Chicago Cubs: April 2016 in review

With Saturday’s game being rained out, that means the Chicago Cubs have officially completed the month of April. The Cubs finished the month at 17-5, their best 22-game start since they went 18-4 in 1907, on their way to finishing 107-45 and winning the World Series.

The Cubs were the consensus best team in the league on paper heading into the season, so this fast start isn’t a total shock. Still, that doesn’t take away from how impressive they’ve been. Here’s a look back on what’s happened so far:

What went right: The Cubs haven’t just been winning; they’ve been dominating. Not only do they have the best record in the majors, but their run differential is a staggering +79. The next highest total is +44, by the 12-11 St. Louis Cardinals.

It all starts with the pitching. Heading into play on April 30, the Cubs led the majors in ERA, both overall (2.39) and by starters (2.27). Jake Arrieta has been the most talked about player in the game so far this year. After winning the NL Cy Young Award last year, he’s followed that up by going 5-0 and allowing just four runs in 36 innings, including a no-hitter in Cincinnati on April 21. Jason Hammel and Jon Lester have also been dominant, while Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey have been decent with room to improve.

The bullpen overall has been good too, but honestly it’s hard to draw many conclusions because they haven’t had to work a lot since the starters have been so good. The bullpen has only pitched 53 innings, by far the fewest in the majors. (The league average is 73, while the Arizona Diamondbacks lead the league with 101.1.) Adam Warren and closer Hector Rondon both have yet to allow an earned run in seven appearances.

On offense, the Cubs are second in the majors with 136 runs scored. A big reason why is the patience their hitters are showing, as they’ve drawn a league-leading 121 walks. Dexter Fowler (1.087 OPS) has been getting it done at the top of the order, while Anthony Rizzo (.961 OPS, eight home runs, and 24 RBIs) looks like he will be in the middle of the MVP discussion this year. Kris Bryant has followed up his NL Rookie of the Year campaign with a solid April, though he’s currently day-to-day with an injury.

Meanwhile, the bench has been outstanding. Manager Joe Maddon is going to have a hard time keeping Tommy La Stella (1.203 OPS in 29 plate appearances) out of the lineup moving forward. Matt Szczur, who is only still on the roster due to a series of unforeseen events, has become a fan favorite with a .993 OPS and 10 RBIs in just 30 plate appearances. Javier Baez has shown promise in his part-time role, while David Ross has been far from the near automatic out he was last year.

What went wrong: It’s hard to find much to complain about when your team is 17-5. Kyle Schwarber has to be at the top of the list, as he suffered a season-ending injury in just the third game of the year. That opened the door for more playing time for Jorge Soler, but he’s struggled, posting just a .610 OPS, and may sit on the bench more in favor of Szczur and La Stella. Starting catcher Miguel Montero is also on the disabled list, though he also was somewhat of a disappointment early on (.649 OPS).

What’s scary for the rest of the league is that there is still room for this offense to improve. Ben Zobrist (.356 slugging percentage), Addison Russell (.343), and Jason Heyward (an abysmal .271 with zero home runs) haven’t contributed as much as hoped, though they’ve all been taking walks and playing well on defense. Batting with runners in scoring position continues to be a concern. After batting .236 in such situations last year, finishing 28th out of 30 teams, this year the Cubs are not much better at .246. If they can start doing a little better in these situations, look out.

There have been few concerns with the pitching staff, but one thing I am curious about is how the bullpen will respond if they need to be stretched out more later in the season. They haven’t yet had to deal with a lot of high-pressure situations and haven’t had to make up for injuries or ineffectiveness from the starters. At least they will be rested for later in the year (and hopefully the playoffs).

What to expect moving forward: It would be nice to see a few more players on offense step up a little more, but besides that the team is clicking on all cylinders. The fact that Matt Szczur had the key hit – a grand slam – in their latest win shows that this is a complete team that can send any of their guys out there and be confident they can get the job done. Joe Maddon and the coaching staff deserve a ton of praise for creating such an environment.

The Cubs are currently on pace to win 125 games, which would shatter the all-time record of 116. They’re not likely to keep up that pace, but given the disparity between the good and bad teams in the National League right now, there’s plenty of reason to believe they are well on their way to making a return trip to the postseason.

One minor cause for urgency, for lack of a better term, is that the NL Central will be strong once again. Despite having the majors’ best record, the Cubs lead their division by “only” 3.5 games since the Pittsburgh Pirates are also playing well. The St. Louis Cardinals, though 5.5 games out, also figure to put pressure on the Cubs throughout the year. It would be nice to hold onto that division lead so the Cubs can avoid the one-game Wild Card round.

Of course, once we get to October, anything can happen. But for now, let’s enjoy what a great time it is to be a Cubs fan.

Brian R. Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, available now on Amazon. Click here to visit him on Facebook.

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