Monday, April 16, 2007

is this it?

over the last few months, dear reader, the mantra of "$300 million" was repeated so often around cubdom that it became the accompaniment of some dreams for addled cub fans desperate for a winner. never mind that it didn't happen -- never mind that the team payroll is little changed from the last few years -- the phrase came to embody the deep need of the followers of this franchise for hope regardless of legitimacy, and fantastic forecasts of 90-win teams and stunning turnarounds were scattered about so liberally that one could walk from south bend to elgin without ever touching the ground.

but playing the games has a funny way to bringing reality to bear on the hubris of springtime as efficiently as a master swordsman delivers the point of his rapier, and something of the truth of this ballclub is just now hitting the wires around cubdom.

afer eleven games, the cubs are last in the national league central at 4 wins and 7 losees, trailing early leader cincinnati by two and a half games. the team has played four series, losing three and winning just one (against milwaukee). the club has scored just 43 runs (3.91 rs/g), good for 10th in the league -- and as widely lamented as the offense has been, the pitching has been equally problematic in allowing 42 runs (3.82 ra/g) and placing 9th in the nl in era. this last feature has gone mostly unnoticed even as the most widely distributed excuse for the performance of the offense -- cold weather -- should obviously unduly benefit the pitching staff just as much as it unduly hinders the offense. low absolute totals of runs allowed have not raised flags, but the relative performance should as the entire league deals with the inclement weather of april.

moreover, beyond the statistics, qualitative aspects of the club are frighteningly familiar. anyone who has not been reminded of jacque jones' travails in april of last season has not been watching, as new-boy alfonso soriano has looked less a $136mm free agent than ryan theriot has. his early line -- 234/280/362 with no home runs and one rbi, 2 bb and 11 k in 47 ab -- has been ghastly, but the misplays in center field and the remarkable baserunning gaffes (he has been picked off three times so far, against just one stolen base) have put an air of incompetency around soriano that jacque found so oppressive that he soon requested a trade. one doubts soriano -- a former new york yankee -- will feel the sting of the boos already now cascading down from the grandstands at wrigley so sincerey as jacque did, and he certainly (unlike jacque) is possessed of the tools that can rectify the situation. but the performance has had the glow of an omen, and nothing is revered in cubdom as an omen.

is it really as bad as all that? this page finds it difficult to assemble reasons for panic. soriano looks utterly lost on the basepaths, in the field and at the plate -- but this writer would suggest that his qualities, though some perhaps have overestimated them while suppressing the consideration of his manifold drawbacks, will in the end shine through. it is a bit perplexing that soriano's babip sits at .314 -- bad luck hasn't been a factor so much as an inability to make contact -- but soriano has never shown the sort of seasonal underperformance in the cold that one has grown used to with aramis ramirez, so one can expect a breakout to be independent of weather. the pressure of the situation does appear to have him stretching his strike zone.

it should be noted that, other than soriano, the offensive components of this club are working more or less as advertised with a single widespread exception. ramirez and derrek lee have been crushing, and theriot has sparkled in considerable playing time. the elephant in the room has been the lack of power -- many doubles, very few home runs. as the weather warms, this figures to change.

but so too will it change for the pitching staff. carlos zambrano has been absolutely awful in three starts, but ted lilly has benefitted immensely from both some favorable umpiring in his starts (helping him to an 8:1 k:bb ratio) and a .256 babip. jason marquis has also been fortunate with a .222 babip in 11 innings, and rich hill has been lucker still in posting an .091 babip in 14 innings. these last three have allowed just one home run in seven starts. that, dear reader, will not last just as surely as the offense's power drought will not.

what of it all, on balance? the cubs are indeed 4-7 -- but they have scored one more than they've allowed in doing so, and that is the metric of the .500 ballclub that this writer has expected them to be.

but there is cause for concern here. warmer weather will increase totals of runs scored and allowed both -- but indeed, if anything, the balance of the change would appear to favor an increase in runs allowed, as the team batting line (260/318/371) and babip (.316, from 377 ab, 98 h, 78 k and 5 hr) are not nearly so depressed as the team pitching line (206/286/337) and babip (.249, from 350 ab, 72 h, 88 k and 9 hr) are obviously inflated.

and then there is the situation of wins and losses itself. as was noted by contributor john dooley in the comments, no cub club has started 4-7 or worse and reached the playoffs -- and since 1972, a sample of eight teams, no cub club has started 4-7 or worse and broken .500. as jd looked further, now at the entirety of the major leagues since the advent of postseason play, only 27 of 326 playoff teams have started 4-7 or worse -- and since 1995, a period in which 25% of clubs get to the postseason, only 9 of 96 playoff clubs (9%) started 4-7 or worse.

it is of course very early in the season, dear reader -- and one can with near certainly say that this cub ballclub will not continue to play .363 baseball barring a disastrous string of injuries.

but -- though nothing can be decided so early in the sample -- the odds of certain outcomes can change significantly in just eleven games. it would appear to this writer that the cubs have so far demonstrated not only that they are probably a .500 baseball club but that a even record may even represent something like their likely upside -- once again forcing this writer to consider that his 82-win prediction for 2007 was as systemically optimistic as his previous three. indeed, to make 82 wins, the cubs must now play 78-73 the rest of the way. that's .517 baseball, and quite possibly beyond the long-term capacity of this ballclub.

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