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It’s time to break up the Cubs’ home-run-or-bust offense

New hitting coaches aren’t the answer.

An all-too-familiar scene in 2020 — a Cubs hitter walking back to the dugout after striking out
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Over the last two seasons, the Cubs offense has often boiled down to home-run-or-bust.

And, to be sure, the Cubs hit a lot of home runs in those seasons. In 2019 they were second in the National League with a franchise-record 256, and they scored 814 runs, fifth-most in the league. This season, though, they dropped to 74 homers in the 60-game season, which ranked just ninth in the N.L., and the run-scoring dropped as well, to 265, which was 10th in the 15-team N.L.

The Dodgers led the league in home runs and runs in both seasons, and it showed in their records, league-best in both years. They won 106 games in 2019 and a N.L.-leading 43 wins in the pandemic-abbreviated 2020 season.

Why is this? Well, it’s because the Dodgers do something that Cubs teams used to do, but seem to have forgotten how, which is going the other way, executing successful bunts and using what Anthony Rizzo and Cubs hitters used to call the “B-hack,” described in this 2015 article about Rizzo’s approach:

The “A-hack” is Rizzo’s standard swing and approach. With two strikes, the B-hack appears. Against left-handed pitchers, the left-handed Rizzo uses it for most every count in every plate appearance.

For the B-hack, Rizzo chokes up, as much as two inches. He moves in toward the plate even more, offering less of a comfortable target. His hands move toward his body and a little higher, closer to a swing-ready position. The big front leg kick timing mechanism lessens to a toe tap.

Rizzo still does that to some extent, but other Cubs hitters seem to have stopped. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have been successful with a similar system, particularly in the World Series, as noted in this Wall Street Journal article by Jared Diamond:

“It’s not always about driving the ball,” Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts said. “We’ve proven that we can do that, and we’ve proven that we can take our singles, too. There’s a time and place to do both, and I think we’ve done a good job of putting pride and whatnot to the side, putting the long-ball to the side and playing pepper. Sometimes that’s the way to play the game.”

What Betts is describing is exactly what Rizzo and other Cubs hitters did from 2015 through ... well, I’d say about mid-season 2018, and then things started to go south. You likely remember a stretch in August 2018 when the Cubs scored a single run in five straight games, the run being a solo homer in each one — and still managing to win two of those games due to great pitching. But you can’t win pennants and World Series that way. You have to have a varied approach at the plate, and the “B-hack” seems to have vanished from the Cubs lexicon.

Why is this? It’s clearly not the multitude of hitting coaches that the Cubs have gone through, and certainly last week’s dismissal of assistant hitting coach Terrmel Sledge isn’t going to move the needle at all.

The Cubs have two choices here, I think. Either as a group, they get back to what made them successful from 2015-17, or the group has to be broken up. There’s no doubt the Cubs as currently composed have the talent to succeed, do what the Dodgers (or for that matter, the Rays in the World Series) have done offensively, but for some reason they’ve gotten far too enamored of the home run, to the detriment of other means of scoring, and it shows in the number of strikeouts by their hitters. The Cubs struck out in 568 of 2214 plate appearances in 2020 (25.7 percent), a significant jump from 2019 (1,460 of 6,195, or 23.6 percent) and a huge increase from 2016 (1,339 of 6,335, or 21.1 percent).

Theo & Co. keep trying new hitting coaches. It seems clear they’re having little impact. Maybe it’s time to break up the 2016 group and start fresh.