In less than 24 hours, the Cubs have significantly altered their outfield situation for 2016. Yesterday, Dexter Fowler was re-signed to a one-year $8 million contract with a $5 million buyout or $9 million mutal option for 2017, and joined the team in a surprise, heart-warming moment. Fowler will start in CF and lead-off most days, with Jason Heyward now slotted for starting everyday in RF, with the ability to move to CF to give Fowler a dayoff or as part of late inning double switches.
Ken Griffey Jr. was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, receiving 99.32% of the vote. He becomes the 51st player elected in their first year. His percentage of votes is the highest all-time. Mike Piazza was also elected in his fourth year on the ballot.
With three players (Maddux, Glavine, Thomas) elected in 2014 and four players (Johnson, Martinez, Smoltz, and Biggio) elected in 2015, this now makes a total of nine players elected in a three-year span. This is only the third time that has happened in history, following 1954-56 and 1936-38.
This year’s Hall of Fame ballot has 32 players total, including 15 newcomers, for voters to consider. Last year’s elections saw four worthy candidates elected—Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Craig Biggio—and only one new-comer—Ken Griffey Jr.—is likely to get elected this year. This election is thus a crucial one for down-ballot players, especially given the reduction in the number of years a player can remain on the ballot from 15 to 10 made in 2015.
The Cubs made flurry of moves at the recent Winter Meetings, including signing Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey and trading Starlin Castro to the Yankees for Adam Warren. The bulk of the roster is now set, and we can already take a look at the potential Opening Day roster and the battles for the few remaining slots on it.
Reports have indicated that the Cubs are toying with either a 16-9 or 15-10 position players to pitchers roster for the Wild Card game. Here's my quick take on the likely roster:
C: Miguel Montero
C: David Ross
1B: Anthony Rizzo
2B: Starlin Castro
IF: Javier Baez
IF: Tommy La Stella
SS: Addison Russell
3B: Kris Bryant
OF: Dexter Fowler
OF: Kyle Schwarber
OF: Chris Coghlan
OF: Jorge Soler
OF: Austin Jackson
OF: Chris Denorfia
OF: Quintin Berry
Jon Lester has already given up 30 stolen bases this year, eight more than his career high of 22 set in 2010. His inability to throw to first has been much maligned in the media and by fans. But how much does it matter? It turns out, not really that much. Sure, it would be better if Lester held runners closer and gave up fewer stolen bases, no one is arguing otherwise, but the facts demonstrate that the failure to contain the running game has had a negligible effect on Lester and the Cubs’ overall performance. Moreover, it appears that opposing teams are becoming too aggressive and running into outs—Lester already has more runners caught stealing (6) so far this year than all of last year (5).
The game-by-game breakdown below shows that only 5 runners the entire season who stole bases off Lester eventually scored. Most notably, Billy Hamilton has scored 3 times after stealing off Lester. But Hamilton, who leads the majors by a wide margin with 47 stolen bases already, tends to do that to everyone—and on one he stole 3B and would have scored from 2B on the following hit anyway. Charlie Blackmon, who is 4th in the majors with 27 steals, also scored following a stolen base in the game yesterday. Finally, Jason Heyward (15 stolen bases on the year) stole 2B to get himself into scoring position and later scored on July 6, though he should not have been on base anyway since he reached on an error. In other words, in 132.2 IP, Lester has given up just 4 earned runs that can be partially attributed to stolen bases—three to Hamilton and one to Blackmon, players who had a good chance of stealing those bases even if Lester were good at holding runners (and that counts the Hamilton steal of 3B where he would have scored from 2B anyway). Finally, of the 6 runners caught stealing, at least 4 likely cost the opposing teams runs, including Jimmy Rollins caught inexplicably trying to steal 3B with runners on 1st and 2nd to the end the 2nd inning on June 25th.
Overall, the effect of the running game on runs given up by Lester appears very normal. Jake Arrieta, for example, has given up 14 stolen bases on the year, including 3 in one game twice. And while I am not going to do a full breakdown of all of his games, runners who stole bases in both of those 3-stolen base games scored. Full game-by-game breakdown for Lester after the break.
The recent announcement that Edwin Jackson was DFAed finally ends the long saga of undoubtedly Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer’s worst acquisition for the Cubs. Jackson, signed to a 4-year/$52 million contract prior to the 2013 season, struggled mightily in 2013 and 2014 before being demoted to the bullpen. Overall, he finished with a 5.37 ERA in 347 innings with the Cubs. Yet Jackson isn’t the only player the front office should have passed on. Below I review the top “misses” since Epstein/Hoyer took over in late October 2011. I've listed them in chronological order rather than ranking them: feel free to weigh in on which you think is the worst or if there are any clunkers that I missed (I've tried to purge some recent players from memory, so omissions are possible).
