Well well, we made it! As the Cubs go from a limp to a surge into the All-Star Break, they find themselves in sole possession of first place at least through next weekend with a surprisingly comfortable 2.5 game NL Central lead after the Milwaukee Brewers took a massive dump in Pittsburgh. In fact, the Cubs are currently the best team in the National League, and have the fifth-best record in MLB, behind four American League juggernauts that have surged ahead of the rest of mediocrity.
You wouldn’t have known it even a couple weeks ago, when Cubs fans were pulling their own version of Kato Kaelin in freaking out about the fact that the Cubs were not 15 games ahead in the division. Now, checking the FanGraphs playoff odds, the Cubs are projected to earn a league-best 94 wins, and have a 97.1% chance of making the playoffs with 89.2% chance to win the division. This is better than everyone but the four best AL teams, and while the World Series odds favor other teams, you have to feel good about their chances once they get into the postseason.
So then, you look at the league leaderboards, and it is a surprise (but not really) that the Cubs are leading the majors in position player wins above replacement (WAR). This is better than even the Yankees, who are bashing home runs at an alarming rate, but I think the Cubs are fueled by a world-class defense, often highlighted by Javier Baez, as well as a solid offensive approach that has allowed them to a league best wOBA of .332 while tying with the Dodgers for wRC+ at 106. That’s right, even with all the strikeouts and bad hitting with runners in scoring position (spoiler: it’s not that bad), the Cubs still have a very good offense! They have even scored the most runs in the NL despite fans freaking out about the occasional shutout.
On the other hand, even with Jon Lester earning an All-Star nod, there are some issues with the pitching that may be of concern as the starters have yet to fully find their groove while the bullpen has been holding down the fort. As a result, the Cubs are lagging in the bottom third of the league in pitcher WAR. In between all the walks (help us Jim Hickey, you’re our only hope), inopportune home runs, and short outings as Joe Maddon tries to juggle pitcher workloads for the marathon, it has sometimes been painful to watch the pitching. But the confidence in the defense and bullpen has been sustained, and if the starters figure themselves out, with a healthy and effective Yu Darvish returning at some point (we hope) and Tyler Chatwood learning how to throw strikes again, the Cubs could become a top pitching staff by the end of the year.
The 2018 version of the Cubs has been better at the All-Star Break than the previous season, and almost on pace with the 2016 World Series champions (remember that?) despite more injuries and inconsistency at points through the year so far. One could argue that the Cubs have been unlucky, about three wins worse than their expected record, but some of that is due to their sub-.500 record in one-run games. The schedule has been occasionally cruel to the Cubs, with weather washing out a few games plus the always difficult West Coast swing, but it is good to see that they have winning records both at home and on the road, and have winning records against most of the teams they have played. It is annoying to note that the Cubs still have losing records against the Reds and the Cardinals, but that will likely change by the end of the season. Along with their All-Stars not exactly getting a break, and the early return with the only Thursday night game against the Cardinals after the All-Star Game, the Cubs get a short turnaround before blasting through a slate of games before their next scheduled off day just before the trade deadline. So perhaps they will look for more pitching help and determine an extra starter to weather that rough stretch.
In the individual players arena, it is a pleasant surprise to see Javier Baez at the top of the Cubs leaderboard in OPS+, home runs and RBI (if you like the traditional stats), and even WAR. Javy has been a literal magician on the bases, with the bat, and on defense. It is not a stretch to suggest that he should be in the MVP conversation by year’s end. Even the slumping Anthony Rizzo is just slightly below average per OPS+, so the offensive core is firing the way it was designed. Consider what we might see if Rizzo finds his hitting form again.
For the pitchers, Jon Lester is the WAR leader followed by super-reliever Steve Cishek and closer Brandon Morrow. And despite being used seemingly every other day, Cishek has only pitched 43.0 innings and doesn’t seem any worse for it. The bullpen is appropriately represented in the pitcher WAR leaderboard, as they are usually the reason why the Cubs can extend games and come from behind to win.
The Cubs are obviously in very good shape yet again to make the postseason as long as they take care of business with their current pace. But if any of the expected stars find their groove again, the sky is the limit. Now, let’s see if the weather holds for the Home Run Derby…