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Assessing the Cubs offense one week into the season

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A dive into the Cubs batting numbers. Hint: It’s not pretty.

Javy Báez swings through a ball against the Brewers on April 6
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Generally after a week of games I’d disregard any numbers as too small of a sample size to really get excited about. Sure, it can be fun to use those early trends as a jumping off point for a conversation, but chances are things will change over the course of a full 162-game season.

With that gigantic caveat established, I have this “uh oh, we’ve seen this movie before” feeling about the Cubs offense so far. Specifically, the boom and bust cycles that quickly ushered the Cubs out of the playoffs in 2020 don’t seem to have gone anywhere. If anything, they seem to be further entrenched.

One week into the season the Cubs have exactly two players who are above average at producing runs according to wRC+, which measures offensive output according to run creation and has a baseline of 100 for a perfectly average major league bat. You can see some basic offensive stats for all Cubs with at least 10 plate appearances below:

Cubs offense through April 9

Name G PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA xwOBA wRC+
Name G PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA xwOBA wRC+
Kris Bryant 7 28 2 14.3% 25.0% .375 .267 .250 .357 .625 .414 .349 165
Javier Baez 7 27 2 3.7% 40.7% .240 .250 .200 .259 .440 .304 .279 94
Jake Marisnick 5 12 0 16.7% 33.3% .000 .500 .300 .417 .300 .339 .351 116
Ian Happ 7 23 1 21.7% 26.1% .176 .100 .118 .318 .294 .292 .385 86
Eric Sogard 6 11 0 0.0% 9.1% .273 .200 .182 .182 .455 .260 .262 65
Willson Contreras 7 25 1 16.0% 36.0% .167 .111 .111 .320 .278 .288 .291 83
Anthony Rizzo 7 28 1 14.3% 14.3% .174 .158 .174 .286 .348 .282 .364 79
Jason Heyward 7 23 1 8.7% 26.1% .143 .214 .190 .261 .333 .266 .300 69
David Bote 7 18 1 11.1% 11.1% .200 .000 .067 .167 .267 .192 .327 21
Joc Pederson 7 24 1 8.3% 33.3% .143 .077 .095 .167 .238 .181 .227 14
Select stats for players with at least 10 plate appearances FanGraphs

Aside from Jake Marisnick and Kris Bryant all this team does is walk, strike out and hit home runs. That may be theoretically exciting for people who are interested in studying teams built on the three true outcomes approach, but it’s less than thrilling for fans sitting at the edge of their seat hoping the Cubs can come back when they are down a run or two late in a ballgame.

I wanted to see how the Cubs offense compares to the rest of the league, so I pulled some select team stats:

