The Chicago Cubs head into the all star break with the best record in the National League for the second time in three seasons.
With three Northsiders headed to DC for all star festivities, the 2018 All Star Game should be an entertaining one for Cubs fans.
However, four days without regular season baseball is always tough. So, while we have a moment, let’s reflect on the first half of Chicago’s season.
Similar to last season and even 2015, the Cubs got off to a slow start and had trouble producing runs during the chilly months of April and May. But, Chicago differentiated itself from these previous squads by cruising through the early Summer months. Thanks to explosive hitting and steady pitching, the Cubs went 25-15 after May 31st.
Chicago, which trailed Milwaukee in the NL Central for the majority of the first half, heads into the second half with a 2.5-game lead over the Brewers. This is the Cubs’ largest division lead of the season. The Cubs also lead the NL in runs (476) and their team ERA of 3.56 barely trails the Dodgers for best in the NL.
So, let’s take an in-depth look at the major takeaways from a first half that got better as it went on.
Offensive MVP: 2B Javier Baez.
Though plenty of Cubs players make a solid case for best hitter through the first 93 games, Javier Baez undoubtedly takes the cake. Not to mention, “El Mago” provided just as much entertainment on defense.
Javy leads the Cubs in home runs (19), RBI (72), hits (100), stolen bases (18), slugging percentage (.566), and OPS (.892). Baez also holds a very respectable .292 batting average.
Even though Javy hasn’t done much to improve his biggest area of concern, plate discipline, he is on pace by a longshot to set career-highs in every meaningful positive offensive statistic.
We obviously would love to see the 25-year old gain some patience at the plate. But, considering he is headed to the All Star Game and Home Run Derby despite striking out at a pretty embarrassing rate, the sky’s the limit for Baez if he can learn to hold off a little bit more at the plate. And there is no reason to think he won’t do this eventually.
From swim-style dives to tagging up on balls hit to the short outfield, Javy is making plays on the base paths that have essentially never been seen before. Baez, who has stolen home multiple times this season, truly has no fear when running the bases.
It will be fun to see how Javy makes his presence known in both the ASG and Home Run Derby. Baez heads to DC with a hit in 20 of his last 25 games.
MVP on the Mound: LHP Jon Lester
Despite being in the backend of his career, Jon Lester is pitching like he is in the midst of his prime.
In fact, Lester’s 12 wins and 2.58 ERA are both career first-half bests. En route to his fifth all-star game appearance, the big lefty has by far been Chicago’s ace.
Lester also set a personal record when he won seven consecutive games from May 29 to July 1st. The lefty hasn’t lost a start since May 23 as well. As part of this dominant stretch, Lester won NL Pitcher of the Month honors in June.
Lester went 5-0 in June with a 1.13 ERA and four quality starts. The 34-year old has shown no signs of physical regression. Lester even clubbed his second career home run against the Twins on July 1st.
Biggest Surprise: RF Jason Heyward
While Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer would probably tell you they aren’t surprised Heyward is finally producing, it’s hard to believe they weren’t worried when Heyward was still struggling offensively after a little more than two of his eight-year $184 million contract.
Defense has never been an issue with Heyward. That is what kept him in the lineup despite looking hopeless at the plate since 2016. However, the Cubs didn’t hand Heyward the 11th largest contract in baseball to only shine in the outfield.
Luckily, Heyward has finally started to hit like he did with the Cardinals in 2015 when he held a .293 batting average.
It was essentially more of the same from Heyward offensively until around June. The right fielder hit the DL on May 6th batting .227 and still was only hitting .222 on May 22nd.
But, Heyward put together his best month as a Cub in June by hitting .327 while knocking in 16 runs. Heyward has also come through with a number of game-changing, clutch hits. The New Jersey native provided Chicago with its most influential moment of the first half, which we will get into later.
Overall, Heyward is hitting .285 with six home runs and 41 RBI. Heyward is easily on pace to knock in the most runs and hit the most long-balls since he became a Cub in 2016.
Rising Star: CF Albert Almora Jr.
It shouldn’t be shocking to anyone that Chicago’s 2012 first-round draft pick is excelling on both sides of the ball. Almora hasn’t necessarily struggled since debuting in June of 2016. But, with plenty of depth in the outfield, it took Almora longer than imagined to play consistently.
Almora hit .277 and proved he can flash the leather in 2016. However, the outfielder only saw action in 47 games. Last season, Almora played 132 games and impressively hit .298. However, on most other teams Almora probably wouldn’t have sat for more than 10 games barring an unforeseen injury.
Finally, Almora has officially become an everyday outfielder for Chicago. And he has not disappointed. Almora’s .319 batting average leads the Cubs and is the third best in the National League.
