With a 9-6 come-from-behind victory on Thursday night, the Chicago Cubs kicked off the second half of the 2018 season on the right foot. That victory moved the Cubs to a season-best 18 games over .500 and three games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers atop the National League Central.
Much of the Cubs’ success during the first half of the season could be traced back to their offense. At the break, the Cubs ranked second in team batting average (.265), first in OBP (.345) and seventh in slugging percentage (.426). Those numbers were accompanied by a top-five wRC+ of 106, the tenth lowest team strikeout rate (21.2 percent) and the fifth best walk rate (9.7 percent) in the majors.
While the Cubs’ offense has suffered cold spells at times during the season, they remained one of the top groups in all of baseball.
Let’s take a look at who contributed the most to the Cubs’ offense and who fell short in the first half by passing out grades to the North Sider’s hitters, starting with the two All-Star selections.
Javier Baez: A+
In his third full season at the big league level, Baez is finally becoming the player everyone knew he could be. After posting back-to-back seasons with a .273 batting average, Baez finished the first half with a .292 mark.
That number is not the only one that has increased this season. Baez’s .566 slugging percentage was good enough for ninth best in the majors ahead of guys like Freddie Freeman and Matt Kemp who could be in the race for NL MVP.
Baez’s uptick in slugging percentage was a byproduct of 19 first half home runs, 25 doubles and six triples, numbers that also helped to fuel his .274 ISO (seventh best in baseball).
Overall, Baez has taken great strides to fine tune his skill set since his first days in the majors. This year, that hard work is finally paying off in the form of a trip to Washington, D.C. to be the National League’s starting second baseman in the All-Star Game.
If Baez continues his first half success, that will not be the only All-Star Game he starts in during his career.
Just like Baez, Contreras earned his first All-Star selection in 2018 after amassing an outstanding first half.
In just his third season in the major leagues, Contreras is becoming one of the best offensive catchers in the game. His .279 batting average ranks eighth among catchers with at least 100 plate appearances this season while his .369 OBP and 2.4 WAR rank in the top-five.
Putting rankings aside, Contreras has shown the ability to be a more patient hitter. Each year since he made his debut, Contreras has cut down on his strikeout rate, a number that sat at 20.8 percent prior to the break. While his .170 ISO is actually the lowest of his career if it holds, Contreras’ 122 wRC+ is a touch better than the mark he posted in 2017, a year in which he hit 21 home runs.
So far his season, Contreras has made leaps at the plate that are quickly propelling him into one of the best catchers in the game.
Anthony Rizzo: D-
Throughout his career, Rizzo has been one of the most consistent hitters in the majors. From 2015 to 2017, the left-hander hit at least 30 home runs and logged at least 100 RBI every season while hitting .270-plus. This year, however, those type numbers may be hard to reach due to prolonged slumps the slugger has had to endure.
Rizzo started the 2018 season hitting .149 at the end of April, suffering his worst such month in a Cubs’ uniform. Over that stretch, Rizzo hit just one home run, that coming during the first series of the season. To make matters worse, that home runs proved to be Rizzo’s only extra base hit through the first month-plus of the season.
Thankfully for Rizzo, that rough stretch was followed by a rather long patch of success. During the months of May and June, Rizzo hit .303 and .270 respectively, mashing 11 home runs along the way. That run put Rizzo back on track, helping him to salvage an otherwise down first half.
All told, Rizzo hit just .246 during the first half of play, while at the same time managing an ISO of just .161 and a slugging percentage of .407. To put those numbers into perspective, Rizzo has not logged an ISO lower than .200 or a slugging percentage under .500 since the 2013 season, his first full year with the Cubs.
Addison Russell: B+
With three seasons of sporting a batting average around .240, many began to believe that was the offensive ceiling for Russell. Yes, his defense has been elite over the years, but fans and the front office alike have been waiting on Russell’s bat to finally take-off.
This season, it seems like those people have finally gotten their wish. Russell finished the first half with a .272/.345/.391 slash line, five home runs and 18 doubles. Those numbers helped the youngster post an sOPS-plus (OPS for split relative to league’s split OPS) of 105 which means Russell was a slightly above average hitter during the first portion of the season.
To continue with that, Russell logged a first half strikeout percentage of 20.2 percent which would be lowest of his career if it holds. In addition, his 9.7 walk rate would be highest of his young career, a sign Russell could be developing at the plate.
