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  • A Hard Reckoning for the Cubs Offense

    Matt Trueblood

    The Cardinals came to Wrigley Field dead. They were 11-24, ensnared in controversy and grief. If the Cubs don't take care of business over the final two games of this series, though, the dead might rise again. Chicago's offense needs to turn that same trick.

    Image courtesy of © Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

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    It took so long for the Cubs to promote Matt Mervis and Christopher Morel from Iowa to the majors that their legend outran their likely impact--even despite Morel having shown his flaws at the MLB level last year. Mervis, Morel, and Miguel Amaya do add a slightly stronger feeling of upside to the bottom of the Cubs lineup, but the reality is that they all slot into that part of the lineup for a reason.

    The last two weeks and change have thrown cold water on those who got overly enthusiastic about the team's hot start at the plate. Over the last 14 days, the Cubs are hitting .243/.318/.373. They're 24th in wRC+ over that span, and 25th in isolated power. They have the seventh-highest strikeout in MLB in that period.

    This, of course, is the real identity of this offense, and that's the problem. Even their best hitters have the kind of flaws that prevent one from being a devastating offensive force. 

    • Nico Hoerner lacks power
    • Ian Happ can't hit left-handed pitching, and is a little light on power for a guy who bats third every day.
    • Dansby Swanson runs extraordinarily hot and cold at the plate.
    • Seiya Suzuki, a year and a month into his MLB career, hasn't yet found the approach to fully unlock his ability.

    The one potential exception is Cody Bellinger, who has shown the ability to be a genuine superstar in the past and is hitting like one this spring. He's been the bright spot during this rough fortnight for the team, but even he has seen his plate discipline crack. He has a strikeout rate just under 30 percent and a walk rate just over 6 percent in those 14 days, which bears watching.

    This is all by design. During the offseason, the front office pivoted consciously to building a team that relies on pitching and defense to win games. Eventually, the goal is to have a juggernaut offense to go with that run prevention, but everyone knew this year's team would have to win close, low-scoring games. Alas: they aren't doing so. They're not only 2-8 in one-run games, but 2-3 in two-run ones. That rate--40 to 45 percent of games being decided by two runs or fewer--is definitely in the range the team should expect over the final 127 contests of their season. They need to win half of them or more, in order to even play meaningful baseball in September. To do that, they're going to need to find the right offensive formula.

    That probably means more Morel, and much less Nick Madrigal. The latter has been brutal in every possible regard, since a superficially hot start. He's limited defensively, and has been a disaster on the bases. He doesn't help the team by adding missing pop at the bottom of the lineup, either. Morel can do everything Madrigal can do, but better. (Of course, it's now possible that both will need to play fairly often for a while, until we hear more about Hoerner's hamstring issues.)

    It probably also depends on either Mervis or Suzuki developing into a full-fledged power threat. Patrick Wisdom and Bellinger are a decent start on hitting for sufficient power overall, but we've already talked about the problems that might be creeping in for Bellinger, and Wisdom's vulnerabilities--unable to handle premium velocity, far too many strikeouts--are obvious and problematic for anyone who dreams on sliding him up to, for instance, Trey Mancini's unproductive place in the batting order.

    Beyond that, though, there remain questions about how this team starts consistently scoring enough runs to support even one of the league's best pitching-and-defense combinations. Willson Contreras didn't beat the Cubs Monday night. Jordan Hicks did. That can't happen as often as it has lately, if the team wants to stay in contention in the NL Central.

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    • Quote

      Nico Hoerner lacks power

      This is ok.  He's a leadoff hitter, and also probably the best pure contact hitter on the team.  This is not a spot where power is a necessity.

    • Quote

      Ian Happ can't hit left-handed pitching, and is a little light on power for a guy who bats third every day.

      Happ's relative lack of power is more problematic than Hoerner's.  He is fine as a Left Fielder, but isn't the ideal middle-of-the-lineup hitter.  I wasn't big on making a long term commitment to Happ, but the length and amount of his extension was reasonable, so I think he is a piece that the Cubs can work around.

    • Quote

      Dansby Swanson runs extraordinarily hot and cold at the plate.

      It appears this is something we are just going to have to live with, but hopefully some more power comes along with those hot streaks.  Swanson's OPS is being propped up by a very high OBP, but that isn't sustainable.

    • Quote

      Seiya Suzuki, a year and a month into his MLB career, hasn't yet found the approach to fully unlock his ability.

      This, to me, is where the biggest problem lies.  The Cubs made a big commitment to Suzuki as their starting Right Fielder and so far he hasn't shown himself to be the power threat that they need.  The emergence of Bellinger has taken some of the pressure off, but Suzuki has still been a big hole in the middle of the order for most of the season.  If that doesn't change, the offense will continue to struggle and the lack of power will continue to be an issue.

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    Last winter the master plan for Cubs, according to mass media, was to throw one of them fancy $300+ million contracts at (movie trailer voice) One Man who would stand, fight, and turn the tide for offense and roster. I submit they’re better positioned for that move now vs then, *and* the One Man available is better than the winter options

    There’s definitely a wishfully thinking part of me that believes they’re going to land Ohtani before the TDL for hilariously cheap 

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    Beginning of the season through April 19: Cubs were hitting .319 with RISP (126 wRC+), which was good for 4th best in the MLB. No surprise, they went 11-6 over that stretch. 

    From April 20 through today: Cubs are hitting .214 with RISP (65 wRC+), which is second worst in the MLB. Unsurprisingly, they have gone 6-12 over that stretch. 

    Lots of different players to be blamed over this stretch. Really, all of them have essentially played a role at some point. 

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    There's a line in The Office: "Not everything is a lesson Ryan, sometimes you just fail."  I really wish I could get other baseball fans to internalize this.  I'm not sure why we'd weight the last two weeks more than the previous four beyond just being irrational fans expecting the sky to always fall.

    There's two things going on with the offense, neither's especially concerning.  1st is that the luck with runners on has regressed very quickly.  The team was stupid lucky driving runners in the first month of the season, and that has finally corrected and corrected hard.  But holistically the team's right where it should be.  They've scored 169 runs, while Baseruns (which attempts to strip out luck and sequencing) says they "should have" scored 172.  That's essentially a rounding error.

    The second is power.  Power is incredibly streaky, and unfortunately EVERY SINGLE WINTER baseball fans collectively forget this information.  It's like that Patrick Star meme.  Through the Padres series, the Cubs were 6th in HR/FB rate, about 3% higher than the league average.  Since the start of the first Marlins series they're 24th, about 3% lower than the league average.  Power ebbs and flows, this stuff happens.

    Like yes please continue with the plan to play more Morel and Mervis and less Mervis and Madrigal, but really all that's "wrong" right now is the baseball gods decided to cram a month's worth of offensive regression into about 10 days, and it came at a time where we played a bunch of tight games so those marginal runs were really felt.  But like there's not any real takeaways that would stand up to much analytical rigor.  Sometimes you just fail.

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