The center fielder has been equally, if not more, impressive on defense. Quite frankly, Almora is the best center fielder Chicago has had in a while and could end up being the best in franchise history. It seems the 24-year old makes at least one highlight reel grab every game. It’s hard to tell if any ball is truly out of Almora’s range in the outfield.
Almora got snubbed from the All Star game. There is no need to worry though. Almora is only getting better and I’d be surprised if he didn’t get an invite next season.
Biggest Disappointment: RHP Tyler Chatwood
At least to me, Tyler Chatwood seemed like a sneaky offseason pickup for Chicago’s fifth starter.
The six-year starter’s numbers didn’t look spectacular on paperheading into this season. However, it had to be considered that Chatwood was pitching in hitter-friendly Colorado for four seasons.
With that being said, Chatwood had a road ERA of 2.57 over the 2016 and 2017 seasons combined. That number trailed only Clayton Kershaw for best road ERA during that span.
Also, it’s not as if the Cubs were asking Chatwood to be their ace, his expectation was to put up solid numbers for a back of the rotation starter.
Unfortunately, Chatwood has yet to settle in and has been painful to watch. The Redlands, California native leads the MLB in walks and has walked at least five in nine of his 17 starts. Chatwood has only lasted at least six innings in three starts and sports a horrendous 5.04 ERA.
It’s difficult to envision whether or not the Cubs will go after a replacement for Chatwood at the deadline. After all, Mike Montgomery proved he can be a solid fit in the rotation. The only issue with that is that there is no way Chatwood would be able to transition to a bullpen role. So, replacing Chatwood essentially means throwing him out the window completely.
We’ll see if Tyler can turn it around in the second half and at least be half-decent. He’s shown no signs of doing so yet.
Top 3 Moments From the First Half:
- 11-5 Win @ LA on June 28th.
This comeback victory was really meaningful for a number of reasons. The Cubs had lost six out of their last seven games going into this one and it seemed they were on the brink of another frustrating defeat.
Clayton Kershaw exited the game for the Dodgers with a 3-1 lead after five innings. Given the manner in which Chicago was playing at the time, it seemed the outcome of the game was determined.
However, after Kershaw exited, the Cubs erupted and earned a momentum building victory. Almora cut the deficit to one with a leadoff home run in the sixth inning. Addison Russell followed that up by battling to tie the game with a sacrifice fly.
Los Angeles’ wheels came off in the seventh when Chicago rallied for seven runs to take a 10-3 lead. Seven of the Cubs’ first eight batters in the inning reached base, helping Chicago cruise to a win.
This game started a major trend for the Cubs. a trend of comebacks and explosive offense. Chicago proceeded to score double figures in their next three games and win their next five games overall. All of which were in comeback fashion.
In fact, from that point on, Chicago went 11-3 to close out the first half.
- Huge Comeback vs Braves on April 14th.
Even though this game was extremely early in the season and didn’t impact the standings much, there is no way to avoid mentioning a comeback of this magnitude.
Chicago trailed Atlanta 10-2 in the sixth inning on a chilly April day at Wrigley Field before storming back for a 14-10 victory.
The Cubs chipped away a little in the sixth and seventh innings but were still behind 10-5 in the eighth inning. An absolutely absurd nine-run rally changed that.
The even wilder thing about the nine-run eighth inning was that Chicago scored each and every run that inning with two outs. Talk about a two-out rally.
Baez tied the game at 10 with a bases-clearing three-run double. Then, the next four Cubs walked to give Chicago a 12-10 lead. The inning was just as ugly for the Braves as it was pretty for the Cubs. Atlanta hit two batters and walked five. Regardless, the comeback was amazing for Chicago.
- Heyward Walk Off Grand Slam vs Phillies on June 6th.
It really doesn’t get better than a walk-off grand slam with two outs, two strikes, and your team trailing. This moment was also a major turning point for Heyward, who went on to have an outstanding first half.
The game was tied at three heading into the ninth inning before Brandon Morrow let up two runs on a Dylan Cozens home run. Heyward saved the day by launching the game-winner to right center on a 2-2 offering from Adam Morgan.
Heyward went on a four-game hitting streak after this game, three of which he recorded multiple hits in. Chicago’s right fielder also raised his average from .261 to .285 over the next 31 games to close out the first half of the season.
- Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Eddie Herz is a senior journalism major at Colorado State University. He has been a beat reporter for CSU's newspaper, the Rocky Mountain Collegian, since he was a freshman. Eddie has also contributed to the BTPowerhouse.com, a sister website of SBnation. Eddie will be the CSU Football beat reporter for the Rocky Mountain Collegian this coming Fall.
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