One of the interesting things about this pandemic-shortened season which has necessitated the Cubs playing only the National League and American League Central divisions is that there is always a narrative.
Sure, there are exceptions, like how no one is freaking out about this set with the Tigers. However, the Cubs just wrapped up back-to-back-to-back series with the Brewers, Cardinals, and White Sox. It’s hard for everything not to feel so high stakes when you combine the slate of opponents with the abbreviated slate.
That volatile mixture has resulted in Cubs fans doing what Cubs fans do: blowing things out of proportion a bit. Over their last 10 games, the Cubs are 5-5. It’s not exactly where they want to be, but if this is their worst 10-game stretch of the season, I’m going to go ahead and tell you that the season will conclude with a division title.
So it’s felt bad and it’s actually been bad at times, but it hasn’t been that bad. With the struggles, though, have come some frustrating individual performances along with some glimmers of hope. Let’s take a look.
Fried chicken-related deaths: Both the Cardinals and White Sox learned the hard way that Yu Darvish is just on a different plane of existence at the moment. In 13.0 innings pitched over the last week, the deliberate righty has struck out 17(!) while walking only two, surrendering just two earned runs over that time.
There is no shortage of disgusting pitches and sequences over Darvish’s last two starts, but Rob Friedman skillfully highlighted just what makes Yu so successful. Pitch “tunneling” has been a very buzzy concept over the last few years, and this overlayed pair of pitches demonstrates its value.
The 1st and 3rd pitches in the sequence overlayed pic.twitter.com/Qdn1fWxMJL
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 23, 2020
By all accounts, Luis Robert will soon develop into one of the league’s elite hitters, but even great hitters are going to struggle with that kind of sequence.
Since last July, Darvish has been other-worldly. In 125.1 innings pitched, he has struck out 168 with only 13 walks. Unsurprisingly, that strikeout-to-walk ratio has produced some serious results in terms of run prevention. Darvish’s ERA (2.59), FIP (2.78), and xFIP (2.56) are all right in line, suggesting he’s getting every bit of the success he deserves.
Ryan Tepera‘s status as a guy: What do the Cubs need in their bullpen? They could use an elite reliever or two, sure. They could really use just a couple more guys that they can rely on for competence. We’ve seen a few pitchers audition to join Rowan Wick and Jeremy Jeffress in that group, but none have been as successful as Tepera.
In 2.2 innings pitched this week, Tepera struck out four while giving up two hits and did not surrender a run. He has relied heavily on a fastball that clocks in just under 95 mph and a cutter that has generated swings and misses 71% of the time. Bleacher Nation’s Bryan Smith highlighted the effectiveness of the latter pitch on Twitter:
Ryan Tepera has thrown 37 cutters against RHH this year. About half of them (18) have been outside the zone. But…
FIFTEEN have produced swings and misses.
One was a called strike, three were turned into outs.
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) August 24, 2020
Over the course of the season, he’s struck out 15 while walking only two. If that’s not a recipe for success out of the ‘pen, I’m not sure what is.
Runners on base when Jeremy Jeffress enters the game: Get it? As in, they’re not going anywhere. Or at least they haven’t so far. Jeffress still hasn’t allowed an inherited runner to score, adding two more to that total after bailing out Craig Kimbrel by stranding two White Sox runners in the 8th inning on Sunday.
You’d love to see more swing-and-miss stuff from the veteran, but it’s hard not to be happy with the results that he has produced. It’s unclear at this point if the Cubs even have a closer, but to the extent that they do, Jeffress is certainly in the mix.
Anthony Rizzo‘s production: If anyone’s ever going to tell you to worry about Tony’s status as one of the most reliable guys on the Cubs, it certainly won’t be me. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Rizzo has been scuffling lately, slashing .130/.231/.174 over the last 7 days and .184/.322/.347 over the last 14.
Rizzo joins Cubs hitters with last names starting with the letters A-Z in struggling to produce over the last couple of weeks, though he is one of few that haven’t completely bottomed out in terms of his ability to make contact. If I were a betting man, I’d bet that the results will come back before too long.
Kris Bryant‘s health: In terms of the offensive struggles we’ve seen lately, many Cubs fans have echoed Taylor Swift in saying “I think I’ve seen this film before.” Another area that this could easily be applied to is the Cubs’ absolutely puzzling unwillingness to utilize the injured list. I wrote about this last year and we’ve seen it again now with Bryant’s wrist/finger injury.
After sustaining the injury, KB attempted to play through it for a bit and the results were not pretty. We still don’t know the real extent of the injury, but we do know that Bryant received an injection in his wrist, presumably cortisone, on August 18. What does that tell us?
Cortisone is a steroid designed to reduce pain and inflammation, neither of which are good for a baseball player to have in his wrist (and fingers). To spell it out a bit more, both the wrist and fingers are critical players in producing adequate grip strength. Having a strong grip on the bat is a prerequisite for successful hitting, so anything that might be interfering with that is potentially a big problem.
Besides the fact that Bryant has the injury, the other frustrating thing is that it still feels like we’re just not getting much information from the organization. It sounds like it could be anything from a strain to a stress fracture and without knowing, it’s hard to guess how things will shake out for the former MVP.
Here’s to another week of continuing some trends and establishing new ones.