Last night, the Chicago Cubs dropped a – eh hem – frustrating one in Los Angeles that featured, among many things, some
questionable terrible disappointing in-game management.
From the bullpen decisions in general, to the ninth inning in particular, to Albert Almora, a righty who’s struggled against righties, facing Kenley Jansen, a righty who’s unbelievably good against righties, despite the presence of FIVE lefties on the bench and the fact that Almora immediately came out of the game anyway (FOR ONE OF THOSE LEFTIES) … yeah, it was a rough one.
But lost in the shuffle of a whole lot of bad, is the offense, which was arguably worse than the bullpen and player decisions last night, and hasn’t really shown up this entire postseason.
Sure, the Cubs have seen the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Rich Hill, and Gio Gonzalez – as well as a whole lot of innings from two of the top ten bullpens in MLB during the second half of the season … but still. There’s been almost nothing to get excited about.
All together, the Cubs have managed an average of just 2.9 runs scored per game, which would be nearly a full run worse than THE WORST team scoring average in baseball this year (Padres, 3.73) and over two runs per game worse than the Cubs average this season (5.07), which was actually third best in baseball.
The question then becomes, Are the Cubs putting the right players forward? Because if you lose with your best, at least you go down swinging, but if you lose with the metaphorical offensive equivalent of Wade Davis in the bullpen, well, you’re in trouble. So let’s take a closer look.
2017 Postseason Batters (By PAs):
Okay, first and foremost, the no-brainer stuff: Despite how badly they’re hitting right now, you absolutely, 100%, without question, don’t-even-leave-a-comment-if-you-disagree-with-me need to have Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in every single lineup, every single day. They’re not only two of the Cubs’ best hitters they’re two of the best hitters in baseball. If someone else on the team is “hot” you sub out literally anybody else besides those two, because they give you the best chance of winning every single time. Good? Good.
So then, at least at first blush, the Cubs have utilized their best two offensive weapons as much as they could – they simply haven’t come through. [Brett: In fact, that really could be an entirely separate discussion: given how disproportionately important Bryant and Rizzo are to the Cubs’ offense, their failure to come through this postseason is probably the single biggest factor in the Cubs’ absent offense. As Michael said, though, you win with your best, you lose with your best.]
Willson Contreras, in my opinion, is in a tier just slightly below those two guys right now (relative to the Cubs, that is), meaning that he should probably have just about as many plate appearances (which he does), unless there was some perfect matchup for Alex Avila. Given that the Nationals started lefties in two out of the five games and the Dodgers have started back-to-back lefties, his low-usage doesn’t really irk me. Should he have pinch hit by now? Yeah, maybe, but ultimately, the Cubs are alright here, too, given that you kinda have to hold back that back-up catcher most of the time, just in case.
Addison Russell is in a similar spot, in that you’re not going to take him out (his defense at shortstop is WAY too important) and he’s, you know, pretty good offensively so, yeah, at the absolute highest level, the Cubs have gotten their four most important players the most plate appearances possible. That they haven’t come through is a different story, but at least you can’t blame Joe Maddon or the front office at this point.
Beyond that is where things get interesting.
Jon Jay is next on the list with 23 plate appearances, but I struggle to find too much issue with this, in isolation, given that 1.) the Cubs have faced a lot of lefties (and he’s a reverse split guy), 2.) there’s not a better leadoff option right now, and 3.) he’s arguably been the Cubs’ best offensive player so far.
With that said, when you combine his big presence with the next four guys (in order of PAs) on the list – Javy Baez, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and Albert Almora – something begins to stick out:
Little known fact: Ian Happ is a player on the Chicago Cubs.
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) October 16, 2017
Ian Happ has had just 5 plate appearances this postseason, despite being a switch-hitter who’s capable of playing all three outfield positions as well as second base. So even if you’re absolutely convinced that Javy Baez has to get every single start at second in October (I’m not quite there, but I certainly understand it), Happ probably could’ve been squeezed in somewhere else.
And here’s the thing: Happ had 413 regular season plate appearances this year (9th most on the team), despite coming up half-way through May. On top of that, the only Cubs with better offensive numbers than Happ and at least 400 plate appearances this season are Bryant, Rizzo, and Contreras.
And if you’re thinking, But the Cubs have faced a lot of lefties, and isn’t Happ better against righties? You’d be only half right. Yes, the Cubs have faced a lot of lefties this postseason, but Happ has been exactly league average against them since August 1 (100 wRC+). Call it September 1st and he’s got a 167 wRC+ against southpaws. That’s only a 20 plate appearance sample, but it’s his last 20 plate appearances. And on top of all that, it’s not like Ben Zobrist (42 wRC+ v. LHP) or Jason Heyward (71 wRC+) are better offensive options against southpaws.
Don’t get me wrong, more playing time for guys like Ian Happ (or even Kyle Schwarber), might not have magically fixed the Cubs offense, but it’s just so odd to see him ride the bench over and over. Like I said above, the Cubs were the third best run-scoring offense in baseball this year, and Happ was a huge part of that. And yet suddenly, he’s nowhere to be found.
Instead, Maddon has relied on experience (Ben Zobrist, Jon Jay), and defense (Javy Baez, Jason Heyward), while the offense has sputtered away quietly without as much as a peep for most of October. So now, with a 0-2 hole in the NLCS, the question becomes, How much longer can they manage?