The Chicago Cubs have the best record in baseball with 40% of the season already played. So are my Cubbies really a contender? To check I'll look at the role luck is playing in the outcomes
of the Cubs games to date and how Cubs players are performing compared to their career and recent history. Obviously the evaluation with be Sabermetrics based (in case that's a problem I'll define everything I use at the end), I'm strongly pro stats in football so it's not a stretch to guess I like them in a sport with more conducive format and where statistical analysis based management has brought success (why the Red Sox and A's are by 2nd and 3rd favorite teams: they are doing it right/righter so deserve success).
So lets start with the good, the offense. The Cubs lead the national league in runs scored, hits, doubles, batting average and on-base percentage.
The Cubs top performer offensively has been Aramis Ramirez. He's batting .299/.416/.507 for a OPS of .923, OPS+ of 137 and a VORP of 20.5 so far (on pace for 51.3).
So can Aramis keep that up?
In his four full seasons with the Cubs (I'm not using career numbers because he's clearly improved since he was one of the 5 youngest players in the majors in his first two years with the Pirates and because I think his over 2,000 place appearances in that time is a solid base to work from) he's never had a OPS+ lower than 126. His career best is 138. Last season his was 129. So overall he's performing outside of what is expected from his previous years.
How about how is he doing it?
His batting average his a bit below the .305 he's hit in the last four years combined and down from .310 last year, but not far out of line at .299.
His OBP is at a career high smashing .416. His previous best is .373, he's already topped his walk total from 2005. He's about 50 points over his OBP for the last 4 years. Why is he walking so much more and why isn't he having a career year since he is reaching base so much more?
His SLG average easily answers the second question. .507 is 40 points lower than he's ever hit in a full season in Chicago, which was last year. So he's getting on base a lot more, but hitting for less more for a total of a bit more production than he's averaged the last 4 years. Aramis Ramirez like the Cubs team as a whole is walking a lot more. The why I'll talk about in the end.
Alfonso Soriano was suppose to be the (expensive) solution to the Cubs offensive problems. How's that working out?
284/.330/.550 OPS .880, OPS+ of 123 and 5th in VORP at 16 runs (on pace for 40). Soriano is doing pretty well after a slow start. The OPS+ is an exact match of last seasons all-star performance, despite all three of his slash stats being worse (I'm assuming that would show he's been playing in less hitter friendly parks so far this season). His batting average, OBP and SLG are all in the range set by his last 3 seasons. So that monster contract is working out well so far.
So Aramis has been the most productive, but what about the face of the Cubs over the last few seasons, Derrek Lee?
He's hitting .283/.337/.509 for an OPS of .846, OPS+ of 115 and a team leading 14.3 runs of VORP (on pace for 35.8, 6th on the team) .283 is a 34 point drop from last season and a far cry from 2005 where he pushed for the triple crown (1st BA, 2nd HR, 7th RBI). Lee has averaged .308 in his four (really 3 1/3 since he missed 2/3rds of 2006) previous seasons with the Cubs. Even worse is Lee's .337 OBP. His OBP for his 3 full seasons as a Cub is .391. Lee isn't getting hits and isn't walking (as much he's still an above average hitter).
Finally some normalcy in his SLG. .509 is only a few points off of last year and is only below his .550 SLG for his Cub career because of his insane .662 SLG average in 05. The slugging average isn't out of the usual of his career or far from last year, but because Lee's batting average has dropped while his slugging stayed the same Lee is hitting for more power.
Lee is having his worst full season as a Cub so far, is nowhere near is amazing 2005 and has dropped off significantly from last year. He is hitting for more power, but walking and reaching base on hits less often.
So a star is underperforming but the team is still doing well, that means unexpected heros. Who are they?
Mark DeRosa is hitting .309/.397/.490 for an OPS of .883, an OPS+ of 128 and is second on the team in VORP with 19.7 (pace for 49.3). All of those would be career highs. DeRosa has been an above average hitter at his position only twice, though they were the last two seasons. After two slightly above average seasons it's not unreasonable to expect a 34 year old to be above average, but him being the second most valuable hitter on your team is a surprise. If you are looking for a Cub to fall off his current pace, DeRosa is it.
What about the rest of the lineup
Ryan Theriot looks more like the guy that put up an OPS+ of 135 in 53 games in 2006 than the well below average 74 OPS+ player last year. His line to date is .321/.400/.384 .784 OPS 104 OPS+. An average hitter at the shortstop position is good for a pile of VORP, 5th on the team with 15.9 (39.8). Theriot still isn't hitting for any power like in 2005, but his batting average is back up and he's walking a bit.
Centerfield is the Cubs offensive weak spot with Felix Pie, Reed Johnson and Jim Edmonds all grading out as below average hitters, though Reed Johnson is above replacement level in center and Edmonds has been a touch above average for a centerfielder.
