10 things we learned about the 2022 Cubs in April
MILWAUKEE — The Cubs began and ended the first month of the 2022 season against the same opponent (Brewers) but the results were vastly different.
In the season-opening series, the Cubs came close to a sweep, beating reigning Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes and All-Star Brandon Woodruff in the process.
The Cubs closed the month on a down note, dropping a pair of games to the Brewers in Milwaukee by a combined score of 20-2.
The Cubs kick off May with an 8-13 record but their run differential was +16 entering play Friday.
Part of that is the huge 21-0 win on April 23 but the Cubs spent most of April in nearly every game. Seven of the 13 losses have been by 1 or 2 runs and they’re hoping to turn the corner in May.
“We want our record to be better,” David Ross said. “We gotta clean up some things. We gotta clean up on the bases. We gotta clean up some of the mistakes we made in the field.
“If we do that, we’re 2 or 3 games above where we’re at, in my opinion.”
So with a month in the books, let’s take a look at what we’ve learned about this Cubs team so far:
1. Seiya Suzuki is a star.
This was the single most important development for the Cubs in the first month of 2022.
Coming out of Spring Training, there were many legitimate questions about how Suzuki would adjust to major league pitching and how long it might take before he looks comfortable.
It took all of a few hours to answer those questions emphatically.
The 27-year-old outfielder collected a hit in each of his first 3 games, including a home run off Brewers starter Freddy Peralta. Suzuki also walked 4 times in the opening series and showed off his incredible batting eye and strike zone judgement.
Even more than that, Suzuki has been a consistent ray of sunshine in the Cubs clubhouse from his wholesome dugout reactions to the dynamic between him and translator Toy Matsushita.
“They’re a deadly combo,” Ian Happ told Taylor McGregor Saturday. “The five-second delay for the joke to hit ’cause Toy will laugh and then he’ll translate it and then Seiya will laugh. It’s a really good skit they got going.”
He’s a good defender, he runs well, he’s incredibly polite — Suzuki has all the makings of a bonafide star that should be a big part of the next great Cubs team.
2. This isn’t a finished product.
OK, so maybe this isn’t necessarily something we “learned” in April but moreso a pertinent reminder. One month hardly defines a season.
In addition to the areas Ross wants to see cleaned up, he is also able to take a big picture view at the first month of the season.
Given the rushed nature of Spring Training after the lockout ended, the Cubs put an emphasis on health and protecting their players in the early going.
They looked at the first two weeks of the regular season as sort of like the final two weeks of spring in that they didn’t want to push pitchers too far. At the same time, they wanted to keep some position players healthy with regular rest — particularly guys like Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal, who were hampered by injuries in 2021.
“We’ve got a group that I believe can win a lot of baseball games,” Ross said. “We’ve got a group that plays together. We’re just gonna continue to pitch and play defense. I think those are some of staples that show up every single day. If we do that, we’re gonna be alright.”
3. Ian Happ has picked up right where he left off – and then some.
Happ’s 2021 season got off to a tough start but after the trade deadline, he was a completely different player.
In the final two months, he hit .288/.363/.581 (.944 OPS) with 15 of his career-high 25 homers.
That level of production has carried over into 2022, as Happ finished April with a .317/.429/.460 (.889 OPS) batting line.
And there’s actually even more development going on under the radar.
Amid his hot stretch in August and September last year, Happ struck out 29.6% of the time and walked 9.9%. This season, his whiffs are way down (19.5%) and his walk rate is up (15.6%).
He has also made strides from the right side of the plate and settled in as a major asset defensively in left field:
Ian Happ just made another great play in LF to rob Lorenzo Cain of a hit.— Tony Andracki (@TonyAndracki23) May 1, 2022
He's off to a great start defensively this season, and explained to @Taylor_McGregor why before the game today:https://t.co/3S4hXiMUZz pic.twitter.com/e4cxw1tsQ0
4. If the Cubs are going to turn things around in 2022, the starting rotation will be the key.
Last season, the Cubs had trouble consistently getting long outings from their starting pitchers and that sometimes put the bullpen in a hole.
Jed Hoyer’s front office worked to address that issue in the offseason, acquiring veterans Marcus Stroman, Wade Miley and Drew Smyly for the rotation.
But the issue has still persisted, as the Cubs starting staff accounted for 90.2 innings in April, which ranked 24th in baseball.
The short starts have been a byproduct of underperformance, as the Cubs enter May ranked 27th in the league with a 5.56 rotation ERA. That’s going to be a major focus as the Cubs look to right the ship.
“Good starting pitching is gonna need to happen,” Ross said. “Everything goes with how those guys set the tone on the mound.”
There is reason for optimism with regards to the rotation.
Miley is nearing a return from an elbow injury (he threw a bullpen in Milwaukee Sunday) and Smyly has been as advertised so far. Stroman had a couple bumpy starts his first few times out but finished the month strong and started May off on a spectacular note.
Kyle Hendricks and Justin Steele have shown flashes but are still searching for consistency.
Steele was only able to last 3 innings in Saturday’s start but a big part of that was the defense behind him and he said he actually felt about as good as he has all season.
He knows the rotation needs to step up.
“Everybody wants to take that next step forward and start getting deeper into games, give the bullpen a break,” Steele said. “It’s coming.”
5. Kyle Hendricks isn’t panicking.
Hendricks is a huge part of the rotation’s success and though he had a bumpy April, the Cubs’ ace feels like there is plenty of room for optimism.
He struggled in the first month of the season last year, too, posting a 7.54 ERA in 5 April starts before turning it around.
