If you were to say that the Cubs just haven’t looked the same this year, I would agree with you. Such a statement speaks to the proverbial ‘eyeball test’ but is also supported by facts. It took a 6-game winning streak coming out of the All-Star break to get them to where they are now, just 7 games over .500 and only now taking over first place for the first time since early-May.
At this point last season, they were 20 games over .500 with a +153 run differential and a 6.5 game lead in the division.
However, to judge the 2017 Cubs only in comparison to the 2016 Cubs would be to judge them in a vacuum, and unfortunately for the other playoff-bound teams in the National League, the Cubs don’t play inside of a historical vacuum…they play in the Central.
The NL Central, where the four other teams collectively have watched Chicago play right around .500 all season and never fall even as many as 5 full games out of first place.
All year we’ve been asked what’s wrong with the Cubs? We’ve heard the breakdowns of their disappointing year—they aren’t getting on base as much, aren’t getting the same dominance from their starting rotation, and they’ve yet to really get hot for an extended period.
Their pitchers are too old.
They don’t have Aroldis Chapman.
Kris Bryant wasn’t even an All-Star.
Kyle Schwarber is hitting .180.
Some of their pitchers are too old, but one of them is named Jon Lester. And adding Jose Quintana (via trade) and Kyle Hendricks (via a return from the DL) means that two of their best pitchers are pitching in their prime.
They let Chapman walk back to the Yankees, and they could care less if the door hit his ass on the way out because they replaced him with Wade Davis, who’s been better than Chapman for three seasons straight and as this season has progressed is getting better and better.
Their offense has been inconsistent and the Cubs have actually been shut-out 7 times. They miss Dexter Fowler, who in classic underrated fashion has only able to truly demonstrate his worth by not being there anymore.
They cannot replace the quality at-bats Fowler provided almost every time he stepped into the box last year, but they still have hitters named Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, and Russell, all of whom still inspire fear and some of whom who are starting to rake (*ahem* Rizzo *ahem*).
They are 16-12 in games decided by one run, which indicates that whatever deficiencies they’ve exhibited, their batters and pitchers have responded well to pressure and have also played good situational baseball, both of which are encouraging measures going into August and September.
Even with their mediocre first-half, the Cubs lead the NL Central, and there’s no reason to think they’ll have to look back. They’ve won 10 of 12 since returning from the All-Star break, and as the season heads into August consider this—as a manager, Joe Maddon has a career record of 153-98 in August, including 41-15 in his two seasons in Chicago.
The LA Dodgers are 40 games over .500 and will face exactly zero challenges in running away with the West. The Washington Nationals may have to face down a surge from Atlanta but will likely win the East without much drama.
These two teams are the favorites to square off for the NL Pennant, but each should be concerned about remaining sharp with such an easy road ahead, and should beware of drifting to sleep at the wheel as the postseason nears.
If there were a highway sign it would warn them—Do Not Sleep on the Cubs.
At no point since before the season have the Cubs been considered a favorite in the National League. Now that they are finally back in first place, maybe it’s time.
With so much focus on all that’s going so differently from their dream 2016 season, it can be hard to see some of the things that remain the same.