The Chicago Cubs opened an important three-game set against the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday night with a two game lead in the National League Central Division. As late as September 2, the Cubs held a five-game lead over the Brewers, with the St. Louis Cardinals lurking at 5.5 games off the pace.
That lead of five games marked the biggest such advantage for the Cubs during the 2018 campaign and came on the heals of the North Sider’s 10-2 stretch from August 22 to September 2. In that same period of time, the Brewers went 7-3, taking advantage of playing teams solidly out of postseason contention.
While both teams have held serve for much of the season with the Brewers continually lagging a handful of games behind the Cubs, that lead has steadily shrunk over the weekend. After defeating the Brewers in dramatic fashion on September 5 to salvage a three-game set, the Cubs dropped three straight games to the Washington Nationals in rain-soaked D.C.
One day after mother nature kept the clubs from playing, the Cubs and Nationals squared off in a double-header. With Jon Lester burned after throwing just a handful of pitches the day prior, the Cubs were forced to start Jaime Garcia against Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer. That match-up went about how anyone would have imagined, with Garcia getting just one out (three runs allowed) and Scherzer pitching a complete game in a 10-3 Washington win.
That blowout loss was followed by back-to-back defeats, a 6-5 loss to the Nationals on a Bryce Harper go-ahead two-run home run and a 3-2 decision at the hands of the Brewers on Monday night. Last night’s loss could be traced back to a wild pitch from Carl Edwards Jr. with runners on second and third in the sixth inning. A spiked curveball and a lax effort to cover the plate by the right-hander resulted in the winning run crossing home plate.
Edwards was in the ballgame early due to Lester’s departure with lower back tightness after the southpaw yielded three runs over 5.2 innings. A walk and a strikeout followed the wild pitch from Edwards, good enough to end the inning but not after the damage was already done.
Despite the run being charged to Lester, Edwards’ performance continued to highlight the lackluster play by the Cubs’ bullpen this month. Currently, the bullpen owns a 5.40 ERA in September, the sixth highest in the league while at the same time sporting the second highest BB/9 (6.21) in the majors across that same time span.
For perspective, Brewers relievers have the third best ERA (2.52) in the sport since September 1 and the second highest K/9 (12.62). That strikeout rate was only increased on Monday night as Josh Hader sat down six Cubs in a row over two innings of work, all via the punch out. Jeremy Jeffress entered the ninth and retired two more Cub hitters with strikes, getting Tommy La Stella to swing over a down-and-in pitch to end the game with the tying run on second base.
A Lack of Clutch Play Could Hurt the Cubs Down the Stretch
La Stella’s game-ending strikeout capped off an 0-for-5 performance with runners in scoring position by the Cubs on Monday. All told, the Cubs left six men on base while collecting just five hits (zero in the last three innings).
For fans who have watched this team in 2018, the lack of clutch hitting is nothing new. In games deemed “late and close” by baseball-reference, the Cubs own the league’s seventh best batting average at .248. However, in those same situations, the Cubs have hit just the 22nd most home runs and rank toward the middle of the pack in OPS, slugging percentage and sOPS-plus.
The numbers continue to trend downward when the Cubs are presented with the same situation as the ninth inning on Monday. With runners in scoring position and two outs, the Cubs are tied for the sixth lowest batting average (.218) in the majors. It does not stop there. In addition, Chicago ranks 22nd in slugging percentage, 21st in OPS and owns the 10th lowest sOPS-plus (91) in the majors this season. That number means the Cubs’ offense is nine percent below league average in that split this year, ranking behind teams like the Minnesota Twins, New York Mets and San Diego Padres.
Chicago’s lack of clutch statistics don’t carry too much weight in the regular season, especially when the pitching staff is performing up to expectations. However, as the season draws to a close and the division lead continues to shrink, a clutch hit or two could be the difference between a postseason berth and an early offseason. As hitting gets tougher into the postseason, it will be hard for the Cubs to turn around their fortunes in the clutch statistics department.
With that being said, an adjustment will have to be made because the team that is chasing them has been one of the most clutch clubs in the league this season. In those aforementioned “late and close” situations, the Brewers own the league’s third best batting average. Whereas the Cubs rank eighth in OBP, Milwaukee sits atop baseball with a .355 mark, slotting into ninth with a .409 slugging percentage. The Cubs’ sOPS-plus of 105 in those spots is also overshadowed by the Brewers’ 119 mark, a number good enough to rank fourth in the league, while also leading the majors with a .330 BABIP.
Runners in scoring position and two outs, while a problem for the Cubs, have been a strength of the Brewers this season. They own the fourth best batting average (.258) in those spots, while at the same time logging a .351 OBP (sixth best), .475 slugging percentage (highest), .826 OPS (second best) and 128 sOPS-plus (second best).
As it should be quite obvious by now, the Brewers are the superior team when it comes to tightly contested, high leverage situations. To speak to that even more, Milwaukee has a .263 batting average in high leverage spots in 2018, a top-ten number in baseball. The Cubs, on the other hand, own the 23rd best mark in the league at .236. In addition, the Brewers rank inside the top-five with a .777 OPS while the Cubs flounder in 23rd with a .691 mark.
If the Cubs do hold on to the division this year and maintain their current numbers in these spots, they would be among some rare company. The Cubs’ .218 batting average with two outs and a runner in scoring position would be tied for 18th lowest All-Time among the 242 teams that have won a division title since 1908. In addition, the Cubs would set the All-Time lowest mark since 1908 if they won the NL Central with their .236 batting average in high leverage situations and would slot into the seventh lowest OPS for division winners in that same time frame.
Last offseason, the Brewers loaded up their offense with a number of big name free agents. Christian Yelich, one of those additions, is putting together a possible MVP-caliber season, slashing .315/.381/.554 on the year with 28 home runs and 86 RBI. Those numbers have been helped by a 1.030 OPS in August and a .910 mark thus far in September.
The Brewers’ push to capture the NL Central title will no doubt hinge on the offensive production of Yelich and other mainstays in the Milwaukee lineup. Right now, it seems the Cubs’ foes to the North can do no wrong while the Cubs flounder at the end of a long stretch of play without a true day off.
With about two and a half weeks left in the regular season, the Brewers are knocking on the Cubs’ doorstep. What the Cubs do in reaction to that very well could be the difference in who walks away with the division title this season.
Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: The Athletic
Want to stay in the loop? Subscribe to exclusive The Loop Sports content via Patreon