The Cubs improbably swept a three-game series against the Dodgers at Wrigley Field this week and I’m still trying to wrap my head around parts of those games. But one thing I’m sure about is that Matt Duffy and Jake Marisnick need to be in the lineup everyday for the foreseeable future.
The Cubs offense has struggled to generate offense this season at occasionally historic levels. It’s the same boom and bust offense we’ve all been watching for at least three seasons now. It’s been baffling because the core of players from the 2016 Championship team is largely unchanged. But one of the big differences for this team in 2015-17 and now was the presence of a few contact bats like Ben Zobrist, Dexter Fowler and Jon Jay sprinkled in the Cubs home run-heavy offense. Those hitters made the Cubs a much more dangerous, and more successful, offense.
Enter stage left Matt Duffy and Jake Marisnick. Marisnick and Duffy have been quietly earning more playing time and they’re just continually in the offensive mix when good things are happening for this team. Your eyes are not fooling you, the stats back it up. Here are the Cubs top offensive producers by wRC+ in 2021:
Cubs offensive leaders by wRC+ and key stats
Marisnick and Duffy are both among the team leaders in run creation. As a reminder wRC+ operates off a league average baseline of 100, so the 162 Marisnick currently sports is an indication he’s 62 percent better than league average at creating runs. Duffy is right behind him at 129. Only Kris Bryant (who is putting up MVP-caliber numbers) and Nico Hoerner (who never should have spent time at the alternate site) are better at this moment in time.
So let’s take a closer look at how each of these players is helping an offense that looked like it was on life support at the start of the season rebound. And I’ll try to make my case that at least for the foreseeable future, Marsnick and Duffy need to be in the lineup everyday.
Marisnick was signed for one year and $1.5 million. When he signed it looked like he’d be part of a platoon with the Cubs hitters who have struggled with left-handed pitching and a late inning defensive replacement with speed. But there was the outside possibility he’d continue his hot stretch from 2020 where he put up a .333/.353/.606 slash line and a monster wRC+ of 158 in 34 plate appearances with the Mets. That appears to be exactly what he’s done through 59 plate appearances with the Cubs. The .333 BABIP is likely unsustainable, but interestingly it’s already lower than the .429 BABIP he had in 2020 and so far he’s maintained his improved offensive production.
Crucially there doesn’t appear to be a handedness split to Marisnick’s production. He’s slashing .286/.375/.571 with a wRC+ of 154 against left handed pitching across 24 plate appearances in 2021. He’s slashing .258/.343/.677 with a wRC+ of 168 against right handed pitching with the remaining 35 plate appearances. Most of his power in terms of home runs has come off righties so far, but he’s actually better at getting on base against lefties.
Marisnick is also the best center field option on the team because, well, he’s actually a center fielder, unlike every other outfield option on the team who are all better as corner outfielders or infielders that occasionally play a game in the outfield.
Duffy is a corner infielder who won’t hit for a lot of power but when he’s getting on base at a .429 clip he really doesn’t have to hit home runs. He signed a one-year minor league deal, with a $1 million guarantee if he made the Cubs MLB roster. That deal has already been worth every penny.
It is not your imagination that Duffy always appears to be on base when the Cubs start to get a rally going. His walk rate (14.3 percent) is almost as high as his strikeout rate (15.9 percent). Duffy is even less likely to hit for power than Marisnick. He only hit one home run during partial playing time in 2019 in Tampa Bay, but that’s sort of the point. The Cubs lineup is full of guys who can hit for power, they need more guys who can get on base so they run the score up with those hits.
Duffy has a more notable handedness split than Marsnick does, but crucially he’s above average against both righties and lefties, even with the split. Duffy is slashing .353/.476/.412 with a wRC+ of 154 in 21 plate appearances against left handed pitchers and .286/.405/.343 with a wRC+ of 117 in 42 plate appearances against right handed pitching. I think we can all agree that an OBP over .400 is most welcome on a team that collectively gets on base at a .315 clip - over 100 points lower than Duffy’s mark.
Duffy’s numbers look a bit Zobristian, albeit with less positional flexibility. That works for this iteration of the Cubs, however, because Kris Bryant can move around the field and Duffy can man the hot corner at third or spell Anthony Rizzo at first as necessary.
It’s possible that both Marisnick and Duffy are getting a bit lucky right now and their BABIP indicates these numbers will come back to their career norms at some point. Until that happens David Ross should do whatever is necessary to keep their bats in the lineup. The Cubs are 15-16 over the season but they are 7-3 in games that both Duffy and Marsnick start. Oftentimes win stats like that are spurious correlations, but in this case there appears to be some tangible differences in the Cubs offense with Matt Duffy and Jake Marisnick in the lineup.