Last night’s 2-1 loss to the Pirates was as deflating as it was unsurprising. A terrific outing by Kyle Hendricks (after surrendering back-to-back bombs to open the first) was ruined by an offense that, even against one of 2020’s worst starting pitchers, couldn’t do much of anything. It’s good to see Anthony Rizzo hit homers in consecutive days, Cameron Maybin produce at the plate (two doubles), and the team draw five walks in a game. Yet scoring just one run (on five hits) while stranding runners in scoring position on multiple occasions feels impossibly repetitive.
Sure, there are positives to be had. The Cubs have clinched a playoff berth, and with four games left to play their magic number to clinch the division sits at three. Despite the perceived mediocrity of the NL Central, winning a division is no small feat, and even if its reward is watered-down in an expanded playoff field, credit will be due to this team should they not completely implode.
Positives be damned, however. This is a difficult offense to watch, and the consequence appears to be an early October exit.
The Cubs Have No Identity at the Plate
In the month of September the Cubs have slashed .217/.300/.328. All of those numbers are abysmal and rank near the bottom of the league, but the slugging percentage is particularly egregious, as it ranks dead last in baseball. For a team whose offensive identity appeared to emerge early, the season long struggles of its core, coupled with the recent slump of Ian Happ, proved the early start to the season a mirage. At one point the Cubs were leading the league in runs per game (excluding Colorado). Now? The Cubs are scoring 4.29 runs per game, tied with Milwaukee and Arizona for 21st. Even with walk and strikeout rates that are middling, the team has very little going for themselves offensively.
The numbers only get worse from there. Unsurprisingly, that slugging is matched with a league-worst isolated power (.111), one of the highest ground ball rates (45.2 percent), and ranking dead last in home run to fly ball ratio. This all culminates in a wRC+ of 72, good for 27th in MLB.
With runners in scoring position, these September numbers hardly improve. A .236/.339/.382 lacks inspiration, and results in a still-below-average wRC+ of 92, which ranks 21st across the sport. These numbers come as no surprise to a fan base that has long lamented the Cubs’ lack of production with runners in scoring position; they also serve as a painful reminder of how bad this offense has been this season.
Somehow, the Cubs have managed a 6-4 record over their last ten games, a record that feels surprising given the dearth of offensive impact. In six of those games the Cubs scored two or fewer runs, and even with one explosive performance against Milwaukee, driving in 12 as Alec Mills made history, the Cubs have averaged 3.5 runs in their last ten games.
There’s no mincing words here. If the Cubs are to make a deep playoff run, the offense has to find a way to come to life.
Is All Hope Lost on 2020?
Watching the post-game interviews on Marquee last night was telling, for a variety of reasons. Hendricks spoke candidly about making bad pitches early, and good pitches late, which allowed his brilliant performance (7.2 IP, 2 ER) to overcome the tough start. David Ross was surprisingly tranquil as he discussed the bad-luck the Cubs had with hard hit balls last night. Rizzo spoke highly of the team’s character despite the offensive struggles. And newcomer Cameron Maybin provided some telling commentary.
With regard to the offensive struggles, Maybin opined: “If you’re not used to getting out of struggling, you’re playing the wrong game.” Such is the mindset of a veteran with playoff experience, a refreshing and necessary attitude on a team that remains, perhaps against all odds, playoff bound.
“That’s baseball, things can turn around in the blink of an eye,” continued Maybin. “We have to embrace the situation that we’re still going to be in the playoffs. We can’t feel down or feel bad. The biggest thing is trying to have professional at-bats. Not trying to do it by yourself.”
Indeed, things can change quickly. Momentum can be created out of the smallest of moments, and while the core of this team has hardly shown promise in 2020, they do have a track record of performing at a high-level.
Still, just four regular season games remain before the playoffs, three of which are against our South Side neighbors — who are also battling for a division title. If the Cubs are going to build offensive momentum, they’ll have to do so against a tough opponent as the season expires.
I wouldn’t automatically bank on an early October exit. But unless something clicks, and does so in a hurry, a frustrating end to the 2020 season will be far from a surprise.
Featured Photo: Aaron Doster, Associated Press
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