The Cubs’ season ended with a loss in the NL Wild Card game last Tuesday night, a disappointing finish to what had been shaping up to be a promising year. Now that Chicago has entered the offseason, it’s time to evaluate what went right and what went wrong in 2018.
Over the next three weeks, I’m going to issue report cards for various aspects of the team’s performance. Offense, pitching/defense, and the front office/manager will all get their own separate grades. I will also provide some teacher notes on how they might improve any areas in which they come up short.
The first area of the season I’m going to examine is the offense. As you are all painfully aware, the Cubs struggled mightily to score runs in September and early October. But the offense also had some good times during the summer and spring of 2018.
Let’s take a closer look at the numbers shall we?
Reaching Base: A
The Cubs did an excellent job of putting men on base in 2018. All caveats about using batting average as a stat in the saber-metric era aside, a team average of .258 ranked first in the National League. Those 1,453 hits combined with the fourth-highest walk total (576) to give Chicago a .333 team on base percentage, second-best in the league.
The Cubs’ hit total increased by 50 over 2017 but the walk total actually dropped from 622 last year. The strikeout rate went from 10th in the league last year to seventh this season. The new emphasis on making contact under hitting coach Chili Davis appears to have had some impact.
While the Cubs continued to get on base in 2018, their power and slugging fell dramatically. Chicago hit 167 homers this season, good for just 11th in the NL. They slugged .410, which was the sixth-best in the league and had a fifth-best .744 OPS.
The 2017 team hit 223 dingers, but Willson Contreras, Kris Bryant, and Ian Happ all saw massive power drops. Slugging and OPS were both 30 points higher last season than in 2018. The drop-off in extra-base power really hurt the offensive production at the end of the season.
Run Production: B-
The Cubs scored a total of 761 runs in 2018, ninth in all of MLB and fourth in the NL. They hit .247 with runners in scoring position, which was 10th in the NL and 20th in all of MLB. The fact they had so many runners on base meant the run total was pretty high despite their RISP issues.
The Northsiders scored 822 runs in 2017, so the drop-off to 2018 was significant. The average with RISP, which was one of the issues that led to the hiring of Davis as hitting coach in 2017, was .253 last season. The Cubs failed to improve in the run-production category and actually got worse.
Overall Offense: C
In the end, I would say the Cubs’ offense was average overall. While they were able to reach base effectively, they couldn’t translate that into runs often enough. The numbers mask the truly feast-or-famine nature of the offense in 2018. The Cubs had numerous games where they scored over five runs, but then had a whopping 40 games where they scored zero or one run.
A lot of blame is being directed at Davis, much of it for reasons my colleague Brendan Miller dove into with a little more in depth here recently. I will say the stark drop-off in power really hurt run production, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that is simply due to a change in philosophy.
Bryant’s shoulder injury definitely impacted his performance from mid-May on; Anthony Rizzo’s back issues also limited his early season home run numbers. That being said, the only player who saw his homer total go up in 2018 was Javy Baez.
Getting on base is not a problem for the Cubs. They have been in the top five in OBP every season with Joe Maddon managing. What they need are a couple of run producers to get those men home, as Baez and Rizzo were left to do that basically on their own this season. Don’t get me wrong, those two did a great job and it’s why the team scored as many runs as they did.
A healthy Bryant can certainly be one of those run producers, so hopefully a fully healed left shoulder will provide a lot more power. Still, Theo Epstein made it clear that the Cubs need to make changes, which could mean looking outside the club for hitters. It’s all but certain the Cubs will make a play for Bryce Harper and/or Manny Machado this winter.
For extra credit, I think they should sign both. That’s the best way to earn that A in 2019.