Fixing the Cubs Offense

The Cubs offense isn’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard. Despite a .711 team OPS in June (narrowly, the best of any month to date), they’ve scored only 100 runs in 26 June games. In fact, 74 games into their season, they’re on pace to score fewer than 650 runs for the campaign. They could keep this up and still score 30-odd runs more than they did last season, but if that’s all they do, they’re not going anywhere. This is a run-scoring team, not a run-preventing team, in terms of fundamental identity. If they can’t average something closer to 4.5 runs per game than to 4.0, where they sit now, this team is in trouble.

The good news, if that strikes you as bad news, is that there’s not much reason to expect them to remain this mediocre. This group has underachieved, and while that’s not the particular fault of any one or two players (injuries, especially to the team’s bench, have taken a very heavy toll, and the inconsistency of young players making adjustments is an inescapable reality of the modern game), it’s a fact they need to face. Time will heal some of what ails this club, as Kris Bryant’s streaks and slumps level out into consistent excellence, and as Jorge Soler, Mike Olt, and Javier Baez make their way back from the disabled list (in Baez’s case, also from the minor leagues). In the meantime, though, here are a few ways to kick-start a staggering offense.

Drop Dexter Fowler to third in order against right-handed pitchers; have Chris Coghlan lead off. Fowler is having an unusually tough season, and should be expected to bounce back. Even once he does so, though, he won’t be the hitter most likely to get on base in front of Anthony Rizzo and Bryant when a righty is on the mound. Consider these numbers:

Chris Coghlan and Dexter Fowler, v RHP

Coghlan 227 .270 .357 .470
Fowler 268 .217 .292 .379
Coghlan 1,751 .281 .347 .431
Fowler 2,466 .254 .349 .410

Add a little context to this (Fowler’s career stats are colored by a long time spent in Colorado; Coghlan has called only Miami and Chicago home), and it becomes clear: Chris Coghlan hits right-handed pitching better than Dexter Fowler does. There’s no reason both can’t be in the lineup every day when northpaws take the mound for opposing teams, but Coghlan is the qualified leadoff hitter in those situations, not Fowler.

This is actually showing up, by the way. The Cubs are scoring in an unusual pattern this season, and a huge reason is that Fowler is miscast as a lead-off guy against righties. He’s killing first-inning rallies before they start.

Average Runs Per Inning, By Inning, Cubs vs. All NL Teams

Inning Cubs NL Avg. Difference
1 0.45 0.51 -.06
2 0.38 0.43 -.05
3 0.57 0.41 +.16
4 0.38 0.52 -.14
5 0.58 0.49 +.09
6 0.35 0.47 -.12
7 0.41 0.43 -.02
8 0.32 0.39 -.07
9 0.43 0.40 +.03

Bring back Arismendy Alcantara. Look, I get it. Alcantara’s start to the season was extraordinarily discouraging. He went to the plate 32 times, fanned 11, walked five, and only collected two hits. That compounded concerns the team rightfully had even entering the season, after Alcantara whiffed more than 30 percent of the time in 300 plate appearances last year. It’s not reassuring to see him whiffing a quarter of the time even in Triple-A, even though he’s doing so while also drawing plenty of walks and hitting for real power.

It doesn’t matter. The Cubs need him back. They need Alcantara, because while Alcantara works to get right in Iowa, Jonathan Herrera keeps getting playing time in Chicago. It isn’t much—Herrera has come up only 67 times this year—but it’s too much. When next Herrera cracks an extra-base hit, it will be his second of the season. The same can be said for the next time he walks. In those 67 PA, Herrera is hitting .219/.231/.250. He doesn’t fill the backup center-field role Alcantara could fill. He can’t impact the game on the bases the way Alcantara can, either, and that dynamic is one that has disappeared for the Cubs lately.

Chicago Cubs, Stolen Bases by Month, 2015

Month SB CS
April 25 7
May 18 10
June 6 3

One hopes the Cubs aren’t being so silly or cynical as to play service-time games with Alcantara. After he spent the final three months of last season with the Cubs and was optioned on April 21 this year, Alcantara has accrued 99 days of big-league service. He’ll need 73 more days to reach a full year before the season is over. If the Cubs are trying to avoid having him reach that mark, they’ll keep him in Iowa until July 25. In the four weeks between now and then, the Cubs are going to need real depth. Fowler is already playing on a wobbly left ankle. Matt Szczur and Junior Lake have ably proven their inability to contribute in the majors. Without Alcantara, they’re playing almost without a bench, with at least one unusable outfielder and Herrera, who is, himself, more or less incapable of adding any value. Hopefully, Alcantara will get his fair shake soon.

Be patient. This isn’t an approach thing. The Cubs are plenty patient, attacking the first pitch, working into deep counts if that doesn’t resolve the encounter.

Highest Team Percentage of PA Going to Full Counts, 1988-2015

Season Team Percentage
1994 Tigers 16.3
1999 A’s 15.8
2000 Mariners 15.7
1998 A’s 15.2
2015 Cubs 15.2

No, the Cubs aren’t showing insufficient patience from one at-bat to another. The patience of which I speak is bigger in scope and harder to practice. The Cubs need to be painfully patient about amending their offensive shortcomings. Home runs aren’t slump-busters. A plate appearance with runners in scoring position isn’t so special an occasion as to invite a different approach. Most of all, no swing or series of swings in sequence are going to send the Cubs soaring up the standings table to overtake the Cardinals, more than 10 games distant, now.

It’s much harder for fans to be patient than for players, coaches, and executives to be. The Cubs need to exercise that patience, despite their youth, despite the buzz and sense of urgency they have earned by proving to be good enough to make the playoffs a real possibility. They need to keep up Joe Maddon’s even-keeled, steady, and studious approach to the game, even as the halfway point of the season comes and goes, and even as the trade deadline rushes toward them. If the positional core of this team can remain focused and fend off frustration, they’re going to be fine. Absent a massive mental failure, talent plays, and the talent on the Cubs roster is undeniable.

Lead photo courtesy of Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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