25 May 2007

Cubs Preview: Good Middle Names, Bad Middle Relief

by Joshua Worley

Some teams really do seem cursed, at least for a season. The Cubs have a better run differential than the Brewers ( and the Dodgers ) and yet they are 6 games back and 3 games below 0.500. The chart below tells the story of the Cubs woes, compared with how things have gone for the Brewers and Dodgers:

Team --- W/L --- RS --- RA --- ExW/L -- 1Run
MIL-- (28-19) -- 221 -- 200 -- (26-21) -- (7-5)
LA -- (27-20) -- 205 -- 189 -- (26-21) -- (9-4)
CHC -- (21-24) -- 211 -- 184 -- (26-19) -- (2-10)

The Cubs record in 1-run games has ruined their season so far.

The last team to come into LA with a positive run differential and bad record was Cincinatti. It seemed likely at the time that they were overachieving, and indeed since then the Reds have collapsed and now have a negative run differential more in line with their awful record. So it bears remembering that run differential, especially so early in the season, is no sure indicator of true team strength.

The Cubs 'pen looks rather average, with a 4.00 ERA. Dempster has 10 saves with only 1 blown. Here's the nasty kicker, though: the bullpen record is 4-11, by far the worst in the NL. It appears that perhaps the Cubs poor record has a lot to do with the bullpen breaking down at crucial moments before the ninth inning.

The pitching matchups for the series are: Lilly v Lowe, Zambrano v Hendrickson, Hill v Wolf.

And now a look at the players, and I'll try to answer the question of how good the Cubs really are.

Derrek Leon Lee -- 1B

age: 31
bats: right

0.371 -- 0.448 -- 0.543

Leon Lee ... I love it! He should have gone by his middle name; that would have been great. I can just hear Vinny saying, "Leon Lee laces one to left field!" On second thought, I don't want to hear about him getting a hit against the Dodgers. Say, did Lee Lacy ever lace one to left?

He's had plenty of hits this year, which is what's fueling his great batting line. It's tempting to think it's going to come down a bit, and it probably will. His line drive percentage is a lovely 25.4% so far this year, but he still strikes out a lot ( with 28 so far ) so his batting average may end up closer to 0.310 for the rest of the year. If Lee's batting average is abnormally high, his power is abnormally low. He only has 3 home runs so far. Usually his slugging is more than 0.200 above his batting average; not this year.

Lee recently had neck spasms, which caused him to miss almost a week of games. He came back against San Diego and was only 1-12 with a walk in that series. It's possible the injury is still nagging him. It's a pity, because before the injury came he was batting 0.390! It would have been cool to see him reach 0.400 for awhile, though not against the Dodgers.

Lee has a great defensive reputation, though the zone rating numbers don't really back it up. He was below average on turning balls hit into his zone into outs in 2005. He was a bit better in 2006, though he only played about 50 games that year due to injury.

Lee is by the numbers the Cubs best hitter; in spite of his power numbers I think he remains a potent home run threat as well. Since he came back from the neck injury he's been batting third again, with Soriano moving back to the leadoff spot. If the Dodgers are lucky he'll continue his struggles from the Padre series.

Aramis Nin Ramirez -- 3B

age: 28
bats: right

0.293 -- 0.350 -- 0.557

How come there aren't any rumours about the Dodgers trading for this guy? And is he a Nine Inch Nails fan?

This line he's putting up is pretty much what he's done the last three years with the Cubs. I'd say it's a better than 60% chance that he'll go deep on either Hendrickson or Wolf. Ramirez has hit 5 of his 11 home runs against lefties this year, and Hendrickson and Wolf have given up 11 of the 27 homers allowed by Dodger pitchers this year. Now Ramirez's career splits aren't nearly as dramatic as this year's, but still, I'm really worried about him bombing the Dodgers.

He's not a great fielder; by zone rating he's been in the bottom half of third basemen the last 3 years, though he's never been truly awful. I don't know if he's good at charging in, but if not maybe Pierre should think about bunting down the third base line. Speaking of Pierre, by the way, this really made me laugh.

