The first half of the 2018 Cubs season felt like a rollercoaster. They spent most of it in second place looking up at the Brewers (except for those two weird days in April when the Pirates were in first place – remember that?), and that has made things seem a lot like 2017 to me.
And yet here they are, in first, with the best record in the N.L.
After watching them play runner-up until July, I wouldn’t blame you for worrying that their position is a bit tenuous.The reality, though, is that if all goes according to plan in this crazy game, it’s not tenuous at all.
In fact, there are plenty of reasons to think the Cubs will be even better from here through September – and beyond.
Here are three:
Second-half Kyle Hendricks and the return of Yu Darvish
If you got worried about Kyle Hendricks in June, I understand. He put up a disturbing 7.03 ERA (with a FIP of 6.31 to go along with it) while walking 13.6% of the batters he faced – more than double his career mark of 6.1%. But like before, I’m scaring you with this because the reality is a lot more reassuring:
Kyle Hendricks dominates in the second half.
In his career, he rocks a 3.52 ERA in the first half, which is plenty respectable. But post All-Star Break? That dwindles to 2.61 – almost a full run lower.
And it’s not like he’s getting lucky – his second-half 3.20 FIP and 3.39 xFIP are reasonably close, and he’s always outpitched his peripherals just because of his style of pitching.
Oh, and all those home runs he’s been giving up? Well, those numbers are likely to improve, too, as Hendricks has given up just 0.7 HR/9 (that’s home runs per nine innings) compared to 1.1 HR/9 in the first half.
That’s one big piece of the rotation who should step it up – and Yu Darvish is a big piece who will step in.
Darvish has missed about a month and a half due to a nebulous injury, but assuming he is indeed feeling better, he’ll be back in action pretty soon.
That’s great news.
I know, I know – his first few starts weren’t very inspiring. But he only made 8 of them, and his other 131 career starts don’t lie: Darvish is really good at throwing baseballs, sporting a career FIP of 3.38 and an otherworldly K/9 of 11.04.
And if you’re still (somehow) not convinced that his return to the rotation will make the Cubs even better, let me say these two words as a counterpoint: Tyler Chatwood.
Less of him, more Darvish and vintage Hendricks makes the Cubs’ rotation a lot scarier.
Bryzzo has barely contributed
Part of the first-half consternation has stemmed from the relatively quiet bats of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo – Bryzzo, in other words.
Bryant’s power numbers have been lower, and while he’s still putting the bat on the ball, he’s also missed 23 games – despite taking the field 151 times last season. Rizzo, on the other hand, has been a total mystery. He had the worst month of his entire career in April, hitting .139 with a wRC+ of just 31. (FanGraphs has a good explanation of what this metric means here, if you like.)
While his May was excellent, he seemed to fall off the wagon again leading up to the All-Star Break, and on the year – his fWAR sits at just 0.7 – tied with David Bote, who has just 53 PA to Rizzo’s 372.
Meanwhile, Javy Báez leads the team in WAR, Jason Heyward seems to have remembered how to hit, and Kyle Schwarber has mashed (and somehow gloved) his way to a great start.
In other words, while the two faces of the team wouldn’t even lead the team in fWAR if you put them together, things look tantalizingly good.
Because it’s only a matter of time before Bryzzo starts mashing long ball souvenirs again – which can only mean good things for the team that already leads the NL in runs scored despite having played the fewest games.
Maddon’s Cubs tear it up post-ASB
There’s one more X-factor making me excited for the second half: Joe Maddon.
The Cubs leaped out to a 55-38 (.591) start this year, which is just a hair shy of their impressive mark of 53-35 (.602) in the first half of 2016 (which, you know, was a pretty good year).
Yet, that’s nothing compared to the unreal 149-73 (.671) mark the Cubs hold in the second half when you combine the 2015-2017 seasons.
If that trend continues, we’re looking at another 100-plus-win season for the Northsiders.
And while Maddon has (bizarrely) been questioned for his propensity to rest players early in the season, the results speak for themselves: as other teams are wearing thin, the Cubs are hitting their stride.
And there are a lot of reasons to think 2018 won’t be any different.