CHICAGO -- It happens every April.
Is what you’re seeing on the baseball diamond indicative of what’s to come for the entire season, or will it be erased -- good or bad -- by the next five months? New York Mets fans are hoping the first month sets up the rest of the year, while the Chicago Cubs are just hoping to escape April without trailing by too many games.
Some slow starts are more understandable than others. A year ago at this time, no one blinked when the Cubs basically went through the first month a .500 team, finishing at 13-11. In fact, it was viewed as a success, considering the team was coming off its historic World Series victory and essentially used April as another month of spring training.
This year? The slow start makes a bit less sense.
At 7-7, they were to take the field Sunday against the Atlanta Braves trying to win their second series of the season (the game was postponed; it will be made up May 14). Considering the Cubs had about as “smooth” a spring camp as one could imagine -- while stressing that the hunger for a championship had returned, and speaking loudly about getting off to a fast start -- the play on the field hasn’t exactly followed the game plan.
Then again, they just came back from an eight-run deficit Saturday, in the worst possible weather conditions, so it’s not as though the Cubs are rolling over and playing dead.
Good teams -- even World Series contenders -- get off to uneven starts all the time, particularly those who know they're good. But sometimes those bad beginnings continue, and if the Cubs finish any worse than two games over .500 in April, it’ll be their worst start since Joe Maddon took over in 2015. Again, it’s particularly noteworthy because this team was convinced it was ready for 2018 after the hangover of ’17. So it’s in that vein we play the "I know it’s early, but" game. What has meaning, if anything? Let’s take a look.
I know it’s early, but the Cubs are showing the same propensity they did last season: to score a lot of runs in a given game and then shut it down for a day or two.
After plating 10 in a game in Miami, they were shut out the next two nights. After scoring 13 against Pittsburgh on Wednesday, they scored a total of one over the next two games. What will Sunday bring after their dramatic, 14-run victory over the Braves on Saturday? It was a weirdly consistent trend last year, and it has continued into this one. It didn’t happen all the time, but enough that even Maddon recognized it.
“We have to do better clumping runs together,” he said earlier this week. “We will.”
I know it’s early, but the overall offensive struggles -- and successes -- of last season have continued.
While the Cubs have tons of firepower, they once again haven't showed the ability to drive in runs at the most opportune times. They changed hitting coaches in hopes of getting better in just these situations; so far, not much has improved.
Going into the weekend, the Cubs were driving in runners from third with fewer than two out 23 percent of the time, by far the worst in baseball. Last season, they improved a little down the stretch in this category, finishing out of the cellar by a couple of percentage points. And with a man on second and no outs this season, they’re not much better, tied for 25th at getting him over to third -- successful just 38 percent of the time.
It’s mind-boggling a team that can rake as much as the Cubs can’t hit a fly ball when needed. According to Statcast research, the Cubs average an exit velocity of 77.9 mph on balls hit with a man on third and fewer than two out, last in baseball. Overall, they rank in the middle velocity-wise, at 88.3 mph. Stick a man on third and Chicago's bats go soft.
But as they demonstrated Saturday, the Cubs will still take their walks and, of course, hit their home runs. And what they lack when men are on third base with fewer than two out, they make up for when there are two out in an inning. For example, they rank third in on-base percentage with runners on and two out.
I know it’s early, but once again the Cubs have leadoff issues. They rank in the bottom third in on-base percentage from the No. 1 spot in the order and are second in baseball (first in the National League) in strikeouts from their leadoff men. That’s about the same as last season, when they ranked 18th in OBP and third in the NL in strikeouts.
I know it’s early, but Yu Darvish is showing some of the bad attributes that arrived with his résumé. Seemingly, if things are not going perfectly for him, he can’t overcome the adversity. Some slight humidity in Miami in his Cubs debut apparently helped lead to a short outing there. In his home debut Friday, it was a questionable call that admittedly threw his game off. He couldn’t overcome a simple balk, which sent a man from second to third base in a scoreless game. That’s bad.
“The first four innings up until [Freddie] Freeman, that was great,” Darvish said through an interpreter after the game. “But after the balk, I was thrown off guard. It went downhill from there.”
Maddon added: “Obviously, everything went south after the balk. ... It seemed to create a little bit of awkwardness, because he was doing really well to that point. Really well.”
Darvish couldn’t get out of the inning, eventually walking the pitcher for a miserable finish to his outing. Darvish's stuff is so good, he’ll bounce back with many great outings. But are those enough to offset the ones that go off the rails over so little? Keeping a critical eye on the right-hander would be prudent.
I know it’s early, but we can point to a few other carry-over trends from 2017, including periodic meltdowns by reliever Justin Wilson to Maddon’s reluctance -- until Saturday -- to move Javier Baez up in the lineup.
Of course, not everything is the same. The Cubs are playing without Anthony Rizzo because of a back injury, and Schwarber has looked better. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Schwarber has three opposite-field, ground-ball base hits already after compiling four all of last season. That can only help.
I know it’s early, but it feels like some of the teams that were rebuilding are starting to “ascend,” as Maddon said last week. As such, the Cubs know they can’t take anyone lightly anymore, if they ever did. Now they just have to go out and prove they aren’t doing so -- and break the trends that hurt them in 2017 while strengthening the ones that helped.