In January, during the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand in Chicago, Joe Maddon titillated the crowd with his confident proclamation that the Cubs would repeat their World Series title, and no one in the crowd doubted it.
In the months since, “That’s Cub” has become, again, both a pejorative and mocking refrain, depending on who is delivering it, and a sad return to the comfort of mediocrity for Cubs fans, many of whom must have found the past two seasons unfamiliar, though brilliant. A team previously defined by what goes wrong reversed that—at least temporarily—but so far the Cubs of 2017 have looked more like the classic lovable losers. Except not always that lovable.
Why the Cubs have been so mediocre has inspired a lot of hypothesizing and finger pointing from the outside, but as is often the case, something so confounding as the defending world champions struggling so badly is caused by a variety of factors. The good news is that all of these can change. This current angst can be flipped into celebration pretty easily. Theo Epstein has been knocked for saying it, but the fixes the team needs are already in the clubhouse.
To begin, we should point to the evaporation of offensive production from Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber.
These three are bearing the bulk of the blame because usual stalwarts Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant are not truly struggling, and instead are just a tad unlucky so far. Rizzo’s batting average is down to .259 from last year’s .292, but he has otherwise been almost equally productive, boasting an OBP that is on par with where he has been the past four seasons, and power numbers commensurate with recent performance as well. The easy scapegoat for this change is his BABIP: .309 in 2016, and .242 so far this year. All signs point to course correction for Rizzo. The story is the same for Bryant, as he actually has an OBP that is better than last season (.399 from .385), and he has otherwise been roughly the same hitter, minus the change in BABIP (.301 from .332).
So the difference for the lineup boils down to three key pieces. Schwarber cannot be fairly measured against last season, so for his purposes, let’s stick to 2015, but otherwise, take a look at the difference in production from just those three players:
|Kyle Schwarber (2015)||273||.246||.307||.293|
|Kyle Schwarber (2017)||277||.178||.245||.200|
|Addison Russell (2016)||598||.238||.275||.277|
|Addison Russell (2017)||283||.226||.246||.276|
|Ben Zobrist (2016)||631||.272||.306||.290|
|Ben Zobrist (2017)||239||.214||.238||.226|
For all three, their production is down practically across the board. Schwarber’s is the most extreme, and Addison Russell’s might be slight, but the Cubs need at least one of these three to start clicking for the offense to get it together.
While Zobrist cannot help the natural process of getting older and the inevitable deterioration in physical abilities that it brings, changes in the output on offense from Schwarber and Russell have dampened the Cubs’ ability to score runs. Zobrist simply needs to stay healthy, and his numbers are bound to climb at least a little. Since his first full season in 2009, the lowest TAv he has ever posted was .259, and in the same span, his BABIP had previously never been lower than .273 across a full season. Zobrist is getting killed by curveballs this year, batting .077 against them after he crushed the curve at a .297 clip in 2016. The encouraging news is that he is a .218 hitter against the curveball lifetime, so his current rate of production against that pitch shouldn’t be expected to continue. The same is true of the sinker, which has baffled him into hitting only .151 against it this year, after .320 last season and .278 lifetime. Even at his advanced baseball age, Zobrist can reasonably be expected to pick things up at the plate, provided that he is healthy.
There’s a similar trend with Russell, in this case against the changeup and slider. This season, he is hitting those pitches for averages of .120 and .130, respectively, and last year it was .250 and .200. His career sample size is much smaller than Zobrist, but even then, there’s reason to be encouraged about his production going up. In three seasons, he has hit the changeup and slider for averages of .200 and .208. Even those modest numbers—already diluted by his struggles this season—would represent a sizable improvement from what Russell has done so far in 2017.
Lastly, Schwarber’s surprising difficulties with the bat have a lot to do with the fastball. In 2015, he hit .253 against the pitch, and this season, only .198. Even more glaring is the slider; Schwarber hit that pitch for a .222 average two years ago, and this year, just a measly .040. While he is rumored trade fodder right now, and will likely continue to be until the non-waiver deadline arrives, it would take little for Schwarber’s productivity to change dramatically.
As the All-Star break ends and the action resumes tonight, the Cubs are 5.5 games behind Milwaukee and they have been mired around .500 all season. In a 2009-esque dropoff, they have not yet shown that anything is going to change this season. But unlike every year before 2016, the angst that came with being a Cubs fan has entirely changed. Now, instead of the angst of unrequited hopes, we have the angst of expectation.
This season has been such a slog because Cubs fans expected better. A lot better. And this wasn’t based on empty-headed bravado, either: they had good reason. There had not been major upheavals to the roster that had won 200 games in the past two years, and the surprise challengers to the division were not projected to be winning at a pace quite near what they’ve done.
So this frustration for fans is both similar to what they have experienced in the past and also totally different. Instead of frustrating Chicagoans by being perpetually putrid and only occasionally dabbling with appearing to be a good baseball team, they achieved what eluded the franchise for decades, and now Cubs fans want more. Instead, they have scuffled maddeningly.
Next week, we’ll look at the starting rotation, but even if all things (sans Quintana) remain roughly the same in that regard, slight upticks in performance from one—or, dare to dream, all three—of these hitters would make a sizable difference. In a season where a lot has gone wrong so far, there remains plenty of reason to believe it’ll start to go right.
Lead photo courtesy Richard Mackson—USA Today Sports