12 Takeaways from Cubs’ First Half

You know what’s funny about these “X number of things” kind of posts? They’re kind of a lazy way to generate clicks since people tend to like lists, but they’re not all that easy to put together. I always find myself plowing through five or six topics and then getting completely bogged down.

I mean, there are way more than 12 takeaways out there and I’m sure I’ll think of another handful of them as soon as I hit “Publish.” Or maybe that’s my genius, since I can milk this whole concept for at least one more post during the All-Star doldrums. Damn, there I go giving up trade secrets again.

Anyway, you know the drill: Have a look and feel free to address some of your own takeaways below.

1) Javy put it together

One minute he’d look like lighting in a bottle, the other a flash in the pan. Javy just couldn’t channel that benevolently violent swing in such a way that it could result in consistent production. But perhaps some of that was a misunderstanding, the result of a desire to make El Mago conform to our standards of how baseball should be played.

Though they can hardly be faulted for it, the Cubs wanted to sort of take the wolf out of Javy, to sand down some of his rough edges and make him less raw. But what if it was never a problem of him needing to adapt to the game? Perhaps the game just needed to adapt to him.

Like the trophic ecological changes that have taken place at Yellowstone over the last two decades since the reintroduction of the grey wolf, the Cubs are finding out what happens when they just let Javy be Javy. The adventure isn’t without it’s head-scratching moments, like the not-infrequent whiff at a slider in the dirt or the muffed routine catches, but the bad pales in comparison to the good.

Javy is the starting second baseman for the NL squad and a legitimate MVP candidate. Even if his season ended right now, it’d be the best of his career. His 72 RBI are just three short of his career high, his 3.4 fWAR is 50 percent higher than he’s ever put up in a season, and his 18 steals are more than he’s ever had.

What’s really impressive, though, is that he’s making the Cubs a better team. Though correlation and causation are two different things, the improved play we saw to close the half followed a hitters-only meeting with Chili Davis in which they discussed passing the baton and trusting the next guy to do his job. Javy has rewarded that trust by being in the middle of the action at every turn.

He’s also rewarded Joe Maddon’s trust in him on the bases. People see the swag and the flash, which are really just tools of the trade. Think of them like a scantily-clad assistant or some fancy sleight of hand. While you’re paying attention to one thing, El Mago is working his magic behind the scenes.

Shoot, I’d better move on before this really drags one. Time to shorten the rest of these up.

2) Heyward is for real

Some people still don’t believe it, but Jason Alias Heyward might finally be back to the player the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him ahead of the 2016 season. His mechanics are better and his confidence has improved. He just looked more comfortable at the plate, which is how he’s been able to turn on fastballs to a much better degree this season.

3) KB’s primed for a huge second half

Kris Bryant played for more than a month with an aching shoulder that had him wincing on the finish of that long swing. Its sapped his power and confidence, finally forcing him to say “Uncle” and take a couple weeks off. He looked much sharper after coming back for the last few games of the California road trip and will now have even more time to rest heading into the second half.

4) The Cubs don’t actually suck

Contrary to what people kept saying, this Cubs team was never really in a worse position than the three previous iterations. I know it was commonplace to think that, but revisionist history can be a mother. With a 55-38 record, the Cubs have a 2.5-game lead in the Central and boast the best mark in the NL.

In 2015, they went into the break at 47-40 trailing the Cardinals by 8 games and the Pirates by 2.5 games. And we all know about last year, when they were 5.5 games behind the Brewers at the break. But, Evan, what about their wonderful 2016 season?

Ah yes, that one stands out for some reason. The Cubs did have a 53-35 record, a little better than this year, and they did lead the division by 7 games. But the Giants actually had the best record in the NL (57-33) and were looking like they were ready to maintain their even-year BS.

This is the first time since 2008 that the Cubs will open the second half with the best record in the league.

5) Baseball gon’ baseball

Part of the reason the Cubs are in first is that the Brewers have absolutely fallen apart. Kato Kaelin is beside himself watching his hometown team drop six straight and eight of 10. That’s what happens over the course of a season, though, and looking at things with too narrow a focus causes us to lose sight of the overall image.

The Cubs are where they are despite their best hitter being either hampered or on the DL for over six weeks and their top free agent signing being ineffective or injured all season. They’ve also battled injuries in the bullpen and have seen the weather play hell with the schedule.

Those things can all loom large in the moment, but the magic of a 162-game season is that the wrinkles tend to come out in the wash.

