Tuesday Trends: Surging Outfielders, Slumping Stars Highlight Another Middling Week

It’s hard not to feel a little down on the Cubs these days, right?

While they’re still in first place, that 13-3 start feels like ancient history. From looking like they might be one of baseball’s elite teams, they seem to have fallen instead into the ranks of National League teams categorized simply as “not the Dodgers.”

To be fair, there are worse places to be. The NL had similar groupings last year and the league was notably won by “not the Dodgers.” The odds of that happening this year given the wonky playoff format are probably even higher.

There are, however, a number of an individual performances worth keeping an eye on as the Cubs try to get back on the right track. Let’s check out some of them.

Trending up

The entire outfield: In recent years, one of the Cubs’ biggest obstacle in assembling a good offense has been a lack of consistency from their outfield group. Kyle Schwarber was outstanding for parts of last season, but in general the team has struggled to get consistent production from the outfield. That has certainly not been the case lately.

Over the last seven days, Schwarber, Jason Heyward, and Ian Happ have combined for 10 home runs and an OPS well north of 1.000. With the resurgence of Heyward, the Cubs have mostly found their everyday group. Being able to pencil the same three guys into the outfield more or less every day is a significant change from the past several years and has paid huge offensive dividends over the last week.

Holding steady

Yu Darvish’s Cy Young odds: I can’t even put him as “trending up” anymore because there’s just no room for him to trend any further. He’s completed at least six innings in every start since his opening weekend effort against Milwaukee and he’s been outstanding in each and every one of them, surrendering no more than a single earned run in any given outing.

He’s allowed only two home runs, isn’t walking anybody, and is striking out nearly 11 per nine innings. Literally what else do you say at this point? In dispatching Trevor Bauer  and striking out eight Reds in six innings in Saturday’s start, Darvish prevailed over the man who might be his nearest competition for the NL’s Cy Young Award.

To say that being in contention for that award halfway through his third season in Chicago is one of the best redemption stories in years would be a massive understatement.

Trending down

El Mago’s magic: It’s really hard to know how to react to results in a 60-game season. In one way, with 30-ish games out of the way we’re just getting started. In another, we’re north of the season’s 50% mark and you have no choice but to take the results to this point seriously. It’s early, but it’s not.

I’m more inclined towards the latter view point. If you are too, you have no choice but to be extremely concerned about Javier Báez’s performance. the overall numbers are extremely ugly: Javy is slashing .202/.246/.371 over the course of the entire season. Over the last seven days it’s actually… maybe better? He’s slashing .214/.233/.464 and smacked a couple of home runs in the series against Detroit.

It’s ugly any way you slice it, and his 34.9% strikeout percentage would easily be his worst since his rookie year in 2014. Cubs Insider’s Brendan Miller wrote about how the infielder has generally been swinging less at pitches in the zone than in the past. What’s more, when he has swung at pitches in the zone, he’s swinging through them at a significantly higher rate than in the past.

That is a staggering increase. Pitches that he used to hammer in the zone are now becoming called strikes or getting swung through. It’s no small problem.

The road to the Cubs’ success absolutely requires Báez to play a big role, so no reason to entertain the idea of not playing him or even playing him significantly less. However, we’re past the point where moving Javy out of the upper-third of the lineup should be considered.

Craig Kimbrel’s bounceback: Aw man, it looked good for a while, didn’t it? Kimbrel looked sick against the Cardinals on August 19, striking out all three batters he faced. He followed that up with scoreless outings against the White Sox and Tigers over the last week and change in which his stuff continued to look good despite continued issues with walks (three in 1.2 innings pitched).

All of that momentum was smashed to a halt in Saturday’s outing against the Cincinnati Reds. In blowing the save while recording just two outs, Kimbrel walked three and threw as many wild pitches, including the third and final which led to the Reds’ winning run. A true nightmare of an outing.

The stuff continues to look significantly better than it did earlier in the season, but these results are getting tough to swallow. Even as the stuff has improved, Kimbrel’s ability to avoid walks largely has not. The closer’s 13.50 BB/9 is comically untenable and will not permit the veteran to be successful no matter how much speed he can get onto his fastball or how much snap he can get onto his curveball.

It’s a gargantuan problem and one that will be hard for the Cubs to justify allowing him to work out his issues in anything but the lowest leverage of real game action.

Despite these problems, the Cubs find themselves in an enviable position. With multiple games separating them from the teams chasing them, the team remains the favorite to win the division crown. That they’ve been able to get to this position despite the struggles of several big name players implies the potential for even greater success if those players can turn it things around.

Here’s hoping for just that.

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