Five Questions: Chicago Cubs

The Hardball Times uses the science of mathematics to analyze baseball data. In that spirit, here, technically speaking, is why the Cubs have been so consistently unsuccessful:

It’s a jinx.

The Cubs and their fans have made nice to the descendants of a spurned goat-owner. They have invited all the Murphys in the world to a party to help clear the name of a despised namesake former team owner. They have blown up the ball tainted by ’03 NLCS fumblefingers Steve Bartman. Still nothing. Clearly, the relevant curse remains unidentified.

You don’t believe in such hocus-pocus? You want science? Here’s science: Einstein’s best seasons. The Hindenburg. The Manhattan Project. The Salk vaccine. A 6-iron on the moon. Dolly the cloned sheep. Windows Vista. All since the Cubs last won a World Series.

You want math? Here’s math: What is the probability that the Cubs, one of just five remaining original, stayed-put franchises of the modern National League, can have won as many World Series in the past 98 seasons as the Durham Bulls? What are the chances that a fan applying for Medicare this season would have lived through as many St. Louis Browns pennants as Cubs pennants? How many times out of 100 would a team with the All-Star talent of the 1984 Cubs blow a 2-0 championship series lead to the brown-uniform-wearing, Tim Flannery-scoring, Craig Lefferts-two-game-winning San Diego Padres? What are the odds that with a three-games-to-one lead and five outs to go and an uninjured Mark Prior pitching… ? Aw, forget math.

It’s a jinx. No question.

These, however, are questions about the 2007 Cubs.

1. Dusty was rusty; Lou, too?

After a succession of short-term managers who will be little-noted nor long-remembered, the Cubs opted for Big Names to run the team. Don Baylor didn’t get it done, but then here came Dusty Baker to the dugout, an experienced guy, a fine player in his day, a manager with a strong reputation built over 10 years with the Giants, a winner!

The Cubs collapsed a game short of the World Series in Baker’s first year. The Cubs collapsed a couple of weeks short of the postseason in Baker’s second year. The Cubs collapsed in Baker’s third and fourth years. “In Dusty, we trusty”? No more.

This time, the Cubs have opted for a Big Name to run the team. Here comes Lou Pinella to the dugout, an experienced guy, a fine player in his day, a manager with a strong reputation built over 19 years with four major league teams, a winner!

Baker’s and Pinella’s managerial records before coming to the Cubs:

         Win%    1st/2nd Finishes    % 1st/2nd
Baker    .540    8 in 19 years       80%
Pinella  .517    9 in 19 years       47%

2. Is mediocre the new good?

Thirty-seven baseball seasons ago, President Nixon was getting booed for nominating a nonentity named G. Harrold Carswell to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the nominee’s defense, Sen. Roman Hruska of Nebraska famously offered this: “Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?”

Well, that was the Cubs’ thinking as they built their starting pitching for 2007. And they just may be right.

The two big additions are Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, singly and together the very definition of mediocrity. Last year they were 29-29 combined. And that was no fluke:

               Career W-L        Career ERA+
Lilly          59-58	         99
Marquis        56-52	         94

The question within the question is whether solidly so-so major league pitchers are better bets than Double-A hotshots (or, in some cases, Double-A not-hots).

In 2006, by misfortune rather than choice, the Cubs started rookie pitchers in almost half their games—78 of the 162. The most successful of those was Rich Hill, who in the last half of his 16 starts earned a spot in the Cubs’ rotation this spring. Remove him, and you’re left with 62 starts from seven other rookies, with these cumulative results:

   
 IP	IP/Start    W-L    ERA
 304.2	4.91        13-26  6.20

Lilly and Marquis between them started 65 games. Their combined numbers:

IP 	IP/Start    W-L    ERA
376	5.78        29-29  5.19

If they repeat those not-great numbers, that’s nearly one run fewer for the opponent in 40% of the Cubs’ games, nearly one fewer inning in those games for what was an overused bullpen—and 16 more wins. Add 16 to last season’s 66 Cubs wins, and that’s 82. The Cardinals won the NL Central last season by taking 83 games.

Mediocre may be good enough.

3. Who is Alfonso Soriano?

My great-nephew Alex, who lives in Washington, D.C., is a huge baseball fan. Last Halloween, at age 5, he dressed as Alfonso Sorianoto go trick-or-treating.

A few weeks later, when Soriano signed his eight-year deal with the Cubs, I was on the phone with the boy telling him he was losing his favorite Nat.

“I know,” Alex said. “But he was struggling at the end of the year.”

Indeed he was, and the Cubs have 136 million reasons to hope that the September Soriano is not what they have bought. Oh, he’ll make the team all right, but there is cause for fans, and the Cubs themselves, to wonder exactly what they’re getting.

Is he a center fielder?

Soriano came up as a second baseman, playing there to lukewarm reviews with the Yankees and Rangers. Before last season, the Washington Nationals traded for the ballplayer, not the infielder, and moved him to left field. He had 11 errors (only Adam Dunn among major league outfielders had more). He also led the majors in outfield assists, either because of his strong, accurate arm or because baserunners figured he didn’t know what he was doing out there.

