Running away and hiding from the division isn’t enough. Neither is having a starting rotation on which a guy posting a 2.90 ERA was trailing the rest of the pack by a fair margin. No, there has to be a target for ire. And I mean on the roster itself, not just Ronnie Woo-Woo showing up to Muhammad Ali’s funeral and posing for pictures with fans while wearing a boxing glove and bolo tie in addition to his traditional Cubs regalia.
I don’t think anyone was readying the rotten tomatoes or anything, but Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo were certainly raising an eyebrow or two with their sluggish performances. I wrote back in late April that the two were primed to break out, and Rizzo did a nice job of making me look smart for a couple weeks thereafter. Heyward, on the other hand, never really seemed able to get untracked. Or is it “on track.” Either way, he wasn’t hitting well.
And after I wrote about how Rizzo had been smokin’ since 4/20, his performance pretty much went to pot. Over the last three weeks of May, the NL’s leading All-Star vote-getter slashed only .156/.295/.234 with one home run and a wRC+ that said he was 50 percent worse than an average hitter. That, my friends, is not good.
Up until the start of June, this offseason’s biggest position-player target was only slashing .220/.318/.286 with one homer and a wRC+ that said he was only 70 percent as good as an average hitter. Knowing about his tendency as a slow starter, I was not alone in wanting the season to hasten May-ward so Jason Heyward could silence the doubters. Then May came and went and folks were still chirping.
Turning the calendar to June, however, has done wonders for both players.
In 10 games thus far this month, Rizzo is slashing .395/.439/.711 with 3 homers, 10 RBI, and a wRC+ of 210. The only potential knock is that his OBP is only 44 points higher than his average, but both are about 140 points higher than what I displayed earlier so we’ll let it slide. Heyward has posted a .325/.413/.600 slash line with 3 taters and a 174 wRC+ in 11 June games, showing signs of the turnaround we all knew was coming.
Both players are sporting a .400 BABIP this month, which, absent context, could be taken as a sign that their results are fueled by luck. In Heyward’s case, however, it’s clear that he’s seeing the ball better and putting it in play with more authority. Through May, the Cubs right fielder sported a hard-hit percentage of only 19.2% and was frequently grounding the ball to the right side. He’s maintained roughly the same ground ball percentage and is still pull-heavy over the last 11 games, so what’s the difference?
Heyward’s hard contact has skyrocketed to 42.9% and those balls that were finding gloves are now shooting through the infield and making it into the gaps. Rizzo, on the other hand, is seeing a correction in a BABIP that had been hovering at an unsustainably low level for the first two months of the season. It was sitting at .220 through May and was only .164 over the three-week sample I presented earlier. In other words, he was bound for better luck.
It helps that Rizzo is hitting more line drives these days, but some of the improvement comes down to hits like the single he picked up in the 8th inning of Sunday’s blowout win in Atlanta. The ball scooted up the line and was just fair, pushing a run across and giving Rizzo his third base hit of the afternoon. A few feet to the left and Freddie Freeman gloves it and gets at least one out. It’s dangerous to look at a player’s BABIP and chalk production up to simply having extraordinarily good or bad fortune, but Rizzo seemed to have gotten more than his share of the latter early on.
That we can color Rizzo’s season line of .264/.387/.528 with a bit of disappointment is a testament to just how good he can be. He’s tied for 17th in MLB in both wOBA (.388) and wRC+ (145) and appears ready to climb the ladder in both categories. Heyward’s improvement has him at .307 and 90 in those same areas and a strong finish to the month should see him surpassing league average in both.
The timing of this dual resurgence couldn’t be better, either, as the Cubs head to Washington to face Max Scherzer and the Nationals. You may recall that the Cubs roughed Mad Max up but good when the teams squared off at Wrigley in May, thanks to home runs from Tommy La Stella, Anthony Rizzo, and Ben Zobrist, who actually hit two. In all, the perennial Cy Young candidate allowed 7 earned runs on 7 hits and 3 walks in 5 innings pitched.
Okay, so why am I saying that having Heyward and Rizzo hitting is good again? Oh yeah, it’s because Scherzer is pretty much lights-out against righties, who are slashing only .149/.167/.297 against him. Lefties, on the other hand (literally), are hitting .276/.372/.526. We saw that played out in May, when right-handed Cubs hitters went 1-for-10 (the lone hit was by John Lackey) with no walks, while lefties were 6-for-13, all extra-base hits (Heyward doubled and La Stella added a triple), with 3 walks.
It’s doubtful they’ll be able to do quite the same damage Monday night, but the Cubs figure to go as lefty-heavy as possible against Scherzer again this time. Look for newly re-acquired Chris Coghlan to get another start in left as a result of the splits and don’t be surprised to see Kris Bryant (0-for-3 with 3 K’s last time) and the other righties struggle. But if Rizzo and Heyward can continue their hot-hitting ways, it may not matter.
It’ll help if Ryan Zimmerman fails to hit with the bases loaded too.