Position by Position: Top of the Rotation

(MLB.com)

In the past two years, the Chicago Cubs have had two Cy Young finalists and one Cy Young winner. In 2015, Arrieta won the Cy Young Award, and in 2016 Jon Lester was the runner up, with Kyle Hendricks taking third place.

The Cubs had the 3rd most fWAR by starting pitchers, and they had by far the lowest staff ERA in the majors at 2.96. The next lowest ERA was 64 points behind them at 3.60. While part of this was due to excellent defense, the Cubs still had the 4th lowest staff FIP, putting them in the elite company of the Mets, Dodgers, and Nationals.

There is no question that the Cubs have an elite staff, but the question is how much their staff success was due to excellent defense, and whether they can repeat their 2016 success. In this Position by Position post, we’ll take a look at the top of the rotation for 2017, consisting of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jake Arrieta, as well as what we can expect from these starters this year.

Jon Lester

(Chicago Now)

Jon Lester had an excellent 2016 and capped it off with a stunning performance in the playoffs. While he did not command the lowest ERA among Cubs starters (that honor belonged to Kyle Hendricks) he placed second in Cy Young voting and was worth an excellent 4.3 fWAR. Lester’s 2.44 ERA (2nd lowest in baseball) and 3.41 FIP (9th lowest) were some of the best of his career. In fact, it was the lowest ERA he has put up in his 10 years in the big leagues.

Lester compounded that feat by pitching 202.2 innings and starting 32 games. He won 19 games, if that’s something that you care about, and only lost 5. He had an excellent K/9 ratio (8.75) and BB/9 (2.31) and pitched his way to 2 complete games. He had 197 strikouts and only 52 walks.

While he still has problems throwing to first base, Lester had one of his best seasons in the big leagues last year. He also contributed in the postseason, where he had an excellent 2.02 ERA in 35.2 innings. He was the NLCS Co-MVP with Javier Báez and struck out 30 batters in the playoffs. Lester also came out in relief in Game 7 of the World Series and was excellent, and he was a critical part of the Cubs rotation all throughout last year.

Can Lester repeat his 2016 success? Both Steamer and Depth Charts have Lester worth over 4.0 fWAR next year, and both predict he will have an ERA under 3.50. His strikeout and walk rates should stay fairly consistent, but with a different defensive look it is hard to predict how his excellent ERA might be affected with Schwarber in left and without Fowler in center. While we can expect some regression, Lester is still set to be the ace at the top of this Cubs staff.

Kyle Hendricks

(Frome Sports)

It’s not everyday that a pitcher is able to drop almost 2 full points in ERA in one year, but that’s exactly what Kyle Hendricks did in 2016. Hendricks’2016 was far better than almost anyone could have predicted and he put up excellent numbers across the board. He had a career high in fWAR (4.5, the most on the Cubs staff) and had a career low in ERA (2.13) and FIP (3.20). He struck out the most batters of his career (170 SO) and only gave up 44 walks in 190 IP.

In the postseason, he might have been even better. Hendricks put up a 1.42 ERA in 25.1 innings and started the clinching game against the Dodgers in the NLCS where he pitched brilliantly and Game 7 of the World Series before he was relieved by Jon Lester. He only allowed 5 runs in 5 games and struck out 19 in the playoffs.

The 264th overall pick out of Dartmouth is never phased, and though he relies on command more than speed, his contact oriented and ground ball approach (48.4% ground ball rate last year) works well with the excellent defense of the Cubs. While he was good on the road (2.95 ERA) he was outstanding at home where he put up a minuscule 1.32 ERA in 95.1 innings.

Although Hendricks seems like a prime candidate for regression to his more normal numbers, Depth Charts has him projecting 3.3 fWAR and having a 3.40 ERA, not too shabby all things considered. The key for Hendricks going forward is to maintain a healthy ground ball rate and let the defense do the rest. The Cubs had a historically good defense and Hendricks used that to his advantage as he pitched his way to a his best season in a Cubs uniform to date.

