What the final two months of 2021 taught us about the future of the Cubs offense
You can’t predict baseball.
That’s the beauty of the sport. You never know what’s going to happen.
So when the Cubs traded away Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez, Joc Pederson and Jake Marisnick at the deadline this summer, very few people — if any — thought the Cubs offense would get better.
Yet that’s exactly what happened.
If you break the 2021 Cubs season down into two parts — pre-deadline and post-deadline — you’ll see a noticeable jump in offensive production from July 30 on.
Pretty much across the board.
Prior to the trade deadline, the Cubs were slashing .227/.308/.398 (.705 OPS) as a team, averaging 4.20 runs per game. Their weighted runs created plus (wRC+) was 89, which means the lineup as a whole was 11 percent below league average in terms of production. They ranked in the bottom half of baseball in nearly every offensive category.
Again, that’s with proven stars like Bryant, Rizzo, Báez and Pederson — who is crushing the ball this postseason for the Atlanta Braves — in the lineup every day.
From July 30 on, the Cubs slashed .253/.319/.424 (.743 OPS) as a team, averaging 4.62 runs per game. Their wRC+ was 97 — roughly league average. They ranked in the top half in MLB in nearly every offensive category.
So what can the Cubs learn from that?
It’s hard to say. For starters, it was a pretty small sample size. Two months of a 162-game season does not always predict success in the future.
But there were positive takeaways — some things the Cubs feel like they can carry over to 2022 and beyond.
Frank Schwindel, Rafael Ortega and Patrick Wisdom were among the bright spots on the offense over those two months after they received an opportunity to play everyday in the big leagues for the first time in their careers.
After struggling to start the year, Ian Happ also got a chance to play regularly over the final two months, holding down a crucial spot in the middle of the Cubs order (usually the 3-hole).
All four players turned in a great couple of months while Willson Contreras and Matt Duffy also performed well when healthy.
Add in some timely hits from role players like Trayce Thompson, Michael Hermosillo and Alfonso Rivas and the Cubs offense put together quite a few solid performances down the stretch.
“We gave some guys opportunities that they might not have had and it was a lot of fun to watch guys really seizing the opportunity to perform in the big leagues every day,” Jed Hoyer said. “Obviously the losing part of it was certainly frustrating but on the offensive side, the part that — for me — was gratifying everyday was to watch the hustle, watch the excitement, watch the way they grinded their at-bats. Nothing was taken for granted.
“I think that’s something we can take going forward. There was a hunger to those guys. They knew they had an opportunity to play in the big leagues every single day in a big market and a bunch of those guys grabbed that opportunity and really seized it. There’s a lot to be said for that kind of hunger in players. It was it was nice to see for two months.”
The key will obviously be carrying it from the final two months of 2021 into a full season of play, when the expectations and spotlight will be greater and other teams will have an offseason to prepare for hitters like Schwindel and Ortega.
It wasn’t as if the Cubs offense was flawless in August and September, either. They actually led baseball in strikeout percentage (27.9%), a slight jump from the pre-deadline lineup (26.0%, which ranked 3rd in MLB).
Leading the league in strikeout percentage is not a good sign for future success but the Cubs feel like they already have some solutions in-house to address that issue.
The team received only 18 plate appearances from Nico Hoerner in those final two months and operated without Nick Madrigal. Both young players are adept at making contact and will be a huge part of the everyday lineup in 2022.
There will also be an offseason of moves and acquisitions to augment the offense.
“The lineup that we construct in a lot of ways is more responsible for things like contact rate,” Hoyer said. “There’s no doubt we have to do a better job of that. That said, the ability to hit the ball in the seats is really important. Sometimes a 4-hit inning is a lot more exciting but the 3-run homer is actually what wins the game. We have to have a combination of those things.
“I don’t want to overemphasize contact at the expense of power but to say that we need to be a much more well-rounded offense is the fairest way to say it. Anyone that watched us for the last three or four years knows that we got one-dimensional at times. We did lack contact and we did sort of wait around for homers and we didn’t have many rallies. We didn’t have many multi-hit innings and things like that.”
The Cubs scored 46.2% of their runs on homers in 2021, the 7th-highest percentage in baseball.
That’s not always a bad thing. For example, the San Francisco Giants — who led baseball with 107 wins in the regular season — had the highest percentage of runs coming off homers (49.5%). The Braves — who are on the cusp of a National League pennant — finished 4th in that category.
But the other three teams still playing this October — Dodgers (8th), Red Sox (14th), Astros (18th) — boasted more diverse lineups.
Which is exactly what the Cubs are aiming for in 2022.
“We have to be a well-rounded offense,” Hoyer said. “On-base percentage is important, slug is important, but also the ability to put the ball in play at the right times is important and we can’t really lose sight of any of those things.”