I’m a historian by trade—or, more correctly, by bachelor’s degree. Before I started writing for BP Wrigleyville, I was much more likely to pump out 3,000 footnoted words on Andre Dawson and collusion than an accessible analysis of Addison Russell’s changed approach at the plate.
Given that background, I have a natural tendency to revisit things I’ve written in the past, once armed with the lens of ‘history'; in other words, once enough time passes to draw defensible conclusions, I like to go back and check on my writing to see if I was right. Such was the case when I recently revisited Jason Hammel and his weird 2015, attempting in the process to figure out what had caused his precipitous decline in the second half. In that case, it was difficult to determine what exactly was making Hammel significantly less effective, since his pitch mixe, velocity, and location didn’t appear experience dramatic shifts either by chance or on purpose.
Anyway, the point is that I like to look back. And that brings me to this: a little over a month ago, I wrote about how the Chicago Cubs’ very poor-hitting bench was putting a wet blanket on the team’s power numbers, and expressed hope that the team would soon turn it around as the addition of key players (Kyle Schwarber) shored up a starved bench. Well, it turns out I was correct in my not-so-bold prediction: the Cubs have hit the snot out of the ball in the past two months, and I’m going to try to tell you how and why.
First, some basic numbers. When I sat down to discuss the Cubs’ power struggles in August, they ranked 26th in slugging percentage, 16th in homers, 22nd in isolated slugging percentage (ISO), 15th in True Average. All told, they’d put up a .240/.317/.376 line as a team (through August 10).
How things have changed. As of this writing, the North Siders rank 17th in slugging, eighth in home runs, eighth in ISO, and 11th in True Average. Their overall line is up to .245/.321/.401. It’s that last part that’s remarkable: in just 42 games (roughly 28 percent of the season to date), the Cubs have managed to effect a 25 point increase in team slugging. That’s mostly on the backs of all the home runs they’ve hit over that span, which together constitute 40 percent of the team’s home runs on the year.
In the graph below, one can easily see the Cubs’ June-July slide in overall offense, for which one might put forward multiple reasonable hypotheses: Miguel Montero and Jorge Soler’s injuries; Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Dexter Fowler’s slumps; a slight offensive dip from Anthony Rizzo; and ongoing cratering from Starlin Castro.
These days, the offense is clearly humming. The Cubs’ power and overall offensive numbers are at their best levels since at least June. It is, in sum, finally an offense that closely resembles the one which PECOTA projected to finish fifth in the NL in runs scored and fourth in slugging.
Let’s explore how that’s come to be. Some of this improvement is due to the production of the Cubs’ primary sluggers. Rizzo and Bryant have nine and 11 home runs, respectively, since August 11. They’ve rebounded from their midseason swoons, reinforcing their impressive seasons and putting themselves squarely in the conversation for NL MVP, non-Bryce Harper division. Schwarber, while possessing a truly odd .168/.286/.437 line in the timeframe under consideration, has still clubbed ten homers. Fowler and Russell have added six, and Chris Coghlan and Montero have five each. The Cubs’ offensive starters are performing very well as a bunch, a good sign heading into October.
But, as I suspected, the cavalry has been out of the starting lineup. It’s the arrival of superb bench players in August and September that has really rounded out this power surge.
Since returning from the disabled list on September 18, Jorge Soler has only started twice, but has nonetheless hit three home runs in nine at bats. With the right fielder back in the mix, the outfield is now a bona fide five-headed monster, featuring two fearsome sluggers (Schwarber and Soler), two solid all-around hitters (Fowler and Coghlan), and a prime rebound candidate at the plate with great defense (Austin Jackson). This has allowed Joe Maddon to mix and match handedness and skill sets, exposing players to pitchers against whom they are most likely to have success. The still-serviceable Chris Denorfia and Villanova star Matt Szczur have received fewer plate appearances as a result of this influx of talents, and while their contributions to the club throughout the season have been important, they’ve effectively been replaced by better bats these days, and they won’t be factors in the playoffs.
So it’s been the bench that’s driven success. But before I close this piece, it’s important to discuss the resurgence of the prodigal shortstop, Starlin Castro. The fact that the joy and hard work that have always been a hallmark of his game haven’t waned since he was benched on August 6 is laudable, and it hasn’t hurt that his production has enjoyed a huge upswing since then as well. His .376/.396/.604 line since the benching officially qualifies him, I believe, as being “on a tear”.
While his 1.9 percent walk rate is poor and his .393 BABIP indicates a degree of luck in his game, he’s still socked five home runs (including this mammoth shot) in only 107 plate appearances. That’s been huge, too, since through August 9, the middle infield trio of Russell, Castro, and Jonathan Herrera combined for just 13 home runs—Herrera’s actually came while playing third base—and they posted impoverished .368, .304, and .312 slugging percentages. Castro’s resurgence, paired with good numbers from Javier Baez (.410 SLG) and Tommy La Stella (.478 SLG since returning from the DL), has not only shored up the infield defense, but also the previously dire power situation up the middle.
Given that rebounds from Bryant and Rizzo were always to be expected, it was never likely that the offense would continue toiling in the midsummer doldrums it had worked itself into, but it was nonetheless imperative that the Cubs’ complementary players produced more with their bats. They have. Defensive flexibility and power options from both sides of the plate are handy weapons for playoff-bound teams, and the Cubs found themselves with plenty of both once their health improved and the minor-league season ended. Maddon loves to deploy his players in creative ways, and the influx of players in September has enabled this tendency in a way that has aided in the resuscitation an floundering offense. Only with contributions from players like Castro, Baez, La Stella, and Soler would the Cubs have been able to achieve their true offensive potential.
Thanks are due to Rob McQuown for creating the graph.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.