The Cubs Offense Will Be Fine (Probably)

The bats have struggled but they'll turn it around. I think.

If you’re a Cubs fan, doubtless you don’t have to be told that it has been a struggle at the plate for the North Siders up to this point in the season.

Through Wednesday’s tilt with the division-rival Brewers, Chicago is 5-7 largely on the back of the worst batting average (.163), worst on-base percentage (.254), and worst slugging percentage (.307) in all of baseball. It’s one (very bad) thing to be last in all of those categories, albeit in the early going, but it is striking just how much the Cubs are in last place. To put it in some perspective, the difference between the Cub batting average and 29th place is the same as the difference between 29th place and 18th place in MLB.

When things are looking this bad, there has to be some regression to the mean inevitably coming. And in fact, Chicago’s batting average on balls in play up to Thursday is also last in all of baseball at a ridiculously low, how-does-that-even-happen .198. How unsustainably low is that? It’s 32 points below the next worst team in BABIP. That alone would be a huge difference maker. If the Cubs were merely the second worst-luck BABIP team in MLB, that alone would carry them from the worst team at getting on base to 25th, all else being equal.

This really isn’t a case of a completely overhauled roster with an expected wildly different outcome from previous seasons, either. The Cub lineup has been fairly consistent over the past few years, with Bryant, Rizzo, Heyward, Baez and Contreras all finishing in the top 7 of plate appearances for the team each year since 2019, and Happ was in there last season and in the early going this year as well. 

Those teams over the previous three seasons haven’t been exceptionally bad at the plate, nor have they been particularly bitten by the BABIP bug, finishing at .297 in 2019 and .270 in 2020. Those teams have always had some decent swing and miss, but they’ve largely offset that with top-quartile walk rates:

Season BB% Rank K% Rank
2019 6th 19th
2020 7th 26th
2021* 12th 27th

*through 12 games


The walk rate has declined each year and strikeouts have increased, which isn’t a great trend, but taken together this group largely hasn’t been “worst approach in baseball”-level bad. The approach thus far at the plate and the incredible lack of luck with balls in play (again, in just 12 games) doesn’t exactly scream “historically bad offense.” And, luckily for the Cubs and their fans on a player-by-player level, it likely can’t get much worse.

All of the regulars in the lineup that are currently batting below league average by wRC+ have a higher expected weighted on-base average than their current weighted on-base averages , save for Javy Báez (more on him later). Those hitters average a 56-point better xwOBA than wOBA.

Anthony Rizzo, for example, has started out hitting 40% below major league average. Past performance doesn’t always guarantee future results, but Rizzo has a fairly long track record of significantly under performing his career averages in the first month of seasons, where for his career he’s slashed just .236/.365/.453 in March and April. Underneath his early season performance this year, however, lies a pretty good reason to be optimistic in his approach so far. He’s walking more and striking out less than his career average in the early going, but again BABIP has reared its ugly head to the tune of just .161.

Ian Happ is another Cub that has struggled mightily, but he too has a higher walk rate and lower strikeout rate than in any other season of his young career so far. If approach isn’t your thing and you want to dig deeper than that hot tomato casserole you Chicagoans call pizza (sorry), the batted ball numbers admittedly don’t look great. Barrel % is especially down for both Happ and Rizzo than in previous seasons, which certainly will contribute to a low BABIP. But it’s simply impossible to imagine that similar (or better) approaches to hitting will yield such drastically different results for these players with a significant track record over many plate appearances. I’m buying in to both players for the rest of the season.

All of this reeks of an early season blip and a small sample. After all, for a full third of the Cubs’ games so far the starting pitcher has been he-of-the-30-strikeouts-zero-walks-so-far Corbin Burnes or Brandon Woodruff. Though on the other hand, fully half of the Cubs’ games have been against the Pirates up to this point. So.

Javier Báez, by contrast, has thus far (just 43 PA through Wednesday) trended in the opposite direction of Rizzo and Happ, with the highest K-rate and lowest walk rate of his career. Unlike Rizzo, Báez has actually over-performed his career numbers in March/April throughout his career. To not put too fine of a point on it,  Baez is just missing everything. His swing rates are in line with career averages, as are the strikes he’s being thrown. He’s actually taking fewer called strikes than ever before. His contact has simply nosedived:

If there’s a reason to panic in Wrigleyville, it’d be for Javy’s troubling plate approach trend over the past four years now.

Beyond the underperformers in the early going, though, there’s also room for upside growth in the offense if some regulars can build on gains they’ve made thus far. I was high on Kris Bryant coming into the season, and he appears healthy as he’s nearly matched last year’s 0.5 fWAR already in the early going in 2021 (and that’s with a .250 BABIP so far!). I don’t really understand the offensive difference between, say, an Anthony Rendon and Kris Bryant, when Bryant is healthy.  Even ignoring some baked-in positive regression to the mean from Rizzo and Happ, that’s potentially offset by a healthy Kris Bryant.

That, and some bound-to-be-better luck from the Cub regulars that have carried the team the past few seasons with substantial track records should be a salve to the early season struggles from the Cubs at the plate. Javier Báez’s slow start could be just that, or a harbinger of a less-than-ideal approach catching up to him. At any rate, the Cubs offense isn’t as bad as it has been through the first 12 games of the season, and in fact seems poised to be at least league average.

The problem of course for the Cubs is that those games have already been played, and those losses are banked into their record, including losing 4 of 6 against the division-rival Brewers in a tight NL Central. Yes, games count the same in September as they do in April, and there is more than plenty of season left for the Cubs to turn it around with their bats. 

However, the cold streak has come at an especially inopportune time in Wrigleyville, with a ridiculously front-loaded schedule against the teams they can expect to be in playoff race with, should it come to that. The rest of April, the Cubs play the Brewers and Atlanta a combined ten more times. In addition to the division race, Atlanta is another team that has struggled out of the gate and may find itself competing with the Cubs late in the season for a wild card. 

The Cubs have time and the players to turn it around, and it’s way too early for anyone to panic. But you’d still prefer them to get it going sooner rather than later.

Photos from Flickr & Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)


Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a baseball columnist for Pitcher List. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league. @seanroberts.bsky.social

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