A slump in the road - the Cubs' 2019 World Series dreams hinge on the bat of Kris Bryant

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USA TODAY

A slump in the road - the Cubs' 2019 World Series dreams hinge on the bat of Kris Bryant

Does a 2-for-4 mean you are on track?

The answer is, it depends.

Kris Bryant is an MVP, Rookie of the Year, World Champion and a super talent. Not just because he displays the outward abilities like power or hitting for average, but because he has the less visible skills, like good baserunning, plate discipline, intangible instincts.

Kris Bryant has been having a tough time by Bryant standards. It is easy to rattle off numbers to underscore the distance between today and his MVP season. Early 2019 shows the .368 slugging, the hitting under .200 vs. lefties, the near .100 with two strikes and the .154 batting average when he pulls the ball.

Yet despite knowing these numbers are only after 68 at-bats, there is a deeper concern because of expectation.

The Cubs need Bryant. Last season, he was still a solid player, but the Cubs were banking on an All-Star to create a few more wins, and as we know, a few more wins and the Cubs win the NL Central outright.

Injuries have crept in; doubt always follows, even after you have a clean bill of health. Bryant also got hit in the face, which gets lost in some of the noise. These injuries and setbacks stay with a player, creeping up after a twinge in the weight room, the break-up with your girlfriend, the sleeping funny on your pillow the night before, the three game series in the stadium where you don’t pick up the ball out of the batter’s eye.

Outside of the standard numbers, his baserunning was down last season. He had been masterful of going first to third, first to home and second to home. He created runs by having great reads and even better instincts. But he was not quite as effective last year, and not getting quite the same reads, at least so the numbers say. In Bill James' annual handbook for 2018, Bryant's baserunning was calculated as a -5 net loss, which accounts for advancing extra bases, baserunning outs, double plays and a stolen bases.

But slumps are part of any players career, and they are not always just an offensive thing. In fact, they are as normal as being on fire, and there are times when the lines blur between being in one and getting out of one. It matters which direction you are heading in.

A player like Bryant has the ability to reduce the damage of a slump. He can walk and he can get on base with his eyes, all while he is fixing he stroke. He is dangerous enough of a power hitter to induce walks just because of the threat. Pitchers may know he is struggling, but they also know, one bad pitch and the ball is on Waveland Ave., no matter what he did the last seven days.

I had my share of slumps in my career and I define it as a place of relativity. We are comparing to what we think should be, both based on past and future. But it is deceiving to base expectation only on the comfort of hard data, not data that in reality is fluid and constantly changing with time and environment. Bryant's MVP season also had ups and downs, but he kept the downs short.

It is still early and Bryant still has a good space between his batting average and his on-base percentage (.235 average and a respectable .342 OBP), but he is expected to be dominant from tape to tape by this point in his career, with all the lofty traditional numbers to go with it—OBP, AVG, HR, RBIs. And for the Cubs to not just win, but win it all, Bryant's ability to be that day in and day out threat is pivotal.

Keep in mind, everyone is making major adjustments to Bryant, and it is not just his opponents on the field, but the opponent in the cloud. The data and the speed of these data-driven adjustments are lightning quick, especially against a player that can beat you single-handedly.

I remember when I was struggling mid-career, and we were heading to Toronto for a series. I was in the batting cage with Phillies hitting coach Hal McRae and expressing my frustration. I was fouling out to first, to the catcher, rolling over on balls down the middle. Then Hal said to me that it was a “credit to your talent that you are hitting close to .270 when your heart and mind are clearly with your father.”

My father was in and out of the hospital that year and eventually would pass away the last game of the season a couple of years later. There was no stat for anxiety or stress, no multiplier to explain the degree by which you are off your game. Maybe that stress is a motivator, provides an edge in some players, in others, not so much. But slumps are part mechanical as they are part mental, emotional, psychological. And they can come out of nowhere; we often don’t know what a player is going through even if it is just a bad swing and bad pitching matchups for him.

It is not the slump, but how quickly you can get out of a slump. Three weeks instead of three days makes a world of difference. Those who do not have the opportunity to play through a slump, will not make it.

When I was a veteran in the game, besides the skill decline and the health decline, there was the opportunity decline. I no longer would be granted the bandwidth to struggle through it. I needed to produce every time I got the chance to play, even if I had two weeks between starts. When a team will not stick with you, you lose the pathway to get out of the hole you dug. And often the hole gets bigger. Bryant does not have this problem.

