Over the course of the last four seasons, dating back to 2015, the Chicago Cubs have cemented themselves as one of the best teams in baseball year in and year out. In 2016, the Cubs scored the third most runs (808) in baseball while at the same time posting the best team ERA in the majors (3.15). With those types of league leading statistics, it was no surprise to watch the Cubs win 103 games and capture their first World Series title in over 100 years.
Despite the success of the team as a whole, there were players on the Cubs’ roster in both 2016 and 2017 that struggled to find success. After signing an eight-year, $184 million mega-deal prior to the 2016 season, Jason Heyward slashed .243/.315/.353 with an OPS-plus of just 76 in 268 games between the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
In addition to Heyward, Kyle Schwarber also saw his share of struggles during those two campaigns. After missing almost the entire regular season in 2016 with a knee injury, Schwarber was poised for a monster return campaign in 2017. Schwarber, however, struggled mightily in 2017, posting a .211/.315/.467 slash line. To make matters worse, Schwarber was demoted in the middle of June and spent 11 games in Iowa.
No matter how good a team is during a given year, there always seems to be a couple of players that struggle to find their rhythm, whether on the mound or in the batter’s box. Sometimes, players can limit their struggles to a few weeks or a month, but sometimes, slumps last for entire seasons.
Right now, in 2018, the Cubs are attempting to make the postseason for the fourth straight season. Early in the season, the Cubs’ did not look like a team ready for October, posting a 16-15 record through their first 31 games.
Just when it seemed like the Cubs would limp into the All-Star break like they did last year, the North Sider’s rattled off a 22-12 stretch that now has them sitting at 38-27 and one and a half games out of first place.
Similar to the last few seasons, the Cubs are in the top ten in runs scored this season while at the same time ranking near the top in team ERA. Despite that, and like the last couple of seasons, the Cubs have a handful of players that are struggling in the midst of the team’s recent solid stretch of play.
Let’s take a closer look at those players yet to find their groove this season.
Prior to the 2017 season, the Cubs needed an extra left-handed bullpen arm, so they signed Brian Duensing. At a cost of just $2 million, Duensing was coming off back-to-back seasons in which he posted ERA’s north of 4.00. Despite those inflated ERA’s and lackluster strikeout rates of just 11.5 and 18.2 percent in 2015 and 2016 respectively, Duensing found success in a Cubs’ uniform during the 2017 season.
After putting on the Cubs’ pinstripes, Duensing’s strikeout rate beefed up to 23.7 percent while his walk rate held steady at a solid seven percent. To go along with that, Duensing posted a left-on-base percentage of 84.8 percent in 2017, the highest mark of his career. The southpaw was able to keep those runners on base by limiting hard contact and keeping the ball on the ground, two things Duensing struggled with in 2016.
The culmination of those great numbers was a 2.74 ERA in 68 appearances for the left-hander during the 2017 season, making himself a trusted reliever in Joe Maddon‘s eyes.
While Duensing’s 2018 season started out well as the left-hander posted a 0.00 ERA in 8 1/3 innings through April 30, the last two months have been rocky. After holding opposing hitters to a .167/.286/.241 slash line during the early part of the season, hitters slashed .212/.359/.313 off the 35-year-old in May. Despite the low batting average, Duensing issued seven free passes in 9 1/3 May innings, while at the same time yielding seven hits and four earned runs.
If the month of May was bad for the left-hander, then June has been a train wreck. Almost half-way through the month, Duensing has only worked three innings and for good reason. Over those frames, Duensing has allowed six runs (five earned) on six hits, two of which were doubles. In addition, opposing hitters are slashing .400/.471/.533 when the lefty is on the mound, a huge increase from March and April.
All told, Duensing’s numbers have taken a hit due to his recent inconsistencies. Currently, Duensing is sporting a strikeout rate of just 15.2 percent while his walk rate sits at 14.1 percent. In addition, his left-on-base percentage sits at a low 71.9 percent.
Javier Baez came into the 2018 season after posting career-high numbers in home runs (23), RBI (75), ISO (.207), BABIP (.345), slugging percentage (.480), wRC+ (98) and WAR (2.3) in 2017.
With a more full-time role ready for him at second base, Baez jumped out to a good start during the season’s opening months. By May 1, Baez was hitting .280 with a wRC+ of 148 and an ISO of 350, a result of eight doubles, three triples and seven home runs. In addition, the 25-year-old was sporting a 22.2 percent strikeout rate, a respectable number for a guy who posted a 41.5 percent strikeout rate during his rookie campaign.
