A Quartet of Carnage

If you follow the Cubs at all—and I’m assuming you must, if you’re coming to this site—then you’re well aware what their issues have been of late: the offense. During this recent stretch of run-scoring ineptitude, there have been multiple culprits, but it’s a trio of vets and a young rookie who have stood out. What’s fascinating is that each is struggling in their own unique way, and the outlooks for their futures are equally distinctive. Let’s take a deeper look at these individuals, what’s led to their issues, and if there is anything that indicates it may be ending in soon.

Miguel Montero

Montero consistently maintains strong value due to the fact that he’s a plus behind the plate. He’s a top-tier framer, he is one of the most highly regarded game-callers around, and he possesses all the intangibles organizations seek in their catcher. He’s strong in every other aspect defensively—he’s normally stout at throwing out runners, but this year he’s slightly below average at 25 percent, but that may say more about the Cubs pitching staff ability to control the running game, and he’s generally considered solid at blocking pitches as well.

But we’re not here to talk about defense, in fact, there’s little to criticize with that department with regards to majority of the player’s I’m discussing in this piece. The issue with Montero right now is his bat. I had a feeling it was just a recent issue, and in one way, it is, as, entering Tuesday’s slate, he’s slashing .188/.219/.230 in his last 18 games. But it actually goes much deeper than that, even with a nice little stretch mixed in, Montero’s last 40 games have seen him slash .183/.272/.328. The fact that he was sporting a .934 OPS prior to that is what’s keeping him slightly above league average with a .269 TAv.

What’s been working for Montero all season is his ability to hit the sinker. He’s hitting .396 against the pitch and slugging .688 on the season; his success against the offering has remained at a high level whether he’s been struggling or not. What has changed is how often he’s seeing the pitch. Up through May 15th, when Montero saw his OPS peak at .934, Montero was seeing sinkers 24 percent of the time. That number has dipped significantly in the time since, as he’s only seeing them at an 18.3 percent rate.

And while the sinker usage against Montero has dipped, the four-seamer is being used more often (from 37.7 to 43.3 percent) in the last 40 games, and Montero has batted .209 against the pitch. But where pitchers are really taking advantage of Montero is with the changeup, as they’ve more than doubled their use of the pitch in the last 40, jumped from 6.9 to 13.9 percent. And Montero has managed just two singles (.095 batting average) against them, pointing to a clear weakness at the moment. The fact that he isn’t hitting above .150 against any other pitches hasn’t helped things.

Montero was doing fine against the change prior to this rough period, hitting .273 while slugging .546 against it, which is much more in line with what he’s done in the past. It’s doubtful that the pitch has suddenly become a permanent thorn in Montero’s side, and it appears he may just be off with his timing on the offering, swinging and missing over 20 percentage points more often over the last 40 games than he was early on in the season. That’s likely contributed to his jump in K-rate during the same stretch, which has gone from 17.7 percent on May 15th, to where it currently sits at 24.3 percent. If Montero can just get back to what he’s normally done in his career against changeups, we should see these struggles come to an end.

Dexter Fowler

While Montero may be in a deeper funk, Fowler’s may be more damaging to the offense. If everyone else is doing their job—and yes, that’s certainly not the case at the moment—Montero delivering at a high level at the plate would just be icing on the Cubs offensive cake. However, Fowler was brought in to solidify a top of the order spot that’s been completely absent for the last half dozen years.

“When he’s got it going on, he really does make us go,” Joe Maddon said prior to Monday’s game. “You look at the numbers when he gets on base and he scores a run, what our record looks like. It’s obvious right now there’s a disconnect between the left and right-handed side with the numbers.”

Fowler is in a .552 OPS slump in his last 38 games, but it’s not just a recent struggled for the switch-hitter, his overall numbers are currently the worst of his career, slashing .230/.308/.375. If we ignore his 13-game stint in 2008, he’s had one season with an OBP below .360 since becoming a regular (.347 in 2010) and he’s never posted an OPS below .750. To say these numbers are out of line with his career norms is an understatement.

Maddon pointed out the splits for Fowler against righties and lefties, and he’s right. Entering play on Tuesday, Fowler had a .833 OPS vs southpaws, significantly higher than the .655 he’s sporting against righties. The biggest issue may be that prior to facing a pair of lefties in Tuesday’s double header against the Cardinals, the Cubs are dead last in all of baseball with 537 plate appearances against southpaws.