Perhaps the most telling offensive statistic for Russell is his 100 wRC+. That number suggests Russell has largely been a league average hitter. With that in mind, if that number holds, it would a career-best for Russell who has not posted a wRC+ better than 94 until this year.
Ben Zobrist: B
Over the course of his career, Zobrist has proven to be an above average major league hitter, posting a 114 OPS-plus. In 2017, however, that number nose-dived to 79 as Zobrist had one of his worst offensive seasons at age 36.
Because of his age, many thought Zobrist’s years of contributing at a high level had come to an end just months after winning World Series MVP honors. Those people, however, have been proven wrong so far in 2018.
Through the break, Zobrist slashed .285/.380/.414, producing an OPS-plus north of 100, more in-line with his previous marks. To aid matters, Zobrist mashed six home runs in the first half, while also driving in 36 runs, a year after logging just 50 RBI in 128 games.
Part of Zobrist’s modus operandi for his offensive success during his career has been patience at he plate. For his career, the veteran owns a strikeout and walk rate that are separated by less than 2.5 percent. During the first half of 2018, those numbers were separated by one percentage point but with the walk rate leading the way at 13 percent.
For now, it looks like Zobrist is back to his 2016 ways, posting a 118 wRC+ during the first half, just five points off the number he amassed two years ago.
Kris Bryant: C
Just two short years ago, Bryant was the National League MVP for a team that played in November. This season, he is posting similar numbers despite lacking in one major area.
Through the first half, Bryant slashed .280/.384/.482 with 10 home runs and 21 doubles. While those may sound like very solid numbers, for Bryant the standard is much higher. It’s not so much the batting average and OBP that are concerning as Bryant’s first half numbers in that respect are in-line with his last two seasons. What’s troubling is Bryant’s lack of power.
While a .482 slugging percentage seems like a good number, if that holds throughout the second half, it would be a career-low for the third baseman. That drop in slugging percentage has cascaded to Bryant’s ISO being .202 for the first half. To put that into perspective, Bryant logged a .242 mark in 2017 and a .262 clip in 2016.
For right now, Bryant’s drop in power is not a major concern, especially after the slugger missed time with a left shoulder injury. However, Bryant’s power outage is the reason for the low-grade during an otherwise solid campaign.
Two years removed from a knee injury that ended his 2016 regular season before it could really begin, Schwarber is beginning to grow into a superstar. After slashing .211/.315/.467 and amassing a WAR of just 1.6 in 2017, the left-handed slugger is quieting his critics.
Through the first half of 2018, Schwarber is slashing .249/.375/.498 with 18 home runs and 41 RBI. Like with Contreras, Schwarber has taken bites out of his strikeout rate since breaking into the majors. In 2015, his strikeout rate sat at 28.2 percent, rising to 30.9 percent in his first full season in 2017. This year, however, that number is down to 27.1 percent while his walk rate has never been higher (16.5 percent), excluding 2016.
Schwarber’s solid offensive campaign has been headlined by a wRC+ of 129 and a hard contact percentage of 42.2 percent which would be a career-best if it holds during the second half.
Overall, Schwarber get’s a lower grade than Contreras simply because of the batting average. While many never expected Schwarber to hit for average as much as power at the big league level, he’s a more talented hitter than a sub-.250 batting average, as outlined by the numbers mentioned above.
Albert Almora: A-
Almora enjoyed All-Star-caliber success during the first half of the season despite not getting selected for the roster or even considered. The youngster closed the first half slashing .319/.357/.438 with 28 RBI and 19 doubles.
At the beginning of the season, Almora was benched in favor of Ian Happ who found success during Spring Training and won the lead-off job at the break of camp. That, however, did not work out, opening the door for Almora to shine. Thus far, that is exactly what he’s doing.
From 2017 through the first half of the this year, Almora’s strikeout rate has remained constant at 16.4 percent while his walk rate has maintained an under six percent clip. With a strikeout rate under 20 percent and a walk rate south of six percent, Almora has shown the ability “to move the baseball” and do it with success as his .372 BABIP suggests.
While Almora’s power is down this year (.120 ISO), the youngster is hitting the ball harder than ever while at the same time averaging more ground balls this season than any other season during his career. His aforementioned BABIP suggests Almora is finding holes and getting lucky at times. In the second half, it will be worth watching if that trend holds.
Over the last two seasons, Heyward has been unable to live up to his eight-year, $184 contact that was signed following the 2015 season. During the 2016 and 2017 season’s, Heyward slashed .243/.315/.353 with just 18 home runs and an OPS-plus of 76 in 1,073 plate appearances.