After this weekend's Cardinals sweep of the Cubs, many fans have been wondering if this really is as much of a rivalry as the media makes it out to be. The perception seems to be that the fans are not as into it as they are other rivalries (perhaps White Sox, Royals), and that it has been a mostly one-sided match-up in recent years. While it is difficult to measure the first claim, we can examine the second. The table below shows the last 20 years of Cubs-Cardinals match-ups, including the head-to-head record for that year and each team’s overall winning percentage at the end of the season. Overall, the Cubs’ record vs. the Cardinals for the past 20 years has been 147-165, or a .471 winning percentage, which suggest the teams have played each other at much closer to parity than perceptions suggest. The Cubs have mostly held their own. This is even more impressive when looking at the season winning percentages. The Cardinals have had the better season record in 15 of the last 20 seasons, yet the Cubs have taken 9 of the head-to-head matchups. In several seasons (2005, 2006, and 2010) the Cubs far exceeded expectations: below-.500 Cubs teams dominated much better Cardinals teams on the season. These are small sample sizes and anything can happen in a short series, so we can’t take much away from this. But it should at least be clear that the Cardinals have had an advantage in the rivalry in recent decades but that is largely due to them fielding far superior teams, and that advantage hasn’t been as big as we might think.
The Cubs will play their 54th game tonight, which will put them at the one-third mark of the baseball season. I thought it would be interesting to see what each player’s full season stats would be if we project out based on these first two months. For most players, it was as simple as taking their current stats (as of yesterday prior to the game) and multiplying by three. But for players who started in the minors or were injured, I have taken that into consideration and examined the percentage of days they have been on the roster when making the calculations. For Soler, I removed three weeks’ worth of stats to account for his current injury. The normal caveats, of course, apply. Players can get injured at any time, fall into slumps, or get hot, and so these will most definitely not look the final lines for a lot of these players. But it should provide a quick sense of how good/bad of a season players are currently having.
Records after just 20 games should be taken with a grain of salt. The standard small sample size caveats apply, and particular matchups or hot/cold streaks can skew a team's win-loss record considerably. Still, it's better to be off to a good start than a bad one, and good teams tend to play at least decently across most 20-game stretches throughout the season. The Cubs are off to a hot 12-8 start that places them 4th in the NL and 7th in the majors by winning percentage. How does this compare to recent Cub teams? The table below shows the record for the first 20 games for all Cubs teams since 1980 and their corresponding final season records. As you can see, prior to this year, the Cubs have only been above .500 through their first 20 games in 10 of the past 35 seasons. Doing so is no guarantee of end-of-season success, but the team finished above .500 in 7 of those 10 seasons, making the playoffs in 4 of them. The other three seasons can seemingly be explained away. The 1985 Cubs were very much the same team that won the division title in 1984, but injuries to the pitching staff (Rick Sutcliffe, Steve Trout, Scott Sanderson, and Dennis Eckersley all spent time on the DL) hamstrung the squad. Similarly, the 2006 team started off well, but a Derrek Lee injury in late April started the team on a slide it couldn’t recover from, especially with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior out for most of the year. I can’t explain away 1980 as well, but the 11-9 start was probably a function of going 5-2 against the lowly Mets, who would finish 67-95 on the year. So, while there are no guarantees, there is a lot to like about the Cubs’ early season success in 2015 and a hot start certainly bodes well for the season as a whole.
You hear it every year. If a team is doing poorly in spring training, its general manager, manager, and players are likely to say: “Spring training games don’t count, we aren’t concerned with our record, guys are working on things, we are giving young players some looks” etc. They will also state clearly that spring training performance will have no bearing on the regular season, usually with some “throwing out/away” and “starting over” metaphor.
In contrast, if a team is doing well in spring training, you are likely to hear that they “like to win no matter what, everything is clicking and the team is playing well,” and of course that the “momentum will carry us into the regular season.”
The Cubs started 0-6-1 this spring training and still sit at just 6-9-1. During these early days Anthony Rizzo stated definitively: “It is Spring Training, yes. Does it matter if we lost? No.” Manager Joe Maddon walked a bit on the line, downplaying the record and emphasizing the type of play he was seeing (the good and the bad), but also hinting that winning mattered: “Of course it does,” Maddon said, “You always want to win.”
So does winning in spring training matter? I surveyed the field to see what we know, if anything, about the relationship between spring training and regular season performance.
