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The Cubs need better options at second base with Ben Zobrist on extended leave

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The David Bote - Addison Russell - Daniel Descalso “platoon” isn’t going to cut it for a contending team.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On May 8 Ben Zobrist took a leave of absence from the Chicago Cubs for personal reasons likely related to his marital situation. In order to compensate for his absence from the team the Cubs made a series of roster and lineup moves: Addison Russell was called up from Triple-A Iowa earlier than anticipated, Kris Bryant has played more than his fair share of corner outfield, Daniel Descalso has gotten a few more at bats than any of us are comfortable with and David Bote has roamed the infield as necessary.

It would be easy to overlook the impact that these moves have had on the team, after all, they’ve spent most of that time in the exact same position in the standings they were in when Zobrist left the team. On May 7 they were in first place by half a game. Today they find themselves trailing the Brewers by half a game. However, a look behind the numbers tells a different story.

On May 7 the Cubs were 20-13 coming off an 8-2 stretch. Since then they are 19-19 and have seemed unable to gain momentum. Zobrist’s absence has had two main impacts on players. The first is Bryant’s more flexible role. The second is increased the playing time for three players: Russell, Bote and Descalso. I want to look at the implications of both of these moves on the offense below.

Kris Bryant - Utility MVP

You’ll recall that Bryant got off to a bit of a slow start in 2019 but then caught fire during the Arizona road trip and seemed to never look back. As you might expect he’s played more games out of position since Zobrist’s absence, but it really hasn’t seemed to faze him. For starters, he’s not playing that many more games out of position. Prior to May 8 he played somewhere other than third base in 11 of 30 games. Since May 8 he’s played 15 out of 33 games somewhere other than third (and three of those were filling in for Anthony Rizzo at first). Below are Bryant’s numbers before and after Zobrist’s absence:

Kris Bryant before and after May 7

Year PA HR BABIP Avg OBP SLG wRC+
Year PA HR BABIP Avg OBP SLG wRC+
To May 7 147 6 .276 .250 .381 .508 133
Since May 7 151 9 .312 .297 .404 .570 153
Fangraphs

Bryant has continued to thrive no matter where Joe Maddon puts him on the field. So let’s take a look at the increased playing time for Zobrist’s replacements at second and how they have fared.

Chicago: We have a second base problem

The Cubs’ current situation at second base is wholly inadequate for a contending team. Only one part of the Russell/Bote/Descalso tandem at second is remotely capable of producing offensively at the moment and the Cubs will need to make some moves here if they want to contend in the toughest division in baseball. Let’s take a look at the numbers below:

Bote/Russell/Descalso splits since Zobrist’s absence

Player PA HR BABIP Avg OBP SLG wRC+
Player PA HR BABIP Avg OBP SLG wRC+
David Bote 108 5 .365 .289 .352 .505 120
Addison Russell 99 4 .258 .230 .296 .379 74
Daniel Descalso 62 0 .139 .094 .210 .132 -1
Selected offensive stats Fangraphs

Everything about this table is alarming. While a case could be made that Maddon should play the hot hand in Bote for now, even his relatively better numbers are clearly bolstered by an unsustainable .365 BABIP. Russell’s slash line and wRC+ would lead me to believe a trip to Iowa was in order, except that would mean more playing time for Descalso and his numbers at the plate since May 7 are DFA territory.

A look at each players more recent June numbers is even more alarming:

Cubs second base splits - June

Player PA HR BABIP Avg OBP SLG wRC+
Player PA HR BABIP Avg OBP SLG wRC+
David Bote 47 2 .290 .262 .319 .500 109
Addison Russell 38 0 .217 .156 .237 .156 1
Daniel Descalso 11 0 .250 .125 .364 .125 62
Select offensive stats Fangraphs

The super-small-sample-size-but-maybe-good-news here is that Bote’s numbers look to have stabilized a bit. His slightly above league average wRC+ of 109 and .262/.319/.500 slash line are far and away the Cubs’ best current option. Descalso’s numbers should be taken with a large grain of salt considering he’s basically been a pinch hitter in June, but Russell’s numbers are truly alarming. Over a time period where he’s seen more consistent playing time his offensive capability has cratered. As a reminder, wRC+ is normalized off a scale of 100, where 100 represents the average player. His wRC+ of 74 since he came back is substantially below average. His wRC+ of 1 in June is atrocious.

Ian Happ doesn’t appear to be the answer in the short term, either. For starters, the Cubs seem determined not to call up Happ until he has fixed whatever it is he’s supposed to be fixing in Iowa. Looking at his May and June splits, it doesn’t look like he’d be much of an improvement over what the Cubs currently have in Chicago. For May Happ slashed .242/.372/.434 and in June he’s back down to .208/.382/.396.

I’ve seen it suggested in the game threads and on Twitter that Maddon continues to play Russell because he thinks the defensive boost helps the Cubs win ballgames. With the obvious caveat that defense is notoriously difficult to measure over small sample sizes, while that may be the case, I don’t see it. I did some quick math on the team’s record when each player started at second. Admittedly this doesn’t take into account game circumstances or run differential, but none of these players starting at second seems to result in more victories than the other. Below are the Cubs records when each starts at second base:

  • Daniel Descalso: 4-5
  • Addison Russell: 7-9
  • David Bote: 6-4

Obviously, that math is imperfect. Some of these games Russell started at second and Bote played third, for example, or players substituted for each other in later innings. But it’s a nice illustration that none of these players seems to be catalyzing the team, either with bat or glove.

Half a month, or even 38 games, is a small sample size over the course of a major league season. All of these players have had short stretches of poor offensive output in their careers that have been followed by surges of production in the past. However the Cubs’ second base situation is currently alarming and I’m not sure how much longer a contending team can let this particular platoon play out and hope to stay in contention.