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Chicago Cubs fans know angst.
Even after watching their team end the most infamous title drought in professional sports, the North Side faithful have deep reserves of nervous discontent. They buried the damn billy goat, but he could come bleating back like the killer in a bad slasher flick.
OK, that’s over-dramatic. Here’s a fact, though: Slightly more than one-fifth of the way into the 2017 MLB season, the Cubs sit at 18-19.
A team that won 103 games and hoisted a commissioner’s trophy in 2016 is under .500 and looking up at the rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds, not to mention the arch-rival St. Louis Cardinals, in the National League Central.
It’s early, to apply the obligatory caveat. At the same time, we’ve seen enough baseball to move out of the small-sample woods and into the eyebrow-raising phase.
What’s going on? What’s the biggest culprit behind Chicago’s sluggish start?
As with any good mystery, there are multiple suspects.
After checking in as the best defensive squad in baseball last season, the Cubs rank 14th entering play Tuesday. Outfielder Kyle Schwarber stands out in a bad way with minus-5 defensive runs saved.
The offense ranks 13th in runs scored (172) and 22nd in OPS (.715). Shortstop Addison Russell is hitting .226, first baseman Anthony Rizzo is hitting .213 and Schwarber is hitting .179, failing to offset his leather-based shortcomings.
No Cubs hitter is in double figures in home runs and no one has reached 20 RBI. They’re also regressing into their whiffing ways. Chicago paced baseball in strikeouts in 2015 but fell to ninth last season. Now, they’re back up to seventh.
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Those are red flags. The Cubbies’ biggest weakness, however, has been the starting pitching.
Cubs starters own a 4.47 ERA, “good” for 20th in baseball.
Jake Arrieta’s 5.44 ERA is the ugliest among Chicago’s core hurlers, despite the fact he’s toiling in a pivotal contract year.
However, as Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post noted, “The top four members of their vaunted 2016 rotation—Jon Lester, [Arrieta], John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks—have all regressed, with gains in ERA ranging from around one run, in the case of Lester, to around [2.5] runs, in the case of Arrieta. All have seen their WHIPs rise accordingly, as well.”
Manager Joe Maddon explained the importance of pitching to reporters:
Starting pitching drives the engine. When you’re doing that right, everything else has a better opportunity or chance. Your defense gets better. Contact is not as hard. Hitters don’t have to battle from behind all the time. There’s more pressure on the other side. All those things are interconnected. So as we pitch better, we’ll play better.
Let’s pause for a moment and remember: This club is loaded with talent. They’ve got depth all over the diamond. They’ve got NL MVP Kris Bryant, who’s been battling an illness but is expected back Tuesday, per MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat (h/t CBSSports.com).
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Yet, we’ve seen enough struggles for the “championship hangover” chatter to gain credence. Maddon himself suggested his team might be tuckered out.
“I sense sleep deprivation more than anything,” the Cubs skipper said May 10, per ESPN.com’s Jesse Rogers. “Sleep deprivation has a lot to do with it. Right from the beginning of the year our schedule has been awkward. No one has had a chance to settle in.”
That sounds like a cop out. Every team can point to scheduling quirks. The Cubs have endured two consecutive deep postseason sprints, though. Perhaps they are plumb tired.
Maybe everything broke right in 2016 and the interest is coming due. Or maybe it’s mid-May, and the cream will again rise to the top. FanGraphs is projecting a division win for the Cubs, albeit at a modest 89-73 finish.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to panic,” Arrieta told reporters Sunday after a 5-0 loss to St. Louis. “The talent we have here will correct itself and start to turn itself around. We’d like to win a few more games than we are and tighten things up a little bit, but guys are showing up ready to play and going about things the right way.”
Those are the right words. Arrieta, though, is part of the Cubs’ biggest problem, among several. At a certain point soon, his results need to match the rhetoric. Ditto the rest of the roster.
Otherwise, the familiar angst will set in. And, long-awaited championship trophies aside, it’ll be justified.
All statistics current as of Monday and courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.