The Chicago Cubs got off to a blistering 13-3 start to the pandemic-shortened 2020 baseball season, however, since that hot start they’ve been an underwhelming 13-16. As we head into the final 15 games of the season I find myself asking if the real Chicago Cubs will please stand up — in fact, that is the title of the latest Cuppa Cubbie Blue podcast:
It also appears to be the question on the minds of the baseball operations team near Wrigley Field as this quote from Theo Epstein earlier this week reveals:
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, on the state of the team with only 2+ weeks to go before the postseason... pic.twitter.com/qsKpCBl77F— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) September 10, 2020
It is telling that Theo doesn’t seem to have any more answers than Andi Cruz Vanecek and I had on the podcast. So with that in mind, here are three things I’m keeping an eye on in the last 15 games that I think will be the tipping point in the Cubs 2020 season.
Hitting with the bases loaded
If you feel like the Cubs load the bases and do, well, nothing way too often you are right. The Cubs offense is woefully bad with the bases loaded. To demonstrate this I sorted every team across the American and National Leagues by Weighted Runs Created + (wRC+) with the bases loaded. As a reminder, wRC+ measures how effective a player (or team, in this case) is at generating runs with the bases loaded. It is calculated off a baseline of 100. Every point above 100 is a percentage representation of how much better (or worse) teams are at generating runs in a given circumstance.
Brace yourself, this chart is ugly, people:
2020 MLB Teams by wRC+
The Cubs are (somehow) a first-place team that is abysmally bad at scoring runs with the bases loaded. And it’s not for lack of opportunities — they load the bases as much as any team in the league — but they leave the runners stranded there. They are 78 percent worse than the league average Phillies at scoring runs with the bases loaded. They are 250 percent worse than the league leading Padres at scoring runs with the bases loaded. And look, I get it. Someone is already typing “But, Sara, the Padres have hit seven grand slams this season. Every team can’t be Slam Diego.” You are absolutely right about that, so let’s put this in starker terms. The Cubs are 187 percent worse than their division rival St. Louis Cardinals at scoring runs with the bases loaded.
Fun fact: If the playoffs started tomorrow, the Cubs would be playing the Cardinals.
This is all some small sample size voodoo, and such is life when the season is only 60 games long. However, no team should expect to win their division, let alone make a credible playoff run, if they can’t score with the bases loaded.
Starting pitching and middle relief
The Cubs’ hot start was fueled in part by exceptional starting pitching in the first quarter of the season. For the record, no one expected all five Cubs starters to stay on their early trajectory, but the return to reality coupled with Injury List stints for Tyler Chatwood and José Quintana as revealed starting pitching as a weakness for the 2020 club. This team is going to need higher quality starts from pitchers other than Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks if they want to win the division and make a run in October. By the way, when I say quality starts, I mean that literally. Only Hendricks and Darvish have thrown enough innings at this point to qualify for the Fangraphs Leaderboard.
Jon Lester started 2020 strong but has since regressed to the mean. His ERA of 5.80 is not pretty to look at, but it is almost exactly in line with his 5.61 FIP and 5.48 xFIP. His arsenal of pitches currently demands such precision that he quickly gets hit around when he isn’t hitting his spots. It isn’t going to get any easier as he faces a Brewers team that loves to face left-handed pitching — they have a team OPS of .842 and a wRC+ of 121 against southpaws in 2020.
Alec Mills has also come back to earth a bit with a 4-3 record and a 4.74 ERA that is in line with his 5.19 FIP and 4.74 xFIP. Those numbers would be more than fine for a number five starter. The problem is, with the injuries to Chatwood and Jose Quintana, plus Lester’s struggles, Mills is more like a number three starter right now and those numbers will not work for the third best pitcher on a first place team in September.
Lester and Mills are performing exactly where one would expect them to given their peripherals, so the middle relief options in the bullpen become even more important. Not to be that girl, but Kyle Ryan, Ryan Tepera, Dan Winkler and Duane Underwood Jr. don’t inspire a lot of confidence on this front.
This less than ideal situation is not hopeless, but the Cubs are going to have to thread a very small needle to pull this off. They likely need to get Chatwood and/or Quintana back, at least in a middle relief role in addition to two of the above relievers and/or trade deadline acquisitions Andrew Chafin and Josh Osich performing above expectations. That is a lot that needs to go right in a short amount of time.
Can the big three finish strong?
The heart of the Cubs lineup is Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez and every single one of those hitters is struggling as I write this article.
Let’s put this in perspective, Rizzo is struggling relative to the sky high expectations Cubs fans have for their first baseman. He is a career .271/.372/.486 batter with a wRC+ of 131 over 5,360 plate appearances. In 2020 he’s a barely average .213/.337/.413 hitter with a wRC+ of exactly 100. Now, the good news is that Rizzo has been the victim of some bad BABIP luck in 2020 and there is nothing that indicates this decline is anything other than statistical noise. If this were a 162 game season I’d be confident he’d rebound in the next 117 games. In fact, I am confident he’ll rebound in the next 117 games as I write this — I am just less confident that rebound will begin in the next 15 games.
Báez and Bryant’s struggles in 2020 are of a fundamentally different variety as I covered earlier this season. Their approaches at the plate and some peripheral stats don’t look like the hitters we’ve come to expect over the last few years of watching them play.
Let’s start with Bryant, who is currently in the bottom quarter of the league by almost every metric on Statcast:
These numbers are alarming, but there is a ray of hope in them - they are all improvements on the numbers he had when I wrote about the offense three weeks ago. In other words, Bryant is trending in the right direction and it is certainly good news for the Cubs if his slump is over.
Javy’s problem is different: his exit velocity, power and barrel numbers actually look solid. They don’t look like his unbelievable 2018 run, but they are fine. When he makes contact with the ball, Javy still does damage. Unfortunately, he’s not making that much contact with the ball lately with a 33.5 percent K rate that is higher than every season he’s had in the majors since his rookie campaign in 2014. A handful of recent articles covered that he’s struggled with the lack of video to adjust in game. While that may be true, that is not a tool he is going to get back in the 2020 season. The Cubs need him to improve on his .196/.235/.357 slash line and they desperately need him to improve on his 52 wRC+. They should probably also consider moving him down in the order while he’s working that out.
If I told you in July that we’d get to September 11 and the Cubs would be in first place despite losing Chatwood and Quintana to injuries, having suspect middle relief options, dealing with a lack of offense from Bryant, Rizzo, and Báez and the entire team seemed unable to produce runs with the bases loaded, well, every single person who reads this blog woud would have told me I was insane.
Yet, here we are — the Cubs are sitting in the driver’s seat in the NL Central and even though that 13-3 start feels like it was ages ago I have to believe it’s an important reminder to this team that they can pull together and go on a run at any point in time. If this team can channel whatever led to that hot start one more time they could make a run in the postseason. If they continue on the sub .500 path they’ve been on since mid August they will be lucky to play any baseball in October.