The Cubs won 73 games last year, which was the most the team had won since 2010 and a respectable improvement on the 66 wins from 2013. But 73 is still a long way from the playoffs. It took 88 wins to make it last year and looking back the last 25 years that is almost always what it takes (other than about a dozen odd exceptions). Yet many pundits are giving the Cubs a strong chance of climbing all the way to the playoffs, and Cubs fans, of course, are hopeful of such a rise. So what does it look like when a team climbs from a win total in the low 70s one year to the high 80s the next? Is it about free agent acquisitions, recovery from injuries, or maturing young talent? Is there a typical path that teams take and are the Cubs on that path?
To answer these questions, I examined all playoff teams over the past 25 years (since 1990) and noted the number of wins they had the prior year. I excluded years 1994-1996 given the strike-shortened schedules that made comparisons difficult. Overall, there were 166 playoff teams in that span, and most were in the playoffs or had solid records the prior year (the average was 87 wins). There were, however, 41 teams that finished below .500 the year before. Of those, there were 16 teams that had 73 wins or less. This includes the Cubs three times. I touch on all 16 teams below to highlight some the paths teams have taken and conclude with thoughts on whether or not such a jump is realistic for the 2015 Cubs.
A lot of ink has been spilled the last few days remembering and honoring the late, great Ernie Banks. Besides being, by all acounts, a wonderful person and ambassador for the game, he was also undoubtedly one of the best baseball players ever, as his many accolades attest. First Ballot Hall of Famer. 14X All Star. Two-Time National League MVP. Gold Glove Winner. His appearances on the major career leaderboards further illustrate his legacy. More than 40 years after he retired he is still 22nd in Home Runs, 29th in RBI, 35th in Extra Base Hits, 34th in Total Bases, 14th in Intentional Walks. More advanced metrics paint an even stronger picture: Banks is in the top 100 all time in Runs Created, Win Probability Added, and MVP Shares, and Baseball Reference has him ranked as the 119th best player in baseball history and the 82nd best position player in history by WAR.
What makes all of this even more impressive is that Banks really had two careers. The first was as an elite short stop. The second, following a knee injury, was as an above average first baseman. While he continued to put up impressive counting stats and had a few good seasons after the switch, the vast majority of his career value occurred prior to the move. To illustrate, Banks accumulated 54.8 WAR through 1961 (his age 30 season) and then only 12.3 WAR over his remaining 10 seasons. His early peak was so good, if he had simply retired following the 1961 season he would still rank as the 146th best position player of all time--just between Enos Slaughter and Billy Herman, two Hall of Famers.
To more deeply examine just how talented Banks was in his prime, I examined his peak WAR at short stop historically. I followed the Baseball Reference definition of "peak" as a player's 7 best seasons--but I restricted it to a player's seven best season at short stop (a season in which they played more games at SS than any other position). The 7 seasons did not have to be consecutive, though in Banks' case they were. From 1954-1960 Banks was primarily a short stop and he accumulated 49.7 WAR. You can see in the table below how he stacks up historically. If you had to select a short stop and could select any player in history in the prime or peak of his career, Banks would certainly be a top five pick, behind only Wagner, A-Rod, Ripken, and Vaughan.
Accumulating 3,000 hits in a career used to be an automatic ticket to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and all eligible players in the modern era sailed in on the first ballot until Rafael Palmeiro in 2011. It was easy to disregard Palmeiro, however, given his suspension do to PEDs; yet Craig Biggio, with 3,060 hits in his career, also failed to get in on his first try, taking three years to finally overcome the 75% threshold. This suggests that the magic number of 3,000 has lost some of its allure. Yet there is no denying that the number still means something and the list of those with 3,000 hits is a who’s-who of baseball’s greatest and all eligible players expect Palmeiro are in the Hall of Fame. Derek Jeter, who just retired with 3,465 hits, will certainly gain entry on the first ballot when he becomes eligible.
Looking forward, who might be next in line for 3,000 hits?
Randy Johnson (97.3%), Pedro Martinez (91.1%), John Smoltz (82.9%), and Craig Biggio (82.7%) were all elected to the Hall of Fame today. Mike Piazza came up just a bit short with 69.9%.
This is the first time four players have been elected in one year since 1955 (Dimaggio, Lyons, Vance, and Hartnett) and only the third time ever, following 1947 (Hubbell, Frisch, Cochrane, Grove) and the inaugural 1936 class (Cobb, Ruth, Wagner, Mathewson, Johnson). Four were also elected in 1939, but Lou Gehrig was admitted on a special ballot, not the normal writer’s ballot.