The Cubs head into a Sunday night matchup with the Red Sox with a 13-10 record, sitting in first place in the NL Central, having won six of seven series.  Things are going pretty well on the Northside, even if, perhaps, not as well as we'd expected.  One area of concern for most fans is probably the well-being of the starting rotation.  Collectively, Cubs starters have a 4.34 ERA, which ranks 22nd in baseball.  An inauspicious start, indeed, for a staff that put together a 2.96 ERA last year.  Last year's rotation was good at just about everything.  They ranked 5th in K/9, 6th in BB/9, 7th in GB%, 2nd in HR/9, 4th in FIP, 3rd in xFIP, 2nd in IP, 2nd in xwOBA2nd in average exit velocity, and 2nd in % of pitches that were "barreled."  It was a fair assumption that starting pitching would be a strength for the Cubbies in 2017, what with the staff being led by the second- and third-place finishers in Cy Young voting last year and another guy who won the award the year before.

So what's going on with the Cubs?  Let's start with the issue that Jeff Sullivan ponders in the linked article:  the velocity, or lack thereof.  Cubs' starters have seen large drops in velocity, across the board, in the early going.  Sullivan wonders if perhaps the Cubs have instructed their starters to take it easy out of the gate, in order to save some bullets for when things really matter.  Sullivan states:

That’s not something I can recall ever seeing, but I see how it might be a workable theory....Which would be very cool, and a little bit cocky.

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Kyle Schwarber is back playing baseball this year after missing nearly all of 2016.  The last thing you probably remember about Schwarber is his superhero performance in the 2016 World Series.  You may have forgotten about the strikeouts, though.  Strikeouts have been a bit of a problem for Schwarber during his time with the Cubs.  He struck out in 28.2% of his plate appearances in his rookie season.  He's striking out in 33.9% of his plate appearances this year.  That K% ranks 12th highest in the majors of qualified hitters.  Granted, he's still been a very good hitter, due to his power and ability to get on base.  But, he's really taken his Three True Outcome profile to the extremes in the early going this season.  Despite his high strikeout rate, he's still posted a 130 wRC+, largely thanks to his 17.9% BB%.  Though it's rather jarring to see a leadoff hitter striking out this often, Schwarber's .393 OBP is second-highest of 20 players with at least 40 PA while hitting lead-off.

If there's one thing you want from your leadoff hitter, it's probably for him to get on base.  Schwarber's filling his duties as a leadoff hitter, even if he's doing it extremely unconventionally.  But, I'm here to tell you that things are actually going even better than they may seem.  While his strikeout rate is way up, Schwarber's actually making a lot more contact.  The one major red flag with Schwarber in 2015 was his contact rate, particularly his contact rate on pitches inside the strike zone.  As Dave Cameron pointed out at Fangraphs:

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It's been awhile since we've posted an article here at NSBB.  In the meantime, if you haven't heard, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.  It's true:  The Chicago Cubs are defending World Series champions.  One of the contributing factors to the Cubs' championship run was Javy Baez's stellar play at various times during the post-season.  Most obvious during the playoffs were Baez's athleticism and keen awareness in the field.  He also produced some defining moments with his bat during times of considerable importance.  However, he did strike out 21 times in 71 PA.

Striking out isn't something new to Javy Baez.  He's always struck out.  A lot.  Except, right now, he isn't striking out very much.  To be fair, he's only had 20 PA in Spring Training, during which he's struck out but twice.  But he's also been playing in the World Baseball Classic, in which he's only struck out 3 times in 21 PA.  Before we get any further, I should mention that Spring Training stats really don't matter very much, if at all.  I think you all know that.  But it's important that I inform the reader that I, also, am aware of such.  So, even though I am writing an article about Javier Baez's Spring Training stats, let's all agree to not take much from this article.  I'm merely writing this to bring to attention something that might be worth keeping an eye on.

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 Kyle Hendricks has been really good this year.  You don't need me to tell you that.  But, I am going to tell you about it anyway.  What is to follow is the first in a two-part series about Kyle Hendricks' incredible season.  This article will focus on why Hendricks is so good this year.  My next article will explain how he's been able to pitch so well.

Hendricks has a 2.17 ERA and has already won 11 games -- a career high.  Right now, it's hard to imagine where the Cubs would be without Hendricks in the rotation.  Yet, Hendricks entered Spring Training fighting for a spot in the rotation with Adam Warren, who isn't even in the Cubs' organization anymore.  The Cubs returned the reigning NL Cy Young winner, a guy that signed a $155 million contract the year before, a newly-signed free agent who is the only pitcher to ever win the clinching game of a World Series for two different franchises, and another solid veteran who has now had three consecutive seasons with double digit wins and an ERA under 4.  Three of these veteran starters currently have an ERA under 3 and the other is at 3.56.  And, despite all of that, Kyle Hendricks has been the most dependable starter on the staff.

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If you've been paying attention, you've probably seen Kyle Schwarber's name come up a lot recently.  It's that time of the year; the trade deadline is near.  The Cubs would like to strengthen their bullpen.  The Yankees are overflowing with excellent pitchers in their bullpen.  It seems like a logical fit as far as trade partners go.  We've also found out that Brian Cashman is infatuated with Schwarber.  He apparently thinks Schwarber can hit 50 home runs in Yankee Stadium.  He thinks it's only fair to have Schwarber included in any deal involving the two teams.  This might help explain why Brian Cashman is in a position where he is contemplating selling off some of his superfluous, elite relief pitching.  He believes the going rate for a relief pitcher with two more years of control is a player that can hit 50 home runs and has five more years of control.

You have to give Cashman credit for one thing.  He's built a hell of a bullpen.  But, in his haste to keep the Yankees competitive, he's been late to adjust to this era where teams covet young players and understand concepts like years of control and surplus value in pre-free agency years.  In this post-PED era, players are better at a young age and decline earlier.  As such, young players are becoming more valuable.  Cashman's team is filled with old and deteriorating players and Theo Epstein's team is filled with young, blossoming players.  I'm sure Cashman would love to skim one of those players off the Cubs' roster.

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Yesterday, the Cubs completed a trade for Aroldis Chapman.  The Cubs' bullpen has been the weak spot for an otherwise excellent ball club.  The Cubs' bullpen ranks 20th in the majors in FIP and 14th in ERA.  There's no question that Chapman immediately makes the Cubs bullpen better.  Chapman has a career ERA of 2.12 and a career FIP of 1.96.  He's struck out over 15 betters per 9 innings in his career.  He throws the ball really fast, so much so that when MLB introduced Statcast to the masses last season, they had to include a Chapman Filter on the leaderboard of fastest pitches thrown, because otherwise the leaderboard would just be tracking every fastball Chapman pitched.  He also features a devastating slider.  Suffice it to say, Chapman is one of the most-dominant, most-feared closers baseball has ever seen.

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In the first two installments, I looked at what the Cubs could use to strengthen the team. The short answer is: a reliever for sure and a starter would be really good. Under perfect circumstances, a hitter could be added, too.

In this article, we'll look at the AL team by team to see how likely they are to sell and what players they may put on the market that could help the Cubs. 

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