While Heyward’s defense has been elite during that time, it has not been good enough to off-set that terrible stretch of play by the veteran.
With six years left on his deal after the 2017 season, Heyward’s contract was quickly looking like one of the worst in Chicago sports history. This year, however, something has clicked for the 28-year-old. Entering the break, Heyward was slashing .285/.344/.431 with six home runs and 41 RBI, numbers that produced a wRC+ of 109.
Diving deeper into the numbers and it seems Heyward is doing all the little things right. While he has never been strikeout-prone (17.2 percent career strikeout rate), Heyward slashed that number from 13.9 percent in 2017 to 11.1 percent during the first half of 2018. To go along with that, Heyward’s ISO sat at .146 in the first half which is the same number he posted in 2015 when he was a 5.6-win player.
Heyward’s increase in ISO is obviously linked to his increased hard contact percentage, a number that is above 30 percent for the first time since 2012.
Ian Happ: C+
As mentioned earlier, Happ was able to win the starting center fielder and lead-off jobs out of Spring Training. While he kicked off his 2018 season by homering on the first pitch of the year, Happ quickly fell on hard times. In 20 games through the end of April, Happ struck out 33 times, hitting just four extra base hits following that Opening Day home run.
Happ’s .246 batting average through the first month-plus of the season only worsened in May as he hit .226, striking out another 28 times in 23 games.
While the strikeouts have continued to plague Happ (30 more in 25 June games), the youngster was able to hit .268 in June and .306 through the first part of July to end his first half on a strong note.
Still, Happ logged 100 strikeouts before the break, a 35.7 percent strikeout rate. Despite that, Happ slashed a respectable .256/.379/.453 with 11 home runs and a 122 wRC+.
Thanks to his resurgent June, Happ was able to turn a rough start into a rather solid first half. Still, his slow start allowed Almora to take at-bats from him while his strikeout problem has subsided but not gone away. It’s for those reasons that Happ gets an average grade.
During the first half of 2018 and for much of his time as a member of the Cubs, La Stella has been a solid option off the bench. Through the break, La Stella logged 14 hits as a pinch-hitter, slashing .286/.352/.347 in that situation.
Overall, La Stella slashed a solid .272/.336/.311 with 14 RBI, four doubles and 28 total hits. To continue with his success as a pinch-hitter, La Stella slashed .291/.381/.364 as a substitute during the first half of the season.
La Stella gets solid marks for his pinch-hitting ability and defensive versatility, two characteristics of a good bench player.
These two players have been grouped together due to the fact that they appeared in just 55 combined games during the first half of the season. While the sample size is fairly small, both Caratini and Bote have provided solid offensive value while filling in where needed on the defensive side.
For Bote, he appeared in 20 games for the Cubs during the first half, logging 42 at-bats. In that time, Bote slashed .310/.415/.452 with one home run, nine RBI, eight walks and 12 strikeouts. To go along with that, Bote played error-free baseball in 99 total innings between three different infield positions.
In double the sample size, Caratini largely shared in that success. Over 35 games during the first half, Caratini logged 84 at-bats and slashed .274/.337/.345 with eight RBI, six doubles and 23 total hits.
On the defensive side, Caratini also played error-free baseball in nearly 200 defensive innings between the catcher position and first base.
These two players were grouped together due to them no longer being on the active roster. In addition, the grade is largely due to the play of Gimenez as Zagunis logged just five at-bats during the first half.
With that being said, it was not a good half for Gimenez. The veteran catcher was signed in the offseason as a depth piece and his loose ties to Yu Darvish. However, that could not help him put the barrel on the ball as Gimenez slashed .143/.219/.143 in 28 at-bats. It was that lackluster play and Caratini’s success at Triple-A that prompted the Cubs to DFA Gimenez prior to the break.
As the second half begins, the Cubs will look to continue their hot-hitting ways. In addition, the club will continue to work on situational hitting, one area the Cubs’ offense did not excel in during much of the first half.
Mentioned at the beginning of this piece was some of the Cubs’ offensive ranks prior to the All-Star break. Keep in mind, those numbers were amassed with Rizzo largely under-performing and Bryant on the shelf for a few weeks.
With everyone healthy in the second half, the Cubs are primed to build upon their solid start to the season and make it back to the World Series for the second time in three years.
*Statistics current through the All-Star break.
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