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
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
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+
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.