Chicago Cubs: Early Returns on the 2012 Season

Starlin Castro is starting hot and showing speed on the basepaths, but his defense needs work; Jeff Samardzija looks like he’s for real this time; Bryan LaHair is raking; and Paul Maholm isn’t as bad as his 13.50 ERA.

Wrigley Field

 

I’m going to my first game of the season tonight, so I’ve got baseball on the brain. Some notes on how this uneagerly awaited season has begun (all caveats about small sample size over one-sixteenth of the season apply). Right now the top stories in the Trib’s Cubs vertical are about Carlos Zambrano, Ozzie Guillen, and fantasy baseball, but there are semi-interesting things going on with this 3-7 team:

* Starlin Castro is the best baseball player in Chicago right now. Dropped into the third slot in the batting order by Dale Sveum despite his lack of power, he’s leading the team in hits and RBIs, and is second in baseball to the impossibly fast Dee Gordon in steals with six (and hasn’t been thrown out yet).

* On the other hand, he has four errors in 10 games, out of only 37 total chances. Fellow shortstops Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Reyes also have four errors, but each has more than 50 total chances. The only other player with four errors and fewer total chances than Castro is the Giants’ pudgy third baseman, Pablo Sandoval, who is nicknamed Big Panda and, you may infer, is not known for his fielding.

* David DeJesus is doing exactly what he was hired to do, leading off and doing an excellent job of getting on base for Castro, with a .432 on-base percentage and a 6/7 strikeouts-to-walk ratio. Epstein, who tried to get DeJesus when he was running the Red Sox, was banking on DeJesus returning to form after an injury-riddled 2011, and he’s doing so in the first ten games.

* Alfonso Soriano remains overpaid, but as I’ve pointed out before, he was tremendously unlucky last year, or at least that’s what his BABIP (batting average on balls in play, a good proxy for luck) suggested. Now he’s hitting .313 with an (unsustainable) .400 BABIP. And he’s got two walks in nine games, a better pace than his 27 in 137 games last year. Less encouraging: all his hits have been singles.

* The Cubs have five home runs. If the Cubs were a player, they would be tied with Chris Young for second in the National League.

* The nerds are excited about Jeff Samardzija, whose name I can finally spell without looking up, which must mean he’s destined to stick around. For instance, “Jeff Samardzija Is the Real Deal”:

Now we can clearly see why the Chicago Cubs scouts have loved Samardzija for so long — he throws really hard and has some obliterating pitches (two obliterators, to be precise, one good-enough-er, and one uh-that’s-enougher). But we need to see some actual positive signs before we crown him a capable starter. Well, look no further than the past year.

[snip]

That does not mean good Spring Training numbers for F7 automatically make him a starter. But he didn’t have good ST numbers. He had phenomenal ST numbers. With 16 K and 1 BB, F7 led the MLB with a 16.0 K/BB ratio in his 20 innings.

Sure enough, Samardzija has pitched 13 innings over two games, walked one, and struck out 13. It’s wise to be cautious of spring training numbers, but Mike Podhorzer argues that strikeout rate and walk rate during the spring are actually predictive, and picked Samardzija to improve his control this season.

* Ryan Dempster is the new Carlos Zambrano: an expensive but reliable innings-eater with a high K/9 rate, who’s aging and might be in decline (fortunately, they do have quite different personalities). Last year, Podhorzer noticed that Dempster’s swinging strike rate and velocity were in decline. And over his first two games, Dempster’s fastball is slower than it was last year.

* Carlos Marmol was great in 2010 (38 saves, five blown saves, 16 K/9), not so much in 2011 (34 saves, ten blown saves, 12 K/9). The velocity on his fastball also fell, from a career high of 94.1 MPH to a career low of 91.8 MPH. It’s a tick up from that this season, but bears watching. Tom Verducci, looking at the tendency of closers to wash out quickly, argues that the entire idea needs to be reconsidered:

Clubs can find closers; it’s keeping them in the job that is the tough part. Over the previous five seasons, 53 closers saved 25 games at least once. Thirty-three of them, or 62 percent, no longer are closing. Only five pitchers saved 25 games three times in the past five years and are still closing: Jose Valverde, Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell and Joe Nathan (with the latter two off to shaky starts). Mostly, closers just come and go, or they break down and virtually disappear (Zumaya, B.J. Ryan, David Aardsma, Brandon Lyon, Kerry Wood, Bobby Jenks, etc.).

If Marmol pulls it together, he can join that elite club, but it’s been rough so far this season.

* Bryan LaHair is raking—the eternal farmhand has the best OPS on the team, and it’s always nice to see a typecast four-A player promising to break through.

* Paul Maholm is not as bad as his 13.50 ERA: in particular, 20 percent of his fly balls won’t be home runs and 50 percent of the contact made against him won’t be fly balls, if his career lines are any indication. He should be able to shave a good eight or nine points off that ERA, making him what he is: “every team has to play 162 games in 2012, whether they want to or not, and its in that spirit that the Cubs have signed Paul Maholm.” On the other hand, when people start hitting more ground balls off him, a lot of them will be going to Starlin Castro.

 

Photograph: Kyle Pozan (CC by 2.0)

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