Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The 2013 Cubs Reviewed

I reviewed the 2013 White Sox in my previous post to determine how a team that was little-changed from 2012 could have such a tremendous dropoff. I'm still not sure I understand how it happened other than a very general statement that when teams are filled with older players, it's very possible that all can hit the decline phase at the same time (see Yankees, New York, 2013 version). Just as everything can click in a championship season, everything can likewise go haywire for teams with older players whose younger talent hasn't performed to expectations.

The Cubs were the antithesis to the White Sox in almost all phases except final results:
I'll discuss each of these, some more than others, and since they're purely subjective guesses on my part, they're open to interpretation. In the end it doesn't matter much in that the team trajectories are about as different as they can be--the Sox were a team little changed from 2012 and the Cubs had very few players left from the 2012 roster, and rightly so.

This chart shows the primary Cubs pitchers from 2012 and 2013:
Click on the image and it should look clearer, but given some of the numbers, you might not want to. There were two pitchers of consequence in both years, Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood, and their trajectories couldn't be any more different. Wood was obtained in a trade with the Reds in which the Cubs gave up Sean Marshall that the Reds will live to regret for quite some time to come, especially after last night's Wild Card loss to the Pirates (0 IP, 1 ER, 20 pitches and the dreaded game ERA of INFINITE). Wood came into his own and proved himself to be a true #1 pitcher that teams can build rotations around. He improved dramatically in every pitching facet and added offense to boot, hitting 3 home runs, the first pitcher to have that many since 2010. Ideally the Cubs would sign a stud to be their true ace and Wood would be an extremely valuable #2.

And perhaps that's what they thought they were doing when they signed Edwin Jackson in the offseason. I didn't understand the signing--teams that are admittedly in transition don't typically sign pitchers to their 9th team for multi-year/quasi-big-money contracts (4 years, $52 million). I don't make it a habit to second-guess executives who lose more baseball knowledge when they shave than I ever had in my life, but this signing left me flummoxed. How did it work out?

Not well. It was bad enough that he induced me to create my own metric, the 2-out run, but Twitter follower Mike Praznowski (@PrazMaster) sent me the following tweet:

Not good--this link shows the answer, and it's a very short list. Somehow FanGraphs places his season value at $10.2 million in ways that are far beyond my comprehension. Since he's running out of teams to play for (i.e., teams that are unfamiliar with his actual results vs. intrigued by his potential) he may not have trade value, and since he'll only be 30 he could very well bounce back--if Wood can continue to perform, Jackson can be a very effective #3 pitcher IF he can go deep in a game and get it to James Russell. He wasn't very good at that in 2013, with less than 50% of starts being quality starts and very few of his losses due to lack of run support. He dug his own hole and needs to get out of it--fast.

Which leaves Jeff Samardzija and a huge decision for the Cubs going forward. He is under Cubs control through 2016 but this season is his first year of arbitration eligibility, and the multi-million dollar question will be, well, how many millions of dollars is he worth? FanGraphs pegs his value between $13-14 million for both 2012 and 2013, and there is definite value to a pitcher who can pitch 200+ innings. In addition, where the Cubs may have significant offensive help poised to make the roster as early as mid-2104, the pitching cupboard isn't exactly stocked. Since it's arbitration it's unlikely his contract will break the bank and the Cubs can take the next couple of years to see if he's worth big money. His numbers weren't bad--a decent number of quality starts, 5 games in which he pitched worthy of a win but didn't receive it, but he's not the second coming of Tom Seaver either. 

