This weekend’s series against the Nationals didn’t really expose anything about the Cubs’ offense that we didn’t already know, but seeing such a stark contrast between the clubs was jarring.
The Nationals battled, annoyingly, with two strikes. The Nationals came up with hit after hit in big spots. The Nationals simply put the ball in play when they needed.
The Cubs accepted their walks and hit more home runs. The Cubs did not come up with very many hits in big spots. The Cubs struck out repeatedly when a ball in play was needed.
It’s one series, and our confirmation bias is making us exaggerate what we saw, no doubt, but I’m preaching to the choir here. And that choir includes Joe Maddon and his various coaching staffs over the past few years, who have tried in every way they can to make this core offensive group more productive with runners on base, more productive the other way, and more productive when the situation just calls for contact. Yet here we are, three years later, having the same conversation.
To that end, some things to read on this topic that I think you’ll find interesting, even if they only further confirm for you that personnel changes are needed this offseason. And that includes a throwback to something written nearly four years ago.
First up, Jordan Bastian with the positivity from Joe Maddon, but also some harsh realities about the Cubs’ contact-less qualities:
Maddon: "The ingredients are there. We've just got to go out, obviously, and do it. I've been involved with teams that have just all of a sudden clicked at the right time of the year."
Flaws of Cubs' lineup highlighted in sweep by Nats: https://t.co/m0rsGhXwUk
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) August 26, 2019
I dug around in the data to see if there was any signal in what the Cubs are doing, collectively, when they get to two strikes or when there are runners in scoring position (or both), or runners on third and less than two outs, and in all those areas, you basically find that the Cubs are average or slightly above than average in total production. Not, perhaps, what you expected, but then again, for this offensive group, wouldn’t we think they should be better than merely average or slightly above average?
Heck, maybe it doesn’t even need to be that complicated, when we talk about the situational hitting problems. Here’s the money paragraph from Bastian: “Entering Sunday’s game, the Cubs ranked last in the National League in contact rate (73.7 percent), while the Nationals paced the Senior Circuit in that category (79 percent). Chicago ranked last in the NL in swinging-strike rate (12.4 percent), while Washington also led the way in that area (9.5 percent). It is therefore not surprising that the Cubs have also seen the fewest pitches (40.4 percent) in the strike zone.”
Stay out of the zone against the Cubs, and they will – in the aggregate, and spread over enough pitches – get themselves out one way or another. Simple enough, but it sure would explain why it feels like the Cubs get walked a ton in big spots with runners on base, but rarely seem to come through with the bat, itself. And when there are runners on base, there are more holes out there for batted balls to find a lovely glove-free zone. Taking advantage requires contact.
Moreover, when your game plan is exactly the same for 5 or 6 of the hitters, your job as a pitcher is that much easier, even if the group you’re facing is “talented.” The Cubs’ lineup these last few years hasn’t had a whole lot of diversity in the types of hitters they employ: lots of swing, lots of whiff, lots of hard contact in the air, lots of susceptibility to breaking pitches out of the zone and fastballs up, etc.
To that end, you wonder to what extent the aggressive downtrend in production we saw last year with the offense from April to September is happen again, because the Cubs are just too easy to game plan and adjust against:
Joe Maddon still believes his offense can click and look like the group they faced this weekend. But even with a slight boost after adding Castellanos, the trends show they've been going in the wrong direction since June 1. https://t.co/LddL7N0RqY pic.twitter.com/PT5vBqTqXe
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) August 26, 2019
The good news in the very short-term is that there is enough talent on this roster for the offense to explode down the stretch. It can just “happen” when there are this many quality hitters, and with the return of Willson Contreras and (a maybe still helpful) Ben Zobrist. There is no reason not to root for that in September, and to be happy if it happens.
But when the offseason approaches, regardless of what happens offensively from here on out, change to the personnel is necessary. It’s crystal clear now – it was last year when the offense “broke” – that a more diverse constituency of hitters is required to make the whole a little more potent than the sum of the parts, and it isn’t solely going to come from internal development.
Can the Cubs get there in a single offseason? Maybe not. But I’m reminded, as Sahadev Sharma mentioned on our podcast, that these issues were already popping up in 2015, so the front office went out and got a couple very differently-styled hitters in Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.
The front office did that because they understood then something that it seems like they are going to need to understand again this offseason: they just have a lot of guys who are what they are, and it’s all way too homogenous to come together as an excellent offense (the way it did in 2016 after Heyward and Zobrist came along).
The 2015-16 offseason quotes, via NBC:
- “[Zobrist] helps really kind of shape our offense a little bit more (to) the way we needed it going forward,” Epstein said. “We have a lot of swing-and-miss (guys). We need contact. We need on-base skills. We have some free-swingers. And I think we can really benefit from another guy – especially a switch-hitter – who really knows how to manage an at-bat, get on base and can hit different kinds of pitching and good pitching. He obviously plays the entire game and is a winning-type player.”
- “We’re never going to turn into the Royals,” Hoyer said. “That’s not going to happen. The nature of our team, somewhat, is we’re going to strike out. But I think there’s room for improvement. Hopefully, we can get out of the 30-spot and move up a little bit. We’re never going to be a contact-based team. We have some (hitters and) strikeouts are part of their game. They also have a ton of power.”
- “We have to get better situationally,” Hoyer said. “Some of that is probably things that we can work on in spring training and during the season. And some of it is probably just experience. Starting four rookies, you can’t really expect to be amazing with guys at third and less than two outs. That’s part of it. But we can get better.”
- “I think our offense has a chance to be really explosive and dangerous for a long time,” Hoyer said. “The St. Louis series really showed all the best attributes of our offense – getting on base and hitting homers. But plenty of other times we realize – especially when it’s cold in our ballpark or the wind’s blowing in – you’ve got to be able to scratch out runs here and there. That hasn’t been our strength. And we need to get better at that.”
Agreed on all of that. Just say it all again, and then do it all again.