6) Rizzo got his mojo back (we hope)

Anthony Rizzo has suffered through some awful slumps this season, though he appears to be coming back around. And I’m taking full credit for all of it. After I referred to him as Slumpy Slumperton in the wake of a brutal run of games against Cincy and San Francisco, Rizzo went on to reach base eight times (six hits, two walks) in 15 plate appearances against the Padres.

7) The Cubs know what they’re doing with struggling players

Trust the process, because the process is fearless. The calls to send Ian Happ down had gotten so loud at one point that I even found myself wondering if that might be best for him. But what’s good for the Schwarbs is not necessarily good for the Happer, which is why the Cubs kept a flailing Happ on the roster despite his strikeouts and a crowded outfield.

And despite what some people continue to parrot mindlessly, the strategy worked to perfection. Happ adjusted his approach and toned down his aggressiveness at the plate, being more selective with bad pitches. Through May (77 PAs), Happ was slashing .236/.286/.389 with a 45.5 percent strikeout rate and a wRC+ of 81. By the end of June (248 PAs), those numbers had improved to .248/.369/.441 with a 37.8 percent strikeout rate and a 116 wRC+.

Oh, and guess what? Everything is better across the board at the break: .256/.379/.453 with a 35.7 K-rate and a 122 wRC+. It’s almost as if the Cubs knew that being around a supportive staff and teammates would serve Happ better than being sent down, almost as though the team knows its players better than we do.

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And for those who might want to cite Schwarber’s demotion as a template for what the Cubs could/should have down with Happ, see if you can remember who Schwarber was working with during his time in Iowa. Need a refresher? It was Andy Haines, who was then a roving minor-league coach and is now the Cubs’ assistant hitting instructor.

8) Joe Maddon knows how to balance a roster

The Cubs manager has been maligned for several decisions, among them a perceived lack of playing time for Albert Almora Jr. Critics will cite Happ’s continued run in the face of his struggles while Almora was flourishing. But maybe, just maybe, Maddon knew what he was doing the whole time.

Perhaps Almora was able to blossom because he was being put in position to succeed and perhaps Happ (perhapps?) pulled out of his funk because of routine playing time and the his team’s unflagging confidence in him. It’s almost as though these dual successes have come because of Maddon and not in spite of him. Wild stuff, huh?

9) The rumors of Ben Zobrist’s demise were greatly exaggerated

I’ll admit it, I thought Zobrist had been caught by the mob of zombies and was destined to shuffle through the last two years of his contract like an extra in The Walking Dead. Boy was I wrong. The 37-year-old is on pace for his best season as a Cub and has come up huge in clutch situations time and again.

10) You don’t know what you need until you need it

A trade for Manny Machado seemed like a great idea this past winter, at least to me, but things change. Because you can’t know what’s going to happen until it happens, exercising patience can really pay dividends. The Cubs brass has remained confident in the roster they assembled and that’s being rewarded with the best record in the division.

While they’ll likely make some additions to shore things up for the second half, we’re seeing how smart they were to sit back and wait while everything played out.

11) The Cubs can develop pitching

Even though it’ll be a while before we really know for sure, we’re starting to get glimpses of a few pitching prospects who could really have an impact. Duane Underwood Jr. looked good in an emergency start in LA, Dillon Maples came back up for a spell (though he got them into some hot water during one outing), and James Norwood has burst onto the scene with a big fastball.

Not that those players alone are enough to turn the tide of what’s been a pretty disappointing aspect of the system by any means. We’re seeing, however, that the cupboard isn’t completely bare and that there is hope for the next few seasons.

12) Brandon Morrow is legit

I will admit that I was skeptical when reports of the Cubs’ interest in Morrow first surfaced. After all, he’d just been ridden hard and put up wet in the Dodgers’ World Series loss and wasn’t exactly known for being the most durable guy. Plus, the Cubs would have to use him as the closer if they didn’t re-sign Wade Davis or bring in another proven stopper. Lots of question marks.

Well, Morrow quickly turned those all into exclamation points, many of which were preceded by expletives. He hasn’t been perfect, and there was that pants-related back issue, but he’s proved to be every bit the lockdown high-leverage reliever to which we’ve grown accustomed over the previous season and a half. Heck, I feel better about Morrow out there than either of the last two guys.

As I said above, these are only a few of the myriad topics we could discuss from the first half. Got any big takeaways of your own, whether they were confirmations or refutations of your thoughts coming into the season? Better yet, what have you seen that really opened your eyes to something you hadn’t recognized or understood before. Let’s talk about ’em below.

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