The Cubs just aren’t very good

About a quarter of the 2011 season is in the books and the Cubs have performed about as we expected overall. The pitching, particularly the rotation, has been worse than we thought. Part of that can be explained by the injury to Randy Wells who is an above average starting pitcher. The pitchers they’ve used to fill in for Wells, and Andrew Cashner too, have been horrible. Ryan Dempster has a bloated ERA thanks to more than 20% of his fly balls allowed leaving the yard. Carlos Zambrano has been below average. The only pitcher in the rotation who has been any good is Matt Garza. (click the link below to read more)

The backend of the bullpen has performed as we expected. Sean Marshall, Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol have been very good, but the rest of the bullpen has also performed as expected. When the others in the bullpen consist of guys like John Grabow, Justin Berg, Scott Maine, and Jeff Samardzija, the bullpen isn’t very good. If you can get a lead or even keep it close and got to the first three relievers mentioned, the Cubs bullpen can look especially strong. If they don’t get 6 innings from their starter, the bullpen can look awful. This probably isn’t unique to the Cubs. Most teams don’t have excellent relievers filling out the bullpen. They have one, two and possibly three who you would want to use in a tight situation and the rest are kind of blah.

The Cubs offense has actually been better than expected, though that’s primarily because of a .328 BABIP (highest in baseball). That’s going to come down some. Only a handful of teams since 2006 have had a BABIP higher than .320 and none higher than .325. The Cubs have gotten unexpected production from Darwin Barney who, if you use rWAR and include EqBRR, is tied with Marlon Byrd for 2nd on the team in rWAR behind Kosuke Fukudome. They’ve gotten a strong offensive start from Starlin Castro, as well. In April, Alfonso Soriano hit a lot of home runs though his OBP was pathetic (still pathetic). Carlos Pena has picked up the home run slack in May after hitting none in April. Much of the Cubs offensive problems so far has been their inability to drive runners in. They’re hitting .295 wOBA with men in scoring position (75 wRC+).

Not too surprisingly, the Cubs defense has sucked. They’re tied with the Phillies for worst in baseball at -30 DRS. They’re 21st in UZR and 24th in Total Zone. While the Cubs batters lead the league in BABIP, the pitchers are second worst at .313. If you adjust that for park you get what Baseball Prospectus calls Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, the Cubs are tied for next to last with the Brewers and only trail the Astros.

Although the Cubs defense isn’t very good as a whole, much of the problem has been Starlin Castro. As a team, the Cubs are -10 in Total Zone. Castro makes up 90% of that. He makes up a large percentage of each of the four available defensive metrics (UZR, rDRS, fDRS, TZ). In fact, the Cubs have been -17.4 runs worse than average on defense if we average the four metrics. Castro makes up 27.1% of that.

I know it will get me in trouble around here, but it may be time to consider moving Castro to 2nd base at some point before the start of next season. Jose Reyes is a free agent after this season. He’s hitting well again. I’m not sure what kind of contract it would take to sign him, but he’s a pretty good ballplayer. Castro’s defense may yet improve, but it’s doubtful it will improve enough. Castro makes some great plays and is a lot of fun to watch. Even on defense he’s fun to watch, but fun doesn’t necessarily mean good.

It’s also important to remember that a move to 2nd base isn’t going to make Castro less valuable. Right now Castro is earning .75 wins per 700 plate apearances for being a SS. It’s the most difficult position on the field other than catcher. 2nd base is +.25, but defense improves moving from the left of the defensive spectrum to the right. On average, a SS is about 5 runs improved on defense at 2nd or 3rd base. It’s also possible Castro could be moved to CF. His range and strong arm may be of more value to him out there, but the Cubs do have Brett Jackson who is neary ready. If Castro is a 2 WAR player at SS, he’d be a 2 WAR player at 2nd base. He’d just get there in a slightly different way. Perhaps he’ll improve yet this season, but I wouldn’t count it. Most players as bad as Castro has been to this point haven’t.

Since 1950 there have been 62 players 23 and younger who have had at least 600 plate appearances and 90% of their playing time was at shortstop (see table below). Castro’s -21 fielding runs ranks 55th. Castro has had just 701 plate appearances. Every player worse had more. Some had significantly more. Wil Cordero was worst at -57. He had over 1600 plate appearances. If we do it based on playing time, only Cordero has been worse than Castro. Cordero also played other positions. Cordero didn’t play a single inning at shortstop after the age of 23. As a shortstop exclusively, based on playing time, no one has been a worse defender than Starlin Castro since 1950.

Other players nearly as bad as Cordero and Castro also didn’t last long at SS. Sonny Jackson’s last year playing SS was at the age of 25. He did play 17 games there after that, but he was a full-time CF at that point. Jose Offerman‘s best year on defense were at the age of 21 and 22 and by the time he was 26 he was a 1st baseman and then a utility infielder. Rey Quinones did not improve as he got older and because he was a poor hitter, he was out of baseball by the time he was 27. Andujar Cedeno played only sparingly after the age of 26 and wasn’t any better defensively. Derek Jeter‘s worst years were in his mid 20s and then he did actually improve though he was still not very good on defense. He should have been moved away from SS a long time ago. Mariano Duncan’s defense didn’t improve and he was no longer a full-time SS at the age of 24. Jay Bell’s defense did improve considerably. Don Kessinger’s defense also improved, especially between the ages of 24 and 30. Tom Verzyzer’s did not.