That is because Bryant has time and has earned the time on a good team that has other assets to keep them competitive. Yet being granted time does not mean the team has time. The manager, the coaches, the closer, are on clocks too.

Working hard can do a lot, but only so much. The doubt has to go, the second guessing of self or that in-between trapped feeling when you don’t know what is coming out of the pitcher’s hand, has to go.        

The Cubs know they are built from many talented assets, many players that can do the job. At different times in the season, a different player will carry the team. If the rotation keeps rolling, while key players like Baez and Contreras are producing, and the wins are rolling in, Bryant can work through it, just another reason why being on a team that picks each other up matters so much.

The slump is highly dependent on time and opportunity. This needs to be the Cubs' year, so the time is now, and they have to keep betting that the former league MVP will find a big way out, then he will carry this team for a while, maybe right back to the World Series. Then all will certainly forget what Bryant’s stat sheet showed before April 19, 2019.  

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Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

As the Cubs put the finishing touches on a sweep in Miami, they are now roughly 1/10 of the way through the 2019 season.

If they had their way, they obviously would've preferred to boast a better record than the current 8-9 mark through 17 games, but things are trending in the right direction for most of the club. (Playing a three-game set against the hapless Marlins will certainly help the good vibes.)

But since the Cubs got out to a 1-6 start, they've gone 7-3 and now have a +18 run differential, good for second in the Naional League.

That puts the Cubs on pace to win 76 games with a +171 run differential. For perpsective, the 2018 Cubs won 95 games with only a +116 run differential.

A lot can happen over the 90 percent of the season that remains and The Small Sample Size crowd is out in full force in April, as usual. By themselves, none of these stats really mean anything or tell us much beyond "Player X is off to a hot start" or "Pitcher Y is struggling." 

But that doesn't mean we should just ignore the stats and pace some players are on. Where's the fun in that? 

So let's take a look at some of the early-season stats surrounding the 2019 Cubs:

Javy Baez

El Mago has been red-hot of late, collecting 11 hits in his last 18 at-bats. That currently puts him on a season pace of:

229 hits, 143 runs, 48 doubles, 57 homers, 152 RBI

You can bet he'd finish near the top of NL MVP voting once again if he maintained that pace all year long. (However, he'd still probably lose to Christian Yelich, who picked up right where he left off last season and is currently on pace for 77 homers and 222 RBI. Seriously.)

Baez is the poster child for the small sample size claim. He was hitting just .232 with a .735 OPS as of Saturday morning, and his season pace would've looked a whole lot different had this article come out then. He's in the midst of an upswing, so these numbers are skewed. 

However, with the way he's driving the ball to the opposite field right now and turning singles into doubles, don't be surprised if he approaches the 83 extra-base hits he put up last year.

Willson Contreras

On pace for: 57 HR, 114 RBI, 86 BB, 143 K

...and that's in only 448 projected at-bats. 

Those would certainly be NL MVP caliber numbers from a guy some expected to challenge for the award after his blistering stretch in the middle of 2017. Contreras was so hot that he actually might've approached 30 homers and 100 RBI that year if he hadn't hurt his hamstring and missed a month.

If he stays healthy, his record-setting start to 2019 helps make those benchmarks seem like a possibility once again.

Contreras won't maintain his 1.224 OPS or .766 slugging percentage all season, but he looks like a completely different hitter than he was last year, when he hit just 7 homers in the first half and had only 10 all season.

Jason Heyward

On pace for: 38 HR, 105 RBI, 133 R, 95 BB, 57 K

To put those in perspective, here's Heyward's season average in each category during his first three years in a Cubs uniform: 

9 HR, 55 RBI, 62 R, 46 BB, 73 K

So even with a serious regression from his hot start, it wouldn't take much from Heyward the rest of the way to top his 2016-18 average stat line. 

The power is definitely eye-catching, but the walk-to-strikeout ratio is particularly noteworthy. His command of the strike zone is a huge reason why he's been able to hit .353 with a 1.052 OPS in the first 1/10 of the season.

Heyward has looked so good, he's now hitting fifth in the Cubs — a spot that once belonged to...

