The Best and Worst of Chicago… What’s Wrong With The Cubs

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If you can't even make a McDonald's Start, perhaps retirement is best.

Recently, I’ve decided that I need to see a few more baseball parks throughout the country. While I love Wrigley, I feel like I owe it to myself as a sports fan to branch out and become more well-rounded (I swear that makes sense in my head). Since I’m never going to sit through a baseball game that doesn’t include the Cubs, I decided to take a trip to St. Louis to watch my North-Siders battle our bitter rivals. 

So at the end of July I made the trek to Busch Stadium (with a Cardinals fan, no less) to witness what I had hoped to be a Cubs win. It was not. An Albert Pujols home run and a 13-5 drubbing left my Cubbies at 42-65, 23 games under .500 and approximately 456 games out of first place.

The putrid display in this game, which included scoring 5 runs in the first inning (only to be no-hit for the rest of the game), general confusion in the field (Marlon Byrd missed his cutoff man from center no less than 4 times), and the lack of energy from the fielders made me ask a very simple question: “What the hell is wrong with the Cubs??”

Well, in just 20 short days after that painful day, I have the answer for you. It’s really quite simple… our starting pitching sucks. Amazing, right? I don’t need any advanced metrics or a Ph.D. to make you understand this; I will simply use one stat: quality starts.

John Lowe from the Detroit Free Press is given credit for inventing this stat, which is defined by 6 or more innings pitched while giving up 3 or fewer runs in that time.

While there are many stat-geeks who hate this stat, I think it’s pretty simple and extremely effective. A three run deficit (the absolute worst-case scenario in a QS) is not insurmountable. More than likely, you’re in the ballgame, and if your offense is average, you’re probably winning at this point (MLB average runs per game is 4.26). The point is, you’re in the ballgame.

Now, a quick caveat… the point of looking at quality starts is to say that if you are in the game after 6 innings, you have a chance to win. What happens if the starter only makes it 5+, but battles and only surrenders 3 runs? This is where I’m going to make up my own stat. It’s technically a near-quality start, but that doesn’t sound good, so I’m calling it a “McDonald’s Start” (because their stuff is near quality? It’s a stretch, I know, but go with it). I’m defining this stat as pitching into the 6th inning while giving up 3 or less earned runs. My philosophy: if you can get there, and let a bullpen guy save your butt, then we still have a chance to win.

So where do the Cubs fall? Well, after the July 30 massacre at Busch Stadium, Cubs starters had combined for 40 quality starts in their first 107 games, and added just 12 McDonald’s starts. What does that mean? It means the Cubs had about 52 realistic chances for wins in their first 107 games. Their record? 42-63.

So these stats are a pretty good indicator of your chances to win. When you factor in your bullpen throwing a couple of these games away, or not being able to hold runs in a McDonald’s start, or running into a pitcher who is just dealing, and I think we can account for the 10 game difference in the data.

Now, let’s look at these last 17 games. The stats: 12-5 overall, 9 quality starts, 5 McDonald’s starts, 7-2 in quality start games, 4-0 in McDonald’s starts games, 1 blown save. Those are pretty good stats for the Cubbies, who had a seven-game win streak and had won every series up until dropping 2 of 3 recently to the Astros (that sentence hurt to write).

So, Jake, what’s the point? I’m glad you asked. There is one start I want to look at in particular. August 12, 2011, Carlos Zambrano vs. the Atlanta Braves. His stat line: 4.1 IP, 8 ER, 1 retirement accusation. It is starts like this that absolutely kill your chances to win. I watched this game, and our fielders just looked like they wanted the game to be over. No one wanted to be there. Now, if Big Z had figured out how to keep that line to 5.0 IP, and only 3 ER, the entire demeanor would have changed, I’m convinced. This team WANTS to play hard. They just need a pitcher who will help them out a bit.

Look, I’m a Cubs fan, and thus an eternal optimist. But I really think this team isn’t that far off. But we MUST spend money on top pitching this winter. Matt Garza was a nice enough start, but I’m talking an all out ace. My pick? Mr. King Felix Hernandez. I’d much rather gamble on an ace than take on another Alfonso Soriano contract. Pitching doesn’t always win you ballgames, but it certainly keeps you from losing them.

So please, Tom Ricketts and Jim Hendry, do the right thing. Let’s go get some arms. I’d like to walk out of a visiting stadium to silence from the home patrons, not the jeers I got in July.

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