Will the Cubs Finally Fix Offensive Woes in 2021?

It’s not an ideal topic, but in the midst of another disappointing offseason it is appropriate to focus on the Cubs’ offensive struggles.

Since the aftermath of the 2018 season, when Theo spoke of an offense that ‘broke’, the fanbase has consistently voiced its frustration with the lack of change offensively. The struggles that were highlighted in 2018 became a fixture in 2019 and 2020, exacerbating the impatience to witness tangible, concrete change.

Cubs fans have maintained cognitive dissonance the past few seasons, however, desiring change without a willingness to accept the loss of core players (e.g.. Kyle Schwarber). The chorus calling for change is legitimate, yet needs to be properly tuned when any whisper or action that breaks up ‘the core’ — to any degree — is met with anger or vitriol.

A fanbase is going to fanbase, of course, and despite our deepest wishes (and considerable fears), control over what happens to a team is rarely swayed by the court of public opinion. In an offseason punctuated by the loss of Theo Epstein, the sudden departure of Len Kasper from the TV booth, and the non-tender of Schwarber, angst and dejection have clouded what was once an impossibly promising era of baseball.

The Pains of the Past Three Seasons

Realistically, the Cubs offense in 2021 will be influenced, for better or worse, by the cast of players we are intimately familiar with. After a truncated season in 2020, in which they won the NL Central despite absurd regression from several big names, that’s not necessarily a terrible thing.

What is troubling, however, are the trends the team has developed the past few seasons. The chart below presents an array of offensive categories since 2018, with the Cubs’ MLB ranking in parentheses:

2018.321 (11th)100 (11th)21.8 (11th)9.0 (8th)46.0 (3rd)40.5 (15th)76.0 (22nd)11.3 (21st)
2019.330 (8th)102 (11th)23.6 (11th)9.4 (6th)45.8 (5th)35.0 (25th)73.8 (29th)12.3 (28th)
2020.309 (19th)91 (21st)25.7 (27th)10.3 (7th)46.1 (4th)34.6 (7th)72.8 (26th)11.9 (20th)
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs

The regression revealed above isn’t linear, but there are sustained struggles worth highlighting. The only consistent strength presented is the team’s ability to draw walks, but that’s pretty much it. With an increasing strikeout rate, decreasing hard hit percentage, and a contact rate near the bottom of the league the past three seasons, it’s not hard to figure out why the offense has stagnated.

My inclusion of the team’s ground ball rate was made out of curiosity, as so many bats employed by the roster are launch angle believers — yet the team is consistently top five in hitting grounders. Along with this, the team’s line drive percentage (19.6) was worst in MLB last season, and their infield fly ball rate (10.8) was the eighth worst in the league.

The offensive struggles are, of course, accentuated against lefties. The Cubs have collectively hit for a .241/.324/.395 slash, .with a .311 wOBA, 91 wRC+, and 23.6 K% versus southpaws since 2018. All of these numbers are near the bottom of the league, and underscore the need for change in 2021.

Certainly, something has to give, and involves players collectively changing their approach while acquiring new talent (in both ancillary and everyday fashion) to shore up some of the team’s weaknesses.

To wit, Sahadev Sharma wrote late last week about the Cubs adapting their offense, and included this sobering excerpt:

“An unwillingness to change or try different ways to improve shouldn’t be accepted anymore. Having trouble with velocity? Spend time with the fuzz machine. Not hitting certain pitches? Be willing to try a swing change through technological advancements like Kinatrax. Getting too easy to predict by the opposition? Change your patterns by studying the weaknesses advance scouts may see. 

These are just some of the ways players can improve. And it’s what the Cubs mean when they talk about player development continuing at the big-league level. 

Many of these players had immediate success upon reaching the big leagues and then stagnated. Too often, they reverted to what worked before instead of attempting to make real change. At best, that might lead to them reaching a plateau.”

Sahadev Sharma, The Athletic, 12/17/2020

Sharma reveals perhaps the most poignant of frustrations with regard to the Cubs offense. It’s not simply that they have struggled; it’s that there is a stubbornness to change that has kept the offense mired in regression. There’s only so much a coach can do, and while creating organic relationships certainly goes a long way, it wasn’t the job of erstwhile coaches (Chili Davis, Terrmel Sledge, et al.) to force players to accept the need to make adjustments.

True change is an internal process, a reality as true in baseball as it is in life.

Free Agency Will Only Do So Much

I need not dive into the reality the Cubs will not be spending much this offseason, but as I’ve stated throughout the offseason, that doesn’t negate an ability to improve via free agency. The Cubs can take a chance on a star player from the NPB like Haruki Nishikawa, compete for a potential star in KBO product Ha-Seong Kim, or pursue a plethora of affordable free agents that offer skill-sets useful to the Cubs.

Certainly, acquiring a switch-hitting utility player (Jurickson Profar), a true professional hitter (Michael Brantley), or a lefty masher with defensive versatility (Enrique Hernandez) would go a long way in revamping the lineup and overall roster construction. Any infusion of talent that can offer better contact rates would be impactful, but again, adjustments made by the current roster are paramount for the Cubs to make offensive strides in 2021.

That the team was recently connected to center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. offers a semblance of hope some funds will be allocated to actual improvement, but until we see an actual signing of note it’ll be hard to actually believe.

We can all feel frustration from the way in which Schwarber entered free agency, even if the opening in left field creates opportunity to shift the makeup of the lineup. A trade of Kris Bryant would obviously send shockwaves throughout the industry, let alone what it would mean for the Cubs, but right now it’s a better bet to assume he’ll begin the year as a fixture on the Northside.

The offseason is going to drag on, and the Cubs will likely be impossibly slow players in it. Hopefully the money is there for frugal, pragmatic additions that benefit the whole of the offense.

Regardless, offensive improvement in ’21 depends upon the already existing talent committed to making changes.

Featured Photo: USA Today Sports



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