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The Cubs are having trouble winning on the road... again

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If you think this seems familiar, you’re not wrong.

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs are 13-8 at Wrigley Field this year and have outscored opponents 107-81 at the Friendly Confines. That’s an average of 5.1 runs scored per home game and 3.9 runs allowed, a pretty good ratio. The 13-8 home mark is fourth-best in the major leagues behind the Giants (14-4), Mets (11-4) and Phillies (13-6).

The Cubs are 4-11 away from Wrigley Field this year and have been outscored 86-53 in those 15 road games. That’s an average of 3.5 runs scored per road game and 5.7 runs allowed. That’s... bad. The 4-11 road record is second-worst in the majors. Only the Rockies (2-14) are worse.

What’s going on here?

You might recall that the same thing happened in 2019, when the Cubs went 51-30 at Wrigley Field but 33-48 in road games. I wrote about this at the time and again in March 2020, just days before everything shut down for the pandemic, when Kyle Hendricks was quoted as saying he had an idea:

“I can only speak for myself, but at Wrigley I’m so comfortable in the setting and the environment, the look of home plate, the look of the backdrop and all the stuff.

“So going on the road, we’ve talked about going out on the game mound when we get there and just getting a look, getting comfortable with that at first. Because sometimes that’s what gets you. You do your warmups (in the bullpen) and then get out to the game, and it looks a little different than what you’re used to.”

Just standing on it? Is that doable?

“Possibly, yeah,” he said. “The grounds crew doesn’t love it. When we first get there to start the series, show up day one, and a couple pitchers mosey out and just kind of take it in, see what it looks like.

”That’s going to help me, but it was really more of a mindset. Just got to be more aggressive and come out attacking more on the road. I did a better job of that at home because of the comfortability.”

Whether they did this in 2020 — in empty ballparks — is uncertain, but the Cubs did have a winning road record during the 60-game pandemic season, 15-12.

Let’s slice and dice this year’s record in a number of different ways.

Home day games: 7-6
Home night games: 6-2
Road day games: 2-4
Road night games: 2-7

This doesn’t tell us much. The Cubs are good at home, though better at night. They’re bad on the road, but worse at night. The Cubs have a 5.01 ERA in night games, 3.84 in day games. The sample sizes here are obviously small.

How about this?

Game time temp 40 or lower: 2-1
Game time temp 41-50: 2-3
Game time temp 51-60: 6-4
Game time temp 61-70: 3-3
Game time temp 71 or higher: 4-8

Nope, that doesn’t help either. The Cubs are good when temperatures are moderate or really cold, bad when... these numbers are all over the place, so let’s try something else.

Cubs record by the pitcher who started the game

Zach Davies: 4-4
Kyle Hendricks: 2-5
Adbert Alzolay: 2-4
Jake Arrieta: 3-3
Trevor Williams: 4-3
Alec Mills: 1-0
Keegan Thompson: 1-0

That’s about what you’d expect given the performances of said pitchers.

The Cubs are hitting .221/.322/.401 (144-for-653) at home and .235/.308/.382 (120-for-510) on the road. The OPS aren’t that far apart (.724 at home, .691 on the road), and neither are the slugging percentages. But the Cubs have 26 home runs in 21 home games and just 16 home runs in 15 road games. As we saw in Cleveland, they are getting runners on base, but aren’t getting them in. After a five-homer outburst May 2 in Cincinnati, the Cubs have hit only five home runs in the eight games since, and just one in the last five games.

So is power the issue on the road? If so, why?

Let’s also break this down by individual player. Here are the top nine Cubs by plate appearances and their OPS at home and on the road:

2021 Cubs home/road batting splits through 36 games

Player Home OPS Road OPS
Player Home OPS Road OPS
Javier Baez .779 .804
David Bote .694 .340
Kris Bryant .875 1.351
Willson Contreras .709 .963
Matt Duffy .706 .669
Ian Happ .556 .551
Jason Heyward .630 .482
Joc Pederson .672 .633
Anthony Rizzo .847 .697

Well, that doesn’t tell us much. Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant are much better on the road than at home so far; David Bote, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo far worse. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern here.

What about pitching? Well, now we might be on to something. The 13-8 home record comes with a 3.53 ERA and 1.293 WHIP, with 24 home runs in the 21 games. In the 15 road games, the ERA jumps to 5.68 and the WHIP to 1.563, with 23 home runs allowed. They’ve also been hit for a .274/.366/.470 slash line on the road compared to .225/.322/.370 at home.

Here are the home/road ERA splits for the Cubs’ five primary starting pitchers:

2021 Cubs starting pitchers home/road ERA splits through 36 games

Pitcher Home ERA Road ERA
Pitcher Home ERA Road ERA
Adbert Alzolay 4.91 4.15
Jake Arrieta 1.59 7.53
Zach Davies 3.48 8.59
Kyle Hendricks 4.94 17.18
Trevor Williams 3.15 10.64

Why is this happening? I can assure you that if the Cubs brass and coaching staff knew, they’d be taking positive steps to fix it. Could Kyle Hendricks be right about the familiarity at home making a difference? If so, are they doing what he suggested? (Note that Kyle has just one road start so far. Still.)

If the Cubs could play just .500 ball on the road they could be a contending team, given how they have played at Wrigley. But let me give you one more split:

Cubs vs. Braves and Reds: 3-7, 6.91 ERA, 22 HR allowed in 86 innings
Cubs vs. all other teams: 14-12, 3.46 ERA, 25 HR allowed in 231⅔ innings

Those two teams have done most of the damage, it seems. In the 26 games played against not-Braves and not-Reds, the Cubs have done pretty well, including sweeping two clubs (Mets and Dodgers) expected to be contenders in their own divisions. And they won’t have to face Atlanta again in 2021, unless there’s an unlikely postseason matchup.

That’s obviously not all of it, but it certainly is a part. So is getting everyone healthy. The Cubs don’t face the Reds until July, so they’ve got time to figure out the 6.92 ERA they posted in the three-game set in Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago.

I don’t propose that I have all the answers here, in fact, I probably don’t have any of them. I simply wanted to present some Cubs splits so far this year and see if any sense can be made of them.