Back in April, when few expected the Cubs would be in such a tight race in the National League Central, this column pointed to a few by-the-numbers challenges ahead.
How have they answered those challenges? Let’s check it out.
Will Kyle Schwarber be able to ignite the offense as Dexter Fowler’s leadoff replacement?
Schwarber was a bust as the leadoff man for most of the first 21/2 months of the season and was hitting only .171 with a .673 OPS before he was sent to Class AAA Iowa for a two-week minor-league stint in June and July.
As a leadoff man, Schwarber’s on-base percentage was .312. Overall, the Cubs’ leadoff OBP is .321, including .323 by hitters other than Schwarber.
That’s a huge drop from Fowler’s .393 at leadoff last season, a factor in limiting scoring opportunities ahead of big hitters Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.
Will Jason Heyward bounce back at the plate?
With his revamped stance and adjustments in approach, Heyward has improved, but he is far from his old self.
Heyward’s batting average and OPS are up from .230/.631 to .259/.702, but his career averages before joining the Cubs were .262/.781. His current OPS is the second-lowest of his career, a comedown from his .797 for the Cardinals in 2015.
Will the defense be as efficient?
No, but it has been very good. The Cubs were historically good at turning balls in play into outs last season. Opponents’ batting average on balls in play was .255, 46 points better than the NL average.
Opponents’ BABiP is .286 this season. That’s not the stone wall of 2016, but it’s better than the league average of .302 and trails only the Dodgers’ .282 in the NL.
Will Kyle Hendricks again perform like an ace?
Hendricks’ 3.35 ERA is no match for his NL-leading 2.13 of last season, but it leads Cubs starting pitchers.
His peripheral stats aren’t as strong as they were in 2016. Per nine innings, his strikeouts are slightly down (from 8.0 to 7.7) and his hits (6.7 to 8.0), walks (2.1 to 2.8) and home runs (0.7 to 1.2) allowed are up. It’s the first season he has allowed more than one homer per nine innings.
Is Jake Arrieta in control?
The question was a reference to Arrieta’s walk rate, which had risen from 1.9 per nine innings in 2015 to 3.5 in 2016. It’s 3.0 this season, more in line with last season than with his Cy Young season in 2015.
A bigger issue has been homers allowed (1.2 per nine innings after 0.4 and 0.7 in 2015 and 2016). Starting in 2014, 28.4, 22.8 and 27.9 percent of batted balls against Arrieta were flies. That’s up to 33.6 percent this season.
Arrieta’s ERA since the All-Star break is 1.98, lowering his season ERA to 3.48. But his 3.67 FIP and 4.14 xFIP normally won’t sustain such a low ERA.
Overall, the answers are a real mixed bag, with none a definitive ‘‘yes.’’ It’s much what you’d expect from a mixed bag of a season.
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