Rise of the Role Players

Heading into the All-Star break, the Cubs were two games under .500 and 5.5 games behind first place. How did the defending World Series champions end up in such a place? It wasn’t the two big boppers—Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo had .928 and .894 OPS marks, respectively. Rather, it was a combination of inconsistent starting pitching and a dearth of offensive production from the team’s lineup beyond the two aforementioned hitters.

It’s the latter that I want to focus on today: many of the role players who fill the six lineup spots around Bryant and Rizzo had unsightly starts to the season, but in the past month or two, those players have risen to the level of production expected of them, and that has made the difference. Jon Jay has been pitch perfect in his high-OBP, high-contact leadoff role, and Willson Contreras has evolved into one of the best catchers in the league. They’re not my focus here. Instead, I’m going to take quick looks at the four players who have lengthened the Cubs lineup with their solid hitting.

First, and most obviously, is Kyle Schwarber. After a craterous batting line of .178/.300/.394 in the first half, the beefy outfielder has slashed .250/.337/.550. The turnaround started sometime in June, as evinced by his monthly numbers, and since his September OPS is identical to his July mark of .940. Schwarber has 28 home runs this year, and he’s slugged almost .600 this month. In his 92 plate appearances in the fifth spot in the order, a place he has occupied mostly since returning from his short stint with Triple-A Iowa, he has hit .266/.370/.646. His overall numbers are improving at a fast clip, and he is no longer inspiring lukewarm takes about how he’s just not that great of a player. Schwarber’s bat behind Bryant and Rizzo has boosted the Cubs’ offense in their pursuit of the division crown, and his bat will be integral to the Cubs’ playoff chances.

More surprisingly has been the rehabilitation of Ben Zobrist’s offensive game. Zobrist’s barely-above-replacement-level WARP is somehow almost as bad as Schwarber’s, and the switch-hitter’s hitting looks completely alien to those of us who watched Zobrist capture a World Series MVP. Zobrist’s June and July were, well, atrocious, but he’s hit above average in August and September. Joe Maddon has inserted Zobrist in key spots in the order again, leading him off recently in Jon Jay’s stead. Although the power has left him, probably due to injuries of attrition, Zobrist has found himself on base much more often, with OBPs of .366 and .373 in August and September. Zobrist had lost playing time to Ian Happ and Javier Baez this season, and he won’t be the cog in the playoff lineup like he was last fall. With his contact and on-base skills, though, Zobrist will play a significant role in shoring up the Cubs’ weaknesses.

The player with the most potential to be a surprising catalyst in October is Albert Almora, who has found a power stroke and a knack for hitting righties recently. He’s been worth about 1.5 WARP this year, even with his curious defensive metrics, and he’s hitting nearly .300. His .341 OBP is more than acceptable for a player who is reliant on contact to generate offense, and his .781 OPS is higher than most anyone expected. The Cubs lineup versus lefties is more vulnerable, as Kyle Schwarber and right-handed Ben Zobrist are usually poor matchups, and so slotting Almora into the bottom of the order puts a good contact hitter with moderate power either behind the on-base machines or in front of the pitcher. Almora’s .950 OPS over his last 48 plate appearances and his solid knocks versus righties over that period make him a more palatable defensive replacement, as he won’t wither against potential right-handed relievers.

Our last player is the one who most questionably wears the title “role player,” as he has started 82 games since his call-up, but Ian Happ will likely share playing time with Zobrist and Baez in the playoffs. Happ has been the biggest overall surprise this year, as he wasn’t expected to make the majors. He’s cemented himself in the middle of the Cubs order, though, by socking 22 homers and slugging over .500. Happ has earned starts in center field, left field, and second base versus most right-handers. He is is a lower contact, lower OBP hitter, and so he falls into the possible trap I wrote about last week. He complements Zobrist and Almora well, but duplicates much of Kyle Schwarber’s skill set, so selective deployment is probably the correct course for Maddon. A torrid August helped propelled the Cubs to their division lead, but his cool September has fomented a bit of doubt in his ability to play almost every playoff game.

There it is: the summary of the four role players likely to have an impact on the Cubs’ postseason chances. It’s more of a sketch of a reason the Cubs have pulled slightly away from the Brewers and Cardinals than a rigorous analysis of these players, or a prescription for the Cubs’ last two weeks. These four players do have the opportunity to impact the Cubs’ playoff hopes in unique ways.

Lead photo courtesy Patrick Gorski—USA Today Sports

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