The Chicago Cubs are perhaps the hottest team in baseball entering June. The Cubs head into their series with the San Francisco Giants winning nine of their last ten games, including a sweep of the MLB’s darling San Diego Padres.
The Padres are darlings for good reason. They went for it this offseason, acquiring star pitchers Blake Snell and Yu Darvish, as well as returning an already loaded roster with names like Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer, and others. However, despite all the firepower, the Cubs still took care of business and swept them.
Same goes for the Dodgers. The Cubs had their way against the reigning champions by defeating three of their best pitchers in Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Bauer, and Walker Buehler. However, why are the Cubs still disrespected around Major League Baseball?
Entering the 2021 season, the Cubs were predicted to finish anywhere between second and fourth in the NL Central by a variety of media outlets. After trading Yu Darvish this offseason, as well as letting household names Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber walk, people believed this team was destined for a brutal 2021 season.
However, the team spent money sparingly, adding pieces such as Jake Marisnick, Joc Pederson, Jake Arrieta, and Zach Davies, among others, to the core already in place. You know what’s really crazy? It’s working.
The numbers support the notion that the Cubs should command some respect from around the league. Let’s dive into the metrics.
Offensively, the Cubs are playing at a solid level. A +38 run differential along with an MVP-caliber season from Kris Bryant is carrying the offense to this point.
As mentioned, Kris Bryant is playing like an MVP, something Cubs fans witnessed firsthand in 2016. As of June 3, Kris Bryant is slashing .317/.398/.598 with 12 home runs and 36 RBIs. In addition, Bryant has 15 doubles, a triple, and 36 runs scored already this season. He is getting the job done in every category.
The rest of the offense has very much been by committee. Nico Hoerner is batting .338 on the season. Unfortunately, he has only played 21 games due to injury and a demotion at the beginning of the season. Javier Baez is batting .255 but has 14 home runs and 38 RBIs, which is best on the team. It also feels like Anthony Rizzo is beginning to heat up after recording two hits in the final two games of the Padres series.
As a team, the Cubs hover within the top 12 of just about every major category. The Cubs are tied for eighth in home runs hit, tied for tenth in RBIs, 11th in walks, fifth in stolen bases, ninth in batting average, and sixth in on-base percentage. The Cubs are also among the top of the league in barreled balls and barrel percentage, showing they are making solid contact.
The Cubs may not jump off the page offensively, but they are consistently among the top 12 in almost every noteworthy category. That type of production, especially considering all the injuries they’ve suffered, is impressive and good enough to keep them among the best teams in baseball.
Perhaps the biggest question mark entering the 2021 season, the Cubs’ starting pitching, has been good enough to ensure this team is able to win games. Despite the aura surrounding the starting staff and the numbers supporting it, Cubs starters are doing a few things very well.
Although the staff is among the worst in both K/9 and HR/9, they rank seventh in left on base percentage (LOB%), and 13th-lowest in BB/9. In other words, they aren’t letting a ton of free base runners on and are leaving guys on when they allow hits or walks. It’s not elite, but it’s enough to keep them in games.
Despite the staff numbers not being overly impressive, there are plenty of positives to pull from the starting rotation right now. Adbert Alzolay is beginning to blossom, Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies appear to be settling in, Jake Arrieta is consistent enough to keep the Cubs in games, and the fill-ins have continued to impress, including players such as Kohl Stewart and Keegan Thompson.
However, the real strength of the team is the pitchers sitting under the left field bleachers during home games.
The crown jewel of the Cubs is their bullpen. The bullpen has picked up right where they left off in the shortened 2020 season. Headlined by elite closer Craig Kimbrel, the Cubs pen features the likes of Andrew Chafin, Ryan Tepera, Dan Winkler, Tommy Nance, Dillon Maples, Rex Brothers, Keegan Thompson, Justin Steele, and others. It’s a crew full of lesser-known names, but the group is continuing to dominate opposing teams in the sixth inning and later.
The Cubs’ pen has pitched 214.2 innings, sixth-most in the majors. They also rank first in K/9, third in LOB%, second in ground ball percentage, and second in ERA. Add in their second-best 2.8 WAR and you have a bullpen built to win games. If the bullpen can continue at such a pace, they’ll be in a great position for a potential deep postseason run.
What may be the most impressive element of the bullpen is their ability to get dominant production with just about any pitcher. When the team has suffered injuries to the pen this season, other players have either been called up or required to step into larger roles. Even in those situations, the Cubs’ pen continues to shine and hold opposing teams to minimal levels of production.
Respect the Cubs
Overall, the message is simple, respect this Chicago Cubs team. They have a strong offense, a starting rotation that is turning the corner, and a bullpen that is among the best in all of baseball. In addition to that, they are 6-0 against two of the best teams in the league. They take on another dominant force in San Francisco, so this upcoming west coast swing will be a huge test for the Cubs.
If this team continues to play good baseball now that summer is arriving in Chicago, the Cubs could be a force to be reckoned with come October.