At 4-5, the Chicago Cubs aren’t necessarily coming out of the gates hot, especially after dropping two of three to the Pittsburgh Pirates this past weekend — two of which were blowouts. Let’s take a look at the body of work as we give the Cubs their first offensive progress report of the season after nine games.
While this is covered in more detail on the Pinwheels & Ivy Podcast, there is plenty to be concerned about despite it just being nine games in. Problematic may be a better word, and a majority of issues will clear up over a larger sample size.
Offense: Ghosting in the Big Moments
Other than third baseman Kris Bryant and shortstop Javy Baez, the Cubs offense has been a collection of failure. And, while KB and Javy are by no means tearing it up, the Cubs have still managed to manufacture enough runs to hover at near .500 despite one of the worst offensive starts to a season in quite some time.
Bryant is doing what Bryant does: getting on base. Last year, when KB took a pitch outside of the strike zone, 24% of the time, it was still called a strike. Only Brandon Belt was close (14%) in 2020. In 2021, the strike zone has returned for KB, allowing him to work into 3-1 fastball counts instead of being forced into a 2-2 count after getting jobbed by a ball being called a strike.
The results have been six extra base hits (two homers, four doubles), which has him already nearing his 2020 production, especially in doubles (he hit five in all of 2020). He has set the table, taken five walks, has a .361 OBP and has scored five runs while driving in another four. He has been the most production player on the roster thus far.
Baez has also been decent, after a slow start in the first series. Javy ripped a solo homer for the Cubs’ only run Sunday, after he collected a pair of hits on Saturday. The walk-year shortstop leads the team in average (.242) and RBI (six) but only has a .286 OBP with a team-high 15 strikeouts in just 33 at-bats. Still, in a field of underperformers, Javy’s numbers dwarf a majority of the roster.
While Baez isn’t far behind but has seemingly drawn more ire than recent seasons with his failure to show better plate discipline. In his three strikeouts Sunday, Javy swung and missed at just one pitch inside the strike zone. Every other strike (including one on a ball 18 inches off the plate and in the dirt with one out and a runner at third) was out of the zone. He is actually hitting more groundballs this season than any of his career (61.1% vs his previous high in 2019 at 49.9%) while striking out almost 50% of his at-bats. That must improve until the rest of the lineup gets straight.
But KB and Javy aren’t the problem. The rest of the lineup has been a minefield of failure. When you take away KB and Baez’s numbers, the Cubs lineup is batting a collective .145. Hideous. Anthony Rizzo and Ian Happ have just four hits, new addition Joc Pederson has just five, and David Bote — who “won” the starting 2B job over red hot Nico Hoerner — has just two hits all season. Thanks to a pair of hits on Sunday, Willson Contreras was able to bump his average to .200, making him the third Cubs starter hitting .200 or better.
Not great, Bob. The Cubs are going to need to put up more than 2.9 runs per game, their current clip. Hopefully manager David Ross and hitting coach Anthony Iapoce can start pushing the right buttons. With the hottest hitter of Spring Training, Hoerner, playing exhibition games as the Cubs front office plays service time games once again, somebody is going to have to snap out of it.
Individual Player Grades:
- Ian Happ (D+) — .160 BA, .323 OBP, 4 R, 1 RBI: In spite of his struggles in the leadoff spot, Happ still is taking walks (6) so he is finding ways to be productive when he struggles, hence the “+” on his D. Gonna need a better OBP in that leadoff spot so hopefully Happ will start adding base hits to his walk rate.
- Willson Contreras (C-) — .200 BA, .364 OBP, 4 R, 3 RBI: After a pair of hits Sunday showed some progress, his average jumped to .200 and, thanks to three HBP, his OBP is not bad at all. He is getting on more frequently than Bryant and FAR more frequently than Javy. A hot Contreras, paired with solid KB and Javy could be enough to sustain the offense until the rest of the group figures it out.
- Anthony Rizzo (D+) — .133 BA, .250 OBP, 3 R, 2 RBI: After so much was made about contract negotiations during a relatively uneventful Spring Training, Rizzo isn’t performing like fans expect. While his low average is one thing, his lack of reaching base has been noticeable. The veteran leader is one of the few you can trust to figure it out and adjust sooner than later.