Alfonso Guilleard Soriano -- LF

age: 31
bats: right

0.288 -- 0.345 -- 0.472

Let's get to the most important thing first: after just three names the Cubs are threatening to have the coolest middle name collection of any team in the majors. These are all fantastic!

I'm not sure it's worth 17 million a year for 8 years, though. Even with his 46 home runs his OPS was only 0.911 last year. He was caught stealing 17 times last year as well, to go with 41 steals. And that was his career year; his stats this year seem more in line with what he'll do the next few years. Good, but not great. Let's put this into perspective: he's not doing very much better than Luis Gonzalez right now.

He's basically a decent lead-off hitter with above average power. He has lots of doubles. Not a hitter to be messed with, but not that scary either.

In the outfield he was actually above average in zone rating last year. An eye-popping aside: Manny Ramirez was horrifically brutal in left field last year. He was, like, 150 points worse than the next worst guy. Andre Ethier had a great zone rating of 0.920; Manny was at 0.643!

Daryle Lamar Ward -- 1B, Scapegoat

age: 31
bats: left

0.303 -- 0.465 -- 0.424

You're dead to me, Daryle Ward!

Look, this line is only in 33 at bats; he's the backup first baseman and occasional outfielder and pinch hitter, after all. But this glittering line just galls; if you look at his career he puts up an OPS of at least 0.700 every year, usually close to 0.800. Every year but 2003, with the Dodgers, when he has an OPS of bloody 0.404 in 109 at bats. If he had just been half-way decent maybe he could have been that little bit of offense the run-starved 2003 Dodgers needed to help push them into the playoffs. But no, he was sub-abysmal. What a waste of a great pitching staff that year was. It's not really all Ward's fault, not even close, but man what a great symbol of that year's awful offense he is.

Mark Thomas DeRosa -- 2B

age: 32
bats: right

0.263 -- 0.368 -- 0.474

Thomas? How ... boring.

He had something of a blossoming when he went from Atlanta to Texas in 2005, actually putting up decent numbers in 2005 and 2006 after an early career of putting up backup numbers in a backup role in Atlanta.

He's either overachieving or one of those rare players who actually gets better in his 30's.

Cornelius Clifford Floyd -- RF

age: 34
bats: left

0.280 -- 0.323 -- 0.387

No wonder he goes by his middle name ... I'm going to be at Friday's game, and maybe I'll try to get a "Cornelius" chant going if he's in the lineup.

Will he be in the lineup Friday? Probably, since this will be his only chance to face a righty in the series. But staying in the lineup has been a career-long problem for Cornelius; he's always been injury prone. He also appears washed up at this point. I think one of the reasons the Cubs got him and are still playing him is that they don't otherwise have any lefty power threats. But he's not really a power threat any more. Should the Cubs have gone and acquired him? Let's see, he's an injury plagued player who's entering his mid-30s after a bad year last year. Ugh, pass. I hope the Dodgers hold him hitless. They surely can.

Matthew Henry Murton -- OF

age: 25
bats: right

0.283 -- 0.340 -- 0.370

You know what middle name would have been great? Munson. That would be an all time great full name.

He's the Cubs super-utility outfielder, though in fairness he plays about as much as Floyd. His age, and batting lines of last year and this year sort of remind me of Andre Ethier.

Ryan Stewart Theriot -- 2B, SS

age: 27
bats: right

0.282 -- 0.350 -- 0.345

No power, but gets on base a decent amount. Not enough data to say anything about his defense; this is his first full year in the majors after a nice two months last year. He shares time at second and short, but gets more playing time than either DeRosa or Izturis.

Cesar David Izturis -- SS

age: 27
bats: switch

0.266 -- 0.328 -- 0.330

Man, it sucks that he's putting up a better line than Pierre. Weak.

Has the names of a Roman Emporer and Jewish King; swanky. His defense is also swanky, with excellent zone rating numbers from 2005, his last full year at short.

He is what he is; a slick fielding shortstop who hits like Alfredo Griffin. Izturis was another offensive anti-hero of the 2003 Dodgers. Please retire him many times, Dodger pitchers.