 

The point I’m trying to make is that defense is very much a skill and it’s unlikely a bad fielding position player is going to become a good one at the same position. It’s actually kind of remarkable that only a few of these players improved. You’d expect the worst fielding position players to improve like you expect the best fielding ones to get worse (regression to the mean). We can all hope that Castro pulls a Kessinger or Bell or even a Derek Jeter but at some point a decision is going to have to be made based on something other than hopes and dreams. I’m not suggesting the Cubs move Castro right now. I see no reason to move him there this season, but if he shows no signs of improving, I also see no reason why he should be at shortstop next season. The Cubs have an in-house option in Darwin Barney and if they want to spend some money they could go after Jose Reyes.

While we’re talking about Castro, let’s talk about his inability to take a walk. His non-intentional walk percentage (NIBB%) is 5th worst in baseball this season. Since 2008 his 4.0% NIBB% ranks 8th worst. nly 18 players since then have an NIBB% below 5%:  AJ Pierzynksi, Miguel Tejada, Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Cristian Guzman, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Delmon Young, Starlin Castro, Jeff Francouer, Freddy Sanchez, Ichrio Suzuki, Robinson Cano, Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Guillen, Adam Jones, Pedro Feliz and Erick Aybar. There are a few good hitters in there, but a lot of bad ones. Of those 18, none have a lower HR% (HR per AB) than Castro. Most of the players have hit at least 3 times as many home runs. Erick Aybar is the only other player of those 18 whose HR% is below 1% (Castro’s is .61%). You have to go down to 26th worst NIBB% to find Juan Pierre who has hit fewer home runs. Next up is Jason Kendall at 49th and Ryan Theriot at 56th. 97 players since 2008 have had an NIBB% below 10% (league average is around 7 to 7.5%) and only 5 of them have hit fewer home runs per AB than Castro.

None of this is to say Castro is a bad ballplayer. He’s not. He’s clearly shown he can hit for a high average so even taking so few walks his OBP will be better than average. He’s just 21 years old and has as many hits as anybody in baseball. That’s damn impressive. He’s also shown he can hit for some power, but it’s mostly gap power right now. There’s plenty of reason to think he’ll grow into more of a home run hitter, but even he doesn’t, his ISO isn’t bad. He’s hitting more than enough doubles to make himself more valuable than a guy like Juan Pierre or Ryan Theriot at the plate. Though most of the players whose ability to take a walk is as poor as Castro’s, few of them are actually as good at hitting as Castro is in terms of batting average.

I have no idea if that bodes well for the future or not. I have come to the unfortunate realization lately that Castro is never going to the superstar we wish him to become. I was well aware entering the season that he probably wouldn’t, but I still had hope that he would despite the skills that Castro lacks. Those skills he’s deficient in have become more clear to me. He is what he is. He’s going to hit for a high average, which will keep his OBP above average. He won’t walk much at all. He probably won’t hit for much power, but probably more than he has shown so far. He’s more than likely going to be moved away from shortstop. He’ll still be a very valuable player to this team, but not the superstar I think 99% of Cubs fans are expecting.

Here’s something else that will get me in trouble here: the Cubs need to consider eating the rest of Alfonso Soriano‘s contract at some point in the near future. I know it won’t happen, but as bloggers we talk about shit all the time that isn’t going to happen. Especially when we’re Cubs bloggers. Actually, half the shit we talk about won’t happen because the Cubs are a poorly run organization. It’s not that I actually think I could do better. I’m certain I could not, but I’m equally certain the organization could be run better than it has been or currently is.

Zapp talked about the possibility of disability insurance with regards to Soriano and we know that he isn’t going to qualify. At least not yet. When Soriano actually has to get in the wheel chair to get around the bases, which he’s not far from having to do, they could collect some insurance. That’s not something the Cubs can count on. It’s possible Soriano hobbles painfully around the bases for the next 3+ seasons.

Though it wasn’t going to happen, Soriano and Tyler Colvin should have been platooning this season from the start. Soriano can still hit lefties quite well, but is average vs righties. Average is OK if you can field decent, but Soriano can’t. He can out-hit his defense vs lefties, but not vs righties.

What happens when Brett Jackson gets called up? Soriano then isn’t even one of the three best outfielders. I highly doubt he is right now. Kosuke Fukudome and Marlon Byrd are each better than Soriano. Tyler Colvin can’t be much worse. If you consider Colvin’s ability to play CF, it’s fairly easy to believe that he’d be the better overall player once you factor in defense. The projections averaged a .320ish wOBA for Brett Jackson. If each player got 500 plate appearances (Jackson in CF, Soriano in LF), Soriano would be worth 1.3 WAR while Jackson would be worth 1.1. Then add in the defense and Soriano is no better than .5 to .6 WAR.

A .300 wOBA hitter in CF who is worth 7 runs above average on defense and baserunning combined is as valuable as Alfonso Soriano. That might be Tony Campana. CAIRO projected a .285 wOBA for Campana entering the season. Let’s bump that to .290 considering how good he was in AAA to begin the year. He’s known as a great baserunner and is supposedly pretty good on defense. How good would he have to be to be as good as Soriano? 13 runs above average per full season. So if Campana was, say, 3 runs better than the average baserunner and 10 runs better than the average fielder he is every bit as good as Alfonso Soriano.

I doubt Campana is that good, but the point I’m making is that the difference between the two is pretty damn small at this point. Ask yourself a question, which teams do you think would pick Soriano up if he was available for the league minimum? It’s hard for me to believe that any National League team would consider it.

I don’t know what the Cubs should do with Soriano, but I do know that I don’t want Soriano blocking any player from getting playing time. If he’s the third best outfielder, fine, but if you’re playing him or keeping him around because of the money then it will become frustrating. What stands out to me is that I’m even looking into the possibility of Tony Campana being as good or better than Alfonso Soriano. You know your team isn’t very good when that’s even worth looking into.

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