With a record of 6-9 through 15 games, the Chicago Cubs have completed nearly 10% of their season. Generally speaking, the offense has been about as frustrating as we’ve ever seen it – which is saying a lot in the current era.
HOWEVER, it’s also not nearly as bad as it looked at, say, the 5% mark. Progress! Individually, a few players have returned to normal or even better-than-expected levels (like Anthony Rizzo, for one example), and as a whole, the group has escaped the gravitational pull of the basement. The team’s .664 OPS, while poor, is better than a full seven other baseball teams. Progress!
As of their off-day today, the Cubs are not among the bottom-five teams in terms of overall offensive production by wRC+ either, and even their (still elevated) strikeout rate is no longer the absolute worst mark in MLB. These are tiny victories, to be sure, and the team’s overall ability against modern pitching is still a huge red flag. But I thought we could take some time to go over each semi-regular player’s (1) actual production, (2) expected production, (3) standout stats (good or bad), and (4) general narrative arc.
(For those unfamiliar, wOBA is an overall measure of offensive success, where individual offensive outcomes are weighted to give the player a weighted on-base average, as it were. So it looks kinda like an OBP, if that helps you better understand what a “good” wOBA is. Average this year .314. When you add that “x” to the front, you’re talking about expected wOBA, which takes things a step further, and evaluates what a guy’s wOBA is expected to be, based on his walks, strikeouts, HBP, and the quality of his contact.)
Ian Happ, CF
Slash line: .167/.310/.229 (64 wRC+)
Standout Stats: Happ has been making *plenty* of quality contact this year, including a 12.1% barrel rate, a 90.2 average exit velocity, a 7.4% average launch angle, and a 36.4 sweetspot%. But did you know he’s reached base safely in every single game he’s started this season?
Heading into 2021 as the expected leadoff man after a big breakout in 2020, Happ’s performance has been a bit of a let down, but maybe only on the surface. You don’t need to dig far to see that both his 15.3% walk rate *and* 27.1% strikeout rate are better than 2020 (13.0%, 27.3%) and that his .358 expected wOBA is identical to last season, when he was getting great results. There aren’t a lot of guys you can make excuses for this season (it may be just Happ and David Bote), but he really does feel like a guy who’s been impacted by a BABIP some 100 points lower than his career average. Hard luck and such.
Willson Contreras, C
Slash line: .273/.400/.614 (170 wRC+)
Standout Stats: Thanks to FIVE(!) hit-by-pitches this season, Contreras has a .400 on-base percentage, despite a solid, but unspectacular 9.1% walk rate.
Despite what may have initially seemed like a level of production built exclusively on an unsustainably high HBP-rate, Willson Contreras has turned it the heck on lately. The Cubs catcher has hit safely in eight straight games, with four homers during that stretch. He’s striking out over 25% of the time, which you’d like to see come down, but when he’s pairing it with a .341 ISO, you don’t really ask questions. Oh, and he’s also dealing with a ridiculously low BABIP (.269 in 2021 vs. .317 for his career). His expected production almost matches his actual production, so there’s not too much smoke and mirrors here. He’s mashing (just like we knew he could).
Slash line: .250/.344/.500 (127 wRC+)
Standout Stats: Rizzo’s 13.1% walk rate and 14.8% strikeout rate are both better than his (very good) career marks. But the most interesting stat is his highest ever average exit velocity (90.2 MPH).
What a difference a week makes, eh? I won’t belabor this section, as Brett just covered Anthony Rizzo’s resurgence earlier today. I will note that he is technically out-producing his expected production, but he’s no stranger to that, as he’s always seemed to have better results than his exit velo and launch angle would otherwise suggest. Some guys are unique like that, which is why you have to dig in a bit more and look at the track record.
Slash line: .265/.362/.653 (166 wRC+)
Standout Stats: Kris Bryant is currently posting the worst line drive rate of his career (16.2%), HOWEVER, he’s also posting the highest fly ball rate of his career (51.4%). When you do that while *also* posting the highest average exit velocity of your career (89.5 MPH), good results follow.
Bryant came into this season with more questions than anyone. Everyone *knows* his MVP-caliber offensive upside was always in there, but injuries have slowed him down over the years. Well, Bryant has wasted no time at all showing what he can be, including four multi-hit games and one of the highest SLG marks in MLB. Right now, he’s absolutely cooking and it’s as simple as that. The broader offensive issues facing this team never really applied to him this season.