Jacque Dewayne Jones -- CF

age: 32
bats: left

0.243 -- 0.295 -- 0.333

Maybe he's good defensively, but he's not good at the plate. No walks, no power, not even that many singles. At least he's a contributor to the middle name battle.

These stats are actually low for him; he may well end up better. Overall I have to say I don't think the Cubs are overachieving on offense.

Michael Patrick Barrett -- C

age: 30
bats: right

0.252 -- 0.301 -- 0.437

He should end up slightly better than these numbers as well. He's started six games coming into the series with the Dodgers, so we may see light hitting backup Henry Ramon Blanco start one of the games.

Theodore Roosevelt Lilly -- P

age: 31
throws: left

ERA -- IP -- SO -- BB -- HR
2.69 -- 60.1 -- 54 -- 10 -- 3

Yes! A presidential middle name ... I'm stoked. I think SOSG needs to add him to the Abes team on the strength of his first and middle names. But of course, he's already on the Babes team thanks to Evangeline Lilly ... I say having the full name of a president embedded in your own name wins out. I think he should betray the babes at the last possible moment and hand victory to the Abes.

Lilly's stats are very nice. Will they last? His strikeout rate isn't too much out of line with career norms, though it is a bit higher than normal this year. But usually his walks are about half his strikeouts, and right now he's doing a lot better than that.

But even if his walk reduction is lasting, he's still overachieving. He's always been a fly ball pitcher, and this year he's allowing even more than usual, and yet his homeruns are way down from last year, when he gave up 28 in 180 innings. He's on pace for 9 in 180 innings this year, and that won't happen.

I really want to see the Dodgers hit a home run tonight, so please, Dodgers, don't be intimidated by his misleading home run allowed rate. The only pitcher who is allowed to wildly outperform his expected homers allowed is Penny!

In any case, he will be tough to hit, and Lowe better have his good sinker going tonight.

Carlos Alberto Zambrano -- P

age: 25
throws: right

ERA -- IP -- SO -- BB -- HR
5.61 -- 61.0 -- 43 -- 31 -- 12

His strikeouts are down, almost to parity with his walks. Just like Zito ... no wonder he wants Zito money!

His biggest immediate concern is those home runs, though. He's given up at least one in every single start save for one against, of all teams, the Reds! I just hope the Dodgers can take advantage of him. He's going up against Hendrickson, who actually has a better ERA than Zambrano.

There is speculation that he's carrying a shoulder injury, which the Cubs deny. I won't be surprised if there's something wrong with him, though.

Richard Joseph Hill -- P

age: 27
throws: left

ERA -- IP -- SO -- BB -- HR
3.38 -- 58.2 -- 54 -- 21 -- 10

I'll say this about the Cubs pitchers: they log a pretty decent amount of innings. Like Zambrano, Hill is allowing a lot of home runs, but he's mostly getting away with it. And the difference isn't in runners on when the home run is hit: Hill has given up 4 multi-run homers, Zambrano only 3. The thing is Hill shouldn't be giving up this many home runs based on his fly ball rate, which is high but not that high. So his luck sort of evens out.

Hill has been poor in his last three starts, but his K rate in those starts is still very good, so it's not as if he's going all Hendrickson on the Cubs after a nice April. The problem has been the home runs; 7 of his 10 have been allowed in the last three games.

I really think Wolf should be able to outpitch Hill in the battle of lefties on Sunday.

So, is the Cubs pitching overachieving? Maybe, even with Zambrano as bad as he's been. If the poor May performances of Hill and Marquis are an indication of things to come for them, and if Lilly regresses, then they may be in trouble, and never get a shot at climbing out of their unlucky hole. I don't think this team is quite as dangerous as their run differential would indicate.


I think I need to set more reasonable goals for the Dodgers. Even though they took 2 of 3 from the Brewers they didn't hit most of my goals for them in the last series. How about this: they win a game for me Friday night after I attended two straight Monday stinkers; Hendrickson doesn't fall off the mound on Saturday, and Sunday ends with a huge Saito smile in celebration.

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