Chicago Cubs have second half to bounce back

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta throws in the first inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Sunday, July 2, 2017, in Cincinnati.

    Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta throws in the first inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Sunday, July 2, 2017, in Cincinnati.

 
 
Updated 7/4/2017 7:29 AM

After the Chicago Cubs scored a hard-earned victory Thursday to gain a series split in Washington, manager Joe Maddon was asked if that could spark the team.

"We'll see," Maddon said.

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Most big-league managers will tell you this about momentum: It all depends on the next day's starting pitcher.

The Cubs promptly went out and lost the next two games at Cincinnati, reaching the halfway point of the season Saturday with a record of 40-41.

They won Sunday to get back to .500, ending a stretch of 17 of 20 games away from Wrigley Field.

The halfway point of the season is a good time to look at how the Cubs compare at the same point with the world-championship team of a year ago. What we find underscores the importance of that managerial axiom about starting pitchers.

Through 81 games last year, the Cubs were 51-30 and on pace for 102 wins. They eventually finished with 103.

At the time, the Cubs were going through their roughest stretch of the season (6-15), one that began June 20 and lasted until a July 10 victory at Pittsburgh leading into the all-star break.

Even so, the Cubs were in much better shape after 81 games a year ago than they were this year. Let's take a look at some of the key areas:

Quality starts:

There's no diminishing the importance of quality starts. If you get them, you usually win. If you don't, you usually lose.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Through 81 games last year, the Cubs had 54 quality starts. The team record in those games was 40-14, and the starters ERA was 1.62. During the 6-15 stretch, the Cubs had only 6 quality starts, and they went into the break with a streak of 10 non-quality starts.

The rotation righted itself after the All-Star Game.

By comparison, this year's Cubs team had only 32 quality starts through 81 games. The team was 24-8 in those games, and the starters' ERA was 1.89. In the 49 non-quality starts this year, the Cubs are 16-33, and the starters' ERA in those games is 6.62.

Jake Arrieta kicked off the second half of the season Sunday with a quality start in a Cubs victory, and they'll need many more of those in the second half.

Health:

Nobody likes to use injury as an excuse, and nobody wants to hear about them, but injuries can contribute significantly to a team's performance.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Last year the Cubs were fortunate to have suffered no devastating injuries after the season-ending knee injury to Kyle Schwarber in early April.

The Cubs did miss leadoff man Dexter Fowler from June 20-July 22, the worst stretch of the season coming during Fowler's absence.

The 2016 starting-pitching staff was remarkably healthy, with John Lackey going on the DL in August. In the first half, it was pretty much clear sailing.

This season the Cubs have been without ERA champion Kyle Hendricks since early June with a hand injury.

On the position-player side, right fielder Jason Heyward has been on the DL since June 22 with a hand injury. It's his second stint on the DL.

Infielder-outfielder Ben Zobrist just came off the DL after being bothered by a wrist injury since late May. The Cubs have missed both veterans.

The offense:

The Cubs have been trying to find their stride offensively from the beginning of the season. It shows in the numbers, especially when compared with last year.

Through 81 games last year, the Cubs had a run-differential of plus-149. This year it was plus-10 after 81 games.

As Maddon points out almost daily, the starting pitching also contributes to run differential.

Through 81 games last year the Cubs had a collective .346 on-base percentage and a .432 slugging percentage, good for a .778 team OPS.

In the first half this season the Cubs had a collective .323 on-base percentage and .415 slugging percentage, good for a .738 team OPS.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo enters Tuesday's series opener against Tampa Bay with a line of .258/.386/.507 with 19 home runs and 51 RBI. Entering the second half of last year Rizzo was batting .282 with 20 homers and 61 RBI.

Third baseman Kris Bryant goes into today with a line of .263/.391/.511 with 16 homers and 32 RBI. Last year at the halfway point Bryant was batting .277 with 23 homers and 61 RBI.

The good news for the Cubs in all of this is that they reside in the NL Central. The Milwaukee Brewers entered Monday leading the division with a record of 44-40.

Of the 80 games remaining, 42 are against N.L. Central foes, or 53 percent. The Cubs are 21-14 against teams from the N.L. Central, a .600 winning percentage and the best record of any NL Central team against its own division.

Also, of the 80 games remaining, 57 are against teams currently owning a record that is below .500, or 71 percent.

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