Kyle Schwarber

On pace for: 29 HR, 57 RBI, 48 BB, 181 K

Schwarber is in the midst of a tough stretch right now, so these numbers look off — especially the strikeouts (he's whiffed 12 times in his last 5 games). The power is still there, but the RBI total remains low and even the walks are suspiciously below his standards.

Schwarber has a career 13.4 percent walk rate and drew free passes at a 15.3 percent clip last year. This season, he's all the way down to 8.8 percent. 

Daniel Descalso 

On pace for: 86 RBI

Where is everybody who mocked the Descalso signing over the winter? In hiding right now, probably. 

The veteran has been exactly as advertised in the early going, with a professional and advanced approach at the plate. That includes a 7-for-12 mark with runners in scoring position (plus 4-for-7 with runners in scoring position and two outs). 

Descalso has been having some great at-bats, but there's no way those numbers will continue at their current pace all season. So don't bet on 85+ RBI, especially when he's only on track for 419 at-bats.

Ben Zobrist

On pace for: .379 OBP, 86 BB, 67 K, 48 R, 0 XBH

Zobrist turns 38 next month, but there's no way he suddenly lost all of his power. This is a guy who put up double digit homers every season from 2008 through 2017 before hitting only 9 last year. Age may be catching up to him a bit and sapping some of his slug, but he still hit 28 doubles last year in 455 at-bats.

He continues to keep his strikeouts and walks nearly even, as even with a 2-strikeout performance Wednesday night, Zobrist still has more free passes than whiffs this season. Between his 86-walk pace, the .379 OBP and the fact he spends most of his time in the leadoff spot in the Cubs order, it's surprising he's only scored 5 runs so far. That should change once Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo start heating up.

Speaking of...

Bryzzo

We don't need to worry about a pace for Bryant and Rizzo. Everybody knows they're struggling. 

This is the only stat you need to know:

Just wait until these guys start hitting. This Cubs offense is going to be a force to be reckoned with all year. (Unless, you know, they "break" in the second half again...)

Now, on to the run prevention...

Pitching stats are not as much fun to project out over a full season simply because they don't play every day and the small sample size carries even more weight (especially for relief pitchers). 

But here are a few fun pace stats for some Cubs arms:

—Cole Hamels is on pace for 29 wins and 0 losses.

—Jose Quintana is projected for 276 strikeouts in 200 innings. (His career high in whiffs was 207 in only 188.2 innings in 2017.)

—Jon Lester is on pace for only 29 starts, which would be the first time he failed to take the ball at least 30 times in a season since 2007.

—Brad Brach is on track for 95 walks in 67.2 innings. He's never walked more than 38 batters in a season (and that came in 79.1 innings in 2015). 

—Kyle Hendricks is ticketed for 133 runs allowed...but only 76 of those would be earned. The Cubs defense has done him no favors to begin the year.

—Pedro Strop is projected to lead the Cubs in saves with...10. He is the only Cubs pitcher to pick up a save through 17 games and he has just the 1 (from April 11 against the Pirates).

—Steve Cishek is on pace for only 67 appearances — a pretty big step down from the 80 games he pitched in a season ago.

—Brandon Kintzler is projected to give up only 58 baserunners in 76.2 innings (48 hits, 10 walks) while striking out 86 batters. He has never finished a season (in which he's made at least 10 appearances) with more strikeouts than innings pitched and his career-low WHIP was 1.065 in 2013, when he surrendered 82 baserunners in 77 innings.

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The Cubs have a lot to feel good about right now

The Cubs have a lot to feel good about right now

Maybe a trip to South Beach was just what the Cubs needed.

They entered the series against Starlin Castro and the Marlins with a 5-9 record, but after claiming the first two games in Miami, the Cubs are now staring down their first chance at a sweep in 2019. 

Sure, it's the rebuilding Marlins, who are now only 4-14 on the season. But a win's a win and the Cubs are a couple steps closer to getting back to .500 after their slow start.

Here are 8 things the Cubs have to feel good about right now:

1. Positive regression?

Speaking of that slow start, the Cubs are now 6-3 since that 6-game losing streak that stretched from Texas to Atlanta to Milwaukee. They have a +12 run differential, which is behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies in the National League. 

With that run differential, their Pythagorean record actually says they should be a 9-7 team instead of 7-9.

