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3 small-sample Cubs storylines to keep watching

Ryan Herrera Avatar
April 20, 2023

Following a 12-2 win to finish off a sweep of the A’s on Wednesday in Oakland, the Cubs are officially over 10 percent of the way through the regular season.

With an 11-6 record, they’re just two games back of the Brewers in the National League Central. If the season ended Wednesday, the Cubs — with an eye-opening, NL-leading plus-39 run differential — would be the NL’s top Wild Card team.

The Cubs were expected to be a more competitive bunch in 2023. Thus far, they’ve met that expectation. But while it was assumed run prevention would play the biggest part in any success they might have, the Cubs have played at a high level in basically every facet of the game.

Now, you shouldn’t put too much stock into the first 17 games of the season. Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint, and any early-season run can flip quickly. That’s why they play 162.

Still, there are some trends from the early going that are worth monitoring. Will they continue on for the rest of April, let alone for the rest of the season? That remains to be seen.

Though there are a number of storylines surrounding the Cubs right now, here are three to keep watching more than 10 percent of the way through the season (all stats are official heading into Thursday).

Wisdom’s power surge

Anyone who’s watched the Cubs since May 2021 knows the raw power Patrick Wisdom brings to the lineup.

Between his 2021 debut on May 25 that year through the end of 2022, Wisdom put up some of the top power numbers in the majors — 53 home runs (tied for 17th), a .248 isolated power (12th, measured as slugging percentage minus batting average) and a 48 percent hard-hit rate (21st). A high strikeout rate came with the territory, but that slugging ability was something the Cubs lacked for much of that time.

And to start 2023, Wisdom is slugging at another level.

Wisdom hit five homers in the first four games of the Cubs’ West Coast trip (three in Los Angeles, one in Oakland), the first Cub to hit five in a four-game span since he did so in ’21. That also gave him eight home runs through the Cubs’ first 15 games of the year, which put him in rare company in franchise history — only Lee Walls (1958), Hank Sauer (1954) and Gabby Hartnett (1925) have accomplished the feat before.

As it stands, Wisdom’s eight homers on the year are tied for the major league lead, while his .475 ISO and his .754 slugging percentage both top the leaderboard. As much as power has always been present during his Cubs tenure, not many would’ve expected Wisdom to be arguably the top slugger in MLB.

This run may not last much longer. Wisdom has “cooled off” considering he didn’t homer in the last two games in Oakland (that’s a joke, of course), and he has gone through big cold stretches in his career. But for now, Wisdom and the Cubs are enjoying this ride.

Stroman, Steele leading stellar starting group

The Cubs left the West Coast trip with their starters owning a 2.66 ERA, the best mark in the NL and third-best in MLB. The group also owns MLB’s lowest hard-hit rate (31.1 percent) and sixth-lowest WHIP (1.15).

It was assumed the rotation would one of the better groups in the majors, but it has already outperformed expectations. Still, Nos. 3-5 in the rotation (Jameson Taillon, Drew Smyly and Hayden Wesneski) haven’t all been at the top of their game each time they’ve taken the mound. Really, the performances from Marcus Stroman and Justin Steele are what have this rotation pitching at an elite level.

  • Both Stroman and Steele have earned quality starts in each of their four outings in 2023
  • Both are also in the top four in ERA among NL starters: Stroman’s 0.75 mark tops the league, while Steele’s 1.44 checks in at No. 4
  • Per Statcast, Stroman hasn’t allowed a single barrel in 57 batted balls, and Steele’s 3.2 percent barrel rate is fifth in the NL
  • Stroman has a ground ball rate of 61.4 percent (1st in NL), and Steele isn’t far behind at 56.5 percent (6th)

The Cubs don’t necessarily have an “ace” on the roster. Nobody in the current rotation is often involved in the yearly Cy Young conversation.

But four times through the rotation, Stroman and Steele are pitching like they belong there. They may not have the elite velocity other top-tier starters can turn to, but they have the stuff and the command to get outs. They’re pitching like one of the elite duos in MLB.

And if these two can avoid the injury bug (which cost them both chunks of 2022) this season, there’s a very real chance they can continue to pitch at least near this level for a while.

Ongoing first-base struggles

The two veteran first basemen the Cubs brought in this winter, Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer, have performed among the worst first-base units in the majors.

They have a combined 50 wRC+ (No. 27 in MLB) and a -0.8 fWAR (No. 29). They’ve hit the ball on the ground at a 62 percent clip, by far the highest percentage in MLB. They have the fifth-lowest hard-hit rate (35 percent), the second-lowest barrel rate (1.3 percent) and the fourth-lowest OPS (.554).

Despite hitting his first home run of the season Wednesday, Hosmer’s performance (78 wRC+, big league-leading 67.5 percent ground ball rate) hasn’t garnered much faith that there’s more in there. However, he’s still been more effective than Mancini (26 wRC+), who’s just looked lost at the plate. There’s a lot of time left for him to improve, but it has not been a promising start.

And if they continue to underperform, the calls for a Matt Mervis promotion will continue to grow louder.

In 13 games with Triple-A Iowa this season, Mervis is slashing .267/.426/.533 with three home runs, 13 RBIs and more walks (13) than strikeouts (11). It’s been a continuation of his breakout 2022, when he put up a .984 OPS with 36 homers and 119 RBIs across the top three levels in the Cubs’ system. The more Mervis mashes in the minors, the more fans will demand he finally get the call.

Though this writer would argue it’s probably too early to give up on the veteran first-base duo, continued struggles from Mancini and Hosmer combined with more Mervis success may lead to a Mervis call-up sooner rather than later. This may be the most consequential storyline to monitor over the coming weeks.

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