For rebuilding teams effective relief pitching is almost a luxury, and at the beginning of the year the Cubs proved that with Carlos Marmol pitching his way out of town, and not a moment too soon. James Russell showed himself to be an effective set-up man and was used almost exclusively in that role. Since he's only 27 he can be counted on to do that if the Cubs can return to excellence in the near future. Closing has proven to be a commodity that is easier to find than previously thought--this list shows the 2013 saves leaders. There are several I'd be more than happy to have--Craig Kimbrel, Greg Holland and I mentioned Addison Reed yesterday, but other than that, who on this list is a must-have? In addition, who (other than Mariano Rivera) makes big money, and more importantly, who is WORTH big money? The save as a metric is probably overvalued, but it provides an easy way to measure closer effectiveness (blown saves should be easier to find), but it's a simple fact that teams that enter the 9th inning with a lead win 95.1% of those games. Teams are quickly discovering that while this inning is important, GETTING THERE is just as important. That's how pitchers like Kevin Gregg, who had less-than-stellar results in his first go-round as a Cub are able to have effectiveness. Obviously if it was easy Carlos Marmol wouldn't have fallen apart as he did, but it's not impossible.

I've written enough that I'll devote this post to pitching and save offense and defense for the next. This is how Cubs pitching stacked up using Baseball-Reference metrics (I'll show the Sox as well to flesh out the comments I made regarding their pitching):
Starting pitching                          Cubs 9th        White Sox 10th (quality start percent)
Relief pitching                                     27th                            20th (save percent)
I can't over-emphasize enough that while relief pitching isn't falling off trees it's FAR easier to obtain than starting pitching and easily obtained in free agency at reasonable prices. For bad teams it's almost an afterthought but for competitive teams can be the difference between the playoffs and suffering through a Tim McCarver broadcast. The Cubs were second in the Major Leagues in blown saves with 26 and tied with the Padres and Marlins in dumb pitching (walks, balks, wild pitches or passed balls that allowed a run to score) with 34, but these are fixable and not all necessarily the fault of the pitcher. 

When Cubs and Sox pitchers are viewed side-by-side, there are two sets of questions. For the Cubs, it's a matter of development, for the Sox keeping them in one piece. Gavin Floyd can't be counted on going forward and is probably finished with the Sox anyway, and John Danks better still be hurt because his 2013 numbers were...NOT GOOD. Both starting staffs ranked near the bottom in run support (Cubs 27th, Sox 28th), issues completely beyond their control (except for Travis Wood) and I'll discuss the Cubs offensive woes in depth in my next post. Just like the Sox, it's just my opinion, but pitching, particularly starting pitching wasn't the Cubs undoing in 2013, and if baseball is entering a new era of pitching ascendancy, that's a GOOD thing--and one less thing for the next manager of the Cubs to address.

I'll finish with thoughts on the firing of Dale Sveum, with the most important caveat that these are my own and probably the least-informative you'll read on the subject--I'm an analyst, not a commentator. When this talk began around 3 weeks or so ago, I took a very simple view--if a team can improve in ANY manner by replacing personnel, why not view the manager in the same fashion? Around 2008 there was brief talk that the Chicago Bulls might be able to obtain Kobe Bryant from the Lakers but it would cost them Luol Deng. There were a significant number of people who thought this price was too high--they're called idiots. If the Cubs could obtain David Wright or Evan Longoria would anyone seriously say "But what about Luis Valbuena?" It's the same with Dale Sveum--there is a reasonable possibility that Joe Girardi may be available, a very competent manager with a team poised to fall apart, and even with that he had the Yankees in contention until the very end. If the Cubs can improve themselves at manager, why is this any different than at any other position?

In addition, I saw this tweet from Chicago Sun-Times Cubs beat reporter Gordon Wittenmyer:
That's a horse of a different color. No one denies there's been quite a bit of turnover on the Cubs roster and that they've been aiming for the 2015 season, but when personal issues become part of the equation all bets are off. To the credit of everyone involved these issues stayed very quiet, probably to the benefit of all parties, but apparently they were big enough issues to necessitate a change earlier than anyone intended. Will it be for the better? Who knows, I sure don't, but I certainly understand it.

Be sure to read the next post where I discuss Cubs offense and defense, because that's where the issues are, particularly for a team that plays in a hitter-friendly park like Wrigley Field. I'll also include comments on Wrigley renovations, new revenue streams and attendance, since they all play a role--stay tuned.

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