Do You Wanna Build a Snowman? Cubs Working Together, Riding Huge Innings in Offensive Outburst
It was hot as hell this weekend in Wrigley, but the Cubs managed to find a patch that was still frozen over from the 2016 World Series. How else do you explain Jon Lester hitting a booming three-run homer that led to an eventual eight-spot — or a snowman, in golf parlance — Sunday afternoon? Okay, there may be a more plausible answer.
Mired in a five-game skid that had seen them score a total of 14 runs — six of which came in one game — Chili Davis called a hitters-only meeting prior to the Cubs’ 9-4 win in Los Angeles on June 26. All they’ve done since is win five of six behind 60 total runs on 86 hits. That’s, uh, pretty good.
Of course, they’ve give up 41 runs on 64 hits in that same time, so that’s not great. But the last three contests at Wrigley were pinball games that you’re just happy to survive.
Believe it or not, the common theme over the six-game stretch in question has been scoring big and scoring often. I know, right? Funny how that works. The Cubs pushed at least one run across in 24 of their last 54 innings, which would have had them at four runs/game even if they’d scored the minimum in each of those frames.
Ah, but they didn’t score only the minimum. Half of those 24 inning featured multiple runs, with outbursts of 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 7, and 8 at various points. They needed every bit of that latter explosion Sunday afternoon after a bullpen implosion got the Tlosses to within one run after the Cubs had led by as many as eight earlier in the game.
I had recently written that watching the Cubs was like sitting in traffic and waiting in vain for a series of turn signals to sync up. Over the last several games, however, it’s as though they’ve all climbed aboard the same hippie van and have a single broken blinker that just stays on the whole time. Which actually reminds me of a friend I had in high school whose car, dubbed the Mobile, required the driver to manually operate the turn signal for each individual blink. But I digress.
The idea of a carpooling road trip actually fits pretty well with what was said during that closed-door meeting with Davis last week. Everyone just takes turns driving and they go all-gas-no-breaks until they reach their destination. Then they pile back in and do it again.
“Even without meetings, we get together and talk about situations and plays,” Javy Baez told reporters after the Cubs’ 9-4 win over LA. “But it was helpful, for sure. We were just talking about passing it to the next guy and taking our walks when we needed to. Simple stuff.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the Cubs often struggled to achieve offensive consistency, but some of it had to do with each guy in the lineup trying to win games on his own. And seemingly with each plate appearance, at that. Sometimes that would work and things would click. More often, you’d see a team moving forward in fits and starts like a kid learning to drive stick.
After that meeting, however, it seems as though everyone in the lineup has been coming up clutch. Crazy what a few games can do to change perceptions, huh?
Cubs RISP-o-Meter: Now 8th in MLB in BA with RISP. They were 22nd on Thursday.
— Aaron Kennelly (@aaron_kennelly) July 1, 2018
The above rankings appear to have shifted just a bit, as the Cubs are down to 11th in MLB with a .255 average with runners in scoring position. They’re ranked likewise when it comes to RISP and two outs, with a .233 average. But their respective OBPs of .355 and .356 in those situations rank third and fifth in baseball. Either way, that’s better than being in the bottom third.
We saw that on display Saturday afternoon, when the Cubs rode seven singles in the 5th inning — five of them consecutively with two outs — to put a high five on the board. It was incredible to watch as they BABIP’ed the crap out of the Twins and just kept going first-to-third like a beer-league softball team.
That’s all part of the message Davis wanted to get across, the idea of simply playing your part and leaving something for the next guy. Of course, it’s also about having faith in the next guy to pick that up and run with it.
“Not that we didn’t trust each other before, but you want to come through, each guy wants to come through in each moment,” Jason Heyward told The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma (subscription required/recommended). “So just understand that the way the game plays out, it may be the next guy who is supposed to get it done.”
Heyward is among those who bought into the new hitting coach’s philosophy from the start and it’s paying huge dividends for him as he has put up offensive numbers previously unseen from him in a Cubs uniform. Though he opened July with an 0-for-5 struggle, Heyward had three separate four-hit games in June and already has more fWAR than in either of his two previous seasons (1.6 to 1.0 in both).
Then there’s Ian Happ, who’s been absolutely raking ever since he got back from a demotion to AAA. Wait, what’s that? He wasn’t demoted? Huh, that’s weird. Anyway, the versatile slugger has surpassed the heat index at Wrigley since that ill-fated series in Cincinnati. He’s got a .483/.595/.655 slash with a .533 wOBA and 231 wRC+, and he’s struck out (9) only one more time than he’s walked (8).
Or how about Baez, who went 4-for-5 following the aforementioned meeting and who’s had multi-hit efforts in five of the last six games. His .538/.528/1.000 line looks a little weird because he hasn’t walked in that time, but no one’s gonna be angry about a .648 wOBA.
Let’s also keep in mind that this is being done while the Cubs’ best hitter rests a sore shoulder that he had been playing through for over a month, perhaps because he was pushing to carry too much of the weight on his own. That could have even hurt the shoulder as much as an awkward slide. He wasn’t raised by animals, but Bryant spent most of his childhood in a cage honing his swing. As such, it figures that he’d keep swinging to overcome what he felt was a disappointing offensive output.
At a certain point, though, too much work can prove deleterious, and we saw that in Bryant’s numbers over the weeks prior to being placed on the DL. The same can be said of any player who’s putting too much pressure on himself to come up big every time he steps in. Chalking it up to a single powwow in the Dodger Stadium clubhouse is a bit much, but there’s no denying that the Cubs look like a looser group since then.
The recent surge couldn’t have come at a better time, what with the Cubs finishing off a string of 17 games in as many days that saw them get upside down with the pitching staff following a double-header with LA. Now they’ve got two off-days sandwiching a short holiday series with the 37-48 Tigers before finishing the first half with the Reds, Giants, and Padres.
And if they can keep up this whole carpool or relay race or however you prefer to describe it, the Cubs should be looking pretty good for the second half of the season.