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June 2021 wasn’t a great month of Cubs baseball

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The good news: It’s July now.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Milwaukee Brewers
Patrick Wisdom after colliding with Tyrone Taylor
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

One of the defining aspects of a baseball season is how long it is (at least in normal circumstances). A lot can happen over the course of 162 games. There will be good stretches and bad ones, the unexpected will happen when you least expect it. It is not a sports season designed for fickle fans.

Which is all a useful frame for how to interpret the last two weeks of Chicago Cubs baseball, which have been bad by any standard. The Cubs were similarly bad to start April, before rallying to look like one of the best teams in baseball in May. It’s a funny sport.

A June Swoon for the ages

The Cubs have been around since 1876. That is 145-plus seasons worth of data, including some very bad baseball teams. The 2021 Chicago Cubs now hold the distinction as the worst hitting team by batting average over any 28-game stretch in the history of the franchise. In fact, they hold nine of the top 10 worst such streaks, since this period of offensive futility predates June. Below are the infamous ten such streaks:

Cubs worst 28-game streaks by batting average

Span Start Span End BA OBP SLG W L W-L% HR
Span Start Span End BA OBP SLG W L W-L% HR
2021-06-01 2021-06-30 .188 .264 .366 12 16 .429 40
2021-05-30 2021-06-28 .188 .257 .385 13 15 .464 45
2021-05-31 2021-06-29 .190 .263 .390 13 15 .464 45
2021-05-29 2021-06-27 .197 .264 .388 14 14 .500 44
2021-05-28 2021-06-26 .197 .266 .387 15 13 .536 44
2021-05-27 2021-06-25 .199 .268 .392 16 12 .571 45
2021-05-22 2021-06-20 .199 .265 .379 17 11 .607 43
2021-05-23 2021-06-21 .200 .267 .385 17 11 .607 43
1915-08-28 1915-09-25 .203 .249 .255 8 20 .286 3
1915-08-25 1915-09-23 .203 .251 .250 8 19 .296 2
Baseball-Reference

So if you’ve been watching from home and feel like the Cubs just couldn’t buy a hit, let alone a hit when it matters, well, you were right. However there are three silver linings in this data.

First, this Cubs team has a lot of three-true-outcome players and their two best contact bats (Nico Hoerner and Matt Duffy) spent the month on the injured list. We saw what this team was capable of when both those hitters get regular plate appearances in May. Hoerner is in the middle of a rehab stint in Iowa and could join the team as soon as Friday in Cincinnati. Duffy was recently moved to the 60-day IL but he’s been on the IL for a while now so that just means he’s not eligible to return until July 22, and that isn’t far off his original return date projection. If the sluggers in the lineup can hold on until the contact bats return this team could be poised to make a run in the second half.

Second, batting average might be an indicator of a team struggling to hit, but we also know it’s not the best measure of a team’s offense. This Cubs team isn’t close to the worst Cubs teams of all time in terms of a much better measure, OPS. The team still generates plenty of runs, they are just doing so in a way that isn’t particularly reliable at the moment.

Finally, there is one other recent Cubs team in the bottom 25 by batting average by this 28-game streak metric: The 2017 Cubs who won the NL Central after struggling with a .209 batting average from May 5 to June 5. That team went 13-15 during that 28-game stretch, not unlike the 12-16 record the 2021 Cubs have put up over the last 28 games. If the team can get healthy, they can absolutely do some damage at the plate.

Starting pitching

The 2017 Cubs, though, had one asset that the 2021 club does not: a relatively set starting rotation. Aside from several questionable performances from Brett Anderson, the Cubs top four were reliable. Let’s compare starter performances up to July 1 in 2017 and 2021. First up, 2017:

2017 Cubs starters to July 1

Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP
Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP
Jon Lester 17 102.1 9.15 2.9 1.06 .301 73.5% 48.7% 3.69 3.65
Jake Arrieta 16 88.2 9.44 3.2 1.32 .318 65.9% 43.9% 4.67 4.18
Mike Montgomery 5 64.1 7.27 4.2 0.42 .277 78.0% 60.8% 2.80 3.69
Kyle Hendricks 11 61.2 7.44 3.1 1.31 .259 74.1% 51.1% 4.09 4.52
Eddie Butler 10 47.1 5.32 4.6 0.57 .272 72.1% 45.3% 4.18 4.38
Brett Anderson 6 22.0 6.55 4.9 0.82 .395 55.6% 50.0% 8.18 4.52
John Lackey 16 92.2 8.06 2.9 2.33 .271 74.9% 43.0% 5.24 5.90
Select stats FanGraphs

2021 Cubs starters to July 1

Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP
Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP
Zach Davies 17 83.1 5.94 4.75 0.65 .273 71.8% 45.8% 4.32 4.54
Kyle Hendricks 16 92.2 7.19 1.85 1.94 .284 81.7% 40.9% 3.98 5.08
Jake Arrieta 16 72.2 7.68 4.21 1.98 .294 66.6% 41.9% 5.57 5.84
Adbert Alzolay 13 65.1 9.64 2.76 1.93 .238 72.7% 45.9% 4.55 4.90
Trevor Williams 10 43.2 10.10 4.12 1.65 .356 75.7% 47.6% 5.36 4.81
Alec Mills 4 37.0 6.32 3.41 0.97 .345 69.7% 57.4% 5.11 4.62
Kohl Stewart 3 12.2 7.11 3.55 0.71 .375 64.8% 50.0% 5.68 4.26
Keegan Thompson 1 29.0 9.93 5.28 1.24 .264 95.9% 43.2% 1.86 4.50
Robert Stock 1 4.0 6.75 13.50 2.25 .273 62.5% 41.7% 11.25 10.16
Select Stats FanGraphs

One of these rotations is not like the other. While it makes sense that innings pitched are down coming off the pandemic shortened season, and the bullpen has been fantastic offsetting much of the damage of those short starts, no one would draw up getting 40+ fewer innings from your starting rotation as a key to success. The Cubs will need to bolster their rotation going forward if they want to contend in the NL Central.

Takeaways

The last 16 games have left a lot to be desired and the 4-12 stretch has been magnified by the surging Brewers going 10-6 at the same time. The three-game sweep served to amplify that difference in a division that really was quite close less than a week ago. The Cubs still have time to right the ship before the trade deadline. It looks like offensive help should be healthy soon enough, but the starting rotation is another matter.