Jake Arrieta

(CSN Sports)

2016 was an off-year, at least by Arrieta standards. After all, he only pitched his second no-hitter, had a 3.10 ERA, and was worth only 3.8 fWAR. He only pitched 197.1 innings, struck out 190 batters, and went 18-8. So for Arrieta, it was a disappointing year when compared to his last two.

Arrieta didn’t have a Cy Young worthy year, but he again continued to impress since coming to Chicago in 2013. The 5th round pick has been worth a combined 16.1 fWAR the past three years, and put up excellent performances in both the 2015 and 2016 postseason. Arrieta went 2-0 with a 2.38 ERA in the World Series to lead the Cubs to their first title in 108 years, and was easily the most dominant Cubs starter during that series.

Arrieta has always had overpowering, no-hitter type stuff, but until coming to the Cubs he had struggled both in the minors and in the majors. In the deal that also brought relief pitcher Pedro Strop to Chicago, the Cubs surely got the best of that trade. Both acquisitions bloomed into excellent pitchers and were critical to the Cubs’ World Series run.

Arrieta is projected to have a very similar 2017. According to Steamer and Depth Charts, his ERA will take a slight hit (3.39 and 3.20 respectively) but he projects to be worth more wins with fWAR at 4.0 and 4.1 respectively. Look for Arrieta to have another solid year as he tries to impress the Cubs enough for the lucrative extension that he is looking for.

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Between the three All-Star caliber pitchers at the front of the rotation, the Cubs starting pitching staff looks strong heading into this upcoming season. That being said, ace Jon Lester is not getting any younger, and as of right now Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are set to depart after this season. For right now, the Cubs are in great shape with regards to their starting pitching at the top of the rotation, but next year there are certainly questions.

In the next Position by Position, we’ll take a look at John Lackey and some of the possible #5 starters who could emerge as key pieces to the Cubs staff in the future.

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Position by Position: Right Field

Image result for jason heyward cubs
(Getty Images)

Jason Heyward signed an 8-year, $184M contract before the start of the 2016 season. He received $15M last year. In spite of the great contract, Heyward put up 1.6 only fWAR. That’s right, he hit .230, slugged .325, with only 7 bombs (a career low) and stole just 11 bases. Heyward was supposed to be the Cubs leadoff hitter and center fielder until Dexter Fowler returned on a one-year deal as Spring Training began. Instead of the offensive, good base running, excellent defensive center fielder the Cubs had envisioned, they got someone who was missing two of the tools they wanted, and Heyward quickly became a disappointment for Cubs fans.

What Heyward did contribute was excellent defense. In fact, he had the third most defensive runs saved for a right fielder with 14, only Mookie Betts and Adam Eaton had more. He had the 14th most DRS in all of baseball last year, and was 5th in UZR/150, a metric used to predict how many runs above average a fielder is per 150 games. According to UZR/150, Heyward was 21.6 runs above average last year.

While Heyward has been known for his defense, 2016 may have actually been an off-year for the right fielder. In 2015 while playing right field for the Cardinals, Heyward had 22 DRS, and the year before that he had 26 in Atlanta. Through his seven major league seasons, Heyward has 120 career DRS, averaging over 17 a year. So while his already excellent 14 DRS last year was good, it would not be unreasonable to assume that he can save even more runs next year.

(Baseball Savant)
(Baseball Savant)

Looking at the two graphics above, we can see that Heyward caught just about every ball he was expected to catch, according to Hang Time of the ball and Heyward’s distance from the landing spot of the ball. He caught every “easy” ball and missed just one “routine” play the entire year. He also made most of the “tough” and even made a few “highlight” catches as well. In fact, almost the balls he missed were more difficult than highlight reel catches, in other words balls that were almost impossible to catch.

While Heyward contributed much defensively last year, he did not get much going at the plate. According to FanGraphs’ overall offensive metric, Heyward was the 5th worst offensive player in majors. He had 72 wRC+ which was good for 2nd worst in the league.  His slashline of .230/.306/.325 gave him an OPS of .631. His batting average dropped more than 60 points from 2015, and he knocked .114 off of his slugging percentage. Overall, it was a terrible offensive season.