There’s plenty to look at with Fowler, and perhaps just facing some lefties will help him find his groove. However, he’s going to need to perform at or above his career .756 OPS against righties going forward or the Cubs may need to find a better solution at the top of their lineup (Maddon pushed Fowler down to the seven-spot on Monday against a righty, but said he may be back in the top spot against righties in the near future).

Here’s the curious thing with Fowler, he’s not swinging at pitches outside of the zone at a higher rate (his 21.2 percent O-Swing% is actually below his career average) or swinging much more than normal in general. Yet, his walk rate was at 9.6 percent entering Tuesday, and he’s only had the number dip below 12 once, and that was at 11.3 percent in 2010. Further the head-scratching nature of Fowler’s struggles is his .279 BABIP, well below his .341 career mark, and 44 points below his career-low of .323. And while a would-be career-low 19.9 percent line-drive rate may explain that a little bit—as would his 39.4 percent groundball rate, which keeps him from using his speed to beat out some hits—it’s still a number we should expect to rise as the season moves forward.

“Left-handed it’s just about consistency, two things,” Maddon said when asked about Fowler’s issues. “Number one, to stay within his lane in the strike zone. Number two, just the quality of the contact. The strikeouts are probably a little bit high from the left side too. You saw that ball that he drove to left-center the other day, obviously that’s the optimal situation. I think that’s within his abilities. I believe it’s there, I believe you’re going to see it before the end of the season. He’s probably been trying a little bit too hard to set the table for us, and that’s why I wanted to back it off a little bit. But I have a lot of faith in this guy, he’s really a bright young man.”

There really doesn’t appear to be anything fundamentally wrong with Fowler. If he can start taking his walks and swing at pitches that lead to more quality contact, the Cubs should find their top-of-the-order issues remedied rather quickly.

Addison Russell

Russell may be the most fascinating study of the bunch. At just 21, Russell is just a kid, and as Maddon will tell you, he’s up in the bigs learning on the job.

“You got some guys learning on the fly here in some very difficult situations,” Maddon said when asked about the up-and-down nature of youth. “We’ve been talking about Addison a lot, not only a new position, but then to cope with major-league pitching at the same time. That’s not easy, it’s really hard to do. I’ve been attempting to explain to them where pitching is at right now and that makes it even more difficult. Just imagine, if he’s just a little bit more successful. Say he’s hitting. 275 with eight home runs right now, where’s his vibe right now, where’s his vibe right now, where’s his confidence? Much higher. But it’s not because of what’s going on right now. So you build confidence; if your confidence soars, everything gets better.”

Maddon pointed to two things repeatedly when talking about the struggles of his team at the plate: confidence and pitching. He wants to ensure none of these players allow their confidence to be dinged in the slightest. It’s inevitable that struggles will get a player down, but it’s imperative that he and his coaching staff work to keep spirits high even through bumpy periods.

Maddon has also harped on the fact that pitching is at a whole new level in today’s game. For the second season in a row, the MLB average OBP is .314, the lowest it’s been since the .311 mark we saw in 1972. Maddon pointed out that when he was a scout in the early 80s, he’d put a 50 grade on an 88 mph fastball. In today’s game, scouts would put a 40 grade on that fastball, as the average heater is now at 90. He went on to point out that seeing mid- to upper-90s heat, especially out of the pen, has become the norm. I don’t have any stats at my fingertips to prove that, but the offensive numbers we’re seeing certainly espouse such a belief. So yes, Maddon is right to point out to Russell that he shouldn’t get down on himself as he struggles against major-league pitching at such a young age.

But the fact is, we also can’t ignore that Russell is struggling. Now to be clear, that doesn’t mean it’s time for Jonathan Herrera to get the bulk of playing time at second or that Russell should be sent to Triple-A. No, right now he’s the best option the Cubs have, especially with both Javier Baez and Tommy La Stella on the shelf. And Russell’s future hasn’t changed, it’s still very bright, but right now, with the Cubs in the midst of a playoff race, his bat is a bit of an issue. And it’s my job to try and figure out why and explain that to you.

Russell has had pockets of success during the first 66 games of his career. That’s hardly surprising, it’s the up-and-down nature that comes with youth.