Edmonds .265/.321/.449 .770 OPS, 96 OPS+ so far as a Cub. Edmonds hasn't been above average since 2005, but was above average for 11 of the 12 seasons before that, usually by far.
Johnson .267/.342/.364 .706 OPS, 83 OPS+ Johnson is playing better than last season, but worse than his career OPS+ of 94.
Pie can't hit. .222/.286/.286 is awful .572 OPS, 49 OPS+, negative VORP and that's about what he did last year too.
Off the bench, Ward and Hoffpauir have been above average hitters. Cedeno and Blanco have been above average offensively for their positions. Fontenot has been above replacement level.
The Cubs came into the season with two highly touted rookies. There isn't really anything to compare them to, to see if their performance is sustainable, but how are they doing anyway?
Geovany Soto is hitting .281/.371/.538 OPS-.909 132 OPS+ third on the team in VORP with 19.3 (48.3 season). Soto's nearly tripled his career major league at bats already this season, but in 54 at bats last year he had an OPS+ of 175 and came into this year as a ROY frontrunner, so this season so far isn't totally out of the blue.
Kosuke Fukudome is hitting .295/.398/.424 for an OPS of .822 an OPS+ of 113 and is 7th in the team in VORP with 11.8. Kosuke leads the team in walks (but is second to Aramis in reaching base without a hit thanks to Ramirez's 7 HBP to go with a high walk rate.)
The Cubs were 15th in the NL in walks last season. Why are they walking so much more now? Well, what changed. Kosuke Fukudome and Geovany Soto are now every day players. Both walk at a high rate. Soto draws a walk about once every 11 place appearances, Fukudome every 7. That's well above the league average. Fukudome and Soto are both in the top 20 in the majors in walk rate. So the Cubs added two guys that walk a lot, but that doesn't totally explain the team's huge jump in OBP and the rise of other Cub's walk numbers, Aramis, DeRosa and Theriot are in the top 30 in walk rate. The reason for those is that walks are contagious. by definition a walk requires at least 4 pitches. Most hitters don't average 4 pitches per place appearance, so taking a walk wears down a pitcher in addition to getting a runner on base and not making an out. Worn out pitchers aren't as good and very worn out pitchers get replaced by relievers who are generally relievers because they aren't good enough to be starters. If one (or two) players walks more it decreases the quality of pitching the rest of the lineup faces, increasing all of their offensive numbers.
So D-Lee is underperforming, DeRosa is playing over his head, but generally what the Cubs are doing is reasonable compared to their careers. The Cubs offense looks like it's for real.
Slash Stats (.###/.###/.###): the most common way of listing a players offensive production. Batting Average/On-base percentage/Slugging Percentage. A good quick way to see/say how a player is hitting and what type of offensive player they are.
Batting Average: Hits divided by place appearances. (H/PA) The percent of the time a player gets a hit (when he doesn't walk, sac bunt/fly, or get hit by a pitch).
On-base percentage (OBP): The ability of a player to not make an out. Sounds pretty important doesn't it? Sounds really really important. The number of times a player got on base divided by the number of times he came up to bat. (Hits+Walks+Hit by pitch)/(PA+Sac+Walks+HBP)
Slugging Percentage (SLG): like batting average but weighted to measure power. Singles=1, Doubles=2, Triples=3, Home Runs=4. Total bases divided by plate appearances.
On base Plus Slugging (OPS): On base percentage plus slugging percentage. A quick and dirty way to measure a players hitting ability. Not perfect because OBP is more important the SLG (a quick why paraphrased from Moneyball,
"a team with a OBP of 1.000 would get on base every at bat so would score an infinite amount of runs each inning since none of the batters ever make an out. A team with a SLG of 1.000 would likely score less. Two outs, followed by a homerun and another out would score only one run but would give an SLG of 1.000."So OBP is more important than SLG, both are better the batting average and OPS combines them for a rough measure of a hitters value.
The league leader in OPS is usually a bit over 1.000
Great hitters are in the .900s.
Good ones in the .800s
Bad "you better be amazing defensively" in .600s
Awful "you don't belong near the majors" under .600
OPS+: like OPS but better, OPS+ is adjusted to take into account different stadiums which have different effects on offensive production. An OPS of 100 is exactly average, 110 is 10% better than average, 90 is 10% below average. A more complete measure of a players offense on an easier to understand scale.
VORP: Value Over Replacement Player. Like OPS+ in that it values a hitters offensive production but it takes into account a players position, but not defense at that position, a great defensive SS is the same as hide-your-eyes bad SS. The number given is how many more runs a player produced for their team more than the team would get calling up the average AAA player at that position. A catcher, shortstop, or pitcher that hits well is more valuable than a first baseman, left fielder or DH because it's harder to find players to can play that position and hit well.