I’ve been saying it all along, though what began as a confident proclamation soon turned into a calming mantra and then clung to as sort of a life preserver of affirmation: surely with all this talent, they can’t all slump at once. Yet as June wore on and the Cubs offense struggled to scratch out more than two runs in a game, my cleansing breaths were coming more rapidly and I felt myself sinking into the abyss of panic (which is different from Giants fans struggling with the absence of Panik).
I began to fear that the Cubs had somehow tumbled off a cliff of improbability. And I say improbable not in that these guys aren’t expected to encounter struggles, but that they’d all find a way to do so at the same time. I suppose the same could be said about them all hitting a ton at the same time. Maybe it’s true what they say about how putting a bunch of Adrian Beltres in the same house will eventually cause their cycles to align. Pause for dramatic effect
Boy, if that doesn’t get me nominated for a Pulitzer, or whatever its equivalent is for low-level, privately-owned, team-centric blogs, I don’t know what will. The truth of the matter is that I really was starting to get a little scared, particularly about Rizzo and his slumptastic summer. Having two or three other guys step in to pick up the slack would have allayed those concerns, but that just wasn’t happening. And then a funny thing happened.
Dexter Fowler started to get better. Like, a LOT better. Rizzo finally rediscovered his power. Addison Russell turned around what had been an abysmal July and Jorge Soler benefited from improving health. Where I had once been swimming in half an inch of water and thinking I was gonna drown, now I had gotten my sea legs. And so what if “sea legs” means being comfortable aboard a boat, I’m mixing metaphors here. You don’t go into an Asian/Tex-Mex fusion joint and complain to the chef, do you? Don’t answer that.
In the 19 games leading up to the Midsummer Classic, the Cubs’ offense had been scoring only 2.47 runs/game, but they’ve upped that 3.8 in 17 since and they’re averaging 4.5 runs in last 8 games. To find where that improvement is coming from, I took some splits from before and after the All-Star break to get see just how some of the Cubs have performed.
Before: .250/.262/.391, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 1.5% BB, 27.7% K, 74 wRC+ (17 games; 9 before and 8 after DL stint)
After: .266/.319/.359, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 7.2% BB, 29% K, 80 wRC+ (16 games)
Soler’s a hard one to get an accurate comparison on, given that he missed almost all of June and the start of July with the equally amorphous and ubiquitous high ankle sprain. But he has made some incremental improvements, specifically in terms of his plate approach. Notoriously suspect to a bigger zone, Soler will have to continue to adjust and take what he’s given. As hard as he hits the ball though, the power numbers should start coming.
Before: .250/.389/.357, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 12.5% BB, 13.9% K, 114 wRC+ (17 games)
After: .231/.311/.446, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 8.1% BB, 17.6% K 100 wRC+ (17 games)
After After: .346/.393/.846, 4 HR, 10 RBI, 7.1% BB, 21.4% K, 214 wRC+ (7 games)
The case for Rizzo’s improvement doesn’t really hold much water until you really start looking at his last few games, highlighted as they are by that four-game homer binge. Rizzo’s slump stretched into the Rockies series but appears to have come to a close now. The shifts in walks and strikeouts are a bit concerning, but those should balance out in due time.
Before: .106/.208/.128, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 11.3% BB, 30.2% K, -4 wRC+ (16 games)
After: .286/.333/.429, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 6.7% BB, 15% K, 110 wRC+ (16 games)
Because of his youth and superb defense, I think we all overlooked just how bad Addison Russell had gotten at the plate. I mean, even Derek Redmond felt bad about the way the Cubs future shortstop limped to the first-half finish line. That line is nothing short of abysmal, as evidenced by the “-” in front of the wRC+ figure. Yes, you read that right.
To put that into context for those not too familiar with that particular metric, wRC+ is a relative measure of offensive production. 100 is league average and each tally above or below that represents a player’s production as compared to that. So a wRC+ of 150 means that a hitter is 50% better than average and a mark of 50 means he is 50% worse. Russell was -4. That’s actually hard to wrap your brain around.
Then you see the numbers since the break and you forget all about those struggles. Whether the kid just needed that mental break or had to take some time to make adjustments to his approach without the bustle of the season, he’s seen a tremendous improvement in offensive production. Zack Moser of BP Wrigleyville points out that Russell is laying off the breaking stuff and is making better contact as a result.
Before: .197/.258/.262, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 7.6% BB, 25.8% K, 42 wRC+ (17 games)
After: .305/.461/.458, 2 HR, 2 RBI, 22.4% BB, 15.8% K, 162 wRC+ (16 games)
If the leadoff guy ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy, and Fowler had been down in the dumps for a while. Ever since the break, though, he’s been absolutely lighting it up at the plate. Disregard the paltry RBI totals; that’s not what Fowler is there to do. He’s scored 12 runs since the ASG while he had scored only 7 in the sample taken prior. And just look at the drastic improvements in walks and strikeouts.
Russell’s 114-point swing in wRC+ was big, but Fowler edges him out with a 120-point jump that has him looking like the missing piece the Cubs were looking for when they shipped Luis Valbuena to Houston to acquire the switch-hitting leadoff man. The recent hot streak probably isn’t entirely sustainable, but even a bit of a regression would result in very solid output.
Not everyone has improved since the second half got underway though…
Before: .232/.353/.446, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 14.7% BB, 30.9% K, 120 wRC+ (17 games)
After: .133/.250/.267, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 12.5% BB, 34.7% K, 44 wRC+ (17 games)
The power is still there, but the walks are down a little and the strikeouts are up. The slash line looks like it took a few too many valium and that wRC+ number is what the experts have been known to refer to as awful. Some of his recent at-bats have looked really ugly, but Bryant’s too good a hitter to stay down long. I hope.
Before: .173/.228/.231, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 7.0% BB, 15.8% K, 23 wRC+ (18 games)
After: .169/.197/.186, 0 HR, 6 RBI, 3.3% BB, 23% K, -12 wRC+ (15 games)
Both of these lines need to be strapped aboard a NASA probe and fired into the sun. There’s really nothing else to say about just how bad Castro has been over the last month and change. I’m going to stop short of castigating his desire or personality, as I don’t believe those are at play. Unfortunately, I believe his mental state is such that his former production may be irretrievable.
The good news in all of this is that the guy can’t possibly get any worse. At -1.3, he has the lowest WAR of any shortstop in Major League Baseball. And I’m talking ALL of them, not just qualified. 58 other men have had at least 10 at-bats and have given their teams better production than Starlin Castro has given the Cubs. If that’s not rock bottom, I really don’t know what is. I don’t know how to fix it either.
Perhaps team doctors can give him a glass stomach so that he can at least see where he’s going with his head so far up his…as I was saying, I really don’t know how he can turn things around. But again, the collection of talent around him means that Starlin doesn’t have to return to 2014 levels in order for the Cubs to succeed.
If I can take anything from a review of the players above, it’s that my little affirmation is truly being played out before us. The Cubs are sitting 10 games over .500 and they’re not even playing their best baseball right now and that’s a good sign. Not everyone is going to show out at the same time, but this is a team that’s perfectly capable of getting on a hot streak. And even when a couple guys are slumping, the others are able to pick up the slack.
This is what we’ve all been waiting for these past few years. Is it perfect? No, far from it. But you can really see the beginnings of how really good teams are constructed. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to reach out to team doctor Stephen Adams about that see-through stomach idea.