Select offensive stats by team

Team PA HR R SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Team PA HR R SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
CIN 242 14 57 0 10.7% 21.1% .286 .354 .316 .400 .602 .426 168
LAD 312 7 44 3 12.8% 20.2% .182 .380 .310 .409 .492 .392 151
HOU 285 15 51 1 8.8% 19.6% .245 .314 .289 .358 .534 .382 148
MIN 290 11 46 3 9.7% 29.0% .216 .368 .278 .353 .494 .366 132
CHW 324 10 48 7 12.7% 22.8% .149 .311 .255 .359 .404 .342 118
NYM 163 3 16 2 13.5% 20.2% .127 .300 .246 .364 .373 .332 115
TEX 228 8 32 7 8.3% 27.6% .153 .341 .262 .342 .416 .337 114
SDP 263 7 27 3 11.4% 19.8% .146 .294 .252 .344 .398 .327 111
PHI 226 5 26 6 8.8% 27.4% .144 .354 .262 .348 .405 .330 108
LAA 271 10 40 3 9.2% 21.4% .167 .293 .254 .327 .421 .326 108
NYY 238 6 25 2 11.8% 23.1% .124 .318 .254 .342 .378 .324 106
KCR 232 8 33 1 9.5% 25.9% .163 .312 .251 .329 .414 .327 106
WSN 98 2 12 2 11.2% 25.5% .131 .328 .250 .347 .381 .323 104
BOS 271 6 38 5 5.9% 22.5% .158 .326 .267 .317 .425 .322 101
CLE 179 7 17 1 11.2% 18.4% .171 .227 .215 .302 .386 .305 91
DET 217 7 23 2 9.7% 27.6% .166 .283 .223 .298 .389 .301 90
COL 272 12 44 6 6.6% 20.6% .232 .257 .236 .289 .468 .321 89
SEA 262 3 29 3 11.8% 29.0% .111 .297 .209 .310 .320 .288 86
STL 258 10 36 2 9.3% 29.5% .167 .250 .202 .287 .368 .288 85
SFG 224 11 20 5 8.0% 29.0% .191 .233 .201 .268 .392 .286 84
TBR 230 5 23 0 9.6% 23.5% .129 .257 .208 .294 .337 .284 84
PIT 258 7 19 3 10.9% 26.7% .145 .255 .202 .291 .346 .286 83
TOR 262 11 25 3 6.1% 27.5% .158 .248 .208 .272 .367 .283 77
ARI 274 8 25 2 7.3% 24.5% .154 .253 .209 .270 .364 .278 75
MIA 255 2 21 7 9.4% 22.7% .089 .268 .210 .290 .299 .268 74
CHC 241 10 23 6 11.6% 27.8% .186 .168 .157 .264 .343 .271 72
BAL 265 5 27 2 6.0% 34.3% .105 .322 .219 .265 .324 .262 65
OAK 291 3 19 5 9.6% 26.1% .091 .226 .170 .266 .261 .244 58
ATL 197 7 17 3 7.1% 32.5% .148 .216 .170 .234 .319 .241 51
MIL 256 6 20 3 6.6% 31.6% .095 .233 .172 .243 .267 .234 46
Select team stats through the first week of 2021 FanGraphs

A few things jump out in these admittedly very early numbers. The first is that the Cubs are near the bottom of the league in wRC+ (5th lowest) and wOBA (6th lowest). Frankly, the only reason these numbers aren’t worse is that power the Cubs have shown during the nascent season. They are tied for seventh in terms of most home runs in the league. The long ball has resulted in 12 of the 23 runs they’ve plated so far in 2021.

It does look like they’ve been more than a little unlucky with the balls they’ve put in play so far. They have the league’s lowest BABIP at .168 and it’s almost 50 points lower than the next lowest team (the Diamondbacks at .216). While it’s possible there are structural reasons for that low BABIP (overreliance on the long ball resulting in a lot of loud outs that just miss being home runs or exceptional shifting by Milwaukee and Pittsburgh’s defense come immediately to mind as hypotheses) it’s also possible that this is capturing exactly what we tend to think of with BABIP — bad luck that will equalize over the course of a season.

The problem for the Cubs is that this is persistent at this point. While their team wRC+ last season wasn’t the abysmal 72 they’ve shown a week into 2021, it was a below average 92, which ranked 20th in baseball.

