Chicago Cubs have been full of surprises in first half

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester has been the star of the pitching staff through the first half of the season with a record of 12-2 and an ERA of 2.58. Lester was named an all-star for the fifth time in his career.

    Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester has been the star of the pitching staff through the first half of the season with a record of 12-2 and an ERA of 2.58. Lester was named an all-star for the fifth time in his career. Associated Press

  • Chicago Cubs' Jason Heyward has been better at the plate so far this season, with a line of .285/.344/.431 with 6 homers, 41 RBI and an offensive WAR of 1.0.

    Chicago Cubs' Jason Heyward has been better at the plate so far this season, with a line of .285/.344/.431 with 6 homers, 41 RBI and an offensive WAR of 1.0. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 7/17/2018 1:04 PM

In the Joe Maddon era as manager, the Cubs have had a better winning percentage at the all-star break than they do now once: in the world-championship season of 2016, when they were 53-35.

Surprised?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Maybe you shouldn't be. After all, the Cubs were the consensus preseason choice to win their third straight National League Central title and make their fourth straight postseason appearance.

But the ways the Cubs have arrived at a record of 55-38 and a 2-game lead over the second-place and free-falling Milwaukee Brewers might make this record a bit surprising.

After all, for the second year in a row, there were cries of, "What's wrong with the Cubs?" during April, May and into June.

These are the biggest surprises -- some pleasant, some not so pleasant -- for the Cubs in the unofficial first half of the season, which is 57.4 percent complete for the North Siders.

Bryzzo no longer the headlining act:

If you had preseason picks for which players would represent the Cubs at Tuesday's All-Star Game, no doubt Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo would be the top two choices.

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But they're not going. Bryant battled injury in the first half, and he goes into the break with a line of .280/.384/.482 with 10 homers and 40 RBI. His offensive wins above replacement (oWAR) is 2.0. Not bad but not great.

Rizzo has struggled at the plate as evidenced by his line of .246/.341/.407 with 12 homers, 61 RBI and an offensive WAR of 0.1.

The two players going to the Midsummer Classic are Javier Baez and Willson Contreras. Baez is a midseason MVP candidate with a line of .292/.326/.566 with 19 homers and a National League-leading 72 RBI. Baez's offensive WAR is 3.5, and he has dazzled on the basepaths and in the field.

Contreras, whom Cubs manager Joe Maddon calls the best catcher in baseball, is at .279/.369/.449 with 7 homers, 34 RBI and an offensive WAR of 2.2.

If the Bryzzo team gets back on track in the second half, it could be a fun few months at Wrigley Field this summer and into the fall.

Rotation roulette:

When the Cubs signed Yu Darvish on the eve of spring training, many believed they had the best starting rotation in the National League.

It hasn't worked out that way. Cubs starting pitchers are 33-28 with an ERA of 3.88, sixth best in the NL. They have only 36 quality starts compared with 57 non-quality starts, and that is not good for the bullpen.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The standout, by far, is 34-year-old Jon Lester, who on Sunday ran his record to 12-2 with a 2.58 ERA. Lester is an all-star for the fifth time in his career (he will not pitch in the All-Star Game because he pitched Sunday).

As far of the rest of the rotation, Kyle Hendricks (3.92 ERA) has shown better signs of late, but he has struggled with his mechanics. Jose Quintana (3.96 ERA) has been up and down.

No. 5 starter Tyler Chatwood, whom the Cubs signed to a three-year free-agent deal last December, is 3-5 with a 5.04 ERA and a WHIP of 1.77, thanks in part to 73 walks allowed in 84 innings.

The Cubs need to get Darvish off the disabled list and into form as soon as possible, but that may not be until early August. Darvish has been on the DL effective May 23 with right-triceps tendinitis. The Cubs signed Darvish to a six-year, $126 million deal, and he is 1-3 with a 4.95 ERA.

Lefty Mike Montgomery has provided depth, and he may force the Cubs to make a choice between him and Chatwood whenever Darvish comes back.

The world's largest bullpen:

Bullpens are the most fickle part of baseball teams each year. With new closer Brandon Morrow aboard and questions about others, it was only fair to wonder about the Cubs bullpen.

But this has been a pleasant surprise for the team.

Morrow is 22-for-24 in save chances, and the Cubs' bullpen's ERA of 3.09 is second in the NL to Arizona's 2.85.

Most surprising is that the Cubs have effectively expanded their bullpen from eight members to up to 14 (not all at once, of course) through the use of their "Iowa shuttle" to and from Des Moines, site of their Class AAA affiliate.

These relievers, who did not open the season with the Cubs, have contributed to the first-half success: Luke Farrell, Justin Hancock, Cory Mazzoni, Rob Zastryzny, Randy Rosario and Anthony Bass.

That these pitchers have minor league options has made the Iowa shuttle workable.

Change in attack:

The Cubs offense enters the break ranked first in the NL in runs scored, batting average and on-base percentage. They're third in walks.

The big surprise is that the Cubs are 10th of 15 NL teams in home runs, with 100.

Last season, the Cubs ranked third in homers.

Maddon has voiced his distaste for the "launch-angle revolution" numerous times this season in favor of "moving the baseball." It took awhile for the teachings of new hitting coach Chili Davis to kick in, but they've been on display for the last month or so.

Hey-hey Heyward:

Many fans and media may have written off Jason Heyward as an offensive force after two lackluster years at the plate.

Perhaps because of his work with Davis, Heyward has experienced an offensive renaissance, with a line of .285/.344/.431 with 6 homers, 41 RBI and an offensive WAR of 1.0. After posting OPS-plus figure of 68 and 84 in each of his first two seasons with the Cubs, Heyward is at 104 (with 100 being league average).

Maddon has pointed to Heyward's hands getting through the hitting zone more effectively. A move to near the top of the batting order has followed. This version of Heyward looks more like the one the Cubs envisioned when they signed him to an eight-year, $184 million contract before the 2016 season.

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