After a torrid start to the 2020 season, the Cubs are 4-6 over their last 10 games and have won consecutive games only once in that stretch. They remain on top of the division with a 4-game cushion and their 16-9 record is nothing to sneer at, but this recent slide has exposed a flaw. More specifically, the Cubs are struggling due to a marked lack of offensive production from several of their stars.
Among the early-season top five in the lineup, only Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber have a wRC+ above 100 through Friday. Trim the sample back to the just the month of August, and only Schwarber (113) is past the century mark. Contreras got out to a hot start, but take away the first week of the season and he’s slashing just.189/.333/.332 with an 80 wRC+ over his last 66 plate appearances.
Rizzo has likewise cooled, batting .217/.347/.350 with a wRC+ of 98 over 72 PAs, though he’s still striking out at a low rate (16.7%) and is walking just as often. The real issue is that he’s not making up for the low average with power, as he’s hit just two homers in August at this point.
Kris Bryant has missed the last few games with a wrist injury suffered on a diving play in Cleveland, after which he launched one of his two home runs on the season. He’s actually been much better this month, but .216/.293/.432 (96 wRC+) isn’t the sort of production that’s going to carry the team from the leadoff spot. Mechanical flaws were evident even before he hurt his wrist, resulting in anemic production at the start of the season that dragged his overall stats down even further.
The most frustrating lack of production is coming from Javy Báez, whose 56 wRC+ is currently sixth-worst in MLB among 158 qualified hitters. In other words, he’s the offensive equivalent of Eric Sogard at this point. Javy is striking out nearly nine times as often as he walks and hasn’t homered in his last 67 plate appearances. Since the start of the Brewers series on August 13, he’s struck out 16 times with one walk and has a -24 wRC+ that says he’s 124% worse than the average hitter.
Interestingly enough, Javy is not the worst hitter in baseball during that stretch. That honor belongs to Daniel Murphy, whose -60 wRC+ laps the field. Too bad it’s little consolation for what’s happening on the North Side.
With the hitters in the heart of the order serving as separate pairs of cement cleats, the Cubs are being kept afloat by the exploits of Ian Happ. His adjustments from last season are paying off in a big way as he leads the team in all major offensive categories and has assumed the leadoff role left vacant by Bryant’s recent absence. Happ’s breakout season has even launched him into the NL MVP conversation behind prohibitive favorite Fernando Tatís Jr.
Jason Kipnis has been another pleasant surprise, posting a 163 wRC+ that more than makes up for what has been disappointing production from Nico Hoerner so far. David Bote (13) and Jason Heyward (12) are right behind Happ (14) when it comes to driving in runs, with the former continuing his knack for dramatic homers with a big shot against the Cardinals the other day. Heyward has a pair of homers and is continuing the trend of overall offensive improvement each year in Chicago.
As great as it is to see those contributions from the Happ and the bottom of the order, the Cubs are unlikely to make a deep run in the playoffs without significant improvements from their big three of Báez, Bryant, and Contreras. Bryant’s balky wrist may not get back to 100% with so little time left in the season and Contreras is at least walking enough to keep his production from collapsing.
That leaves Javy as perhaps the biggest key to the Cubs’ success over the remainder of the season. He’s proven capable of carrying the team for entire stretches in the past, but he’s dragging it down at present and must make a dramatic turnaround quickly. The Cubs jumped out to a fast start and have maintained a lead thanks to heroics from some of their more unheralded players, now it’s time for the stars to shine.