Before the Cubs launched an offensive onslaught against the Marlins on Monday night followed by a come-from-behind-win against them last night (seriously, are there many more satisfying ways to win?), they went on a five-game skid, which, itself, followed a five-game winning streak … of stressfully thin margins.
Sure, the Cubs might’ve gone 5-5 during that ugly 10-game stretch, but things could’ve easily gone much worse, and no one is more aware of that fact than Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein.
Addressing the Cubs’ early-season performance – from the recently dormant offense to the slow start for the starting staff – Theo Epstein’s perspective on the Cubs start to 2018 was captured, among other places, by Cubs.com, the Daily Herald, The Athletic, and NBC Sports Chicago.
Although much of this was said before the last two games, but I don’t think we should really let two wins completely erase some of the very real problems the Cubs were facing just two days ago – nor should they be blown out of proportion, as Epstein reminds us.
- While it was easy to dismiss the early season struggles of 2017 as part of the World Series hangover, Epstein doesn’t see any similar excuses for the problems this year: “There’s no cute name for this one. It’s just struggling.” Indeed, as Brett explored before the game on Monday, most of the Cubs’ slumpers (pretty much everybody besides Kyle Schwarber) were not the victims of bad luck or circumstance, they were just not walking and not hitting the ball hard. And according to Epstein, those problems seemed to fold in on themselves: “We have a number of guys who are pressing, and we’re slumping. It’s not pretty. We know our fans are probably frustrated and dying. Our [players] care a lot and we know they’re pressing and we know it’s not going to last forever.”
- The Cubs offense scored a combined 18 runs over the last two days, winning both games with contributions from nearly everyone on the roster – while allowing us all to breathe in the process.
- But the good times didn’t just help us get to sleep at night, they also quieted some concerns about the Cubs’ new hitting coach, Chili Davis. Although Davis came into the Cubs organization widely-heralded by the front office, he had just been let go after a bad offensive year with the Red Sox. And given some less-than-flattering comments out of Boston after that (and the Red Sox blazing hot start here in 2018), some quarters started to freak that it was a Davis problem, imported from Boston. According to Epstein, however, that was always unfounded. “We haven’t changed anyone’s core identity as a hitter. That’s not what’s going on in there.”
- Instead, Epstein explained that the issue might’ve been some unfortunate timing on coinciding slumps. And you know what? It’s not crazy. Every single hitter slumps at one point or another, but you tend not to notice those dips when other guys are picking him up. When everyone does it at once, though … well, the results of the last two weeks speak for themselves.
- And sometimes, that sort of bad timing – everyone slumping at once – can exacerbate the problem. According to Epstein, he noticed that the team was doing much better with no one on base, and much worse when runners were in scoring position (you don’t say?). He believes that every guy on the team was trying too hard to be the one that brought them out of the slump, instead of continuing to do what they do best – grind away.
- Of course, the losses didn’t fall entirely on the offense. “We’ve had some defensive mishaps and have done it to ourselves. It puts an extra strain on your pitching staff when they don’t need the extra burden. When you’re not hitting, those plays that you don’t make can be the difference between winning a series or losing a series, winning a game or losing a game. That might be the hardest to explain.” There’s no doubt about that. Another thing that hides slumps is winning (remember, we weren’t as concerned about the team during that five-game winning streak as we should have been).
- As for the constant lineup changes that had everyone’s head spinning (for no reason, I might add), Epstein seems to believe that there are too many short memories in Chicago: “It’s a bit of a red herring. We’ve won a lot of games the last three years and six weeks and whenever we’re winning no one talks about how we’ve overcome moving guys around in the lineup. It’s only when you’re losing you look at why are we losing.”
- While that goes for just about everything, I agree with Epstein about this angle in particular. Joe Maddon’s whole thing is moving guys around – in the field and on the lineup card – and Theo Epstein’s whole roster is about versatility. Seriously, think about it. There are three switch-hitters on the team (Victor Caratini, Ben Zobrist, and Ian Happ). Three guys who can credibly play center field (Albert Almora Jr., Happ, Jason Heyward). Another three guys who can play the infield or corner outfield spots without question (Zobrist, Happ, Kris Bryant). Two guys who can play well-above average shortstop (Javy Baez and Addison Russell). And two catchers who’ve played at first and in the outfield (Caratini and Willson Contreras). It’s extremely versatile, and it would be foolish not to take advantage just so you can have a “set” lineup.
- And in the end, Epstein reminded us of something we probably shouldn’t have forgotten so easily: “You remind yourself these guys are going to come out of it. Rizz is going to become Anthony Rizzo again and Willson Contreras is going to become Willson Contreras.” And I’ll add some more for him: Jose Quintana is going to become Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish is going to become Yu Darvish. These guys cannot be perfect 162 games a season (or 32 starts a year), but given enough time, they’ll almost always be one thing: themselves. And we already know they they are very good.