So does his stellar defense make up for his lack of contributions at the plate? FanGraphs WAR seems to think it came close. In a year that Heyward received $15M, he should have been worth about 1.875 fWAR, using $8M/win as a way to estimate contracts. In the end, he was worth 1.6 fWAR. Keep in mind that even after being the 5th worst hitter in the league he still came extremely close to being worth his contract, at least for this year. Heyward is set to make $21.5M next year, meaning he has to be better to be worth the contract the Cubs gave him. The real question is whether he can be worth over 2.6 fWAR next season, his expected performance given his contract.

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I think he can do it. His lowest batting average prior to this season was .254, and he never had a slugging percentage below .384. His defense has continued to be excellent, even if it has trended downwards the past few years. Even in a bad season, Heyward still had good BB% (9.1%) and K% (15.7%) which are both very close to his career average, perhaps even better with regards to striking out less. He was still disciplined at the plate (he had a 41.3 Swing%, compared to 41.1 Swing% last year) so he is still seeing the ball well. He is still making contact (85.5 Contact%, even better than 2015) and striking out less.

The only things that seemed to go wrong for Heyward, at least stat-wise, was his Soft and Hard Contact rates. Last year, his Soft Contact rate rose over 4%, while his Hard Contact rate went dropped 4% which is the opposite of what players want. If he can get back to hitting the ball well, I would expect Heyward’s previous offensive success to continue. He is walking the same amount, striking out the same amount, continuing to make contact, but the ball just hasn’t been dropping. His batting average on balls in play was only .266, well below the league average of .300. Part of that comes with hitting the ball less hard, so he if he can increase his Hard% I would expect him to return to his previous success.

(Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Both Steamer and Depth Charts have Heyward bouncing back next year, at least to a certain extent. Steamer has him slashing .268/.347/.415 and being worth 3.1 fWAR, and Depth Charts is predicting Heyward is worth 2.9 fWAR. He should hit with more power (both have him hitting 13 home runs next year) and stealing more bases (11 and 14 respectively) while keeping good BB% and K%. Both of the projections also predict he will have a wRC+ of 100 or more, meaning he will be at least league average offensively while hopefully not sacrificing anything defensively.

In case he doesn’t put up good numbers or gets injured, the Cubs still have some options, as both Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist can play in right. While playing Zobrist and Bryant in right takes them out of their natural positions, it would open up a spot in the infield for Javier Báez. Nevertheless, while Heyward struggled at the plate in 2016, he made up for it partially by playing excellent defense, which his replacements likely wont be able to do.

Look for Heyward to bounce back next year and put up good numbers both offensively and defensively. He still has plenty of time to make up for a disappointing season last year.

 

 

Position by Position: Second Base

As Spring Training begins, Talk Cubs is starting a series highlighting each position on the Cubs, from First Base to the Bullpen. Talk Cubs will be posting a new position each day, and each preview includes last season’s stats, projections for 2017, and possible injury replacements. Position by Position gives fans a better idea of what the 2016 World Series Champions will look like in 2017 as Spring Training unfolds.

(Sports Illustrated)

A tough decision lies ahead for Joe Maddon and the coaching staff as they will try to figure out who will be pairing with Addison Russell in the middle of the infield this year. Who do they want to start at second base? The 2016 World Series MVP? Or the 2016 NLCS MVP? For most teams, that person would be the same player, but with the depth the Cubs have in the infield, both Ben Zobrist and Javier Báez are competing for the spot. Both are equally deserving: Zobrist has an incredibly reliant offensive track record and Báez has a high ceiling, not to mention spectacular defensive ability. So who should get the majority of starts at second?