- Kris Bryant (B) — .233 BA, .361 OBP, 5 R, 4 RBI: KB looks like KB. He’s seeing the ball well, taking walks, working counts and hitting the ball much harder in 2021 than he did at any point in 2020. Bryant’s MO is a virtual back and forth all season, so — when KB drops down to .233 — fans can expect a solid stretch to bounce it back to the upper .270s or better. Six extra base hits already, KB has been the most consistent hitter on the roster thus far and he isn’t remotely playing his best baseball.
- Joc Pederson (D) — .138 BA, .188 OBP, 1 R, 4 RBI: The newly-acquired LF hasn’t been the same beast he was in Spring Training, when he homered in what felt like every at-bat. In spite of his struggles, he has been able to stay somewhat productive in RBI chances, with a few sac flies and RBI groundouts. Pederson bet on himself in taking a pay cut to play every day, even vs. lefties, so he’s gonna wanna heat it up. Luckily, Pederson is a notoriously streaky hitter so we can expect a “Jocsplosion” soon.
- Javy Baez (C) — .242 BA, .286 OBP, 4 R, 6 RBI: The Javy shine is wearing off for many fans. The wildness of “Javy being Javy” in the past is becoming a frustrating exercise in discipline and team approaches in the batters box. Javy has frequently failed to get it done in key moments by chasing balls out of the zone. Still, he has three homers and is coming off a decent weekend in Pittsburgh. His grade would’ve been higher if he hadn’t failed to score a few runners from third with less than two outs. There is plenty of room for progress.
- Jason Heyward (D) — .172 BA, .226 OBP, 1 R, 2 RBI: After a solid 2020 where it felt like J-Hey finally settled in as a consistent part of the Cubs offense. Feels like he’s taken a few steps back, at least in the numbers game despite quite a few hard hit balls not going his way. His defense hasn’t lapsed but, with the return of pitchers hitting, the seventh spot in the lineup becomes extra valuable. Heyward is gonna have to get it going ahead of David Bote/Eric Sogard and then the pitchers spot.
- David Bote/Eric Sogard (F) — .118 BA, .184 OBP, 2 R, 3 RBI: When manager David Ross said David Bote and Eric Sogard “won” the starting 2B platoon roles, a majority of Cubs fans were wise to the front office playing service time games with the player who clearly won the job in Spring Training, Nico Hoerner. The gamble has failed miserably (karma, maybe?) as both players have combined for just four hits while Hoerner cooled down his progress playing simulated games in South Bend (the Triple-A season opens May 4). One thing is for sure, this is proving Bote is NOT the answer if the Cubs were to trade or move on from Kris Bryant after 2021.
- Cubs Pitchers (F) — .000 BA, .000 OBP, 0 R, 0 RBI: I mean, are you shocked? The Cubs pitchers have struck out nine of the 13 plate appearances. Whether or not you’re a fan of the DH or not, this is the setup for 2021, so hopefully the pitchers will be in more positions to move runners over and be valuable in their hideousness in the batters box. That will be progress. Kyle Hendricks has the only sac bunt so far, which is more an indictment of Bote/Sogard than the pitchers themselves.
- Bench (C-) — .182 BA, .308 OBP, 2 R, 1 RBI: Jake Marisnick is starting to make a play for more opportunities. The former Astros and Mets OF has outperformed every single outfielder on the team (.300 BA, .417 OBP, 2 R, 1 RBI) but innings are sparse behind Happ-Heyward-Pederson. Matt Duffy and Tony Wolters haven’t been raking but still are taking more walks than even Javy Baez has. Bench guys have a tough role. Losing Bote in what he did best also hurts the “bench mob.” Still, when your bench guys are getting on better than three times out of 10, it’s not the worst thing in the world.
With the Milwaukee Brewers series opening today, it doesn’t get any easier as the Cubs will be facing Freddy Peralta-Brandon Woodruff-Corbin Burnes at Wrigley North. These numbers may actually get worse before they get better but stranger things have happened for the progress for the Cubs may be a week out. Right now, it’s a watchful waiting approach with a side of hopefulness as so many of the starting nine struggle to make progress and get their sea legs early in the 2021 season.