Monday, June 25, 2007

cubs sweep sox, now 7.5 back

alfonso soriano's three-home-run weekend and excellent results from the pitching staff -- which allowed just two runs over the three games -- led the cubs to a gratifying sweep of the white sox at comiskey during which the spiralling southsiders rarely threatened. the sox are now just 29-42 with a 5-17 june not quite yet behind them.

the cubs managed to go 4-2 against the sox and texas -- two of the three worst teams (along with kansas city) in the american league -- though the performance was nonetheless mildly unnerving. scoring just 23 in the six games against two bad pitching staffs, it is some consolation that they stranded an obscene number of runners -- but the club has nonetheless fallen to tenth in nl run rate and is marking a pace for a surprisingly low 722 runs scored.

it has not been for a lack of pitching that the cubs have struggled in 2007 -- behind the good fortune of the second-lowest team babip allowed in the league, the cubs' run rate allowed is third-best. carlos zambrano's rejuvenation continued on friday; since the michael barrett dugout tussle that eventually sent barrett packing, zambrano has allowed just 13 hits in 31.2 innings alongside 10 walks and 35 strikeouts, a run that has included his three best starts of the season. are there still injury concerns? yes. but that zambrano has made adjustments is also indisputable, and so are the results.

one of those results is that the cubs now field four of the top 30 national league starters by vorp, led by rich hill (10th) and including ted lilly (21st), zambrano (28th) and jason marquis (30th). but it is the continuing caveat of babip that has to inform that observation -- hill with the second-lowest in the league at .234, marquis third lowest at .235, lilly 14th-lowest at .270. as these pitchers continue to mean revert in babip, their rankings will fall.

it has, however, been a strangely persistent feature of the these starters so far. in late april, this page observed the sparkling start of hill, lilly and marquis and warned that it was not to be expected to continue.

Rich Hillto 4/2828.71.570.844.
post 4/3059.
Ted Lillyto 4/2833.02.450.795.
post 4/3059.33.781.
Jason Marquisto 4/2827.32.641.
post 4/3057.33.781.

as one can see, however, though there has been significant movement in two of the three cases, babip remains strangely low for all three pitchers even since may began. (babip, for the uninitiated, should be largely independent of skill and league average runs in the low .290s. it should also be noted that the above chart only crudely estimates at-bats in the post-4/30 split from incomplete data and presents a figure variably but about 10 points too low, meaning that a comparable league average would rest in the low .280s.) one can hardly overemphasize the oddity of this condition -- the cubs continue to have three of the eight luckiest pitchers (as measured by babip) in all the national league.

the question now, with an offense that has underperformed expectations to date, is paramount to any small hopes of revival in this season: can it continue?

sadly, it would seem that the odds remain overwhelmingly against any one of the three to continue to pitch with such luck -- much less any two of the three, much less all three. in 2006 just one nl starter threw over 130 innings with such a low babip as hill and marquis have both compiled to date. in 2005, none did. even if some novel technique is at work and not just blind luck, could the results really be expected to continue so as to make hill and marquis easily the two most fortunate pitchers in terms of balls in play in several years?

should the starting pitching finally suffer for that eventual mean reversion while the offense -- now without barrett for the duration and playing the likes of rob bowen and koyie hill, as well as mike fontenot, ryan theriot, felix pie, angel pagan and jacque jones more days than not -- continues to struggle, the cubs may yet have harder days in front of them than any we've so far seen.

the 35-39 cubs face a markedly stronger set of opponents in the next two home series. the colorado rockies are 38-37 on the heels of a 13-8 june and have played .571 baseball since april 30; then comes a three game set against milwaukee that is beyond important if there's to be any improbable change of prospects for this cub team.

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