Keys for the Cubs down the stretch

Colorado Rockies v Chicago CubsThe Cubs are coming into this week fresh off of a 9-game winning streak that was snapped by their crosstown rivals this past Sunday. It was their longest winning streak since 2008, which was also the last time the Cubs made the postseason. For the season, the Cubs are currently the proud owners of a 67-49 record; good for fourth best in Major League Baseball. The only problem is that two of the three teams with a better record than the Cubs are the Cardinals and Pirates, both of whom are also in the Central Division.

For the most part, the Cubs have been winning this year thanks to their starting pitching. Jake Arrieta is 14-6 on the year (those 14 wins are tied for the most in baseball) with a 2.39 earned run average and 0.99 WHIP. If he isn’t considered a Cy Young candidate, then something is wrong. Jon Lester is 8-8 on the season, but don’t let that record fool you. His 3.21 ERA and 1.18 WHIP are very respectable numbers. He has pitched much better the second half of the season after getting off to a slow start in April and May, and is now looking like the ace that the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him.

Jason Hammel has been one of the team’s more consistent pitchers all year despite a couple of rough outings as of late following his stint on the DL, and Kyle Hendricks has been up and down on the season but still owns an ERA under 4.00. Add in the acquisition of Dan Haren at the trade deadline, and you’ve got yourself a very respectable starting rotation with arguably the best one-two punch in the league.

If the Cubs want to continue their winning ways as the calendar turns over to September, that starting pitching will need to keep doing what they have been doing. However, not everything falls on their shoulders.

For the better half of this season, the Cubs’ offense has been underwhelming. Sure they have Anthony Rizzo whose stat line (.296 AVG, 23 HR, 68 RBI, .407 OBP) is among the best in baseball, but guys like Castro, Bryant, Soler, Fowler, and Russell have gone through some prolonged slumps that really hurt the Cubs at times. Some of that was to be expected, especially with the rookies who are still getting used to big league pitching and need to learn to adjust to it just like the pitchers have adjusted to them. But if the Cubs really want to be serious about making a run in October, the offense needs to stay clicking like it has of late.

Since the All Star break, the Cubs have seen their team on-base percentage, batting average, and OPS (on-base plus slugging) all rise by a fair amount. Guys like Dexter Fowler are getting on base much more often, and the addition of rookie Kyle Schwarber has been huge. One noticeable difference lately with the Cubs’ offense has been their tendency to see as many pitches at the plate as possible. They are not a free-swinging team like we’ve seen in recent years. They’ll have the opposing starter’s pitch count up into the 30’s or 40’s by the end of the second inning on a regular basis, which is extremely important.

Right now, the Cubs currently own a 4-game lead over the Giants for the second Wild Card spot in the NL, and sit just 2 games behind the Pirates for the top Wild Card spot. If the Cubs want to end the season as at least a Wild Card team, their offense needs to keep on rolling. The pitching has been there for them all season, but now that the offense has started to figure things out at the plate, we are seeing a big increase in win percentage. If they continue to play the way they have as of late, this will be a tough team to beat down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Here are my five keys to a strong finish to the regular season:

  1. Starting pitching. It seems obvious, but it’s undeniable. Without above average starting pitching, you have no shot. Arrieta and Lester need to continue leading the staff while the other three deliver quality outings more often than not. Getting six strong innings from Haren every fifth game would be huge.
  2. Keep getting on base. Everyone wants to look at batting average, home runs, RBI’s, etc. On-base percentage, however, is arguably the most important offensive statistic there is. If you’re not getting on base, you’re not scoring. Over the past month and a half, the Cubs have improved greatly in this category, and they need to keep that rolling.
  3. Bullpen. There are still some big questions regarding the Cubs’ pen. They have been using a “closer by committee” approach recently with guys such as Rondon, Motte, and Grimm all getting save opportunities. Rondon figures to be the best bet to be the closer, but even he still needs to find more control with his pitches right now. The bullpen has been better the second half for the most part, and it’ll need to be strong from here on out.
  4. Run prevention. The average fan does not think of defense when looking at what makes a team so good, but run prevention has become a prominent factor in deciding who the really good teams are in recent years. As a team, the Cubs have seen better defense this season than in previous seasons, and it is a big reason why their record is what it is. There is still room for improvement, though, and it will need to get even better starting now.
  5. Get some hot streaks. Rizzo has had some incredible streaks at the plate this year, and the Cubs will need other guys to follow suit over the last month and a half. If Soler can finally find his power and start putting baseballs into the outfield stands, and if Kris Bryant can somewhat close up that huge hole in his swing and string together a few solid weeks at the plate, this team will be in good shape.

Some of those keys may seem obvious, but that doesn’t make them any less important. This is a good Cubs team and the best one we’ve seen in seven years. Getting home field advantage for the Wild Card one-game playoff would be huge, and it is within their grasp.