The Last Man on the Cubs' Roster is Mark Zagunis, Who Will Probably Need to Crush Lefties

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The Last Man on the Cubs’ Roster is Mark Zagunis, Who Will Probably Need to Crush Lefties

Chicago Cubs

Turns out the biggest surprise of the spring is more or less official: even with full health among position players, Mark Zagunis will make the Opening Day 25-man roster. While much of the focus so far has centered around the move to send Happ down, I think it’s time to ask what Zagunis can do to add to winning baseball on a first-division team.

In my opinion, there are two main bonuses the Cubs see in Zagunis. First is that his New Car Smell, and his sheer excitement at making the roster, gives one hitter that Joe Maddon doesn’t have to fret about giving regular at-bats to. Zagunis has no playing time agenda, nor a ceiling that demands developmental at-bats. He’s just here to provide value where you can find it.

And that value, given the construction of the roster, could be primarily against left-handed pitching.

The 2018 Cubs faced left-handed pitching 1508 times last year, and sent a left-handed batter to the plate 29.6 percent of the time. That left-handed batter would hit just .229/.304/.309. Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber were not helping those numbers. Enter Zagunis, a right-handed hitting corner outfielder, to offer Maddon a hole-plug.

Zagunis’ numbers against left-handed pitching in the last 4 seasons:

2018: 90 PA, .282/.404/.324

2017: 97 PA, .293/.443/.560

2016: 128 PA, .272/.328/.395

2015: 146 PA, .322/.459/.452

A bit of a mixed bag there, but the Cubs don’t want to be left hoping it’s an every-other-year anomaly. They hope there are  some explainable things inside the bad years. In 2016, Zagunis’ 6.3 BB% vs LHP sticks out like a sore thumb; that on-base percentage is not like the others. Chalk it up as an aberration. But clearly, a key will be preaching that he stay locked into his amazing strike zone judgment.

The other thing, which Zagunis has spoke to this spring, is his woeful 2018 slugging percentage. At The Athletic, Sahadev Sharma reveals (via Theo Epstein) that Zagunis battled wrist and shoulder injuries last year. And Zagunis spoke about the changes he took on over the winter:

“Get the ball in the air more,” Zagunis said. “I felt like I was a little bit all over the place the last few years. Had a good month and then struggled a little bit. Staying a little taller in the box and raised my hands a little bit. I think it’s just helping me elevate the ball and drive it.”

The good news is that Zagunis has correctly diagnosed an issue here. Both his fly ball *AND* line drive rates made 4-year lows in 2018, as Zagunis hit the ball on the ground in 53.1% of his total balls in play. And if you’ll believe it, this problem was actually worse against left-handed pitching.

Courtesy of Prospects Live, here was Zagunis’ spray chart in 2018, with balls in play against southpaws in color.

Not good. Amazingly, Zagunis did not pull a single elevated ball against a lefty last year. He hit just three balls in total definitively over 300 feet against lefties. Heck, he wasn’t elevating the ball to the pull side much at all.

The good news is the problem was correctly identified, and in Spring Training, we have reason to believe he’s made appropriate changes (and become healthy). I don’t believe it’s too dramatic to say that Zagunis’ Cubs career hinges on these changes sticking.

This season will be Zagunis’ final one in which he can be freely optioned to the minors. While the change to a 26-man roster in 2020 will surely benefit players like Zagunis, he will need to start ripping left-handed pitching into the left field gap this season, if not this month.

Preferably tomorrow, actually, against lefty Mike Minor.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.