2. Jose Quintana and the starting rotation

Quintana has been absolutely lights out his last two starts following his disaster in Milwaukee (8 ER, 3 HR allowed in 3 IP). Even despite that poor outing, Quintana's season ERA is down to 3.43, second only to Jon Lester (2.57). 

Outside that clunker in Milwaukee, Quintana has not allowed an earned run in 18 innings, permitting just 15 hits and 4 walks while striking out 26. He currently leads the Cubs pitching staff in innings pitched, strikeouts, quality starts and wins. 

Quintana is now 22-15 in a Cubs uniform with a 3.89 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 9.2 K/9 in 279.2 innings.  

The Cubs rotation as a whole have been in a groove, with Yu Darvish turning in his best start of the season Monday night and Cole Hamels continuing his dominance at Wrigley Field. Kyle Hendricks continues to struggle, but he said he feels like he's on the cusp of figuring it out and Lester is on the comeback trail from his hamstring injury.

3. Javy Baez is raking

Baez woke up Saturday morning hitting just .232 on the young season, but he's turned in back-to-back-to-back 3-hit games and is now 9-for-14 in that stretch with 6 extra-base hits. That's pushed his season batting line to .314/.342/.600 and his homer Tuesday night to right-center may have been one of his best swings ever, as he told ESPN's Jesse Rogers:

Hard to argue that — 439 feet to the opposite field on a good pitch down in the zone would certainly rank among the best swings for a lot of players:

So how will Baez follow up his 2018 run at the NL MVP? 

His offensive numbers may be inflated a bit by his current hot stretch, but add in his defense at shortstop and baserunning prowess and it sure doesn't seem like "El Mago" is ticketed for that regression many were predicting.

4. Remember this week if Albert Almora Jr. wins a Gold Glove

Almora is still scuffling at the plate (though he did draw a pair of walks Tuesday night), but he's proving his value with his glove in center field. 

After he did this Monday night...

...Almora went out on his 25th birthday and added another highlight to his reel with a clutch catch to help Quintana avoid a jam:

5. Was that a sign of life from Kris Bryant?

Bryant went 0-for-5 Tuesday night to run his season line to .217/.329/.350. But things weren't all bad — he only struck out once and one of the balls he hit for an out was a rocket:

That's encouraging in a lot of regards and may have been a homer (or at least off the wall) in many other ballparks. Players and coaches regularly talk about how sometimes, it's just one good swing to break a player out of his slump. Maybe this was his one swing.

6. The Cubs offense is still humming along despite Bryzzo's slow start

Bryant is catching a lot of the flak from the fanbase, but Rizzo's 0-for-4 showing Tuesday night dropped his season line to .169/.329/.339.

Still, the Cubs are averaging more than 6 runs a game this season and rank among the NL leaders in just about every offensive category. That's all in spite of this slow start from Bryant and Rizzo.

Just imagine what this team is going to be able to do offensively once the studs return to their normal levels. Bryant's current OPS is 217 points below his career mark and Rizzo is at 183 points beneath his career total.

These guys are going to hit and there are going to be times where "Bryzzo" carries this Cubs offense. 

Remember, Rizzo sported a .149/.259/.189 slash line on May 1 last year and hit .303/.393/.512 the rest of the way. 

7. Daniel Descalso and Ben Zobrist are professional hitters

Zobrist had the night off from starting and only had one plate appearance, but he made it count, lifting a sacrifice fly to right field to plate David Bote in the ninth inning with a valuable insurance run. 

Descalso got the Cubs scoring started with a clutch 2-out single in the third inning to score Bote and finished the night reaching in 4 of his 5 plate appearances (2 hits and 2 walks). He's now slashing .341/.413/.488 in his first three weeks in a Cubs uniform.

Both veterans have been heralded as having "professional at-bats" and they've been proving it all season — whether it's setting the tone from the leadoff spot, hitting behind the heart of the order or coming off the bench.

8. Don't look now, but the bullpen has been...OK

Cubs relievers have not surrendered a run in 5.1 innings in Miami, striking out 5 and walking just 2. 

This comes after a tough outing at Wrigley last weekend (7 walks in 4 innings), but remember — the bullpen was on an 18.2 inning scoreless streak that lasted a week prior to Saturday's blow-up.

Slowly but surely, the numbers are normalizing for this Cubs bullpen.

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