Willson Contreras

Cubs laugh off concern over offensive woes

Cubs laugh off concern over offensive woes

ST. LOUIS — What is wrong with the Cubs offense? Is Kris Bryant broken? Is it time to start getting concerned about the Cubs' lack of power?

Those questions have been bouncing around Cubdom the last 72 hours, including here in this space.

The Cubs laughed those issues off before Friday's 13-5 win and then went out and smacked the Cardinals to the tune of 13 runs and 14 hits.

After going a month without a homer, Bryant deposited one into the left-centerfield bleachers in the third inning.

This came after Bryant received a "spa day" Wednesday in Milwaukee, where he was kept out of the starting lineup and didn't even pinch-hit late in a game the Cubs lost just 1-0. Couple that with Thursday's regularly schedule off-day and the Cubs' top hitter had two full days to recharge.

"Yeah, I always like it when he gives us a day off leading into an off-day," Bryant said. "But, sometimes, it's just a mental break that gets you going and gets you back on the right track. Because this season is so long. Coming to the field every day can get monotonous, so anytime you can get a little break, it's huge."

Bryant's big day at the plate (2 hits, 4 RBI) also proved Jed Hoyer right.

The Cubs GM met with the media about three hours before Bryant's blast, giving the Cubs superstar a big vote of confidence.

"He's sort of the least of our concerns," Hoyer said. "He's so steady. I think when he does go through a slump, we all react because we're not used to it.

"But I think mentally, he's pretty even keel. I'm sure he has his moments of frustration but we have no doubt he'll get back to where he normally is. To me, that's a great thing.

"We know that we're kinda due some pretty big hot streaks from some guys and the offense will trend up as that happens."

That last part came true beyond just Bryant. 

Kyle Schwarber hadn't homered since June 1 and only had 4 blasts since April 26 but he followed Bryant's lead and drilled a 465-foot shot into the batter's eye in center field for a three-run shot.

This thing was flat-out murdered:

Ian Happ got the offense going in the second inning with a solo shot. The Cubs managed just 1 homer over the last week of action entering Friday but wound up with 2 in the third inning alone.

The Cubs entered the game without a run scored since Monday and saw only Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist really performing even or above offensive expectations presently.

Bryant and Schwarber were struggling while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ had cooled off a bit of late. Addison Russell and Willson Contreras continued to find their way on base over the last couple of weeks but still boast underwhelming power numbers overall.

The Cubs didn't solve all of their offensive woes Friday at Busch Stadium and it's just one game. But 14 hits, 5 walks, 13 runs and 3 homers can do an awful lot to ease the pressure off guys individually and the lineup as a whole.

"I think we just played a pretty complete game offensively tonight," Joe Maddon said. "That's what we're striving to do. I want homers, I want singles, I want moving the runners, I want good bunts, I want playing offense. We did it tonight."

Almost every starter can go to bed Friday night feeling good about their performance. Bryant homered and drove in 4 runs. Happ and Schwarber each homered. Rizzo had 3 hits and a walk. Almora had 3 hits. Russell had 3 hits, a walk and a lineout to right field. 

And the best example it was a good night for the Cubs offensively: Baez walked. TWICE. Both unintentional.

"Magnificent," Maddon said. "I was calling for the ball after the first one. After the second ball, that one's going right to Cooperstown." 

Podcast: Is it time to start worrying about the Cubs' lack of power?

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Is it time to start worrying about the Cubs' lack of power?

The Cubs head to St. Louis this weekend firmly in second place in the National League Central after dropping 2 of 3 to the Brewers in Milwaukee where they didn’t score a run for the final 18 innings. What’s going on with the offense? Is it time to start panicking about the lack of power? What more does Mike Montgomery need to do to stick in the rotation?

Kelly Crull, Jon Graff and Tony Andracki discuss these topics on the latest CubsTalk Podcast plus a couple under-the-radar reasons why the series may have turned after the Cubs’ big win Monday night.

Listen to the entire CubsTalk Podcast here and check out more on the lack of longballs below:

The lack of power has been particularly troubling. 

After hitting 1 homer less than the National League leaders (Mets, Brewers) last year, the Cubs currently rank 10th in the league in longballs. They're on pace for only 169 homers after hitting 223 in 2017. Every player on the team besides Javy Baez is on pace for a surprisingly low homer total based on track record and potential. 

Kris Bryant hasn't homered in a month and is on pace for only 20 longballs, which would be well under his career norm. Anthony Rizzo is on track for 27 dingers and he hasn't hit fewer than 31 in a season since 2013 (though, he did get off to a slow start for the first 5 weeks of the season). Jason Heyward has turned things around at the plate this year, but is still on pace for 7 homers, which would tie his career low of 2016.

