitchers have a combined 2.90 ERA with the highest strikeout rate (29.3%) in the majors. Leading the charge is a revived Craig Kimbrel, who’s rediscovered his old ways and is back to making opposing hitters look silly. He’s not the only standout, though: Rex Brothers is striking out nearly two batters per inning and Dan Winkler has a 0.56 ERA in 19 games, while 2020 MVP vote-getter Ryan Tepera has a 2.82 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 22.1 innings.

Those results might not last all season, but they’re at least backed up by the underlying advanced metrics as not appearing to be fluky. The same cannot be said for Chicago’s rotation, and if the team decides to go for it in 2021, the front office will likely need to add an impact arm before the deadline. The Cubs were unwilling to pay the roughly $60 million due to Yu Darvish through 2023, but perhaps a cheaper upgrade is possible.

With key pieces playing in their final season before free agency—a group that includes Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez—these next two months feel like a pivotal crossroads for the direction of the franchise. Either Chicago ships away some players who helped deliver the city its first World Series in 108 years, or keeps the band together for one last run at the pennant.

As the Cardinals continue their current slide, the division is very attainable. Four years after the Cubs’ last NL Central title and five years after winning the World Series, Ross has a real chance to lead Chicago back to playing meaningful games deep into October.

After all, this year’s team has already experienced what the playoffs could feel like—perhaps they'll see how different the real thing is.

Quick hits:

  • After accumulating just six shutout wins from 2018-20, the Tigers have pulled that feat off twice in their last eight games. The latest was a 1–0 victory over Cleveland, during which starter José Ureña and three relievers allowed just four hits with seven strikeouts. It’s the fifth time Cleveland has been shut out this season.
  • For the sixth time in his last nine starts, Tyler Glasnow fanned at least 10 hitters. His latest gem came in a 2–1 Rays win over the Royals in which Manuel Margot singled home Kevin Kiermaier to walk it off in the 10th inning. Glasnow allowed just three hits (all singles) in eight shutout innings with 11 punch-outs.
  • Another day, another win for James Kaprielian. The 27-year-old rookie held the Mariners to no runs on two hits with four strikeouts in seven innings, improving to 2-0 with a 1.53 ERA and 19 strikeouts in three outings.
  • Mike Shildt had a lot to say about MLB’s policing (or lack thereof) of pitchers using performance-enhancing substances to doctor the baseball. Shildt’s point is warranted in that the league’s passivity towards the issues leads to inconsistent enforcement by umpiring crews, an issue that’s further exacerbated by the game’s prolonged offensive lull. I expect this won’t be the last we hear from Shildt—or others around the game—about the issue.

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