How Concerned Should We Be About Cubs’ Complete Lack of Power?
There once was a man of great faith who prayed fervently for God to rescue him as his house was being overtaken by floodwaters. The water was several inches deep when a big truck came by offering a ride. The man declined, telling the driver that God was going save him. The water was up to the second floor when a boat was turned away for the same reason.
Finally, a helicopter dropped a ladder down as the man sat on his roof praying for deliverance. Confident that God would yet come in his hour of greatest need, the man waved the chopper away. After drowning when the flood inevitably covered his home, the angry man stormed the pearly gates and demanded an explanation for why his faith was not rewarded.
“I sent you a truck, a boat, and a helicopter,” God answered. “What more was I supposed to do.”
That man reminds me a lot of the Cubs, whose possible over-reliance on power has left them waiting for the home run ball to come save the day. Granted, they’ve already shown the willingness to let a Bote rescue them, but you no doubt understand what I’m driving at.
The Cubs are at or near the top of the National League in nearly every offensive category. They’re No. 1 in batting average (.262), on-base percentage (.340), and wOBA (.326); they’re No. 2 in wRC+ (102); they rank third in walk rate (9.5 percent), fourth in slugging (.417) and strikeout rate (21.2 percent). But things start to look bleak when you dig deeper into the power numbers.
Despite homering in five straight games, the first three of which determined the outcome in the Cubs’ favor, they simply haven’t rung the dinger as often as you’d expect. They are tied for ninth in the NL with 128 team taters and their .155 ISO, a measure of pure power that reflects how often batters hit for extra bases, ranks 10th in the league.
Oh, and it gets worse.
The Cubs have the third-highest soft contact (19.6 percent) and the third-lowest hard contact (32.5 percent) in the league. Their line-drive rate (21.3 percent) is lower than all but three teams, their grounder percentage (45.6) is higher than all but three teams, and they hit fewer fly balls (33.1) than all but three teams as well.
You don’t have to be Mike Bryant to understand why those numbers aren’t good for a team that has been built around power. The Cubs aren’t hitting it hard and they aren’t hitting it in the air. And though their batting average on balls in play is a very robust .315, you’d rather see a few more balls going out of play over the fence.
This streak is up to 31 games. Since Epstein and Hoyer arrived, they’ve built this team around power, and right now, that power is utterly absent. To understand why this is a red flag, go ask a Red Sox fan why that team let Chili Davis go last winter. https://t.co/gqzKzgqA69
— Matthew Trueblood (@MATrueblood) August 20, 2018
There’s no doubt this overall lack of power is concerning, but to what extent should we be worried about it? Is it a sign of Chili Davis’s power-siphoning philosophy or simply a matter of some untimely injuries and poor fortunes?
Anecdotal evidence suggests Davis could be at least partially to blame. The Red Sox are second in the AL with a .193 ISO just a year after posting a .149 that was six points below the Angels for worst in the league. And the Cubs put up top-5 ISO marks of .173 and .182 in each of the last two seasons, only to see a big drop this year. Davis seems to be the common denominator, unless you want to pin any of this on Brian Butterfield as well.
But the Cubs only had a .154 ISO during a 2015 campaign in which they won 97 games and advanced to the NLCS for the first time in the Theo Epstein era. And the Red Sox were third in the AL with a .179 ISO in 2016, the second of Davis’s three years as their hitting coach, and were middle of the pack with a .149 ISO in 2015.
As an outspoken critic of the notion that hitting and pitching coaches deserve all kinds of blame for their players’ performance, I’m very reluctant to saddle Davis with much responsibility here. At the same time, I’m concerned with what I’m seeing in the batted-ball stats and I’m not willing to pardon him by any stretch.
So of that is owing to the inherent unpredictability of the baseball season. We can correctly project one team or another to perform well, but the manner in which they do or don’t live up to our expectations could vary wildly. Which brings us around to Kris Bryant’s absence and its affect on the Cubs’ power numbers. More than just the time he’s been away, Bryant’s shoulder issue sapped his power for at least a month of playing time.
Even hampered as he has been by the bum wing, Bryant’s .197 ISO ranks third on the team behind Javy Baez (.273) and Kyle Schwarber (.227). Take away Bryant’s individual production this season and the team ISO plummets to .143, close to the bottom of the league. The overall results have been buoyed by Baez, Schwarber, and Anthony Rizzo, whose .221 ISO since July 13 is 64 points higher than it had been to that point in the season.
David Bote’s .172 ISO has provided a little lift and ensured that Bryant’s absence is not the all-consuming void it might have been otherwise, but there’s simply no way to completely replace an MVP. It’s not a stretch to say that a healthy Bryant would have a tremendous impact on the power numbers we reviewed above, all the way across the board.
While it’s impossible and entirely frivolous to figure out where the Cubs might be had they gotten a full season of Bryant’s typical production, some of the joy of being my own boss is that I can engage in frivolity as I see fit. Using estimates based on his career averages and prorating for the elapsed season, the Cubs would be in the neighborhood of a .160-.163 ISO with a healthy Bryant. Not great, but at least sniffing the top third of the league.
Missing one key superstar is the most obvious and deleterious cause of the rolling brownout in Chicago, but there are several other factors at play. Addison Russell, who’s been dogged by his own nagging injury, is posting an abysmal .099 ISO that’s 80 points lower than in either of his last two seasons. Albert Almora Jr. is at .112 after putting up .179 as a rookie and .147 last year. Willson Contreras has a .154 that is right at the team average, but that’s 69 points lower than he had last year.
The even bigger problem is that the power is not always there, or that it’s so ISO-lated that any power displays are rendered moot. You know, like when they can muster nothing other than a solo homer in four straight games. Far from a binary matter, this is a complicated case of who, what, and when.
The Cubs do have a very good offense by several different measures and they are perfectly capable of winning without driving pitches over the wall. And when their pitching staff is on point, they don’t even need to provide many runs in support. Only one team in the NL has more than 70 wins and only one has fewer than 55 losses, so it’s not like we’re talking about some weird fluke.
If anything, the fact that the Cubs are where they are despite the injuries and inconsistent power is a testament to just how good they are. Wow, that was redundant. Of course, where they are now isn’t where they want to end up, which is to say a fourth straight NLCS and another World Series berth. They’re not going to make that happen with an ISO that barely outstrips the Mets.
At the same time, there is absolutely basis for faith in this offense to put it together over a long stretch and really surge through the end of the season. Bryant figures to be a big part of that, as his return immediately elevates the Cubs’ power profile. Rizzo, Contreras, and Baez are all capable of streaks that can carry the team for several games at a time. It’s all right there and there’s still plenty of time to change things in a big way.
Ask me again at the end of the year and I might have a different story to tell. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get up to the roof before this water gets any higher.