A season after the Cubs struggled all year on the road, they can’t hit at home — taking a .207 team average at Wrigley into Thursday’s game that would be 30 points lower than any previous season.
Team president Theo Epstein and an army of analysts have no explanation for it.
“You can just regurgitate the same answers we used last year when you asked why we didn’t play well on the road,” he said.
Eventually Epstein and then-manager Joe Maddon settled on the theory that maybe players hadn’t gone out enough for beers and nightlife while on the road.
Not getting out enough this year during the pandemic? Obviously, that’s not the answer.
“New year, new problem,” Epstein said.
The small sample size of a 60-game season obviously skews the view of any stats this year, and, as Epstein points out, “there’s certainly still time to define ourselves this season.”
If slumping All-Stars perform to norms in just the final two weeks and October, the perspective changes quickly, he said — or even one big game down the stretch or a breakout performance in October.
“It’s just a different year that way,” Epstein said. “So I think the script is yet to be written.”
What’s admittedly not different is the collective arc of a core group of hitters that won a 2016 World Series and was declared by Epstein to have morphed into an offense that “broke” by the end of 2018.
And since then it hasn’t exactly fixed what broke.
Certainly not in this strange, short season, when the problems aren’t merely their trouble scoring or hitting poorly at home or their utter disappearing act whenever they load the bases.
Whatever happens down the stretch, decisions loom large for the Cubs futures of several core players — with perhaps more urgency in a time of lost revenues than during the last winter of promised change.
But even beyond that, this Cubs lineup this year has come to embody everything that’s wrong with the game today when it comes to pace and entertainment value.
According to a new metric devised Thursday by the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs Insider department, the Cubs have literally the majors’ most boring lineup at a time the commissioner’s office is scrambling for answers to growing issues with pace and action.
Entering Thursday’s game, the Cubs led the majors with 418 strikeouts. They were sixth in walks with 170 and ranked second in getting hit by pitches with 33.
That’s 621 of the Cubs’ 1,610 plate appearances through Wednesday in which they have not put a ball in play, for a Yawn Factor (fYawn) of 38.6.
The average fYawn in the majors is 33.6.
That makes the Cubs 14.9 percent more boring than the average baseball team.
And don’t get us started on the balls that aren’t in play because they’re hit over the fence (their fYawn+ also leads the majors at 42.2).
But Epstein and the rest of the Cubs don’t mind boring, no matter what the commissioner wants.
Heck, Epstein helped invent it in Boston when he and Oakland’s Billy Beane started stocking up on Moneyball on-base grinders two decades ago — then started embracing the launch-angle and exit-velocity trends that have driven up strikeout totals in an age of increasing pitching velocity.
The issue winds up being all those strikeouts, including 17 in 55 plate appearances with the bases loaded this season before Nico Hoerner bucked that season-long trend Thursday against the Reds with a two-run double in the fourth.
And in the Cubs’ case this season, the league-leading Yawn Factor is a problem because it’s caused in part by all those hits they haven’t been getting most of this season before breaking out in the fourth and fifth Thursday — especially at home, and especially from usually reliable sources such as Kris Bryant and Javy Báez.
With men on base this season, they have more strikeouts (170) than RBIs (149). With men on third and less than two outs, they’re striking out 25 percent of the time in the one situation that requires contact (or a walk).
It’s all part of why they’re below average in run production this season and have a losing record since the 13-3 start.
For now that start still has them in first place. With 15 to play.
Even as they search for a finish that’s not as boring as it’s been so far.
“There’s certainly still time to find ourselves this season,” Epstein said.