2020 Team Offenses ranked by wRC+

Team PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Team PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
LAD 2316 118 9.8% 20.3% .227 .276 .256 .338 .483 .350 122
NYM 2279 86 8.6% 21.9% .187 .320 .272 .348 .459 .347 121
ATL 2344 103 10.2% 24.4% .215 .322 .268 .349 .483 .355 120
NYY 2210 94 11.4% 21.7% .200 .280 .247 .342 .447 .341 116
SDP 2231 95 9.1% 21.5% .209 .291 .257 .333 .466 .341 115
CHW 2267 96 7.9% 25.2% .192 .314 .261 .326 .453 .334 113
SFG 2259 81 8.6% 22.1% .187 .311 .263 .335 .451 .337 113
TBR 2261 80 10.7% 26.9% .187 .300 .238 .328 .425 .325 110
LAA 2308 85 10.4% 21.2% .182 .284 .248 .332 .430 .329 109
PHI 2223 82 10.3% 21.6% .183 .299 .257 .342 .439 .336 109
BOS 2304 81 8.1% 23.7% .180 .321 .265 .330 .445 .333 106
TOR 2263 88 9.0% 22.4% .186 .297 .255 .325 .441 .329 105
BAL 2242 77 7.3% 22.9% .171 .309 .258 .321 .429 .323 104
WSN 2218 66 8.7% 20.3% .170 .308 .264 .336 .433 .330 104
OAK 2201 71 10.8% 23.8% .171 .271 .225 .322 .396 .314 102
MIN 2168 91 8.6% 24.4% .186 .283 .242 .315 .427 .319 101
HOU 2229 69 8.6% 19.7% .168 .273 .240 .312 .408 .311 100
MIA 2167 60 8.8% 24.8% .141 .306 .244 .319 .384 .308 96
STL 2011 51 10.2% 23.7% .137 .290 .234 .323 .371 .306 93
CHC 2214 74 10.3% 25.7% .167 .270 .220 .318 .387 .309 92
KCR 2200 68 7.8% 24.0% .158 .297 .244 .309 .402 .308 91
SEA 2181 60 9.5% 25.0% .144 .281 .226 .309 .370 .298 91
CIN 2123 90 11.3% 25.2% .191 .245 .212 .312 .403 .312 91
DET 2076 62 7.1% 27.3% .152 .314 .245 .303 .397 .303 89
MIL 2188 75 10.1% 26.6% .166 .278 .223 .313 .389 .307 89
ARI 2238 58 8.1% 20.6% .150 .282 .241 .312 .391 .306 88
CLE 2247 59 10.6% 23.0% .144 .277 .228 .317 .372 .303 87
COL 2257 63 7.1% 24.1% .148 .316 .257 .311 .405 .307 76
TEX 2147 62 7.8% 25.5% .147 .266 .217 .285 .364 .283 76
PIT 2134 59 7.8% 24.4% .137 .268 .220 .284 .357 .279 73
Select Offensive Stats by Team FanGraphs

In a recent piece for The Athletic, Sahadev Sharma noted that the Cubs struggles on offense can be tied to the quality of contact they are making on fastballs in the zone and the lack of their ability to fight off contact out of the zone. Admittedly these numbers are prior to Thursday’s game:

What’s jarring is just the Cubs’ lack of aggressiveness on fastballs in the zone. Entering Wednesday, according to Statcast, they swung at fastballs in the zone just 60.4 percent of the time (27th). According to the updated numbers at FanGraphs (including Wednesday’s loss), they’re not chasing pitches outside of the zone much, doing so just 24.3 percent of the time (28th). But they’re swinging at any pitches in the zone only 64.6 percent of the time (26th). Overall, they’re swinging the bat just 40.5 percent of the time.

As was hammered home this spring, patience is a strength. Passivity, though, will sink this club.

And of course, contact is always an issue. The Cubs are 28th with a 68.9 percent contact rate. The rare times they do chase, they’re not fighting off those pitches. They are far and away last in baseball, with a 49.1 percent contact rate on pitches out of the zone.

The Cubs managed to win the NL Central last season on the strength of some well-timed win streaks during a shortened campaign rather than an offense that was consistently firing on all cylinders. The 2021 Cubs won’t have the luxury of a 13-3 streak overpowering below average performance 74 percent of the time. Furthermore, the Pirates and Brewers are supposed to be the easy part of this first month of baseball. The Cubs are now going to have to right this offensive ship against the Braves, Mets and Dodgers, which could pose a much bigger challenge.

Hopefully the Cubs are enjoying an off day and the bats will start clicking again just in time to prove me foolish for writing this piece on a limited sample size. But the realist in me has a lot of concerns that what we’ve seen from the Cubs in the first week of 2021 is just a continuation of what we say over 60 games in 2020.