The Chicago Cubs are no longer as stellar as they were a year ago. However, despite the deduction of three star hitters last July, the Cubs offense has become more functional and successful.
Typical early-season disclaimers apply, but even so, the Cubs’ offensive profile made games more appealing to fans and players due to the pace of play. Even when they set football score in 21:0 victory Saturday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the game lasted 2 hours and 47 minutes, 19 minutes short of the average nine-inning MLB game this season.
The Cubs (7-9) are looking to get back to .500 during a three-game streak in Atlanta that starts Tuesday. While they are trying to gain momentum, at least the offense is more viable than in the first half of 2021 with what was supposed to be a playoff roster.
The strength of the Cubs offense will be tested soon. In their next 14 games, the Cubs will take on the defending World Series champions Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.
Is the Cubs crime legal? Five digits distinguish good and bad.
0.347 base weighted average (wOBA)
The Cubs are finding ways to score without requiring home runs, and that changes the way the offense works. Base weighted average (wOBA) helps to quantify the value of the outcome of a plate occurrence rather than scoring all matches equally.
The Cubs’ .347 wOBA took first place in the majors through Sunday, which isn’t surprising as they also had the best averages, on-base percentage and OPS. Their 125 weighted runs plus (wRC+) placed second. The Cubs have an all-round offense and a roster that is generally balanced, even on days when manager David Ross prefers to rest regularly.
A strong offensive profile hasn’t translated into as many wins as the Cubs should have, and their record includes a 2-4 mark against the Pirates. But their wOBA suggests that the roster will be strong in the long run, even if the Cubs don’t stay at the top of key offensive categories.
21.2% strikeouts and 10.1% walking
When the Cubs hit 21 runs on Saturday, other stats were nearly as impressive. They only struck out three times out of 52 plate appearances, and no Cub had more than one.
Last season, the Cubs were almost unwatchable at times, especially in the first half, with an attack that had too many hits and misses and not enough contact hitters to make up for it. Injuries to Matt Duffy and Nico Horner played a role in the Cubs’ breakup in late May and into June, which was problematic on many levels.
This year, however, the Cubs aren’t relying on long-range shots to score goals. Saturday’s flash epitomizes what this offense has shown in 16 games: The Cubs hit just one home run en route to 21 runs.
Reducing strikeouts while maintaining play plays was key to the offensive’s success. The Cubs’ strikeout rate of 21.2% was the sixth-best among big players through Sunday, and their walk rate of 10.1% was in eighth place. Combined with their major-league-leading .273 batting average, their offensive scoring strikes a balance between easy-to-swing and miss bats and contact hitters, both profiles showing the ability to walk and hit base.
The Cubs will need to keep that to make up for being slightly below the league average in home runs. Their four-game streak against the Pirates showed what could happen if the hit count didn’t drop all the time. They can’t count on a home run to bail them out.
Minus -1.5 base travel (BsR)
The offensive profile includes one area in which the Cubs also didn’t rise nearly three weeks before the start of the season.
The FanGraphs baserunning metric (BsR) is all-encompassing for evaluating stolen bases caught stealing and other baserunning games and converting them into above and below average runs. At the beginning of the season, statistics can be volatile, but until Sunday, the Cubs were in 23rd place with minus 1.5 BsR. They didn’t steal many bases (four) and were caught stealing three times.
The Cubs have outperformed the league average in extra base promotion, which is helpful for a team that puts the ball in as often as they do.
The Cubs don’t have many clear base stealers in their roster, although Seiya Suzuki is likely to move more as the season progresses. Manager David Ross wants him to be comfortable on the plate and on the base lanes before turning on more interception attempts in Suzuki’s style of play. Suzuki’s speed and instincts will add another dynamic to the Cubs offense.
51.8% ground ball ratio
After finishing with the worst contact record of any major player in 2021, the Cubs are showing improvement, finishing in 12th place with a 76.2% record.
“I think it’s a pretty consistent trait,” baseball company president Jed Hoyer said last week. “It will probably fluctuate from time to time due to different matches and different hands. But I think we should be a high enough contact team, but we’re not going to hit as many homers in three runs as we used to.”
Notably, the Cubs’ contact frequency includes the highest level of ground balls (51.8%) in baseball. All other teams were below 48% until Sunday, with the Seattle Mariners the lowest at 37.7%. One side effect the Cubs have of putting the ball in play more — and hitting the ground so often in particular — is the double ball play they accumulate.
The Cubs hit 18 double plays, bringing the big players into the games on Monday. Wilson Contreras (five) and Nick Madrigal (four) tied for first and fourth in the major leagues.
Conversely, only three teams have a lower line move percentage than the Cubs (18.4%). The Cubs know they have to lift the ball more. Sounds easy to fix, but finding balls to bat may require adjusting your approach.
Hoyer was optimistic that his ground ball and double play problems would level out over the course of the season. However, it’s worth watching.