Fact: The Cubs won a World Series with lots of free swingers in their lineup.
Also a fact: The Cubs won a World Series with more than just free swingers in their lineup.
The Cubs had 6 hitters qualify for the batting title in 2016. Three of them (Bryant, Russell, Fowler) struck out between 22-23% of the time. The other three (Rizzo, Zobrist, Heyward) struck out less than 16% of the time. All six walked at least 9% of the time. You could argue they were the true "core" of the Cubs lineup in 2016, but by the end of the season and into the playoffs free swingers Javier Baez and to a lesser extent Willson Contreras were also full-time players.
Again, the Cubs won a World Series featuring both types of hitters.
Now, the game has changed, even since 2016. Strikeouts have skyrocketed, thanks to the use of Rapsodo and other technology helping pitchers rework their deliveries to maximize velocity and design all of their pitches to maximize spin efficiency. On top of that, Major League Baseball's lax enforcement of the rules governing a pitcher's use of foreign substances on the ball has allowed pitchers to maximize their spin.
You could say we've reached the nadir of the steroid era, when hitters got smarter and the popular form of cheating (which the league also turned a blind eye toward) helped them more so than pitchers.
Guys susceptible to strikeouts at 22% rate in 2016 are likely to have seen their K rates rise toward 25% and beyond in the years since. There are still contact hitters in the league though, just not on the Cubs.
In 2020, the team had 5 hitters qualify for the batting title. All but Rizzo (15.6%) punched out at a rate exceeding 25% (Happ, Contreras, Schwarber, Baez). There isn't a problem with any particular player from the latter group. You can form a functioning and consistent offense with players like this involved, the Cubs have proven that, other teams as well. The current proportions for the Cubs are simply out of whack.
The Cubs still get people on base. They still hit home runs (although even that slipped in 2020 thanks to the lack of production from Bryant and Baez). But without a Ben Zobrist to compliment Rizzo as a second contact hitter in the middle of the order, the team is letting opportunities for rallies pass right by them (through the strike zone).
Besides Rizzo, the only players on the 2020 Cubs to strike out at a clip below 20% were a rookie (Nico Hoerner) who wasn't quite ready for primetime, and a third string catcher (Josh Phegley) who accounted for a grand total of 18 plate appearances. That is not a formula for success. It is more like a witch's brew designed to make the eyes of unsuspecting fans bleed.
The Cubs don't need to blow up the core and start from scratch, but they do need to reconfigure it. They need to replace one of them with a Zobrist-type. If they can make an additional swap and truly create a nice balance like they achieved in 2016, they'd be all the better for it.
Until they do, the offense will remain inconsistent. It will remain broken.
A core isn't the whole ball
Good teams require depth. They need secondary pieces which compliment the center to create a structurally sound whole.
Even though Jason Heyward still makes contact at a decent rate and has improved overall as a hitter since 2016, he's also slid out of a full-time role, and into more of a platoon player, which would be fine, except the team has failed to find a competent right-handed compliment for him. They need to find that player soon.
They also no longer have a Chris Coghlan to help Heyward extend and diversify the lineup, or a Tommy La Stella and an actually contributing Albert Almora to come off the bench and put the ball in play against a tough reliever. David Bote is a fine bench bat, but he offers the same offensive profile as the free swingers in the everyday lineup. They don't need to replace him, but they do need to have options besides him. Otherwise when an opposing team sends out a pitcher who poses a bad matchup for one of the Cubs starters, they'll have nothing but Bote, who presents the same bad matchup.
Almora was supposed to fill one of holes over the last few years, but not only did he fail to grasp a bigger role since 2016, he failed to maintain his production in even the more limited role he once held. That has proven costly for the Cubs, especially since they were so committed to making it work with him that they failed to develop a Plan B. Nico Hoerner has a chance to grow into his replacement as a key bench piece with the opportunity to become a full-time contributor down the road, and the Cubs should prioritize helping him achieve it. But that isn't enough. They need a Cogs. They need a TLS. And they need to remain flexible in case Hoerner doesn't make strides.
Filed under: Morning Cubs Roundup