10 things we learned about the 2021 Cubs in April
That’s one month in the books.
Following Friday’s 8-6 loss to the Reds in Cincinnati, the Cubs are now 11-15 on the season and sit in fifth place in the NL Central.
It’s been a whirlwind month for David Ross’ team, vacillating between hot stretches and cold patches.
The Cubs started out 3-1, fell into a lull and then the offense woke up to spark a 5-1 stretch. Then came another cold spell, with Thursday representing the only victory this week.
“Of course when you have more losses than wins, it is concerning,” Kris Bryant said. “There’s no sugarcoating that. We just gotta play better. Both sides of the ball. Gotta pitch better, gotta have some better at-bats.
“It stinks. It feels like most of the years I’ve been here has been a lot of wins, a lot of happiness, a lot of successes and so far this year, it feels so different. But there’s no reason to think that we can’t turn it around. All it takes is a handful of games to get things back on track.”
The season is 16% of the way completed, so the caveat that “it’s early” is still very much at play.
As the calendar flips to May, let’s take a look back at what we learned about this 2021 Cubs team in April:
1. This year is going to be a mental adjustment for everybody.
Last year, 26 games represented 43% of the season. This year, the Cubs still have 136 games remaining.
The early part of the 2021 season definitely had a different feel as everybody from players to fans to media members had to acclimate back to a marathon mindset after the 60-game sprint of a 2020 campaign.
Cubs players talked often throughout the first month about how they needed to remind themselves this is a regular 162-game season and there’s still plenty of time to relax and settle in.
“It definitely feels different,” Ross said. “Last year was chaos. We had to win every night and you couldn’t rely on guys to work through things.”
Ross found a way to help lead his team to an NL Central title last year and this is now his first full, normal season as manager.
This isn’t the start the Cubs had hoped for, but they’re not pushing the panic button. This is a veteran-laden team with a manager who played in the big leagues for 15 seasons and these are the types of moments where that experience can be an asset.
2. It’s never been harder to hit.
The Cubs have been shut out five times this season and they’ve also scored at least 13 runs three separate times.
But that’s not just the Cubs. It’s the nature of today’s brand of baseball.
Once again, strikeouts are up around the game while hits are down. The league-wide batting average was .232 in April as teams averaged 7.64 hits per game and 9.09 strikeouts. Those are both the worst marks in MLB history.
The Cubs lineup struggled to get into gear early and part of that equation was the schedule. They had to face the Brewers for three series in April and the Milwaukee pitching staff features some fearsome arms like Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes.
“We did get off to a slow start and I think facing the good pitching compounded that to have some historically bad numbers,” Ross said. “That could skew the numbers a little bit, especially when you’re struggling to find your timing.
“But these guys hold themselves to a high standard and want to compete with the best, as well. I think we’re building toward that. I know those guys wouldn’t make that excuse for themselves and I won’t do that, either.”
The Cubs are striving for more consistency from their lineup as the season wears on and Ross’s coaching staff is preaching the old staples of a contact-oriented approach and using the entire field.
3. KB Rebound SZN is in full effect.
While the Cubs offense as a whole is still searching for consistency, Bryant is off to a blazing hot start.
The former MVP battled injuries throughout last season and has already tallied more hits, homers and RBI than 2020.
Bryant entered May hitting .322/.412/.667 (1.079 OPS) with 7 homers and 19 RBI. He also leads the NL with 16 extra-base hits.
He’s been a bright spot for the Cubs this season in his final year of team control.
4. Run prevention is still the name of the game.
Offense may be down, but a huge reason for that is the incredible pitching around the league. Nowadays, seemingly everybody is throwing 100 mph with a nasty breaking ball.
The Cubs pitching staff features a lot of newer arms this season and they finished April with a 4.79 ERA, which ranked 28th in the league. The Cubs have not finished out of the Top 10 in team ERA since 2014.
The most surprising part is the culprits behind the Cubs’ early-season run prevention issues.
Kyle Hendricks (7.54 ERA) and Zach Davies (9.47 ERA) have long track records of success and nobody expected this from the pair of veteran starters in the early going.
“It’s obviously a low point,” Hendricks said after his start Wednesday night. “Just searching right now. Not right. Trying different things out there. I was attacking. Mentally felt better but just gotta keep working.
“I got a long way to go. Just gotta take it one day at a time, one pitch at a time and keep working to be the guy that I need to be for this team.”
