Notebook: Offensive musings and why lineup construction matters for Cubs
CINCINNATI — When Javy Báez drew a 4-pitch walk in the 1st inning Saturday, it marked his 5th walk in the last 6 games.
To start the season, he walked just 5 times over his first 39 games, so the sudden bout of patience at the plate is certainly significant.
After Saturday’s walk, Báez’s on-base percentage now sits at .271 on the season. With his prodigious power and run production mixed with a plate approach that doesn’t lead to a high on-base percentage, David Ross has typically utilized the star shortstop a bit lower in the Cubs order, cleaning up after the top on-base guys like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.
Ross began the season with Báez hitting 5th and 6th but in recent weeks, the Cubs manager has moved Báez up to 3rd.
“I’ve really seen a difference putting him in the 3-hole,” Ross said. “I feel like he’s a bad ball hitter in general. He can hit pitches probably some other guys can’t hit. But when you get to the back end of that — 6 or 7, where it felt like to start the season it might be a better spot for him — it was glaring he wasn’t getting anything in the zone.
“When you have a little bit of protection behind him, that definitely helps.”
With a guy like Bryant or Rizzo behind Báez, the opposing pitcher is a little more apprehensive about potentially walking Báez in front of the Cubs’ other big boppers.
Analytics indicate lineup construction doesn’t carry a ton of weight on a daily basis. And with the rash of injuries to the Cubs’ position player group this season, the biggest factor on the lineup day-to-day has simply been who is healthy and available for Ross to write out the order.
But when Báez, Bryant, Rizzo and Willson Contreras are all healthy and starting, the sequence of the lineup carries some weight for the Cubs.
Overall, the order of the Cubs hitters hasn’t mattered much for this team lately. The offense has been a point of frustration for the Cubs over the last few weeks, especially against elite pitching on the road trip like the Dodgers and Brewers.
Nico Hoerner’s return should help the Cubs’ overall contact numbers tick up. After playing in rehab games with Triple-A Iowa on back-to-back days, Hoerner was up in Cincinnati taking batting practice Saturday and could be activated as soon as Sunday.
“I just see too many strikeouts,” Ross said. “You’re giving away 12-13 strikeouts a night and that’s part of our game and part of our personnel and we’ve gotta take that — some of that comes with home runs.
“You hate to give multiple innings of outs just from the strikeout but hopefully Nico helps that. He’s more of a contact-caliber bat. You go through moments where your confidence kinda wavers a little bit when you face some good pitching. You gotta get back to trusting yourself, trusting your process and go up there having your at-bats.
“I don’t see terrible at-bats. I think we gotta get that flow going when we were throwing some hits out there. Some singles that turn into doubles and then somebody pops a homer and we put up a big number. Hopefully getting that rhythm and that flow back to our lineup comes here soon.”
While Hoerner’s return should help, Matt Duffy was moved to the 60-day IL earlier in the week and isn’t expected back until late July at the soonest.
The Cubs also don’t want to look at high-contact guys like Hoerner and Duffy as saviors for the lineup and put undue pressure on those two players.
“We clearly played better offensively when those guys were in the lineup,” Jed Hoyer said. “There was a lot more contact and I feel like we were able to have some rallies and score runs without homers. But I also don’t want to put too much into that as well.
“We need to be able to compete when we have injuries to anyone. If we lose a couple contact guys and then all of a sudden we’re not a functional offense, that’s a problem. I’m excited to get hopefully Nico back soon and Duffy back after that. But we can’t view that as a panacea.”
As the Cubs wait for the tide to turn offensively and the hits to come in bunches, they have emphasized grinding out at-bats and working more walks. They drew 22 free passes during the 3 games in Milwaukee and have walked 6 times this weekend in Cincinnati through the first 2 games.
On Saturday, the Cubs wore down Reds starter Tyler Mahle, forcing him to throw 102 pitches in 5 innings. They tallied 12 baserunners but went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position and left 9 on base.
When the Cubs lineup is struggling like it has been recently, they know there is no magic elixir.
“You gotta grind,” Rizzo said. “It’s not easy. If there was a simple answer, I know we’d all be doing it. We’re all grinding. Hitting coaches, advance guys, all the boys in the clubhouse — we’re all putting the work in .
“When we’re cold, it’s very frustrating but you gotta just stay on top and continue to grind.”