1-7 29 .493 3 48.3%
8-33 102 .839 13 32.4%
34-43 38 .440 0 23.7%
44-52 34 1.006 3 20.6%
53-66 48 .257 1 35.4%

I mean that’s some massive small-sample-size and arbitrary-end-point nonsense from me, but it’s kind of interesting to look at. We can see that it appeared that Russell, even during his roller coaster-like performance, was starting to figure out his issues with the swing and miss. Then this latest stretch of struggles popped up, and the whiffs returned at an unacceptably high rate.

If we break up what Russell is seeing into specific pitches, we see that over 60 percent of what he sees is either a four-seamer or a slider. Russell has struggled with sliders for much of his big-league career, but during this most recent 14-game slide the pitch has been crippling him. He’s seen 41 sliders during this stretch and put just two into play, managing one single. He’s whiffed at the pitch a remarkable 31.7 percent of the time.

Compounding matters is that he’s now also having major issues with the four-seamer. He’s put just 12.9 percent of these offerings in play, his second-lowest of any pitch that he’s seeing at least five percent of the time during this low point. He’s also seen a 20 percent jump in whiffs on the four-seamer, a pitch he’s seen 42.5 percent of the time over the last 14 games.

And with all those struggles and a line of .226/.291/.357 for the season, Russell has still managed to be a one-win player by every WAR(P) measure. He’s playing impeccable defense at the keystone, and that alone has justified him being in the lineup as he continues to hone his skills on offense and, as Maddon put it, learn on the fly.

“I’ve been told that his WAR exceeds normal standards,” Maddon said when asked about Russell’s struggles. And when I pointed out that that was mainly via his stellar glove, Maddon didn’t skip a beat. “I’ll take it, that’s my point. We were just talking about how hard it is to hit, and if you can prevent runs on a consistent basis, if he prevents one a night or he drives in one a night, I’ll take the prevention too. I think he’s done a really good job about that.”

And what about that bat, is there any reason for optimism that things will click in 2015?

“I think he’s on the verge,” Maddon said. “I see a lot freer swing, I see a looser swing. He’s getting to not chase as often. The physical swing is wonderful, I have no problem with his approach, his swing, the bat speed, all that stuff. There are some things we’re talking about to get him to do a little bit better, but it’s gonna happen, this kid’s going to be really good.”

After voicing his confidence in Russell—something that Maddon does best—the struggling rookie went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in a rough 6-0 loss to the Cardinals. On Tuesday, Russell was out of the lineup in front end of a double header, getting what was his second start off in a seven-day-old month.

Starlin Castro

You know what? I can’t do this anymore. Matt Trueblood has an analysis of Castro coming up Wednesday morning. Breaking down the bad can be a little taxing, I’ll let someone else do the rest.

I’ll leave you with a couple thoughts, both negative and positive. Entering play on Monday, the Cubs had a combined TAv of .231 from their second base and shortstop positions, good for 26th in baseball (14th in the NL). If you add in center field into that mix, the number jumps to .238, but their ranking falls to 29th in the game and dead last in their league.

But let’s end on a positive note, shall we? As mentioned earlier, the Cubs entered Tuesday with the fewest plate appearances against left-handed pitchers in all of baseball. However, they’ve thrived in their limited exposure to southpaws, with an NL-best .342 OBP when facing them. In game one on Tuesday, they managed 10 hits, coaxed five walks, scored six runs, and struck out just three times when facing a lefty. Fowler went 2-for-4 with a walk and Montero added a hit and a walk as well. Russell with get his hacks in Tuesday evening, and likely the rest of the week as we head into the All-Star break and he looks to get back on a positive track. Castro struggled in the first game, but well, that’s another story altogether.

They’ll face another lefty in the nightcap, and then expect to see three southpaws this weekend when they wrap up the first half with three against the South Siders at Wrigley. Of course, the bats will need to wake up against righties as the season continues, but Jorge Soler’s return, along with certain players, particularly the ones named above, bouncing back should rectify those issues. Yes, the Cubs have their flaws, but even with those, they find themselves eight games over .500 and, at the moment, comfortably in a playoff spot. If we can see some growth from the youth and veterans playing up to numbers on the back of their baseball cards—as Dale Sveum liked to say—then things could start to look even rosier.

Lead photo courtesy of Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

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1 comment on “A Quartet of Carnage”


The issue that frustrates me with Montero…watch his head during all those wild swings. His head (and eyes) are in the right field box seats. This would identify why he has been successful with the sinker. He swings BELOW the ball (home run cut) and gets “lucky” with the sinker.

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