At midpoint of ‘20, Cubs ‘still in first place’

August 27th, 2020

The Cubs have already managed to squeeze a lot of ups and downs into this abbreviated season. There have been key injuries, breakout performances, uncharacteristic slumps and plenty more of the usual factors that are typically packed into a marathon campaign.

"We're still in first place," Cubs catcher said. "That's the most important thing."

Yes, following a 7-6 loss to the Tigers on Wednesday night, the Cubs have an 18-12 ledger at the season’s midpoint and are sitting atop the National League Central. Under first-year manager David Ross, Chicago has weathered the unusual circumstances of the 2020 season so far, riding the internal waves into prime postseason position.

"This is unprecedented. This is historic, what we're doing," Ross said of baseball's unique season. "And our guys are doing a great job. They're working. They continue to try to get better, as I've talked about. ... I'm extremely proud of this group."

Here's a look at the state of the Cubs through 30 games:

Lefty gave the Cubs five innings on Wednesday, allowing one run on eight hits with five strikeouts and one walk. His performance brought the rotation's ERA to 3.81 in 163 innings at the halfway point. Entering the day, Chicago's 3.4 rotation WAR (per Fangraphs) was third in the Majors. The group's walk rate (5.6 percent) was first.

Yu Darvish (5-1, 1.70 ERA) has pitched like an ace, and the staff has been solid overall while surviving some tough outings and injuries (Tyler Chatwood and José Quintana returned from the injured list Tuesday).

“They communicate so well and feed off each other, it's a really good group,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said earlier this season. “And they’re going to continue to push each other, too. I think that's the one thing. Everybody wants to go out and be that next man up and keep the ball rolling and keep this kind of train heading in the right direction.”

A five-run, seven-hit outburst by Detroit in the sixth came against and , who have emerged as reliable relievers for the Cubs in recent weeks. It was reminiscent of the early 'pen woes, which included a 9.75 ERA in 24 innings over the first eight games this year.

Wednesday night aside, Chicago's bullpen had experienced more of a return to normalcy going back to Aug. 2 with a 3.93 ERA entering the game in Detroit. Ross has refused to apply the closer label on anyone, preferring to mix and match with Craig Kimbrel, Jeremy Jeffress, Wick, Tepera and others.

"The picture is much clearer," Ross said. "And these guys continue to go out and prove themselves. I think that's one of those unique circumstances about a bullpen, is you've got to continue to go out there and perform. I think a lot of the early stuff, too, can be put on me as much as the bullpen."

Kris Bryant has been shelved lately with a left wrist injury. Stars like , and Contreras have endured some offensive slumps. The bottom of the lineup has been solid, Ian Happ has enjoyed an incredible start, and the group overall -- even in light of some issues -- has been one of MLB's most patient orders.

Going into Wednesday, the Cubs led the Majors in pitches per plate appearance (4.22) and were first in the NL in walks (122), but they also were first in the NL in strikeout rate (26.8 percent). The series finale showing in Detroit -- highlighted by a homer and a three-run rally in the ninth -- gave the Cubs a .228/.334/.403 team slash line through 30 games.

"We started really good," Contreras said. "And then we kind of slowed down offensively. I think that's something that we have to remind [ourselves] -- to slow down -- because we care so much that, a lot of times, we try to do too much. That's something that we need to work out as a group."

One of the first-place ingredients for the Cubs to date has been a strong defense all the way around. It is not at the elite level of the 2016 group, but Chicago ranked fifth in the Majors in defensive runs saved (16) going into Wednesday, according to the latest data from Sports Info Solutions.

The Cubs had positive DRS ratings at pitcher (two), catcher (two), first base (three), second base (two), third base (one), left field (one) and right field (one), with the lone negative being center field (minus one).

"When you have confidence in generating weak contact," Hottovy said earlier this month, "or even generating hard contact, and it's going to be hit at somebody or an athletic defender is going to take care of it -- it gives you the confidence that, no matter what the count is, you can execute the pitch that you want in that situation."