It’s only been a week since a Cubs season that came in like a lion went out like a lamb in a shutout loss to the Marlins, but it feels like a least a month in COVID Time. The Braves made short work of a team that dominated the NL Central champs, which may have either pissed you off or given you personal vindication for Miami’s effrontery. Or maybe you’re just like the Cubs themselves and are feeling numb.
It’s easy to pluck overripe low-hanging fruit and complain about the broken offense, something I’ve already done plenty of, so I wanted to seek out some positive trends from the disappointing season. My goal isn’t to change the narrative in any meaningful way or to justify the end result, but wallowing in self-pity is only so worthwhile.
More than that, I wanted to look a little more closely at a few areas that might be misunderstood due to adherence to either traditional box score numbers or anecdotal memory. Big moments stand out, so a player doing really well or really poorly in a situation we remember clearly has a tendency to disproportionately affect our perception of him.
I’ll avoid listing out some very clear examples of that here, but you probably know what I’m talking about. Anywho, let’s get to those trends.
Kyle Schwarber watching fewer third strikes
It’s been a running joke of mine that you should try to find someone who looks at you the way Schwarber looks at strike three, but my punchline may be getting a little old. After peaking at 32.1% in 2018, Schwarber’s called third strike percentage dropped to 25.6% last year and 18.2% in 2020. That’s the lowest mark of his career and it came despite him taking the second-highest percentage of total looking strikes he ever has.
The flip side of this is that he struck out swinging more than ever, leading to some other questions about both his plate approach and hit tool, but that’s another topic for a different article.
Jason Heyward’s steady improvement
The Gold Glove right fielder made a quantum leap in offensive production this past season, perhaps because he felt more comfortable in his own skin than ever before. As unexpected as the big improvement may have been, Heyward has long been trending in the right direction. His wRC+ and wOBA numbers have increased each year with the Cubs, so 2020 wasn’t as big an aberration as many may have believed.
Though it’s probably unreasonable to believe he’ll make another such jump, or even that he’ll repeat this performance over a full season, Heyward is more than capable of being an above-average producer.
David Bote slugging against RHP
After slugging just .376 against righties during his rookie season, Bote jumped to .440 last season and then to .464 this season. His ISO, a measurement of raw power, likewise increased from .150 to .160 to .226 as he hit fewer grounders with more fly balls. Since he doesn’t have an everyday role, being a righty who hits righties is a very good thing.
But before you go thinking Bote needs to be the starter at one position or another, it’s best to understand that his overall production was less than great. A lot of that is due to his poor performance against lefties, something the Cubs struggle with as a team. Bote had just a 45 wRC+ against southpaws after posting an 80 last season, so for now he’s best used in a utility role.
Kyle Hendricks cranking up the velo
While much of this can probably be attributed to the shorter season, it was still good to see Hendricks throwing harder across the board than he had since 2016. You may remember that he finished top three in the Cy Young voting that season and that he played an important role in the Cubs doing something special. High velocity clearly isn’t the secret to his success, but it’s probably not a coincidence that he just produced his lowest ERA and FIP marks in four years.
Hendricks spent the offseason working with renowned trainer Eric Cressey, who has since been hired by the Yankees as their director of player health and performance. The change in his winter regimen was spurred by disappointment in the way he felt following the 2019 season, specifically how physically worn down he was.
Sure enough, his velo numbers remained consistent across 12 starts and he closed the campaign with an incredible September that saw him go 3-1 with a 1.45 ERA. Most notable was his near-perfect command, which was far better than ever before as he walked just eight of the 315 batters (2.5%) he faced. That’s largely a function of stamina and being able to maintain a high level of execution deep into games.
Willson Contreras becoming a defensive wizard
Despite his cat-quick reflexes and strong throwing arm, Contreras never really graded out as a particularly good defensive catcher. He was actually quite bad by most metrics, including Baseball Prospectus’s catcher defensive adjustment (CDA), which seeks to quantify a backstop’s overall acumen. Contreras ranked 127th in MLB with a -15 CDA in 2018 and was 119th with a -9.7 last year. Not great.
Knowing he needed to improve, he busted his ass over the offseason and during the shutdown to improve his skills in ways other than throwing back-picks. New catching coach Craig Driver raved about the way Contreras took to the work, and the results were obvious behind the plate in 2020. His 2.9 CDA ranked ninth in MLB and both his called strikes above average and errant pitches above average marks were in the top 20.
Say what you will about framing and the need for robo-umps, you can’t deny how having a solid catcher behind the plate makes a pitching staff better. Contreras was softer in his receiving, better in his blocking, and appeared to be “quieter” as he ditched some of the needless fidgeting during his setup. His performance as a catcher isn’t just sustainable, it can still improve a good deal.
I’m sure there are plenty of other bright spots we can find if we look hard enough, some of which might even be perceived as weakness. But since I’m already running long, I’ll just leave off here and let you continue with some other trends you spotted.