Today’s Superhero is one of the more positive stories that has come out of the 2021 season. Rafael Ortega is a player who I was completely unfamiliar with prior to this season. He got looks in 2012 with the Rockies, 2016 with the Angels, 2018 with the Marlins and 2019 with the Braves. But my memory does not deceive me, nowhere in that time did he ever face the Cubs. Back in 2016 at the age of 25, Rafael got 202 plate appearances with the Angels and put up just a .575 OPS. That has been his longest stretch of MLB time in his career. So far this year with the Cubs, he has put up a .770 OPS in 101 plate appearances for the Cubs. That’s good for a 107 wRC+. He’s producing positive value that’s been good for .3 WAR. As WAR is a counting stat, it does benefit from volume. We of course can’t infer that he’d put up the same quality of numbers of we multiply out his stats, but if you did multiply that out four or three or four times for the plate appearances of a typical fourth outfielder, you can see where he’s produced some positive value and could be a useful piece utilized properly.
Realistically, the Ortega situation highlights one of the recent problems with the Cubs. Getting production from those types of journeymen players. That’s in stark contrast to the bullpen where they have over and over found useful pieces from the scrap heap. Looking back at the last full season of data, the Cubs had the following players that I identify as journeymen Daniel Descalso (OPS+ 39, yep, that’s 61 percent worse than average), Tony Kemp (25), Jonathan Lucroy (50) and Carlos Gonzalez (61). In 2018, they didn’t really have any of that type of player, basically using a whole host of guys who were part of the Cubs organization. In 2017, they got pretty good contributions from Jon Jay (96) in 433 plate appearances.
This has basically been an avenue the Cubs haven’t really explored much of. They put together a group of in house players and just rolled with it. Year after year. Even as the results slowly diminished over time. The whole offense has gotten stale. And where the changes were happening, they weren’t necessarily positive ones. When Dexter Fowler left, there really wasn’t much of any kind of element of speed. As Ben Zobrist faded away, there wasn’t really much of an element of a real contact hitter.
At the same time, the top end of the roster had relatively similar stories. Their stars never took the step forward and became superstars. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras and Kyle Hendricks have been the core of this team. There is no question that all five of them are stars. All of them are in upper echelon of players at their respective positions year after year. But none of them have really been the best at their position since Javier Baez’ near miss at the MVP in 2018. Before that was Kris Bryant in 2016. To be fair, there are only so many transcendent stars to go around. It’s just that at different times it looked like each of Bryant, Baez and Contreras might knock down the door and be recognized as the top player at their position, at least in the National League if not across baseball. Hype is what it is, but recall that as this group of players were being assembled there was at times hype that Kyle Schwarber and/or Addison Russell might be the biggest star of the group. For various reasons, neither guy ever came close to realizing their potential as Cubs.
It will forever be a frustrating irony for me that when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer began putting this Cubs team together, the focus appeared to be on offense. I really thought after their first couple of years here that they were trying to put together a slow-pitch softball team — a team full of hulking sluggers that would bash its opponents into submission. Instead, they ended up with a team that at its best had defense and pitching as its two calling cards. Particularly starting pitching.
Now here in 2021, that starting pitching has gone the way of the dodo bird. It’s hard to consistently win in the major leagues without quality starting pitching. Kyle Hendricks has been good. But after that, it’s been spotty at best. The length of starts has dropped all around baseball and that is going on in Chicago too. To be sure, some of that is by design. With the dazzling array of relievers that most teams can deploy these days it is very definitely a valid strategy to get five good innings out of a starter and then mix and match the late innings. But the five innings need to be good. You need your starter to keep you in the game and all too often that just hasn’t been the case. Certainly, last night’s game was no exception. To be fair, the early deficit wasn’t so great as to be insurmountable. But it is difficult to be running uphill all night long. After all, the other team usually has that same dazzling array of relievers. Particularly when they are protecting a lead.
Let’s go to the numbers. As you’ll recall, the Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA (Win Probability Added) and are not in any way subjective. Many days WPA will not tell the story of what happened, but often it can give at least a glimpse to who rose to the occasion in a high-leverage moment or who didn’t get the job done in that moment. And now, let’s get to the results.
Game 102, July 27: Reds 7 at Cubs 4 (50-52)
- Superhero: Rafael Ortega (.084). 2-3, 2B, R
- Hero: Kris Bryant (.071). 1-3, HBP, BB, HR (18), RBI, R
- Sidekick: Anthony Rizzo (.057). 1-4, BB, HR (14), 2RBI, R
- Billy Goat: Willson Contreras (-.247). 0-5, 3K
- Goat: Adbert Alzolay (-.204). 5IP (22 batters faced), 7H, 0BB, 4R, 4K, WP (L 4-11)
- Kid: Jason Heyward (-.102). 0-4, K
WPA Play of the Game: Anthony Rizzo batted with a runner on first and one out in the first inning with the Cubs trailing by two. He tied the game with one swing of the bat. (.162)
*Reds Play of the Game: With Willson Contreras at the plate in the bottom of the third, the Cubs were once again down two and had runners on second and third. Willson skied a pop up down the first baseline and Joe Votto went all Anthony Rizzo and made a tarp catch. Rafael Ortega attempted to score on the play and Votto threw him out trying to score for one of the odder double plays you’ll see. (.160)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Patrick Wisdom (1-1, HR)
Heroes and Goats Cumulative Standings: (Top 3/Bottom 3)
- Kris Bryant +26
- Craig Kimbrel +20
- Patrick Wisdom/Nico Hoerner +9
- Rex Brothers -10.5
- Jake Arrieta -14
- Ian Happ -16
Up Next: The third game of the series is tonight at Wrigley Field. The Cubs are scheduled to send Zach Davies to the mound. Of course, with trade season in full swing, it is certainly possible that Davies could be traded ahead of his start necessitating some kind of bullpen day. Davies is 6-6 with a 4.30 ERA. Zach is a perfectly underwhelming and at the same time somewhat effective pitcher. He is almost certainly not going to get you deep into the game. But, other than the occasional clunker, he’s generally keeping you in the game. The Reds counter with Tyler Mahle. Tyler is 7-3 with a 3.92 ERA. If I were one to bet on baseball, I think I might place a bet on the Reds in this one. Mahle is a very effective pitcher, the Reds really need every win they can get right now and you add in whatever probability, however slight, that Davies could be traded or otherwise held out and I think it’s a pretty good bet.