The Chicago Cubs don’t boast the same star power as they did a year ago. Yet despite subtracting three star hitters last July, the Cubs offense has become more functional and successful.
The typical early season disclaimers apply, but even so, the Cubs offensive profile has made games more engaging for fans and players because of the pace of play. Even when they put up a football score in a 21-0 win Saturday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the game lasted 2 hours, 47 minutes — 19 minutes shorter than the average nine-inning MLB game this season.
The Cubs (7-9) look to get back to .500 during a three-game series in Atlanta that begins Tuesday. While they try to get on a roll, at the very least the offense is more viable than during the first half of 2021 with what was supposed to be a playoff-caliber roster.
The strength of the Cubs offense will be tested soon. In their next 14 games, the Cubs face the reigning World Series champion Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.
Is the Cubs offense legit? Five numbers highlight the good and bad.
.347 weighted on-base average (wOBA)
The Cubs are finding ways to score that don’t require home runs, and it’s making a difference in how the offense functions. Weighted on-base average (wOBA) helps quantify the value of a plate appearance’s outcome rather than evaluate all hits equally.
The Cubs’ .347 wOBA ranked first in the majors through Sunday, which isn’t surprising since they also had the best average, on-base percentage and OPS. Their 125 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) ranked second. The Cubs have a well-rounded offense and a lineup that generally is balanced, even on days manager David Ross opts to rest a regular.
A strong offensive profile hasn’t converted to as many wins as it seems the Cubs should have, and their record includes a 2-4 mark versus the Pirates. But their wOBA suggests the lineup will be a strength in the long run, even if the Cubs don’t remain at the top of key offensive categories.
21.2% strikeout rate and 10.1% walk rate
When the Cubs scored 21 runs Saturday, another statistic was nearly as impressive. They struck out only three times in 52 plate appearances and no Cub had more than one.
The Cubs were almost unwatchable at times last season, especially in the first half, with an offense that featured too many swings and misses and not enough contact hitters to offset that. Injuries to Matt Duffy and Nico Hoerner played a role in the Cubs falling apart in late May and into June, which was problematic on many levels.
This year, though, the Cubs aren’t relying on the long ball to score. Saturday’s outburst epitomized what this offense has shown through 16 games: The Cubs hit only one home run en route to 21 runs.
Cutting down on strikeouts while still drawing walks has been a key to the offense’s success. The Cubs’ 21.2% strikeout rate was sixth-best in the majors through Sunday, while their 10.1% walk rate was tied for eighth. Combined with their big-league-leading .273 average, their offensive production has found a balance between swing-and-miss bats and contact hitters — with both profiles showing an ability to draw walks and get on base.
The Cubs will need to keep this up to make up for being slightly below the league average in home runs. Their four-game series against the Pirates showed what can happen if the hits aren’t consistently falling. They can’t count on a home run to bail them out.
Minus-1.5 baserunning (BsR)
The offense’s profile includes one area in which the Cubs haven’t graded out as well nearly three weeks into the season.
FanGraphs’ baserunning metric (BsR) is all-encompassing in evaluating stolen bases, caught stealing and other baserunning plays and converting them into runs above and below average. The statistic can be volatile this early in the season, but the Cubs ranked 23rd through Sunday with a minus-1.5 BsR. They haven’t stolen many bases (four) and have been caught stealing three times.
The Cubs have been above the league average in advancing an extra base, which is helpful for a team putting the ball in play as much as they have.
The Cubs don’t have many obvious base stealers in the lineup, though Seiya Suzuki likely will be on the move more as the season progresses. Manager David Ross wants him to feel comfortable at the plate and on the basepaths before incorporating more steal attempts in Suzuki’s style of play. Suzuki’s speed and instincts would add another dynamic to the Cubs offense.
51.8% ground-ball rate
After finishing with the worst contact rate in the majors in 2021, the Cubs are showing improvement, sitting 12th at 76.2%.
“I do think that’s a pretty sustainable trait,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said last week. “It’ll probably vacillate from time to time with different matchups and different handedness. But I do think that we should be a fairly high contact team — but with that we’re not going to hit as many three-run homers as we once did.”
Notably, the Cubs’ contact rate includes the highest ground-ball rate (51.8%) in baseball. All other teams were below 48% through Sunday, with the Seattle Mariners the lowest at 37.7%. One side effect the Cubs are encountering to putting the ball in play more — and specifically hitting the ball on the ground so much — is the double-play balls they are racking up.
The Cubs have hit into 18 double plays, which led the majors entering Monday’s games. Willson Contreras (five) and Nick Madrigal (four) were tied for first and fourth in the big leagues.
Conversely, only three teams have a lower line-drive percentage than the Cubs (18.4%). The Cubs know they must elevate the ball more. It sounds simple to fix, but looking for balls to drive within an at-bat can require adjusting an approach.
Hoyer sounded optimistic the ground-ball rate and double-play issue will even out over the season. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on.