Zobrist and Báez took different paths to the majors. Zobrist, an Illinois native, was selected in the 6th round of the 2004 amateur draft by the Astros but didn’t debut until 2006 after he was traded to Tampa Bay. He struggled his first three years in the majors, accumulating -0.4 fWAR in 145 games in the majors. He had a breakout season in 2009, slashing .297/.405/.543 and hitting 27 homers while driving in 91 RBI. He achieved his first All-Star selection, placed 8th in AL MVP voting, and was worth an outstanding 8.6 fWAR. Over the next seven seasons, Zobrist averaged 4.62 fWAR per year, received two more All-Star selections, and won two World Series in five trips to the postseason. Before the 2016 season, he signed a 4 year $56M contract with the Cubs through his age 37 season.

zobrist-spray
Zobrist uses all fields extremely well (Baseball Savant)

Báez, on the other hand, was the 9th overall pick of the 2011 draft, a remnant of the pre-Epstein regime. Báez spent the better part of his first four years in the minors, but he arrived in the majors with a splash when he homered in his debut to give the Cubs a win. He has the flare of a first round pick and the strikeout rate (29.9% in MLB) of a High-A slugger. Across three years in the majors, Báez has appeared in 222 games, though only recorded 759 PA’s, and has swatted 24 home runs. 2016 was by far his best season, where he played in 142 games (450 PA’s) and slashed .273/.314/.423 while accumulating 2.7 fWAR. His real contributions in 2016 came from his defense, where he was within one DRS of the second base leader Dustin Pedroia. While Báez had 11 DRS to Pedroia’s 12 DRS, Báez did it in 30% fewer innings. If Baez played a full season at second and kept up the same rate of saving runs, he would have saved over 33 runs last year, surpassing last year’s DRS leader Mookie Betts.

Báez in the NLDS (Sporting News)

So who would the Cubs rather have at second for most of the season? The grizzled veteran who puts up reliable offensive numbers but does not rate well defensively (-3 DRS at 2B last season) or the young stud who strikes out too much but plays some of the best defense in the league? The answer might be a little simpler than previously thought.

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Think about it. A second base platoon where one player provides excellent offense and the other outstanding defense. With Báez and Zobrist, this platoon could not only be possible but could be extremely effective. So how do we decide who starts against whom? Though not necessarily a primarily offensive powerhouse, Báez hit lefties very well last year. Though he only had 122 AB’s against lefties in 2016, his batting average was 53 points higher against lefties, not to mention that his wRC+ (runs per plate appearance, scaled to 100) was significantly better against lefties (124 wRC+ with 100 being average) than righties (82 wRC+).

Zobrist, meanwhile, had a lower batting average against righties, 40 points lower in fact, but had more power against righties, hitting 10 more home runs last year. The fact that Zobrist is a switch hitter provides more value, as pitching changes would affect Zobrist less than Báez. In fact, Zobrist might actually do better against a lefty reliever. While his wRC+ was lower against righties (123 against righties as opposed to 129 against lefties) Báez’s outstanding defense and significant splits in favor of hitting lefties would counteract what Zobrist loses by only hitting righties.

(CSN Chicago)

In Báez, the Cubs have an excellent defender who hits lefties well and has good K% (18.4%) and BB% (8.1%) against them, while Zobrist has more power against righties, even if he does have a significantly lower batting average. As a result of platooning them, each player would be used somewhat regularly. Using them regularly could increase the effectiveness of defensive changes in games (Báez coming in for Zobrist with a lead) and offensive changes (Zobrist coming in for Báez when they need to get going at the plate) which gives Maddon more moves to make late in games. While the lefty-righty platoon would help Báez the most, Zobrist would still stand to benefit against righties with his increased power.

In the end, the Cubs are in an excellent position at second with two potential All-Stars, not to mention the depth in the minor leagues with Ian Happ and others. If either Zobrist or Báez were injured, the replacement at both the major league level and minor league level would be excellent, and second base looks like one of the strongest positions for the Cubs going forward.

Position by Position: First Base

As Spring Training begins, Talk Cubs is starting a series highlighting each position on the Cubs, from First Base to the Bullpen. Talk Cubs will be posting a new position each day, and each preview includes last season’s stats, projections for 2017, and possible injury replacements. Position by Position gives fans a better idea of what the 2016 World Series Champions will look like in 2017 as Spring Training unfolds.

