Yesterday, the Chicago Cubs beat the San Diego Padres by a score of 5-1.
All but one of the Cubs’ five of the Cubs runs, as you may recall, came from homers off the bats of Addison Russell, Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward. Although each has their own unique reason, I would argue that those three players, in particular, were the Cubs I was most anxious/excited to see go deep.
So let’s relive some of their homer party fun from yesterday – starting with Russell – and see why one single home run could mean a lot more than what’s on the surface.
Last night, Addison Russell hit his third home run in as many at bats in the top of the second inning. He took a 1-1 pitch (down the center of the plate) 403 feet out to left field with authority. The ball left his bat at 104 miles per hour and represented his 18th homer of the season. But why was he one of the players I’d most like to see go deep?
For the majority of the Cubs, this season has been all about winning and squeezing every last ounce out of their production. But for Russell, I’d argue, his season is/was still (in large part) about development. Having just turned 22 in January, Russell is the youngest key contributors to the Cubs, who remains relatively far away from his ultimate (offensive) ceiling. Sure, Russell has had his fair share of hot streaks, stretching back to his debut last season, but what he’s been doing lately is something else all together. Check out his wOBA by month in 2016:
- March/April: .299 wOBA
- May: .316 wOBA
- June: .321 wOBA
- July: .323 wOBA
- August (to date): .401 wOBA
Not only has he shown improvement month after month on the score sheet, he’s shown the ability to continuously make improvements and adjustments at the highest level of play on the field. That is the mark of a true Major Leaguer, and Russell has done just that. In the month of August (76 PAs), Russell is slashing .297/.368/.609, while displaying patience and maturity at the plate that far exceeds his age and power that far exceeds our wildest expectations.
I don’t know whether he’ll hit for quite this much power throughout his career, I don’t think this level of production is going to be an abnormality. His quick ascent to the Majors and stellar defense has always blinded us to Russell’s offensive abilities, but now he’s reminding us what that could look like. Hell, he has 18 home runs this season. So, having known how hot he had been in August and what such a stretch could mean for his future, I was hoping Russell would keep it up last night. Luckily, it took just one at-bat for that to happen.
But a couple of other guys hit some homers last night too.
Three innings later, Kris Bryant hit his 32nd home run of the season. He took a 2-2 pitch (that was a little down and in) 392 feet out to left-center field. The ball left his bat at 100 miles per hour and tied him with Nolan Arenado for most homers in the National League. Why was the Cubs’ best home run hitter one of the players I was most anxious to see go deep?
As I said, Bryant is now tied with Arenado for most homers in the National League with 32 on the season. And while homers don’t seem to mean as much to us as they used to, I don’t think that’s baseball’s fault. In fact, I don’t think that’s even a sentiment shared throughout the league. Instead, I think Cubs fans have lost interest in the long ball as a number to track, because, frankly, the team hasn’t had a prestigious home run hitter in quite some time. The last Cubs player to hit more than 40 homers in a single season, for example, was Derek Lee over a decade ago. But now, with every additional souvenir that Bryant creates with his bat, the Cubs are inching closer to that reality.
There are plenty of other important things besides hitting home runs (and Bryant does nearly all of them well), but I can’t say I’m not rooting for him to take over NL (and hopefully MLB) lead. Baseball is a team sport, but this is a fun, exciting, rarely Cubs-related statistical race. Bryant is our best chance at 40 in a long time, so every homer is a thrill.
There’s one more homer to go over, though, and his wasn’t quite as expected as Bryant’s.
Later that same inning, Jason Heyward hit his 6th home run of the season. He took a 2-2, two-out pitch (at the bottom of the zone) 380 feet out to right field, ripping it at 101 miles per hour. But even though Heyward’s homer doesn’t come with the impressiveness of Bryant’s league leading 32nd home run or the encouragement of a 22-year-old shortstop’s 18th, it does carry some serious significance.
Before the season started, expectations were sky high for Jason Heyward. Not only did he sign the most lucrative contract in Chicago Cubs history, he was coming off a monster year in St. Louis and was sure to put the Cubs over the top. In fact, I recall quite certainly that many even expected an improvement over last season, particularly with respect to the power production he had put up in recent years. Of course, things couldn’t have been more the opposite. Heyward power didn’t just remain dormant, his overall offensive production has dipped markedly, to well below average. Of course, his defensive prowess as the best outfielder in the National league has kept him a productive player, but he has been nowhere near as good as we (and I’m sure he) hoped.
So, in an effort to clear Heyward’s mind and give him a nice, long, dedicated break, Joe Maddon gave him the weekend off (ultimately going four games without playing). It wasn’t quite a benching – a la Starlin Castro in 2015 – but the goal was to guarantee some time away from baseball, so that he could collect himself and hopefully return to the player he once was. Well, things didn’t get off to a great start, after Heyward grounded out and struck out in his first two a bats.
After missing four games, I am quite certain that frustration is something Heyward was experiencing. But then, in his third plate appearance, Heyward yanked one deep out to right field, elevating the ball exceedingly well (33 degrees – elevation has been a serious issue for him this year) and hitting it with authority (101 MPH – weak contact has also been a serious issue).
One homer doesn’t change anything, of course, and I am not expecting Heyward to magically turn things around, but the relief and excitement you and I felt in that one fleeting moment is something Heyward likely experienced, too. Baseball has a long, tumultuous season that could end abruptly in October. Any one great moment, then, needs to be celebrated and remembered for what it is/was. For Heyward and for me (and you, right?), hitting that home run after a short absence from the team had significance. It meant something. And with any luck, he can hold onto that for the rest of the season, draw upon that energy, and find the strength to keep working hard to turn thing around.
Three individual home runs rarely mean anything, but last night all of them did.