What Has Happened to the Chicago Cubs' Offense?
Hitting a baseball is super hard.
I mean, think about it. Even some of the worst pitchers in baseball can throw in excess of 90 miles per hour and can make the ball bend and swerve and do crazy things that, most of the time, confuse and confound hitters into making outs.
Players have less than a second to decide what type of pitch is coming and whether it's going to be a strike or not. They then have to make solid contact with that speedy round ball with a round wooden bat and get that ball to land safely in the field of play where eight defenders (not including the catcher) have the opportunity to catch it and record an out.
It's a miracle anyone ever gets a hit, frankly.
Still, they play these baseball games because there are a select few who are able to do this very hard thing very well. And during the 2016 season, no team did the baseball better than the Chicago Cubs. Only two teams scored more runs than Chicago (the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians), and only Boston had a higher on-base percentage than the Cubs.
The Cubs were third in wRC+, 3rd in wOBA, 3rd in OPS, 6th in doubles, and 13th in homers. Their offense was to be feared.
So getting shut out in two straight National League Championship Series games and falling behind 2-games-to-1 in the series was not part of the plan.
Last night, it was Rich Hill's turn to do some very nasty things against an overmatched Cubs lineup, going six innings and giving up no runs on two hits with two walks and six strikeouts in the Los Angeles Dodgers' 6-0 win over Chicago in Game 3. That followed a brilliant performance by Clayton Kershaw in Game 2 in which the Cubs lost 1-0.
Chicago has now gone 18 straight innings without scoring a run. They have scored in just one of their last 25 innings. Cubs hitters are 15-for-93 in the NLCS and have tallied 6 hits total in their last two games. As a team they are hitting .161/.235/.312 in the NLCS thus far, and their outfielders have been out-homered by their pitching staff 2-1 so far this postseason.
Manager Joe Maddon said there's no great mystery going on here. “We’re just not hitting the ball well, we’re not hitting the ball hard,’’ Maddon said. “Obviously, I have no solid explanation. We're just not getting the results right now."
All great teams go through two- or three-game slumps during the course of a season. But when it's the playoffs, those two games can mean the difference between a parade and another chapter in the greatest curse of our time.
Some pretty darn good hitters have picked a lousy time to start flailing at the plate. Here are individual players' stats through the first three games of the NLCS.
Kris Bryant and Javier Baez have both been solid, if unspectacular in the NLCS thus far. But Chicago stars Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, and Addison Russell have all struggled mightily. Of course, three games is a minuscule sample size, but when you factor in the NLDS totals, too, the stats for the postseason as a whole aren't much better for most of those guys.
Fowler is 5-for-28. Zobrist is 4-for-26. Heyward is 2-for-19. But the two players struggling most are Rizzo and Russell.
Rizzo is 2-for-26 with no extra-base hits, and Russell is 1-for-24. These are two of the more dynamic hitters in the Chicago lineup who have done absolutely nothing this October.
Of course, it's important to remember that Cubs hitters haven't failed to score on a collection of scrubs and nobodies. The Dodgers have thrown some serious arms at Chicago in this series, particularly the last two games.
To Cub fans who need to feel a little better...
Lowest ERA for a starter over last two seasons:
1.96 Clayton Kershaw
2.00 Rich Hill
— MLB Statistics (@MLBRandomStats) October 19, 2016
One thing Kershaw and Hill have in common are terrific curveballs, and both used them extensively in their respective outings against Chicago.
That was clearly part of the game plan as Cubs hitters struggled with that pitch during the season. According to FanGraphs, Cubs hitters were 18th in MLB this season in total runs above average per 100 pitches against the curveball.
Last night, Hill's outstanding curve made his fastball that much more explosive, and Cubs hitters had no chance.
This year, Hill was basically a two-pitch pitcher, throwing his fastball 47% of the time and his curve 42% of the time. In Game 3, he relied on the curve even more, throwing it 52.6% of the time last night.
So yes, the Cubs' offense is struggling. But the Dodgers threw two of the best left-handed starting pitchers in the game at them the last two contests, so it's not terribly surprising Chicago is in a bit of a funk.
And for all those Cubs fans panicking out there, down 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, I get it. You have reason to be nervous. But this series is a long way from over.
The silence of the bats is deafening, but they can awaken at any moment.