The 32-year-old right-hander begins May with a 5.47 ERA after allowing 6 runs and 3 homers in 4.1 innings Friday against the Brewers.
But this is not like last year.
“In general, there were a lot of positives [in April],” Hendricks said. “More positives than where I was at last year. I feel like I am in a good spot. When I do the right things — the things I’ve been working on — it’s right. I see angle, I see bad swings, I’m off the end of the bat.
“But when I’m not right, it’s just the inconsistency that’s bothering me right now. Locking it in and getting consistent is what I gotta be.”
Friday was a bit of a speed bump, but Hendricks threw a gem in his penultimate April outing — 7 shutout innings against the Pirates during that 21-0 blowout. It was vintage “Professor” — not walking anybody, needing only 76 pitches through 7 innings.
If he can turn in more outings like that, it will go a long, long way for this Cubs team.
6. The bullpen is settling in.
The Cubs completely remade their bullpen over the winter, signing a slew of veteran arms.
There was no clear closer in place entering the season, but it didn’t take long for roles to become defined and Ross to get the most out of the unit.
The relievers allowed 10 runs in 8.1 innings to end the month but even with that, the 3.53 bullpen ERA ranks 16th in baseball. The Cubs bullpen has the best strikeout rate in the game (30.4%) and a Top 10 walk rate (8.5%).
David Robertson has been perfect as the closer (0.00 ERA, 4 saves, 0.58 WHIP). He picked up his 5th save on the first day of May Sunday, shutting down the Brewers for 4 outs in a 2-0 victory.
Here’s where Robertson ranked among the game’s best pitchers in April:
Mychal Givens, Chris Martin and Rowan Wick help set the table and rookie Scott Effross has been very productive (1.80 ERA, 0.80 WHIP).
“He’s done a really nice job,” Ross said. “A guy that’s had a long road to get to this spot and is willing to whatever we ask. He’s been a phenomenal piece and someone we’ve relied on in leverage so far.”
Oh yeah, and another guy has pitched well…
7. Keegan Thompson is a serious weapon.
Thompson burst onto the scene with the Cubs early last season as a multi-inning reliever. He was later sent down to the minors to stretch out as a starter and returned in the rotation, where he struggled a bit (5.51 ERA).
This season, the Cubs chose to keep Thompson as a reliever out of the gate and it has paid major dividends.
The right-hander didn’t allow a run until his final appearance of the month and begins May with a sparkling 0.54 ERA. He’s missing bats (17 strikeouts in 16.2 innings) and hardly allowing baserunners (0.84 WHIP).
It’s a real asset for the team, as Ross can utilize Thompson in many different ways. He can come in as a piggyback option behind a lefty (like Smyly or Steele) and face a lineup stacked with righties. Or he could be a bridge to the late-inning arms.
Or Thompson could simply eat innings and keep his team in the game, the way he did on April 22 with 4 shutout frames against the Pirates.
8. This really is a different style of offense.
We knew this team was going to have a much different look than the lineups the Cubs have rolled out over the last few seasons. And we saw that come to fruition in the first month.
The 2022 Cubs are built a lot more on contact than previous iterations. It has come at the expense of some power, but again, that’s to be expected.
Let’s compare how the Cubs offense looked in April this season to the first month of last year, when perennial All-Stars like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Báez were still in town:
2022 – 75.9% (14th in MLB)
2021 – 73.2% (24)
2022 – 22.7% (15)
2021 – 26.9% (26)
2022 – .250 (5)
2021 – .216 (25)
2022 – .335 (2)
2021 – .309 (16)
2022 – .387 (11)
2021 – .388 (14)
2022 – .721 (7)
2021 – .697 (14)
“I thought us controlling the strike zone early against really good pitching is a signature of ours that hopefully sustains over the season,” Ross said.
That’s not to say there’s no room for improvement for this lineup.
The Cubs didn’t finish the month the way they had hoped, scoring only 1 run in 4 of the last 5 games of April. Strikeouts also ticked up against the Brewers, including 15 in Saturday’s loss.
Entering May, Ross wants to see the Cubs get back to the early-season at-bats.
“I’m constantly reiterating the message of: ‘be yourself. Do you. Have your at-bat. Control the strike zone,'” Ross said. “The core beliefs that our hitting guys and we believe here as an organization coupled with just these guys being themselves.”
9. Some exciting young players are taking the next step.
A big focus of this season is trying to determine pieces for the future.
A month in, we’re seeing some interesting developments in that area.
We’ve already talked about Effross’ and Thompson’s success. Young reliever Ethan Roberts made the Opening Day roster and pitched well overall before a hiccup in Atlanta last week.
Alfonso Rivas has earned more playing time with exceptional production and drew his first career start in the leadoff spot Sunday.
A pair of 27-year-olds — Suzuki and Happ — figure to hold down the heart of the lineup for a while (Happ is a free agent after next season).
And then there’s this guy…
10. Nico Hoerner looks like he could be the long-term answer at shortstop.
That might be something of a bold statement, as 20 games is relatively small sample size.
But Hoerner has proved doubters wrong and certainly looked the part at the most important infield position in the early going.
His arm has impressed, he gets rid of the ball quickly and his range has been above average. That has led to 2 Defensive Runs Saved so far this season.
Coupled with a .281 average and Hoerner was worth 0.7 WAR by FanGraphs’ metric in April.
Hoerner — who turns 25 in May — is a big part of the Cubs’ future no matter what position he plays, but if he can hold down shortstop, that could be a game-changer for the organization.