Trying to make sense of the Cubs’ offensive woes this season, on the surface, has been puzzling. A team that finished tenth in runs per game in each of 2018 and 2019 is sitting at the eighth-fewest runs per game in 2020, with largely the same roster. Why is this?
The easy answer is that two of their stars, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, have been providing no value at the plate. While Javy is a bit of an overhyped offensive player, he’s never been close to this bad. Couple that with Kris Bryant’s continued durability issues, and you have two guys who historically have been good-to-great hitters who are among MLB’s worst in 2020.
But if you look at underlying numbers, the answer to the Cubs’ offensive struggles run deeper than two guys slumping at the plate. I mean, the Chicago Cubs have the seventh-highest hard-hit rate in baseball this season. No, that is not a typo. The Cubs' offense have been very good at squaring the ball up this year, but it hasn’t resulted in runs. There are many reasons why.
The Cubs Have Poor Plate Discipline
For starters, the Cubs’ plate discipline metrics are not great, and it’s largely because the team is actually too patient. FanGraphs’ Z-Swing% metric tracks the percentage of times a hitter swings at a pitch in the strike zone, and the Cubs are second-lowest in MLB. While being patient can be advantageous to draw walks, the goal is always to find a pitch to hit and hit hard. You can’t do that by continually taking hittable pitches.
To make matters even worse, the Cubs, as a team, have seen the second-fewest percentage of pitches in the strike zone this season, proven by FanGraphs’ Zone% metric. So, the Cubs are seeing a very minimal amount of strikes, and when they are actually thrown a strike, they’re not swinging at it. That is not conducive to offensive success.
If you look at FanGraphs’ O-Swing% metric, which tracks each team’s chase rate (i.e. swinging at pitches out of the strike zone), the Cubs are 16th-highest in MLB. While this in and of itself is a nonissue, when you combine it with the other plate discipline sabermetrics, it means the Cubs swing at a disproportionately high amount of pitches outside of the zone compared to inside the zone. That is not ideal, baseball fans.
Not Enough Contact & Too Many Groundballs
But wait, there’s more. The Cubs’ batted ball metrics are just as concerning as their plate discipline metrics. Sure, the Cubs have the seventh-highest hard-hit percentage in baseball, but that is misleading because they also have the fourth-lowest contact rate. So, while the percentage of hard-hit balls is high, the number of hard-hit balls actually isn’t all that high because the Cubs rarely put the ball in play.
To top it all off, the Cubs have the fourth-highest groundball percentage and the fourth-lowest line drive percentage in baseball. So, we can surmise the Cubs’ batted ball issues as follows: Hitters are rarely making contact, but when they do make contact, even if it’s a hard-hit ball by MLB’s standards, more often than not it’s being beaten into the ground. In an era that values launch angle and driving the baseball into the air, this is a disastrous sequence of facts.
There's Still Hope Left
Look, I’m not here to tell you that this lineup is a lost cause and that this team has no chance of putting up crooked numbers in the playoffs. We’ve seen what players like Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras have done in past seasons, in addition to what Jason Heyward and Ian Happ have shown in 2020. Like Cameron Maybin said on Wednesday, “Things can turn in the blink of an eye.”
It’s entirely possible this lineup gets red hot at the right time and this article looks foolish next week. But it’s an absolute fact that the Cubs have too many players with the same hitting profile: guys who swing and miss a lot and don’t consistently put the ball in play. It’s been the reason this offense has “broken” down the stretch each of the past two seasons. Is it happening again in 2020? We’ll find out in the next week.