I think it's fair to say the Cubs were a little cocky entering the year. It would've been hard not to be, though. This group just ended a historic 108 year World Series drought, and is young and talented enough to think they could win several more championships. But defending a title is hard. There's a reason baseball hasn't seen a repeat championship since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998-2000. Last season, without the weight of being the defending champs on their shoulders, the Cubs went 26-5 through their first 31 games. That's insane. This year, however, they went 17-18 through their first 35.
So what's gone wrong for the Cubs? I actually think a better way of looking at things is what's gone right? The answer is not much. Nearly every player on this team outside of Kris Bryant is playing worse than they did in 2016. That's not a great formula for success, in my expert opinion. The most noticeable regressions have come from the starting pitchers, which makes sense. That rotation has compiled so many post-season innings the past two Octobers that there's definitely a case to be made they were worn down entering the year.
Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks have been pitching much better as of late. I think those two are going to be fine. John Lackey is nothing special but he's at least going to compete and has pitched in tons of big playoff games, which makes him a more appealing option come October. The fifth starter job has been something resembling a revolving door. Brett Anderson, Mike Montgomery, and Eddie Butler have had turns. This is definitely the position the Cubs will be looking to upgrade come July. However, the key to a turn around might be the return to form of Jake Arrieta.
It's really hard to say what's going on with Arrieta. I've read a lot of theories. His velocity was down to start the year but it's ticked back up a few mph recently. I've read his mechanics are off, that he bulked up too much this winter, that he's simply regressing after breaking out so late in his career. The only thing I'm certain of is that he's gotten away from what he does best, which is inducing ground balls. Arrieta's strikeout and walk rates are both better than last year but his GB% has dropped from 56.2% in 2015 to 40.2% so far this season. His fly ball percentage has risen form 22.8% two years ago to 37.9% this year.
So Arrieta is now giving up a ton of fly balls, that's not the worst thing in the world is it? Well, on this Cubs team it kind of is. The 2016 Cubs were a historically good defense and a lot of smart people pointed out before this year that they were going to regress in this area. I just don't think anyone expected them to regress this much. However, the more you think about it the more it makes sense.
The Cubs lost Dexter Fowler this winter, a good defensive centerfielder. They replaced him with Jon Jay (who isn't great defensively) and Albert Almora (who historically plays a good centerfield but hasn't this year). The Cubs have also used Jason Heyward in center, but that takes away the value he brings to right field. Heyward playing center has moved Ben Zobrist to right field, but he is average in that spot. Yet the most glaring outfield weakness has been the defense of Kyle Schwarber in left who represents a massive downgrade from what the team had last year. So all of a sudden you look around and that historic defense from a season ago has downgraded in every outfield spot so far in 2017. Then you look at the fact that the team has so many outfielders to make room for that guys haven't been able to settle into roles.
And that's where another huge problem comes in. This team may have too much depth. Joe Maddon loves mixing and matching his personnel but there comes a point where guys just need their at bats consistently. Through their first 38 games Maddon used 24 different defensive lineups, which is a lot. There's something to be said for coming to the ballpark every day and knowing where you'll be playing and where you'll be hitting. Having depth is great because it keeps guys fresh and allows role players to become more a part of the team but at some point it can become a problem.
So how worried should Cubs fans be? Well I just spent several paragraphs talking about how their biggest problem might be having too much talent and nowhere to play everybody. That's obviously a good problem to have and it's why the Cubs will ultimately be fine. They have too many good position players who haven't started hitting yet. Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Zobrist, Schwarber are all due to heat up at the plate soon. The outfield defense is still a problem and they may have to trade for a starting pitcher if Arrieta doesn't turn it around, but the offense is due for some positive regression as the weather gets warmer. It's fun to jokingly ask if we're sure the Cubs are good but the answer is yes, we're sure.