Once they signed Soriano, the Cubs examined their roster and failed to find Andruw Jones or Jim Edmonds. So, on March 1, Soriano stood in center field for the first time in his major league career as the Cubs played their first 2007 exhibition game.

Is he a leadoff man?

Baseball-Reference has a fun gimmick that lets you link one ballplayer to another through a minimum of steps. For example, you can get from Rick Monday to Alfonso Soriano through Rick Reuschel, who played with Monday on the ‘70s Cubs, and Chili Davis, who played with Reuchel on ‘80s Giants and with Soriano on the late-’90s Yankees. The linkage is apt.

Monday, from three decades ago, is the closest match the Cubs have had to Sorinano in center field in many a year. (Brian McRae had little power, Corey Patterson had little aptitude for differentiating between good pitches to hit and bad ones.) Like Soriano, Monday was a guy with some speed—he stole 17 bases for the Cubs one year. He had some muscle—he topped out at 32 homers for the Cubs. And he struck out a lot.

The Cubs didn’t know where to hit him. His first game in a Chicago uniform he batted seventh. He led off. He hit cleanup. And in his fifth and final season with the Cubs, he was in the number one spot again—and hit those 32 homers.

Soriano has been deemed the Cubs’ leadoff man, which is not unusual for someone who stole 41 bases a year ago. It is, however, a rare place in the lineup for someone who hit 46 home runs last year. And who struck out 160 times. And it’s not usually the ideal spot for a player who is one year removed from a .309 OBP. That approaches the Neifi -Line. Once again, though, the Cubs’ choices for leading off are Soriano and, uh … next question?

Is he the merely good player he’s been his whole career, or the 40-plus homer, 40-plus double, 40-plus steal guy he was in 2006, at age 30—even with that struggling (.200/.294/.336) September?

The optimist can find reasons believe that his career-high homers and .351 OBP (well surpassing his lifetime .325) weren’t a fluke. Here’s one: In 2006, Soriano walked once every 10.8 plate appearances—nearly double his 2005 walk rate (20.5).

Here’s another: Soriano played half his games last season in a pitchers’ park, RFK Stadium. He’ll play half his games this year in Wrigley Field, with a home run rate last season about half again as great as RFK’s. And you know what? Based on 2006, it won’t make any difference. Soriano’s homers, OBP and OPS+ were nearly identical home and away.

All that said, the projections in The Hardball Times’ Preseason Book (available through this site!), show Soriano’s numbers inching back toward mortal levels.

4. How many games will Ryan Theriot play at second base?

Now, Ryan Theriot, a rookie last year, showed signs of being a nice little baseball player. He can field a bit, hustle a lot and steal a base (13 in 53 games). Limited evidence also shows he can get on base (a .412 OBP in 153 plate appearances).

But this isn’t about him. Over the winter the Cubs got Mark DeRosa, a veteran, to play second base. Among DeRosa’s 504 game appearances in the major leagues, 90 or more have been at each of four positions—second, shortstop, third base and the outfield.

If Theriot starts at second base many times this season, it’s likely to be because good-fielding Cesar Izturis is hurt—again—and DeRosa has to play short. Or because power-hitting Aramis Ramirez is hurt—again—and DeRosa has to fill in at third. Or because one of the Cubs outfielders (don’t even whisper “Soriano” in this context) is hurt and DeRosa has to move out there.

For the record, the Cubs’ biggest gun, first baseman Derrek Lee, missed most of last season injured. DeRosa’s played a few games at first, too.

5. Can the Cubs really expect a good season without the usual spring caveat: “If Wood and Prior stay healthy”?

One year not so terribly long ago, the Cubs were lousy, again. Finished way out of the money. Ah, but there was hope. They had a couple of extremely talented, homegrown, young pitchers who were winning games, blowing away batters and dangling the prospect that finally the Cubs were building something good.

Their names were Dick Drott and Moe Drabowsky. Respectively, in their 1957 rookie seasons, they were 15-11 with an ERA+ of 108 and 13-15, ERA+ of 110.

Alas, Drott won 10 more games over the next—and last—four years of his Cubs career. Drabowsky won 17 more in Chicago over three seasons, with an ERA over six the year he left town.

The parallels to Prior and Kerry Wood are obvious. Nine seasons have passed since Wood’s spectacular debut and that 20-strikeout game. This is Prior’s sixth season. Each won one game last year. Each is expected to begin 2007 on the disabled list or in the minors. Again.

What’s different about 2007 is that if these guys contribute anything, it’ll be a bonus. Prior went to spring training counted on as the number five starter at best. If he can’t hack it—early signs aren’t optimistic—there are other possibilities (Wade Miller, Neal Cotts) beyond last season’s green brigade. Wood moves to the bullpen, where he’s an intriguing thought if closer Ryan Dempster falters again, but not the only one.

It’ll just take some luck in 2007. No question.

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