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Slash line: .149/.281/.255 (58 wRC+)
Standout Stats: Despite not being a high-strikeout guy in five full years, Pederson has backslid in 2021 (29.8%). His walk rate is about as high as ever, but that’s not going to play.
Perhaps the most concerning part about Pederson’s utter lack of production is that the problem hasn’t been the extra exposure to left-handed pitchers. Pederson has just an 86 wRC+ against righties this year, despite a 128 wRC+ against them for his career. Part of the problem, it seems, has been a tendency to go the opposite way far more in 2021 (29.0%) than his career (21.1%) – which could be a tendency that isn’t playing yet, or it could be a reflection of a bat being a tick behind where it needs to be.
For what it’s worth – if you want some really small sample stuff! – he’s at least been a league average hitter after those first five brutal games.
Slash line: .214/.267/.464 (98 wRC+)
Standout Stats: Javy Baez has a 1.7% walk rate and a 45.% strikeout rate. I don’t care that he has a near-league average 98 wRC+, that’s just not going to play for much longer, especially when he’s whiffing so much IN the strike zone.
Could I deal with Javy Baez at 4-5% walk rate and ~30% strikeout rate? Maybe even 35%? Sure. But he’s all out of sorts at the moment, and it’s not very difficult to understand why: No, he’s not swinging at more pitches out of the zone. In fact, his pitch recognition has been about as good this season as it has ever been (which, well, is not great). Instead, it’s the beach ball sized hole in his swing (61.8% zone contact rate, 50.8% overall contact). I mean. I don’t know. I love Javy, and he offers plenty of other value, but he’s gotta start putting the bat on the ball. And a .250 ISO would seem to suggest he has some room to sacrifice power for contact if there’s an explicit tradeoff available there somehow.
Also? Báez remains deeply special when he goes the other way, and yet he’s sporting the highest pull rate (by far) of his career this season.
Slash line: .196/.241/.314 (53 wRC+)
Standout Stats: Heyward has had a lot of problem over the years, but NEVER has he come anywhere close to the 29.6% strikeout rate he’s got going right now. His previous career high was 23.3% and that was back in 2012. I have no idea what’s going on there, so maybe we can point to the good old fashioned small sample, and maybe some particularly bad match-ups for him.
For now, it’s a bummer, because Heyward was outstanding offensively in 2020 (131 wRC+). He was walking a ton, keeping the strikeouts down, elevating enough, etc. But this season, he’s got one of the worst ground ball rates and the worst pull rate of his career. Add it all together and you’ve got a guy who’s rolling over grounders to second base when he’s not striking out. Really ugly stuff and I hope it changes soon.
Slash line: .171/.286/.400 (88 wRC+)
Standout Stats: A sub-20% strikeout rate is just swell from a guy with his pop. Bote hasn’t come *close* to that feat before (26.7% career K-rate), so you really hope that stays.
How you feel about David Bote right now might depend on much you believe in Statcast. After all, there’s a reason his .364 expected wOBA is well above what we’ve actually seen from him so far. But you just can’t deny that a 91.9 MPH average exit velocity (best on the Cubs and right around the top-35 in MLB) is a big, positive sign … especially with his improved contact rate. Consider for a moment that his .281 expected batting average is MORE THAN 100 POINTS HIGHER than his actual batting average. I think this guy just needs to keep on getting starts.
Bote is at .250/.375/.500 (140) over the last ten days, for what it’s worth.
Slash line: .115/.111/.231 (-14 wRC+)
Standout Stats: 0 walks, 0 barrels.
There was a moment (a single day, maybe?), when it looked like Eric Sogard might be able to offer something the Cubs lineup was missing (contact), but boy was that fleeting. The Cubs back-up second baseman and primary left-handed bat off the bench has struggled offensively. He’s keeping the ball off the ground well enough, and his average exit velocity is actually pretty strong in isolation (it would actually be his career-best), but something isn’t translating.
The fact that he has an 88 average exit velo and a career-best 27.3 hard% but zero barrels makes me think all of his hard contact has gone into the ground and everything he’s elevated has been weak. That can make the numbers look funky on the surface, but that’s also what I like about looking at a guy’s xwOBA.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.