The Cubs aren’t playing well. Nobody is going to say anything different. It’s actually pretty obvious. And there is no question that is the single biggest contributing factor to their slow start, sitting just one game above .500 through 49 games. Some key offensive contributors haven’t produced like they’re capable. Jake Arrieta and John Lackey haven’t been anything resembling what we thought they would be when the Cubs took the field in Mesa in February. All of that is easy to see.
There is one truth that gets lost in the slow start that isn’t talked about too much. The Cubs have actually played a pretty tough schedule. And it’s not just about a team’s overall record. The way a team is playing when the Cubs get to them on the schedule is important, too. Over the first couple of months of the season, the Cubs haven’t really caught a break.
The Phillies and the Giants have the two worst records of any team the Cubs have played in the first two months. The Phillies are 17-31 as we sit right now, waiting for Memorial Day games to start. We all assume that the Cubs should take 3 of 4 from them at home, which they did. What we don’t talk about now is that the Phillies were 12-12 entering that series coming off of getting swept at the Dodgers (sound familiar? The Dodgers are awesome at home.). Before they went to LA, the fightin’ Phils had put together a nice little 7-2 stretch are rightfully should have been feeling pretty good about themselves. And they didn’t get their doors blown off in LA, either. Beating that team 3 out of 4 doesn’t look impressive now, but it was nice series against an upstart young team playing solid baseball at that time.
The Giants are the other poor record the Cubs have played. They won 7 out of 10 before coming to Chicago, though, after series wins on the road at St. Louis and at home against the Dodgers and Reds. It’s been rough for Bay Area baseball early on, highlighted by the Madison Bumgarner injury, but the Giants are still a good team who was playing well when they got to Wrigley Field last week. Winning 3 of those games was a solid series win against a team feeling good about itself.
Look up and down the rest of the Cubs’ schedule to this point. There are a lot of good records in there. The Rockies, Yankees, and Dodgers have 3 of the 5 best winning percentages in MLB in the early going. The Cubs have played them all…and they played them all in stretches where they were also playing well (because even good teams go through rough stretches). The Red Sox and Brewers are also in the top 10, and the Cubs have run into those teams, too. All together, that’s 23 games against the top 10 winning percentages in MLB, with 6 more coming against the 12th best (St. Louis). The Cubs are 9-14 in the games against the top 10 and 12-17 when the Cardinals are added. They’ve struggled. They haven’t played as well as they’ve needed to win games consistently against teams who are playing their best baseball.
To quantify just how tough it’s been on the Cubs early on, they have the 2nd hardest strength of schedule in MLB and the hardest in the National League. Their opponents have been 0.3 runs better than the average team, only exceeded by the Orioles at 0.4. They have essentially played good teams and teams playing well just about every day since the season started. And in MLB, the difference between a good team and a bad team isn’t all that big. The difference between a good team not playing well and a bad team playing well at the time is even smaller. Against the poor teams the Cubs have played, the margin of error has been small. But they’ve managed to do their job against teams with losing records, going 13-7 (.650). That’s all you can ask for. Against teams over .500, most of which were also playing well when the Cubs met them, the Cubs are 12-17. With the Cubs not playing their best baseball, the margin of error is gone against better competition and it’s shown in their overall record.
What does all of this mean? First and foremost, the schedule will normalize. They’ve played roughly 3/5 of their games against teams with winning records. The upcoming series against the Padres and a home series against the Marlins are a start of what should be a less hectic stretch of baseball, provided the Marlins don’t go on a run of excellent baseball this week (which they could, because baseball seasons are cyclical). In fact, until the Cubs travel to Washington on June 26th, the schedule does start to dial back. Only two home series against the Cardinals and Rockies stand between the Cubs and the Nationals against teams above .500 for the next 4 weeks. 7 games against the Marlins, 6 against the Padres, and 3 against the Mets are just what the struggling Cubs need right now. That’s not to say the Cubs can take their feet off the gas pedal and expect to pile up wins. That’d be a ridiculous assertion. But it does give them back some margin of error against teams who have not had the best of luck or result through May.
The other side of the coin is that the Cubs do need to play better. It would be a surprise if Anthony Rizzo didn’t start some positive regression to his career norms after a slow start. That .221 BABIP isn’t going to stay that way all season long. At the same time, it’s unlikely that Kyle Schwarber keeps a .177/.297/.348 slash line up all season. He’s too good a hitter to keep that up. Is he going to be an effective lead-off hitter? That remains to be seen. And the starting pitching needs to come back to a strong level. The 4.50 ERA and 4.15 FIP aren’t going to get it done, regardless of how good the defense behind it is. This really starts and ends with Jake Arrieta. He needs to look more like Cubs Jake Arrieta and less like Orioles Jake Arrieta. I’ve already discussed why that’s a distinct possibility. John Lackey would be nice to get right, but at this point in his career, he is who he is. He’s going to give up his share of solid contact and fly balls. He’s going to have the ball put in play. Sometimes, he’s going to have great outings like he did in Colorado (the 10 strike outs were a surprise, but a lot of easy outs). Sometimes, he’s going to have rough nights like he did against the Giants last week where conditions are unfavorable to a pitcher like him.
Early on, the results have not been what anyone expected. It would have been unreasonable to expect the Cubs to jump the field and win 80% of their games like they did last season. The slow starts by so many key players was also unexpected. With those slow starts and the difficulty of the schedule, though, the silver lining is that they haven’t dug themselves a hole. That really boils down to the Cubs are so talented that they can play like crap against strong competition and still be right in the thick of it. For most teams, this isn’t the case. They need to play better. They probably will play better. The schedule has been brutal through the first third of the season. It should get easier. Every single one of the 162 regular season games counts the same. And these Cubs are nothing if not battle tested. They came back to win 3 straight in the NLCS after getting shut out twice in a row to claim their first NL Pennant since 1945. And they won 3 straight after falling down 3-1 to a surging Indians team to claim their first championship since 1908. Pardon me when I refuse to believe some struggles in April and May are impossible to overcome.
As Joe Maddon says, “Go ahead and freak out.” There’s not really a reason to. There are 2/3 of a baseball season left with this team, probably staring positive regression and a softer schedule in the face.