that's a tough gap to close against a good team, and milwaukee is a good team that's gotten better by adding ryan braun and yovani gallardo. for all tribune's iou notes, things aren't looking very good. if the club continues to play as it has, they're going to be fortunate to end 2007 with a .500 record. i say fortunate because they've really been very lucky as far as injuries go so far this season, and it obviously doesn't have to stay that way.
so what can change? what can happen to make the 2007 cubs better than they were in a 44-43 first half? i thought a look back at the 2006 cubs might be instructive, so here follows way too much data.
|1||Jerry Hairston Jr.||38||82||8||17||0||20||4||14||0.253||0.244||0.497||0.250||1.9|
|2||Jose A. Reyes||4||5||0||1||0||1||0||3||0.200||0.200||0.400||0.500||1.3|
|1||Jae Kuk Ryu||2||1||0||0||2.1||8||7||7||4||2||2||4.29||30.00||28.9|
|2||Jae Kuk Ryu||8||0||0||1||12.2||15||7||7||3||4||15||1.50||5.16||4.9|
what to make of all that? one thing to gather is that the variation in individual players can, in some cases, be dramatic from half to half. last season, carlos marmol, ryan demspter, scott eyre, michael barrett and neifi perez all melted down from promising starts; aramis ramirez, matt murton, juan pierre, phil nevin, david aardsma and rich hill all played much better in the second half.
knowing that, it behooves us to be a bit wary of the durability of the performances of players with high babips such as derrek lee (.400), mike fontenot (.391), alfonso soriano (.352) -- and optimistic for those carrying an unusually low one such as felix pie (.264) and jacque jones (.267). and we might do the same for pitchers who have been unduly benefitting from babip such as ryan dempster (.238), jason marquis (.247), and possibly rich hill (.257) -- while expecting better things from scott eyre (.430), bob howry (.331) and will ohman (.329).
more interesting, though, is how the team differently fared from the first half to the second. in terms of pitching, the difference was not dramatic -- rich hill's blossoming was offset by the loss of greg maddux and the struggles of other rookies. but in terms of offense, there was a dramatic second-half surge which rode into town on a horse called power. a mild boost in babip was overshadowed by a near-40-point increase in slugging, and runs scored per game jumped from 4.06 to 4.85.
this is the kind of change that could catapult the cubs past milwaukee this year. it was driven primarily by the twin explosions of ramirez and murton. from a first half in which a .246 babip limited him to an .801 ops, ramirez posted a 1.041 second-half ops. murton, for his part, turned a .723 ops into a second-half .911 with no real babip help at all (.316 to .328). these two players accounted for more or less the entire difference in slugging between the halves.
do the cubs have similar candidates brooding in the wings this season? first let's note that murton and ramirez were quite different cases.
ramirez was a powerful regular who suffered from unfortunate first-half luck, as demonstrated by his balls-in-play figure. his return to form, though not guaranteed, was certainly more likely than not. the cubs' only real candidates along these lines would seem to be pie and jones. though not anything like a proven player, pie has shown pop in the minors and is certainly being cheated by luck now. jones is capable of power production as well, though he has been one of the worst players in the league for much of the first half.
the difficulty, of course, is that these two are splitting a position at the moment in centerfield. and the impact of both jumping back into the swing of things is unlikely to do anything like what ramirez's revival did -- they simply aren't players of his capacity.
murton, in contrast to ramirez, had his balls in play finding holes all through the first half; in the second, he simply hit the ball out a few extra times. this sort of burst where a handful of fly balls find the bleachers instead, without any material change in the percentage of fly balls hit, is basically unpredictable. anyone is a canididate for it.
but if i had to guess anyone to be ripe for it, i'd guess derrek lee. his six first-half home runs have been the topic of much angst in cubdom. some think his 2006 wrist injury is the culprit; others that the league has pitched him outside without him being able to adjust; others think age a factor at 31; still others that expectations following a career year in 2005 have simply been much too high. i'd certainly agree with that last one, but as to the others -- who can really know? i doubt lee himself is certain. in truth, it's probably mostly to do with luck -- just 6.5% of his flyballs have gone for home runs, about a third of his usual percentage and one of the lower figures in the national league this year. a .149 isolated power figure is really low for him in any season, and when his flyballs find the bleachers at a more ordinary pace it seems probable that some sort of power production should return.
however, it confuses the situation that lee has ridden an extraorinary babip for the whole first half -- only in the last few weeks has that luck given way, and lee has struggled terribly. even if he hits for more power, can he really be more productive than he's been in going 330/411/479? it seems unlikely.
the weather is another reason that some might hope for better output -- but, putting aside that the enemy would benefit equally from hot winds blowing out the left, a look at the last several years shoots the idea of a natural second-half burst down. as many years as not actually see cubs slugging decline in the second half. rises and falls in ops are much better correlated to babip than to season.
on the whole, then, it would seem that a second-half burst of vitality of the kind seen last year for this mildly disappointing offense is improbable to hope for -- all the moreso with barrett's bat now in san diego and two career-minor-league catchers splitting time. (hope for geovany soto is certainly not irrational given the situation, but caveats apply -- his iowa line of 341/418/584 depends on a .409 babip itself.)
as difficult as this may be for many to comprehend (as it is certainly not what anyone wants to believe), i think these cubs have actually been not at all unlucky to get to 44-43. it's true that their runs-based pythagorean estimate is (at 46-41) a couple games better, but that misses the point about how these runs were scored and allowed. this cubs offense posted a .306 team babip in the first half; that is the highest such figure since the first half of 1984 (.308). on the pitching side, the team benefitted from a first-half .279 babip against; that is the lowest such figure since the first half of 1992 (.269). both these clubs -- and virtually all who see such disparities in any half -- saw reversions back toward the league mean follow. moreover, they've hit quite well with men on and with runners in scoring position and pitched even better -- both being trends equally unlikely as babip to last.
if more power comes in the second half of the season and gives the cubs some extra punch, it's likely to be counteracting a lower overall output on balls in play. that was not the case in 2006. and the mean reversion in pitching is already old news -- excluding april, the pitching staff babip is still low (.288) but their runs allowed per game is not (4.40).
no one can know, of course, what's coming in the next few months of baseball. it's just possible that milwaukee will completely collapse, or that the cubs will get unreasonably hot. as such, any forecast has to be taken with a huge grain of salt and for the entertainment it's meant to be.
but i would suggest that the second-half cubs are probably going to hit for a bit more power, but post a lower average and on-base percentage to stay near but perhaps fall off slightly from their first half figure of 4.55 rs/g -- while seeing the pitching give up runs at a significantly accelerated rate from 4.23 ra/g as team babip approaches league average. both calls coninciding would probably make the cubs a .500 team or maybe a bit less for the rest of the way.
should good fortune continue -- and it can -- the cubs certainly stand a chance of hanging with the brewers the rest of the way. that chance alone is worth hanging around for. after all, how often is this club within five and in second place at the break?
but good fortune is what it'll take.