Cubs fans know full well what Hendricks is capable of and Davies has a career 3.94 ERA and finished with a 2.73 mark last season. Bet on a rebound for both right-handers in May and beyond.
In the bullpen, in terms of pitchers not named Craig Kimbrel (more on him in a moment), the Cubs came into the season expecting Brandon Workman and Jason Adam to serve as high-leverage relievers. Now Adam (9.45 ERA) is in the minors and Workman (6.75 ERA) was designated for assignment earlier this week.
5. The pitching staff is also full of encouraging signs.
It hasn’t all been doom and gloom on the pitching side of things.
Kimbrel picked up right where he left off late last season and did not allow a run in 9 April appearances.
Jake Arrieta has successfully turned back the clock, posting a 2.57 ERA before a tough outing in Cincinnati Friday night.
Adbert Alzolay continues to take major developmental steps and notched his first career quality start Thursday.
Trevor Williams has been consistently solid in the starting rotation.
Youngsters like Justin Steele and Trevor Megill have come up and impressed out of the bullpen.
6. Alec Mills is the pitching staff’s Swiss Army knife.
The 29-year-old right-hander did not make the Cubs rotation out of spring training but he has been a really important member of this pitching staff in the first month.
Already this season, he has worked in a spot-starting role, as a closer, a 1-inning reliever and the long man out of the bullpen.
“You can look back at the end of the year and say a guy like him was gonna be the MVP of our pitching staff,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “Just knowing the versatility, what he can do.”
Mills finished the month with a 1-0 record, 1 save, a 4.50 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 18 innings.
7. The Cubs’ depth is being tested early.
Injuries are a part of the game and the Cubs left spring training in remarkably good shape as a team. That hasn’t quite carried over to the regular season.
Joc Pederson is about to wrap up a short injured list stint with a wrist injury and Javy Báez missed 3 games this week with hamstring tightness.
Two valuable relievers are on the 60-day IL in Rowan Wick (intercostal) and Jonathan Holder (shoulder) and won’t return until at least June.
Veteran catcher Austin Romine was signed over the winter to be Willson Contreras’ backup but Romine has been slowed by knee and wrist injuries and is expected to be sidelined until at least late May. Contreras also left Friday’s game with right thigh tightness.
The Cubs stockpiled depth at the tail end of the winter for this reason, which brings us to the next point…
8. The role players will play a big role.
With Romine’s injury, Tony Wolters has spent most of the year as the backup catcher.
Matt Duffy has taken on a prominent role on the offense with consistent quality at-bats while Eric Sogard and Jake Marisnick have made the most of their spot starts and pinch-hit opportunities.
Nico Hoerner came up to the big leagues when Pederson hit the IL and it will be very interesting to see how Ross manages playing time when the veteran outfielder returns.
9. Timing matters.
Báez is one of the league’s best players when he’s right and one of the Cubs’ most important players on a daily basis.
He’s continued to flash his stellar defense all year but he still feels like he has some room to grow on offense – particularly when it comes to controlling the strike zone.
“I think a lot of times I get beat by the fastball because they’re not in the zone,” Báez said. “Sometimes they’re up in the zone or sometimes I’m overswinging that I don’t really catch up to it. My plan right now is to try to hit the fastball under control and hit the balls that are in the zone.
“It doesn’t matter how hard the pitchers throw. When my timing is right and I got my swing under control, I can get to any fastball.”
Báez finished the month with a .320 average, 8 RBI and only 5 strikeouts over a 6-game stretch.
10. Reasons for optimism
While April did no go quite as planned for the Cubs, the simple act of flipping the calendar can help this team.
Hendricks has a 4.78 ERA in March and April in his career, but that number dips all the way to 2.64 in May.
Rizzo has a lifetime .241 average with an .830 OPS in April but flips a switch in May to sport his best numbers in a calendar month (.281 AVG, .908 OPS).
As a team, the Cubs have also been able to keep their heads above water in the standings even though they have not yet started firing on all cylinders.
“I don’t think any of us feel like we’ve hit our strides,” Jason Heyward said. “But I think it’s still early to be talking about any kind of stride. If anything, we all feel fortunate that we’re not 10 games out of first place right now. That’s a positive.
“Also, we all understand how quickly these things can change — in two or three days with the way our division is. That’s just something we’re gonna have to look at over time, not right now like, ‘we gotta catch so and so, we gotta do this and that.’ We just want to continue to focus on us and keep pushing.”