Sports Talk Live Podcast: Have the Cubs turned the corner?

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Cubs starters have picked things up over the last six games, posting a 1.13 ERA in 39.2 innings with only two home runs allowed and an impressive ratio of 42 strikeouts to only six walks over that span. Cubs starters had a 6.52 ERA over the first 11 games.

The last two starts have been particularly impressive.

Tuesday – José Quintana: 7 IP, 6 Hits, 0 Runs, 0 Walks, 7 Strikeouts

Wednesday – Cole Hamels: 7 IP, 3 Hits, 0 Runs, 0 Walks, 8 Strikeouts

Prior to that, the last time the Cubs had a lefty starter toss seven scoreless innings in consecutive games was 1935, when Roy Henshaw tossed a 9-inning CG on June 28 and Larry French tossed a 12-inning CG in game 1 of a doubleheader on June 29.

But if you add in the element of not issuing a walk, you have to go back even farther.

It was the first time Cubs had a starting pitcher (lefty OR righty) pitch 7+ scoreless innings with no walks in consecutive games.. since they were defending World Series champions in 1909!

It was Ed Reulbach on July 31, then Hall of Famer Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown on August 1 (game 1 of doubleheader).

And what about the hitting?

What’s clear is this: any success they have had is not because of Rizzo & Bryant.

It’s tempting to use the phrase “supporting cast” but I think that’s selling short the man who finished 2nd in NL MVP voting. In any event, look what the Cubs not named Rizzo or Bryant have accomplished this season (excluding pitchers):

Rizzo & Bryant:                                      .189/.318/.331, 4 Home Runs

Everyone else (excluding pitchers):       .303/.381/.509, 22 Home Runs

Of course there are two ways to interpret this. One is “Just wait until Rizzo & Bryant heat up.” The other is “By the time Rizzo & Bryant heat up, the rest of the pack will cool down a bit.” Both are reasonable. But it’s still encouraging to see Contreras show that 2018 was a fluke as well Báez show that 2018 wasn’t a fluke. So far, at least. And then there’s Jason Heyward.

The same Jason Heyward who’s one of seven players in the Majors this season (entering Thursday) with at least 4 home runs and more walks than strikeouts. His launch angle has jumped from 9.4° in 2018 to 15.2° so far this season, as has his average exit velocity (from 88.1 to 90.5). Sure it’s early, but it’s progress.

But back to Báez & Contreras. They are tied for the team lead with 6 home runs apiece. It may come as a shock (it certainly surprised me) that it’s the first time the Cubs have had two players with at least six home runs through the team’s first 17 games of a season since 1958, when right fielder Lee Walls had nine and Ernie Banks had six.

Last season, Contreras didn’t hit his sixth home run of the season until June 27 and he finished with ten. So far this season he’s hitting a robust .319/.458/.766 and looks like a force at the plate. With the catcher position fairly thin in today’s game, the Cubs have a special player in Willson.

As for Báez, he defies logic at the plate. He has the 4th highest swinging strike percentage (19.6%), the fifth highest percentage of pitches swung at (57.1%) and the third highest percentage of swings at pitches outside the zone (46.6%), yet still here he is with very similar numbers through 17 games as he had last season, even if the strikeout to walk ratio has taken a dip.

2018: .290/.371/.742, 6 HR, 20 RBI, 6 BB (4 IBB), 14 K

2019: .324/.351/.635, 6 HR, 16 RBI, 3 BB (0 IBB), 24 K

His numbers do a weak job at describing what he does at the plate. He has 3, 3, 3 and 2 hits in his last four games, and you need to see where he makes contact to truly understand.

Overall, the Cubs stand at 8-9; 4th in the NL Central. But their +18 run differential ranks 2nd in the National League; first in the NL Central (the Brewers have the worst run differential in the division at -2). They’re 7-3 since starting the season 1-6. Despite the awful start by the pitching, the team ERA stands at 4.55 entering Thursday; which is just a touch above National League average (4.40). They are one of three teams in the NL to average 6 runs a game, and their team on-base percentage of .357 is 3rd in the NL. Even with the cornerstones of the team off to a terrible start.

It’s a season of ups and downs – especially in the early weeks of the season – but things are starting to settle, and there’s reason for optimism on the North Side.

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