Yes, even the Cubs are facing some questions
Even a defending World Series champion has uncertainties. For the Cubs, there are the obvious questions: Will Jason Heyward bounce back at the plate? Can Brett Anderson stay healthy and fill a rotation spot? Can Kyle Schwarber ignite the offense while replacing Dexter Fowler as the leadoff man?
By the numbers, a few more questions arise:
Will the defense be as efficient?
The Cubs were historically good at turning balls in play into outs last season. Opponents’ batting average on balls in play was only .255. Not only was that 46 points better than the National League average, but it was 32 points better than the Giants, the NL’s next-best team at converting balls in play into outs.
Baseball Info Solutions’ defensive runs saved shows a similar story. The Cubs led the majors with 107 runs saved last season and were in positive numbers at every position. With zero denoting an average defender, the Cubs ranged from plus-5 in left field to plus-23 at shortstop, where Addison Russell was plus-19.
With such an extreme oBABiP, a certain amount of chance usually is at work and some regression can be expected. In the 2000s, only three other teams have had oBABiPs below .270 — the 2011 Rays (.265, then up to .277 in 2012), the 2002 Angels (.269, then .283 in 2003) and the 2003 Mariners (.269, then .286 in 2004).
Schwarber also is a factor. In 41 games in left in 2015, he was at minus-3 runs saved. That leaves open the question of whether Schwarber and regression will erode the Cubs’ defensive efficiency.
Can Kyle Hendricks again perform like an ace?
With a 16-8 record and a major-league-leading 2.15 ERA, Hendricks was a worthy Cy Young contender in 2016. Like all Cubs pitchers, he was aided by his defense. Hendricks’ .252 oBABiP was slightly better than the team’s overall average.
Focusing only on the fielding-independent factors of strikeouts, walks and home runs, Hendricks had a 3.20 FIP. That’s still outstanding, but it suggests pitching that normally would yield an ERA about a run higher than his 2016 result.
Hendricks also allowed homers on only 9.6 percent of fly balls, far below the 13.3 percent average by NL starters and the 12.5 percent by Cubs starters. In 2015, his average was a more normal 12.5 percent. If the homer rate regresses, the ERA might increase.
Is Jake Arrieta in control?
At 18-8 with a 3.10 ERA, Arrieta was terrific in 2016 without being as lights-out dominant as he was in his Cy Young-winning 22-6,
1.77 ERA season a year earlier.
His FIP climbed from 2.35 to 3.52, and his .241 oBABiP shows he benefitted from the defense, like all Cubs pitchers.
Some of the difference was regression in homer rate, which was up from 7.8 percent of fly balls in 2015 to 11.1 percent in 2016. But there also was an increased walk rate — from 1.89 per nine innings in 2015 to 3.47 last year.
A decreased walk rate might be a key to Arrieta’s continued success.
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