If the season ended today, the Cubs wouldn’t make the postseason. The Brewers have jockeyed with them for the division lead and have held it about 50% more of the time. These are not sentences I expected to be writing nigh to the season’s halfway point. While some sports pundits are starting to wonder whether the Dodgers or the Astros are the new Cubs, we’re here to look at what’s going on the the actual Cubs, who are fairly similar to the old Cubs, at least on paper before the season started. Things are very different from last season, though. So, just as we did a couple of weeks ago with last season’s AL pennant winners
While there’s certainly room to talk about the issues that the rotation has been having, we’re going to focus today on the Cubs hitters. They are collectively responsible for a 95 wRC+, which is tied for 15th place in MLB (with the Brewers, no less). Last season, Cubs hitters put up a 106 wRC+, which was not only good enough for third in MLB, but, when paired with their fielders’ ridiculously excellent defense, put them in first in MLB by fWAR with 38.7, almost five full wins over the team in second place (Red Sox, 33.9 fWAR). While the defense hasn’t been quite as sublime this year, there have been some serious issues hitwise in the lineup with some of the biggest expected contributors, so that’s the topic for today.
A Tale of Two Corners
If it seems silly to give third baseman Kris Bryant, who is hitting .259/.393/.515 for a 135 wRC+ and leading the team with 2.6 fWAR, a hard time, it is. Through this point in the season last year, Bryant was running out a 144 wRC+. While we could analyze his numbers (lower BABIP, higher walk rate, decrease in power), it suffices to say that he’s just fine. He’s the reigning MVP and he’s simply playing like an All Star this season.
Over at first, we have a similar situation with Anthony Rizzo, who is hitting .258/.389/.498 for a 131 wRC+ and is second on the team with 2.1 fWAR. As with the lone Cub in front of him in terms of fWAR, it’s sort of obscene to give him a rough ride for that, but, as with Bryant, it’s worth noting that, through his point last year, Rizzo was performing even better, and had a 158 wRC+. Again, we could analyze the numbers (much lower BABIP, increased soft contact), but his overall numbers were brought down by a torrid May (95 wRC+) and he’s been one of the best hitters in baseball in June (172 wRC+).
There’s certainly not much reason to dwell on two players who are having excellent, if slightly diminished seasons, but there is a trickledown effect to having your best position players be a little bit less spectacular. The real problem has been figuring out the lineup around them, and the loss of Dexter Fowler to free agency this offseason has given manager Joe Maddon fits when it comes to figuring out how to fill in the first spot on his lineup card.
The Burden of Great Expectations
Kyle Schwarber was one of the solutions that Maddon tried and tried and tried again in the leadoff spot at the start of the season, but one of the biggest baseball news-drops of the past week was Schwarber's demotion to AAA. His .171/.295/.378 line looks more like what you’d expect from a pitcher who rakes. Perhaps our expectations were a tad too high, though, based on the small sample size of regular-season PAs (278), the ridiculous numbers (.412/.500/.471 in 20 PAs) he put up last year in the World Series and, well, the fact that he plays for the Cubs.
His walk rate (13.8 BB%) and strikeout rate (28.7%) are very much in line with the numbers he put up in his 2015 debut (13.2 BB%, 28.2 K%) and over a similar number of PAs (273 in 2015, 261 in 2017). His BABIP, however, dropped a whopping 100 points, from .293 (more or less average) to .193 (completely unsustainable and record-making, were he to do it over a full season). While it would be understandable for Schwarber to run out a lower-than-normal BABIP given his, ahem, physique, that’s a completely unsustainable number.
There are other issues as well: a big drop in his HR/FB% and, most importantly, a big drop in making quality contact. Some time down in the minors to make adjustments against pitchers of lesser quality and out of the limelight should do Schwarber some good. He’s certainly not as good as he was during the World Series last year, but he’s also not as bad as he’s been this season, either.
Behold the Bleak House
The other player who’s been one of the biggest issues in the Cubs’ lineup has been Ben Zobrist. He may have won a World Series MVP last year, but he might be starting to show signs of age in the second year of his four-year, $56 million deal. Zobrist is hitting .223/.321/.394 for a 89 wRC+. He struggled with back issues early in the season and is currently on the DL, having not played since June 12 because of a wrist injury (not going to make a terrible Zobwrist joke, not going to do it…). He’s hopefully due back in July and will (again) hopefully improve at the plate, because the loss of Zobrist is a big deal for the Cubs’ lineup.
His contract is going going to make him difficult to trade (in the event that the Cubs decide to cut ties), but, beyond that, the real issue is that the Cubs are counting on Zobrist to contribute a little bit longer on the front end of his contract to make the lineup work. The ability of the Cubs to mix and match and have so much depth defensively last season was one of their major ingredients for success. The loss of Zobrist (completely as of late and qualitatively on the season) seriously screws up that recipe. Some other, slightly less glaring drops in production, most notably Wilson Contreras (2017: 96 wRC+ vs. 2016: 126 wRC+), don’t help the issue either.
But It’s Not All Hard Times
We have to talk a little bit about one of the few positive surprises that the Cubs have gotten out of their lineup this year. To be clear, we’re not talking about Jason Heyward (.258./315/.399, 72 wRC+) improving a bit on his awful 2016 (.230/.306/.325, 88 wRC+), but about rookie Ian Happ.
Chicago’s first-round pick from 2015 has been hitting .252/.325/.547 with 10 home runs for a 122 wRC+ in 156 PAs in his first callup this season. Happ came out of the gate looking like one of the best players in baseball, hitting .323/.417/.710 in his first nine games, but then struggled just as hard. Even with that hot start, his wRC+ was only 94 for May. Happ appears to have adjusted just fine, though, as he is hitting .277/.333/.627 in June with a 142 wRC+.
The Cubs are still, with good reason, the favorite in the NL Central to make the postseason (85.4% at Fangraphs and and 68.4% at Baseball Prospectus), but their lineup is far from as intimidating as it was during their ridiculous run last year. Right now, even a breakout season from another young player hasn’t been enough to put the Cubs back in the discussion for the best offenses in baseball, which is unquestionably where they were last year. If the Cubs are going to defend their title, they’re probably going to need one or both of Schwarber and Zobrist back and hitting, and soon.