The purpose of this piece is not to direct blame at any individual, but rather to examine some of the numbers behind a Cubs collapse that has probably been in the works for a few weeks now. Just like many injuries and home repairs, this appears to be a chronic issue rather than an acute one. As such, it may have been preventable had the organization practiced a little more foresight.
I continue to go back to the Seiya Suzuki situation in early August as a touchstone. The outfielder struggled terribly in June and his July performance, while better, was still well below average. So David Ross pulled Suzuki from the everyday lineup, using him only in advantageous matchups and sitting him out for a number of games in order to let him gain a new perspective via cognitive reset.
The right fielder has been the Cubs’ best hitter by a wide margin since then, yet the same strategy that helped him get there doesn’t seem to be in play for other scuffling hitters. What started the second half as one of MLB’s most dynamic offenses has devolved into a group that looks as if it’s running in sand.
Let’s first review some individual performers to see how they’ve done in the second half before and after the otherwise arbitrary line of demarcation created by Suzuki’s return to the everyday lineup.
Before: 87 PAs, 2 HRs, .267 wOBA, 65 wRC+
After: 149 PAs, 9 HRs, .440 wOBA, 181 wRC+
Before: 114 PAs, 3 HRs, .353 wOBA, 123 wRC+
After: 158 PAs, 1 HR, .348 wOBA, 119 wRC+
Before: 106 PAs, 6 HRs, .361 wOBA, 128 wRC+
After: 158 PAs, 5 HRs, .335 wOBA, 111 wRC+
Before: 106 PAs, 8 HRs, .479 wOBA, 207 wRC+
After: 155 PAs, 8 HRs, .324 wOBA, 104 wRC+
Before: 69 PAs, 7 HRs, .405 wOBA, 158 wRC+
After: 153 PAs, 3 HRs. .282 wOBA, 75 wRC+
Before: 40 PAs, 0 HRs, .288 wOBA, 79 wRC+
After: 87 PAs, 1 HR, .263 wOBA, 63 wRC+
Before: 33 PAs, 1 HR, .547 wOBA, 253 wRC+
After: 103 PAs, 4 HRs, .262 wOBA, 62 wRC+
Before: 87 PAs, 4 HRs, .441 wOBA, 182 wRC+
After: 111 PAs, 0 HRs, .259 wOBA, 60 wRC+
Before: 982 PAs, 41 HRs, .370 wOBA, 134 wRC+
After: 1,353 PAs, 41 HRs, .311 wOBA, 95 wRC+
The Cubs have scored just 170 in their last 36 games, one run more than they tallied over their first 25 games following the All-Star break. That drop from 6.7 to 4.7 runs per game means they haven’t been able to help out a pitching staff that has improved from a 4.07 ERA/4.15 FIP to 3.76/3.91 in the same samples. Much of the offensive anemia comes from the huge drop in home runs, as they’ve hit the exact same number in 371 more plate appearances.
Tauchman has seen the biggest fall-off — Candelario’s is worse, but his sample is more disparate — and you have to wonder if that’s got something to do with having never played more than 87 big league games. He’s now at 98 on the season and his 363 PAs are 67 more than he’s ever had before. With full understanding that his minor league experience means he probably shouldn’t be flagging at this point, he’s really started to fade since approaching and surpassing the 300 PA level.
Swanson has likewise fallen off, even with a recent stretch of multi-hit games. In addition to his numbers at the plate taking a dip, he seems less sharp defensively as well. He prides himself in being out there every day and says he doesn’t need or want a break, but maybe having a seat for a game here or there is a good thing after playing in 322 regular-season contests over the two previous seasons.
Another factor here is the Cubs’ unique scheduling situation that sees them playing more day games than other teams. Going day-night-day-night or just having several early games in a row doesn’t just cut down on rest they might otherwise get, it’s also a matter of playing more frequently during the hottest part of summer afternoons. I’m sure plenty of old-schoolers will scoff at that notion, but this isn’t exactly a new idea when discussing Cubs players’ workloads down the stretch.
Something that can’t be quantified but that might be even bigger than the physical side is the mental aspect of pressing for a postseason spot. Just as high-leverage pitches and innings are more stressful on a pitcher, climbing back into playoff contention by playing big games pretty much every day is much more taxing than cruising through the back half of the season when you’re 12 games back.
When it’s all said and done, the players themselves still need to perform well enough to win ballgames. However, they also need to be put in the best position to be able to perform, and it doesn’t appear from the outside as though that’s happening with the Cubs right now. As a team, they look like a marathoner who’s bonked with a few hundred meters left in the race.
If only they had, you know, some other players who could serve as legs of a relay to help those who look gassed. With all due respect to the idea that now is no time to develop players, which I agree with fundamentally, Pete Crow-Armstrong really needs to be in the lineup as the center fielder more often. That has nothing to do with making adjustments to big-league pitching and everything to do with putting the best defensive unit out there to back an offense that isn’t scoring as much.
Tauchman has already been moved out of the leadoff spot and his recent production is well below league average, so he might benefit from a break. Swanson could likewise use a blow, though options are limited at second base — and across the infield in general — even if Hoerner is only sliding over for a game or two. I don’t envy Ross at all in this situation, especially with Candelario on the IL and Madrigal suffering yet another hamstring tweak, but continuing to ride the guys that got the Cubs where they were might not be the best way to get them to where they want to be.
I mean, did you even remember that Miles Mastrobuoni was still on the active roster? He did actually get into two games in Arizona, so you probably do recall his presence if you haven’t already wiped those games from your memory. But he’s gotten a total of three plate appearances since being recalled nearly a month ago. This isn’t to say he should be playing more, just that at least two roster spots are going to guys who will only play in emergencies.
The Cubs do have off days sandwiching series against the Pirates and Rockies, and all three of those games against Pittsburgh to open the last homestand are at night. All three against Colorado are then during the day, though the cooler temperatures and consistent start times should make it easier for anyone who isn’t Mark Grace. The Mayor of Wrigleyville once quipped that it wasn’t a day game after a night game that was the problem, it was a day game after a day game
You know, because you could party much longer in the latter situation.
In any case, these next six games could very well determine the season. The Cubs close out with three in Atlanta and three more in Milwaukee, which won’t be walkovers even if both teams are in cruise mode by then. Anything less than four wins against a pair of bad teams at Wrigley will be disappointing at the very least and disastrous at the worst, but the talent is there to pull this off even after face-planting badly of late and the Cubs can still push themselves into the postseason if they wake up.
My hope at this point is that we don’t have to look back at the performances above as a cautionary tale of what could have been.