The Chicago Cubs’ offense underachieved in the first quarter of the season, ranking 11th in the National League in hits, batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. The Cubs did manage to rank as high as eighth in the league in runs scored. All things considered, that’s a win.
It hasn’t just been one or two players struggling and bringing the team averages down, either. Third baseman and reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant has been excellent, but he’s the only one in the lineup on a daily basis who’s doing good work at the plate. More specifically, shortstop Addison Russell, left fielder Kyle Schwarber and first baseman Anthony Rizzo are all in somewhat of a funk.
The level of hitting struggles that so many of the most important Cubs have faced this season helps speak to just how good they are. What other team could have most of its lineup flounder for the better part of 40 games and still remain around .500 and within two games of first place in its division? When everyone breaks out of their slump, the Cubs will go on a tear.
But specifically with Russell, Schwarber and Rizzo, is the breakout on the horizon? Or are their struggles merely a symptom of a bigger problem? Let’s take a look.
When Russell walked out of the dugout to be presented with his World Series ring prior to the team’s second game at Wrigley Field this season, television broadcaster and ceremony host Len Kasper referred to him as “future National League MVP Addison Russell.” While the 23-year-old certainly has the kind of talent that may one day take him to that level, putting that kind of label on him in such a public manner was a bit audacious.
By most measures, Russell has been just slightly below average as a hitter in his two-plus seasons in the big-leagues. His career slash line is .238/.311/.399 with a wRC+ of 90. Russell is outstanding on defense, which helps him bring excellent value to the team every day, but his bat simply has yet to catch up to the rest of his game.
Since his rookie year in 2015, Russell has seen a steady decline in his strikeout numbers. After swinging and missing at a 28.5 percent rate as a rookie, that number dropped to 22.6 percent in 2016 and now is down to 18.8 percent in 2017. That comes despite the fact that he’s hit just .220/.286/.362 in 154 plate appearances this season.
Russell’s offensive slide has been exacerbated by a shoulder injury that kept him out of the lineup for a few days. He has a low BABIP at .257, and was actually hitting well prior to a recent 8-for-62 stretch. As long as his shoulder is healthy, there’s really no reason to be concerned about whether Russell’s bat will come around. But to what extent that might be is still relatively unknown.
The same can pretty much be said for Schwarber, who has less of a track record in the big leagues than just about anyone on the Cubs’ roster. After making his debut with the team in 2015 and putting on a show in the playoffs, Schwarber famously missed nearly the entire 2016 regular season with a torn ACL. He returned to play hero in the World Series, of course, and now is back on the field for what will hopefully be his first full season.
Manager Joe Maddon put the slugging Schwarber in the lead-off spot, something of an unorthodox move, given his ability to work the count and get on base. But so far, it’s been more swings and misses with a side order of weak contact than it has been setting the table.
Schwarber is hitting .188/.312/.361 with six home runs on the year, but that only tells a part of the story. While he has an excellent 14.1 walk rate, he’s striking out at a 27.1 percent rate – consistent with the 28.2 percent rate he had in 2015. Recently, I wrote about players with elevated strikeout rates and how that runs counter to getting on base at a high rate.
For a comparison, there were 11 qualified batters around MLB in 2016 that struck out at a 26 percent rate or worse. The player that logged both the best batting average and on-base percentage among those 11 was then-Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders, who hit .253/.338/.478 with 24 home runs in 558 plate appearances. Since 2010, 44 players have struck out at that same rate and only five have had an OBP of .340 or better – and only one struck out 28 percent of the time or more.
Schwarber should come around with the bat, to a degree. He has an absurdly low .228 BABIP and has hit a lot of popups, while his ground ball and fly ball rates have been relatively normal. The batting average and on-base will rise, but it’s debatable to what degree that will happen. Is he going to keep racking up the strikeouts while turning himself into a quality lead-off man? It’s unlikely.
This is the worst start to a season that Rizzo has ever experienced. While he, like all players, will go through slumps from time to time, he’s been a quick starter throughout his short career. The lowest OPS on May 18 in his four previous seasons with the Cubs was back in 2014, at .850. This year, his slash line sits at .221/.356/.403, combining into a .759 OPS.
A lot of that is specifically due to the last two-plus weeks of baseball. Rizzo came into the month of May with a .877 OPS, but has gone just 8-for-53 with a double and a homer since. That’s a .151/.318/.226 slash. But the good news is that he’s only struck out 10 times, for a solid 15.1 percent strikeout rate.
How does a player hit that poorly if he’s not striking out much?
The simple answer is by hitting a ton of popups and ground balls, creating a low batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Rizzo has had popups account for 9.7 percent of his balls in play since May 1 while the rate on groundballs has been 53.6 percent. That leaves just a 17.1 percent line drive rate and 19.5 percent fly ball rate.
The good news for the Cubs’ second-best hitter is that there’s nothing to suggest he’s broken, but merely in a bit of an extended funk.
There are other players struggling at the plate for the Cubs, as well. Ben Zobrist has had back issues that have lead to infrequent playing time, while Javier Baez has had his usual hot and cold streaks. But Zobrist should come around once he’s healthy, while the offense will almost certainly survive whatever Baez does at the plate. The Cubs will go as their star players go, and it appears as though a good stretch – and with it, plenty of victories – might be just around the corner.
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