Unbelievable. Mysterious. It’s hard to understand.
Those are some of the words opposing scouts and pitchers use when asked about the Chicago Cubs’ offense, which ranks last in the majors in many categories, including a .192 batting average, one of the worst of all time after 15 games.
The weird thing is that the Cubs are upside down and can only do one fastball.
It’s almost unfathomable, a Central Intelligence Agency scout said. Too much talent on this damn Cubs team. No one can understand that. I talked to a number of people [other recruiters].
There was a time when throwing a fastball to the Cubs was a bad idea. From 2016 to 2018, the combination of Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Chris Bryant hit .307 with a .559 slugging percentage against the fastball. Since then, the numbers have steadily declined, with a .235 batting average over the last 75 games (the shortened 2020 season and the first 15 games of this year) and a slugging percentage of just .419.
As a team, the Cubs have a .230 batting average, which is worse than in the MLB, and they are hitting just .414 against fastballs in that time. Against balls of 95 mph or higher, they are hitting just .178 since the start of 2020 and just .105 this season.
It’s not the lack of clout, said a scout from the NL East. These guys have incredible bat speed. It’s crazy.
Although scouts had different theories, the consensus is that Cubs hitters got caught in the crossfire. Maybe they’re worried about chasing balls with more spin – another problem lately – and don’t respond to fastballs as much as they used to.
They should be able to catch fastballs, and for some reason they don’t, said an East Los Angeles scout who saw them recently. Don’t they appeal too much to analytical tendencies? So you expect one thing in the game, but the opponent does something else?
Usually 15 games is not enough time to learn anything about baseball, but the Cubs no longer get the benefit of the doubt from opposing pitchers, scouts, or even many fans. Not after years of frustration since former team manager Theo Epstein declared his offense broken in 2018. Despite all the movement within the franchise, five of the eight core players are still there after the Cubs won the World Series half a decade ago.
They’re trying to change their philosophy, but with this core group, they had a philosophy and all these guys believed in it, a scout said. It has become a one-dimensional crime. There is something to be said for touching the ball and putting it in play.
Because of this dangerous dimension – the ability to hit the ball out of the park – the opposition has consistently taken the Cubs out of the strike zone. They have the lowest strikeout rate of any National League team since 2016, at just 47.9%. They’ve enjoyed it for a while, fourth in chase percentage in 2016 while leading the nation in walks.
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Maybe these killers got a little cocky or maybe the league saw through them, but they started hunting.
Very much so.
In four seasons, the Cubs went from fourth to nineteenth and from twenty-fifth to twenty-third in the standings.
A perfect example is Javi Baez, a scout said. I remember he had no idea what the strike zone was when he got to the top of the league. Then it got better. Then I saw it last year and it was like the return of the old Baez.
Baez is an extreme example, but the feeling about the offense as a group has remained the same.
Throw it up and down, then up and down and to the side, said one of the opposing pitchers. You do that to all hitters, but especially the Cubs.
And that’s where the Cubs are unique compared to other teams: Most of their hitters can pitch the same way because their strengths and weaknesses are very similar, experts say.
You hit the ball down, said the opposing pitcher. All of them. Don’t throw a bug in it. Even David Botha, who is a relative newcomer, is enjoying it.
This year alone, Bote, Baez and Bryant have hit golf balls into the stands to hit home runs. Last season, the Miami Marlins knocked the Cubs out of the hot zone.
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Don’t let them extend their arms, said another opposing pitcher. Everybody’s the same, except Rizzo. You can shut them up. All right handed and even Jason Heyward on the left.
Maybe because of the Cubs approach, more pitches than any other team. Most batters with the lowest team batting averages are difficult to produce offensively.
From the games I’ve seen, teams are pitching more in the zone, said a scout who has seen the Cubs’ first six games this season. The boys turned around. I try to do too much. Everyone is trying to get the whole team out of the doldrums, so it seems like they are under pressure.
With Jacob deGrom and Brandon Woodruff out this week, it won’t get any easier anytime soon. And all in a season where Baez, Bryant, Rizzo, Joc Pederson and other free agents must be found. Any of them could be for sale in July.
They have to keep in mind that they’re going to break the team, a scout said. Everyone knows that next year will be different.
Those involved agree on one thing when it comes to the makeup of the team this season: The details are better than the sum. One opposing pitcher summed it up by comparing the 2016 Cubs to today’s:
They don’t crush you like they used to. It’s just easier to make a list.
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