Addison Russell and Willson Contreras have both flashed their 20-homer power in the past yet are on pace to combine for only 15 dingers in 2018 (5 for Russell, 10 for Contreras). 

Even Kyle Schwarber is on track for only 27 bombs after hitting 30 last year in a season where he struggled to hit over .200 for much of the year and spent three weeks in the minor leagues. Ian Happ clubbed 24 homers as a rookie in 364 at-bats but is on track for only 20 in 384 at-bats this year.

Only Baez (on pace for 35 homers) has lived up to his power potential so far this year, but he also has only 4 longballs in the last 5 weeks of action (dating back to May 7).

The Cubs altered their offensive approach under new hitting coach Chili Davis, looking for more contact and aiming to use the whole field rather than pulling the ball with power and striking out a bunch.

Has that mindset messed with the Cubs' power? Is it just randomness of the early going this year? 

Weather has been a factor, but the cold, wintry weather is gone (probably). It's mid-June now and the halfway point in the season is coming up. Yes, there are still more than 90 games remaining on the Cubs' schedule and homers do tend to come in bunches, but the "small sample size" excuse can't be used anymore.

The Cubs insist they haven't sacrificed any power for contact, so maybe it just is a bad stretch in the power department. Before being shut out on back-to-back days, the Cubs had won 13 of 17, so however they approached their at-bats was working to some extent.

Last season, their offense got too reliant on homers for stretches and wasn't able to manufacture runs against tougher pitching. They worked to rectify that for this year and while it's largely worked out (the Cubs are near the top of the NL in runs/game, on-base percentage and OPS even after these last two losses), the offensive woes are not fully in the rearview mirror.

An underrated key to Cubs' recent hot streak? Better in-game adjustments

An underrated key to Cubs' recent hot streak? Better in-game adjustments

MILWAUKEE - The Cubs could leave Milwaukee with sole possession of first place in the National League Central.

The main reason for that is a stretch of games the last three 3 weeks in which they've gone 12-4, winning five straight series since the Cleveland Indians came to Wrigley May 22-23.

During that time, the Cubs have won just about every way possible, from taking the early lead and coasting, a walk-off grand slam, come-from-behind victories, games led by pitching and defense...the list goes on.

The Cubs haven't really changed much about what they do day in and day out, but they have been able to fine-tune their daily approach.

"We've done a good job of making adjustments mid-game on the fly," Jason Heyward said. "That's kind of what it takes throughout the year. Going into each day — I feel like since the start of spring training — with good intention and good purpose.

"But you gotta live and learn. I just feel like we've done a good job of paying attention to detail with that and how we've been playing of late, we kinda get rewarded with that and it goes your way sometimes."

Heyward hit that aforementioned walk-off grand slam last week at Wrigley Field and he's been one of the guys leading the charge, entering play Monday evening with a .396 average and .971 OPS in the last 11 games.

After a Jekyll and Hyde type approach earlier in the season, the Cubs offense has leveled out a bit now. Not everybody is hot at the same time nor is everybody slumping at the same time.

Heyward and Anthony Rizzo are hot; Javy Baez is not. Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras have been getting hits lately, but mostly singles and they're not driving the ball with consistency.

The Cubs have found a way to break through and pick each other up throughout the lineup the past few weeks, which Heyward pointed to that daily approach and awareness as credit.

Still, they could get better with runners in scoring position. 

Ever over this 16-game hot streak, the Cubs still rank in the middle of Major League Baseball in terms of offensive production with runners in scoring position (12th in average, 10th in OPS, 14th in wRC+).

That's quite the contrast to the fact the Cubs pace the National League in a bunch of overall offensive categories (runs per game, on-base percentage, OPS).

"We lead the league in almost everything right now," Joe Maddon said. "The only thing I would want to lament is that we can get better in this one area, which I know we're going to. It's not like a pressurized statement. We haven't really achieved our level of success that we're going to driving in runs with people in scoring position.

"You know it's gonna happen and that's cool. If we can keep all this other stuff in order, I'll take it."

It's not just the hitters that are making in-game adjustments, however. The pitchers are, too.

Either way, it's always easy to say you want to make adjustments in the midst of game action, but it's much more difficult to put into practice.

"No, it's not simple because it doesn't always go your way," Heyward said. "Game of inches, things happen, teams make plays, teams are playing well. We've just been fortunate enough to find a way to get it done here recently and that's kinda it.

"Our pitchers are really throwing well and I feel like that adjustment part starts with them. Mid-game, they've been having to make adjustments and get on the same page and on the fly quickly and when they're able to do that and we're able to hang in there and find a way to get some runs for them, it works out."