‘Homer-Dependent’ Cubs Mired in Worst Hitting Slump Ever
After a loss Monday night in Milwaukee, the Cubs are 4-6 through their first 10 games of 2021. That might not be so bad when applied generically against the remaining 152 games this season, but myriad issues make it impossible to be so practical with an assessment. For one, six of those total games and three of the losses have come against a Pirates team that isn’t even trying to compete.
You could almost convince yourself that things haven’t been that bad when it comes to scoring, since the Cubs’ total of 29 runs isn’t the lowest in the league. Then you realize that the Mets (16) have only played five games while the Nationals (22) have only played seven. Oh, then there’s the North Siders’ .164 aggregate batting average, which is 28 points lower than the next-worse team. Their 66 team wRC+ is 11 points worse than the Rockies for 30th in MLB as well.
And how about a 69.9% contact rate that’s anything but nice and currently sits worst in the league and nearly three percentage points below last year’s mark. Though it can and should come up, getting anywhere close to 2016’s mark of 77% is a pipe dream.
Things aren’t just bad, they’re historically bad. As in, worse than anyone alive (and maybe dead) has ever witnessed when it comes to anemic hitting. According to Cubs historian Ed Hartig, the team’s 49 hits are its fewest over any 10-game stretch dating back to at least 1901. The previous low of 51 hits was set from September 17-29, 1968.
From Cubs historian Ed Hartig:
The Cubs' 49 hits are the fewest hits by the team over 10 consecutive games in a season since at least 1901. That's *any* 10-game stretch — not just the first 10 games of a season. The previous low was 51 hits from Sept. 17-29, 1968.
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) April 13, 2021
As you probably know, this franchise has seen its share of abysmal teams during that stretch.
It’s become common practice to paraphrase the late Dennis Green and say the Cubs are who we thought they were, though no one is saying we should crown their ass. One could easily make the argument, however, that they’re ass. While it’s true they are plagued by some of the same old issues that have been apparent ever since Theo Epstein admitted the offense “broke somewhere along the lines,” what we’re seeing lately is something far worse.
“It feels like we are very homer-dependent right now,” David Ross said after the most recent loss. “And I understand that’s part of our M.O. and how our team is built. But we’ve got to find ways to put the ball in play, put the pressure on the defense, make things happen, and spark something.”
Remember that team average I mentioned above? You can scroll up and check if you’ve already compartmentalized it, I’ll still be here when you get back. If you take away Kris Bryant (9-for-34) and Javy Báez (9-for-37), the rest of the team is batting .136 (31-for-228). Their collective plate approach simply isn’t conducive to consistent success, a maddening shift from that 2016 team that ground down opposing pitching staffs with something akin to tectonic force.
They were calculated and methodical, but also capable of volcanic explosions that left other teams buried beneath molten heaps of hits from which there was no escape. Even late deficits felt like minor inconveniences that would be cast aside with a few late runs against the bullpen. Losses were aberrations that could be forgotten easily because they would inevitably be offset by a string of wins.
But the Cubs now look more like Sears or JC Penny, juggernauts that simply weren’t able to adapt to a changing retail environment that saw people shopping online rather than circling their gift lists in massive catalogs. An approach that worked to near perfection halfway through the previous decade became obsolete quickly and is now clinging to relevance as bankruptcy appears imminent.
Given all the talk about ownership’s finances, that analogy almost feels a little too on the nose.
So did the Cubs fall prey to the Peter Principle, expecting their homegrown players to continue raising the level of their individual performance when they had in fact peaked very early? That same question can be applied to the members of the front office, who opted season after season to run it back rather than meaningfully addressing issues that have been evident since at least 2018. Ownership likewise bears some blame for not acting like a monster market and spending new money to overcome some of those deficiencies.
Despite the oft-cited fact that the Cubs have remained among the upper echelon in terms of payroll over the last several seasons, much of that is due to long-term deals signed from 2015-17. As those salaries carried forward, however, next to nothing was spent in free agency over the three years prior to this season. I’ll let you determine how much of that was hubris on the part of the front office and frugality from the owner’s box, but I’ll say it’s a healthy dose of both.
As for the players, well, that’s a whole ‘nother story that would take a lot more time to untangle. Have they not learned to adjust because they don’t feel they need to? Is it poor coaching or the lack of adequate scouting? Did success come so quickly and easily that it actually prevented them from having to battle through the requisite level of adversity?
I honestly don’t know, though I’m sure the answer is manifold and different for each individual. At this point, only Bryant truly seems to have been able to adjust over time, which will come as a shock to those detractors of his who have mistakenly blamed his performance over the last few seasons on a failure to adapt. When healthy, he’s been the best player on the team and one of the best in the league.
Now we’re looking at a reality in which neither Bryant nor most of the rest of the old core will be around in the future. What’s really wild about such a notion is that even the most optimistic fans are reaching the point where gutting the roster and starting over seems not only plausible, but preferable. The Cubs are so painful to watch that wholesale changes would at least mean there’s novelty in the suffering.
Of course, the entire perspective could shift dramatically in the space of a week. The bats are so bad right now that a natural correction is due soon, the advent of which could usher in all kinds of renewed Pollyanna takes. And you know what? I’m here for it, man. At the end of the day, I just want to be entertained and to be able to write about something people actually want to read.