“It’s an examination of the talent that we have and it has to be more about production than talent going forward.” That quote came from Theo Epstein’s hour-plus long end-of-the-year press conference just one day after the Chicago Cubs fell to the Colorado Rockies in the National League Wild Card Game.
In that contest, the Cubs finished 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position, leaving 10 men on-base and managing just one run over 13 innings of play. That one run, a Javier Baez double in the eighth inning that tied the game at one apiece, represented one of just six hits for the Cubs on the evening and was only the second run scored by Chicago in the last 22 innings of the season.
The Cubs’ offense, which carried the team to the 2016 World Series, largely fell apart down the stretch in 2018, leading to the Milwaukee Brewers claiming the division title and the North Sider’s early exit from the postseason.
Looking at the Cubs’ offensive statistics in the second half and it leaves little doubt as to how the Brewers were able to erase a five-game deficit on September 1 to eventually win the NL Central with a victory in Game 163.
During the first half of play, the Cubs ranked in the top-five in runs scored (476 – fifth), walk percentage (9.7 percent – fifth), batting average (.265 – second), OBP (.345 – first) and wRC+ (107 – fourth). Additionally, as a group, they ranked toward the middle of the pack in line drive rate (21.4 percent – 13th), ground ball rate (44.2 percent – 11th), fly ball rate (34.4 percent – 17th) and opposite field contact percentage (25.3 percent – 14th). While they were able to drive the ball fairly well, the Cubs could not hit the ball hard enough to become a consistent offense, posting the 24th lowest hard contact rate (33 percent) prior to the All-Star break.
That inability to hit the ball with authority led to lackluster power numbers that largely kept the Cubs from running away with the division early in the season. However, even though they could not produce power as a team, the Cubs were able to compensate by making contact, as evidenced by their high batting average and OBP.
Instead of improving upon their weaknesses in the second half, the Cubs struggled to do anything well on offense, posting a wealth of lackluster numbers that played a huge role in sinking their season.
From the All-Star break on, the Cubs failed to crack the top-15 in any of the categories mentioned above, ranking 19th in runs scored, 18th in walk rate, 17th in strikeout rate, batting average and OBP. To go along with that, Chicago’s slugging percentage dropped from a top-ten number to .389, 27th worst in the league while their wRC+ also fell to 89, 24th lowest in the majors.
A quick look at the batted ball tab on fangraphs tells us why the Cubs struggled so mightily in the second half. Their already high ground ball rate during the first half jumped to 48.6 percent, a number which led the league by a healthy margin. To compensate for that rise, the Cubs stopped hitting the ball in the air, posting the lowest fly ball rate (30 percent) in the majors post-All-Star break, while at the same time logging the 29th worst hard contact rate (29.9 percent) across that same time span.
Lackluster Play from the Youngsters
While not all of it can be traced back to the younger players in the lineup, the Cubs’ offensive struggles were helped along by less-than-stellar play from a handful of young, former high draft picks, in particular Ian Happ, Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell.
Of the players with at least 80 plate appearances for the Cubs in 2018, only Victor Caratini had a lower batting average than Happ. At .233, Happ produced a slugging percentage of just .408, while striking out 36.1 percent of the time. Despite that, the youngster posted a stellar walk rate of 15.2 percent, hitting 15 home runs and producing an ISO of .176, amounting to a less-than-stellar wRC+ of 106.
While a better than league average offensive player according to wRC+, Happ took a major step back in 2018. Yes, his walk rate was up, but so was his strikeout rate while his ISO took an almost 100 point tumble. As Happ’s ISO fell, so did his slugging percentage, more than 100 points as he hit nine fewer home runs in 2018 than he did during his rookie season.
When Happ struck the ball, he did damage, posting a hard contact rate of 38.3 percent. However, with his lofty strikeout rate, the second year outfielder could never settle into a groove offensively.
Much of the same can be said for Russell, who battled injuries all season long and eventually missed the last week-plus of the season after being placed on administrative leave by major league baseball. In what should be his last 130 games with the Cubs, Russell did little to protect his position from Javier Baez in the off-season. While both his walk and strikeout rates were better than his career averages, Russell fell into the same trap as Happ, a void of power.
Two years removed from hitting 21 home runs to go along with his grand slam in the World Series, Russell managed just five in 2018, resulting in a career-worst .340 slugging percentage and .090 ISO.
Unlike Happ, Russell did not enjoy a lofty hard contact rate, instead posting a 29 percent mark, his lowest since 2015 while at the same time logging the highest ground ball rate of his career.
While it seems likely the Cubs will refuse to offer Russell a contract this winter, Schwarber may very well be the center-piece of a trade this off-season.
After joining Happ in the lackluster season department, Almora may not have enough trade value to get another team to bite on the 24-year-old. Now two full seasons into his big league career, Almora owns an OPS-plus of just 92 (eight percent below league average) and a rather league average OPS of .738. At just .378 this year, Almora posted the lowest slugging percentage of his career, while his career OBP sits at .326 following a season in which he posted a .323 mark.
Without much power (16 career home runs) or on-base skills, Almora will likely lean on his contact oriented approach to find work if the Cubs move on from him this winter.
Tough Decisions This Winter
Many fans knew this day was coming at some point in the future, the time when some of the core players leave or get traded to other clubs. With that being said, many expected that to come later down the line when this core begins to get too expensive in arbitration, not in 2019 due to continued lackluster play.
Of the players mentioned above, only Schwarber would seem to have value at this point. The left-handed slugger produced a .467 slugging percentage this season, mashing 26 home runs and increasing his OPS more than 40 points from one season ago.
Playing in the most games of his career, Schwarber cut down on his strikeout rate while at the same time upping his walk rate, resulting in a career-best .356 OBP and improved 115 OPS-plus.
For his career, Schwarber is a solidly above league average hitter (OPS-plus of 111), while averaging more than 30 long balls per 162 games and playing better defense in left field.
By Opening Day 2019, it would not surprise many people to see both Schwarber and Almora playing for other teams. That would open up getting Kris Bryant more playing time in left field, moving David Bote to third base. Additionally, Happ has proven he can play all over the place, left field or center field, with Jason Heyward getting the majority of the reps there. Of course, that would open right field up for a certain free agent that likely finished his tenure with the Washington Nationals after a disappointing 2018 season.
Anything can happen between now and March, but one thing is certain. Theo and the rest of the front office is sure to make changes this winter, because they did not enjoy watching the Cubs’ on-field product in the second half any more than the fans.
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