(Sports Illustrated)

We all remember the moment Anthony Rizzo caught a throw from the falling Bryant and squeezed his glove, securing the Cubs’ first World Series victory in 108 years. We all remember when Rizzo slipped the now famous baseball into his back pocket and ran towards Bryant, where the two embraced on the mound as the rest of the field and the visitors dugout rushed them. We all remember when Rizzo threw up his arms and the world knew that the Cubs had finally done it.

It’s fitting then, that the man who caught the final out of the World Series was the beginning of it all. Though not the longest tenured Cub (that honor belongs to Travis Wood) Rizzo was the beginning of the grand Theo Epstein plan. After signing with the Cubs in 2011, Epstein hired Padres GM Jed Hoyer to be the general manager in Chicago. Previously a member of the Red Sox organization, Rizzo was traded to the Padres in 2010, and in 2012 the Cubs acquired Rizzo and a minor leaguer from the Padres for Andrew Cashner and another minor leaguer. The Cubs, like always, got the better of the deal.

Rizzo quickly became the number one first base prospect in the game, and has been a perennial All-Star contender since. He has participated in three consecutive All-Star games and got his first start at 1B for the National League this year. Combined between Triple-A and the majors in 2012, Rizzo played  in 157 games. In 2013 he played in 160. In 2015 he played 160 games again, and in 2016 he played in 155 games, making him a reliable bat in the middle of the order. Rizzo had a career  year in 2016, slashing .292/.385/.544 while driving in 109 RBI and swatting 32 homers. While the batting average might not be entirely impressive, he has a knack for getting on base (.362 lifetime OBP) and has averaged over 29 home runs over the past four seasons. In the last two years, Rizzo has seen his BB% remain fairly constant (11% over the last two years) while decreasing his K% (16% last year, down from 18.8 in 2014.)

rizzo-spray-chart
Rizzo’s spray chart is a thing of beauty (Baseball Savant)

He’s done all of this offensively while also playing excellent defense. In 2016, Rizzo logged 1337 innings in the field and had 11 DRS, the most by a first baseman in the majors. According to FanGraph’s overall defensive metric, Rizzo had -5.8 Def, which put him 3rd among qualified first basemen. He also did much better this year according to Inside Edge Fielding, improving  in every category except Likely plays.

 

rizzo inside edge.PNG
Rizzo continues to put up impressive Inside Edge Fielding metrics. (FanGraphs)

So what can Cubs fans expect from Rizzo in 2017? Will they get the 2013 Rizzo, who despite playing 160 games that year put up only a meager .233 AVG and was worth only 1.9 fWAR? Of course, 2013 was only Rizzo’s second season in the major leagues, and has since improved drastically, averaging over 5.45 fWAR the past three seasons. Depth Charts has Rizzo at 4.7 fWAR next year, and Steamer has him a little lower at 4.5 fWAR.

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I’d be more inclined to believe that Rizzo is worth about five wins next season, maybe even more. For the past couple of years, he has played steady defense at first, perhaps even improved a little if his highlight reel catches have anything to say about it. Not only that, but he has continued to produce at the plate (145 wRC+ the past two years, 155 in 2014) and has even started decreasing his K% and increasing his BB% since he first came to the majors. With the now healthy Kyle Schwarber batting ahead of him, as well as Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist, Rizzo will have plenty of opportunities to drive in runs like he did last year, and he will continue to be a key part of the Cubs offense in 2017.

Rizzo is a crucial part of the middle of the Cubs’ batting order, but they lack depth behind the young first baseman. While Bryant can play first, he is much more effective in his natural third base position, and none of the Cubs Top 30 Prospects play first, so reinforcements through the farm-system seem unlikely. While Rizzo has played an extraordinary amount of games over the last five seasons, issues could arise if they need a long-term replacement for him. Forcing Bryant out of his natural position could have negative consequences on his offensive performance, and Rizzo’s patience would be sorely missed in the middle of the order.

That being said, if anyone can figure out a way to replace Rizzo, it would be Joe Maddon.