2008 Chicago Cubs Could Have Staying Power
by Trevor Whenham - 06/04/2008
The Chicago Cubs are pretty much as hot as a team can be. They have the best record in the league - something they haven't accomplished in June since 1908. That's the same year that they last won a World Series, but that slump will be in real jeopardy of ending if they keep playing like they are.They've won nine in a row as of Tuesday, and they seem to be the best team in the league right now in every sense of the word. Here's a look at how they are doing what they are doing it, and whether they can keep it up:
Hitting - The Cubs are winning in large part because they are hitting. They have the best team batting average in the league at .288. That isn't enough by itself to assure success - the Rangers are second at .284, yet they are just at .500 on the year. What's worked for the Cubs is their consistency. Only the Cardinals have walked more than the Cubs, and the team is tops for OPS. They can hit their fair share of home runs, but they are far behind the leaders (66 compared to 89 for the Phillies). That works to their advantage, as they aren't a team that has struggled when the ball won't leave the park. In fact, they haven't struggled much at all. They have been shut out just twice in 59 games. The lowly Nationals, by comparison, have been shut out eight times.
The striking element when you look at the offensive success of the team is how widely shared the burden of production is. They have eight players who have had more than 180 at-bats on the year. Only one, Reed Johnson, is hitting below .285, and he's hardly a disaster at .266. Three of the players are over .300, and four of them are on pace for over 100 RBI. They have a little bit of everything, too - Ryan Theriot hits for average and is always a threat to steal a base, Aramis Ramirez is the slugging king, Alfonso Soriano is hitting like we know he can, and some of the lineup is well-disciplined while others are more free swinging and prone to a strikeout. With the hitting spread across so many players on the team it would be very hard for the Cubs to fall into a deep slump because it would require so many players to simultaneously falter. That makes it seem more likely that they can sustain their current pace.
Starting pitching - If there was a concern for this team in the eyes of many coming into this season, including me, it was their starting rotation. I need not have worried. Carlos Zambrano has rebounded from an inconsistent year last season. He's at 8-1 with an ERA of 2.51, and he's only had two starts in 13 tries that have been less than ideal. He's the clear ace of the staff, and he has been pitching like he loves the role. While he is doing what was expected, the pleasant surprise has been Ryan Dempster, converted from the closer role, Dempster is starting for the first time since he had Tommy John surgery in 2003. It was hard to know what to expect from Dempster, but even his most enthusiastic fan couldn't have seen this coming. He's at 7-2, his ERA is just 2.75, and he's shown a strong ability to bounce back from the occasional off game (though even his off games haven't been too bad). In a perfect world the team might wish that he could last longer since he has only made it out of the sixth inning four times in 12 starts, but they would take quality over quantity every time.
The rest of the rotation isn't as strong, but they are solid enough to get it done. Jason Marquis is at 3-3, and Ted Lilly is 5-4. Both have ERAs over five, and that's a concern, but things could certainly be worse. They haven't yet settled on a consistent fifth starter, but they also have used one less than a lot of teams - just six starts have come from outside their top four. Sean Gallagher has made five of those six starts, and he has been solid. As long as one of the top four doesn't get injured for a significant period the team should be fine.
Schedule - The Cubs have been the second most profitable team in the league behind the Rays, but a quick look at their schedule makes it clear how they have done it. They have the most wins in the league at home with 26, and the third fewest losses at home with eight. That is obviously enough to make them wildly profitable at home. The giant elephant in the room, though, is their inability to play on the road. They are 12-13, and that stands as the biggest obstacle to long-term success.
Looking closer at the road woes doesn't make them any better. They have just one series win, and that came early in the year against the pathetic Pirates. They won just one of three in their second Pittsburgh trip, and they have found ways to lose to several other lousy teams, too - Cincinnati, Washington and Colorado. They have played well under half of their games on the road so far, so things are going to get harder from here out, and if the team can't sort out their problems then they could face troubles.
To a lesser extent the schedule also causes concerns at home. They have played 20 of their 34 homes games against teams that are below .500, and 17 of the 30 teams in the league are at or above .500, so it can't help but get harder. That's not necessarily bad, though - they are 9-5 against the good teams they have hosted.