The Chicago Cubs finished off an imperfect road trip on Wednesday when they lost their sixth straight game, and it’s fair to say that fans are starting to worry about the defending world champions.
The Cubs, who won the title last season after winning 103 games during the regular season, have fallen to two games below .500 after their awful road trip. After a season where they weren’t under .500 for a single day, the fall from grace is jarring, and things won’t get any easier as the Cubs head home to take on the Cardinals.
Despite the doom and gloom, the Cubs are still right in the thick of a division race, as they trail the Milwaukee Brewers by just two and a half games with more than 110 games left in the regular season.
With those things in mind, there is one question that is being asked as the Cubs return home to Wrigley Field: is it time for Cubs fans to start freaking out about this team’s struggles?
To answer that question, we present the first installment of our Cubs Panic Meter.
If we’re being blunt, the Cubs absolutely stink at hitting this season.
Among their primary position players, the only one who is hitting above his 2016 batting average is Jason Heyward, whose .257 average far exceeds the paltry .230 that he put up last season.
Some guys are having a massive struggle at the plate, including Anthony Rizzo, whose average is down an astounding 65 points from last season, and Ben Zobrist, whose average has dipped by 25 points. Even Addison Russell, who only hit .238 last season, is somehow batting worse this year, with a .216 average to his credit.
When one looks at the numbers with runners in scoring position, the story gets even scarier. Bryant is batting .220 with a chance to drive in runs this season. Rizzo is batting .184 in those situations. Kyle Schwarber, known for his heroic effort during last year’s World Series, is batting .167 with runners in scoring position, the same average that pitcher Kyle Hendricks has put up in those spots.
If there is one saving grace, or one bit of succor, available to fans at this point, it’s this: baseball is a game where players tend to have highs and lows, but they always settle back at an average point in the middle. Just about every Cubs player not named Kris Bryant is struggling right now, and as the summer moves along, the odds are strong that the hitting will start to come back.
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While hitting has been a significant issue for the Cubs so far this season, their pitching, while improving recently, hasn’t been much better.
The team’s best starting pitcher in terms of ERA is Kyle Hendricks, who is following up his 2016 season (where he led the National League in ERA) by nearly doubling that average to 3.75. Jon Lester hasn’t been any better, putting up an ERA of nearly 4.00 in 11 starts for the Cubs.
The big issue has been the pitching of Jake Arrieta, who has a 4.60 ERA and has struggled at times to command his pitches. He looked a lot better against the San Diego Padres on Wednesday, but once again he wasn’t able to hold a lead for his team as he immediately coughed up a solo home run the inning after the Cubs took an early lead.
To that end, the Cubs’ pitchers do need to be given a bit of slack here. They’re not getting the run support that a pitching staff needs to be successful, and when you’re in a position where you have to go out and throw a shutout or give up one run to succeed, you’re going to try to do too much, and pitches end up elevated and cracked out of the park in situations like that.
Outside of cutting down on the home runs that they are giving up, the Cubs’ pitchers don’t really have to do a lot. Arrieta needs to keep bearing down on improving his command, and John Lackey needs to be a lot more economical with his pitches, as he’s only thrown 57 innings in 10 starts this season.
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The Cubs set MLB records with their defense last season, but this season has been a completely different story, as they have already committed 38 errors and have extended innings with bad decisions both in throwing and catching the baseball.
Even with those struggles, the Cubs are still a net-positive defense according to Fangraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating, and if they can simply cut down on the errors and get back to the loose, free-flowing style that they showed last season, they’ll be absolutely fine in this regard.
While it’s not time to punch the panic button, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask questions about how the Cubs can stand to improve their team as the season wears on.
This team needs to address their issues at the plate, whether that’s by trying to shuffle up the lineup again (something that Joe Maddon has done, but likely not drastically enough) or by adjusting their approach. Maddon himself has said that the team is trying to hit too many home runs, but with such a powerful lineup, it’s reasonable to assume that some guys will swing for the fence during their at-bats.
The key will simply be patience to ride out the storm at this point. The Cubs aren’t going to fall out of the division race any time soon, and even if they drop four or five games behind the Brewers, there are still plenty of games left against Milwaukee, and plenty of season left, for them to come storming back and potentially get back toward the top of this race.