After posting those gaudy numbers during March and April, it seemed unlikely Baez could carry them over into May. The slick-fielding magician proved that to be a false statement. In 25 games, Baez notched two doubles, two triples and six home runs while at the same time striking out just one more time (25) in three extra at-bats (103) compared to March and April.
In addition to his .262 batting average during the month of May, Baez logged a hard hit rate of 38 percent, up from 35.5 percent during the previous month and change. To go along with that, Baez dropped his soft contact rate from 23.7 percent in March and April to 17.7 percent in May.
After posting a wRC+ of 102 during the month of May, Baez logged back-to-back months of above average production at the plate, a statement that has not held true thus far in June.
Through 11 games and 36 at-bats, Baez has not been the same hitter he was during the infancy of the 2018 season. Baez has just six hits during the month of June, two for extra bases. In addition, Baez has just three RBI and has already struck out 15 times.
Because of his power outage, Baez is slugging .278 in June after posting .630 and .495 marks in March/April and May respectively. To go along with that, Baez is sporting an ISO of .111 while at the same time posting a wRC+ of 17.
The problem for Baez so far this month has been an inability to keep the ball off the ground while also not being able to square pitches up. Baez’s ground ball rate is currently at 50 percent for the month of June, after the youngster posted a 39.2 percent mark in March and April. Coupled with that is Baez’s 27.3 percent hard contact rate this month, a number that sat at 38 percent just a month ago.
There is not much that can be said about Kris Bryant other than he has been a superstar his pulling on the pinstripes. A Rookie of the Year-caliber season was fueled by a .275/.369/.488 slash line and 136 wRC+. As if that was not good enough, the stud third baseman bested those numbers in 2016, winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award with 39 home runs and a wRC+ of 148.
Early on in 2018, it seemed likely Bryant would capture his second MVP award in three seasons. Through April 30, Bryant slashed .291/.441/.506 with a .215 ISO and 158 wRC+. To go along with that, Bryant showed patience at the plate, amassing a 14.7 percent walk rate, one percentage point better than his 13.7 percent strikeout rate.
The month of May was more of the same for the young slugger. His 31 hits fueled a solid .282 batting average for the month while his six home runs and ten doubles increased his ISO 40 points to .255.
To go along with his .536 slugging percentage and 142 wRC+ during the month of May, Bryant demonstrated an ability to keep the ball off the ground. During March and April, Bryant put the ball on the ground 40.9 percent of the time while producing a fly ball just 31.8 percent of the time. In May, those numbers flipped as the 26-year-old dropped his ground ball rate to 27.1 percent while increasing his fly ball rate to 48.2 percent. At the same time, Bryant beefed up his hard contract rate from 34.9 percent in March and April to 44.7 percent in May.
After posting a solid power month in May, Bryant has been unable to produce any in June. While his batting average still sits at a solid .262 for the month, Bryant has managed just one extra base hit, a double. That means Bryant has yet to record a home run in June and is sporting an .024 ISO and .286 slugging percentage. In addition to that, Bryant owns a wRC+ of just 72 and a strikeout rate of 29.8 percent for the month.
The problem for Bryant during this power outage has simply been an inability to make hard contact with the ball. As high-lighted above, Bryant tore the cover off the ball during the early portion of the season. Now, however, Bryant is sporting a hard hit rate of just 7.1 percent in June while at the same time logging a soft contact rate of 35.7 percent.
The Cubs Are Doing Just Fine
As stated above, the Cubs have been playing much better baseball over the last month and a half. Despite back-to-back shutouts at the hands of the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Cubs remain in a good position to take over first place in the NL Central for good by the end of the month.
With two key line-up pieces in Baez and Bryant struggling, it has been huge that players like Heyward and Anthony Rizzo have stepped up and produced at the plate. In the bullpen, Justin Wilson has been much better since falling on hard times after coming over from the Detroit Tigers last summer. Wilson’s success coupled with Randy Rosario‘s solid play, has lessened the impact of Duensing’s struggles over the last little bit.
Overall, the Cubs have plenty of depth to combat the struggles of a handful of players. That is why the North Sider’s are finding success over the last month despite struggles by some big names on their roster.
Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune