CHICAGO — Nick Madrigal had been looking forward to this series against the White Sox. Texts had been coming in over the last few days from his old teammates, making plans to maybe get together and firing off some friendly jabs.
“We’ve been joking back and forth,” said the Cubs’ second baseman. “I’m still super close with a lot of those guys over there.”
The White Sox took the opener of their reunion with Madrigal on Tuesday, dealing the Cubs a 3-1 loss in rainy, windy conditions at Wrigley Field. For his part, Madrigal connected for a single and helped turn a slick double play to escape a jam in the fifth inning.
When Madrigal stepped into the box, the numbers up on the scoreboard did not resemble those posted with the Sox before being traded across town last summer. He has continued to make contact at an elite rate, but the hits have been elusive a month into this campaign.
“I’m not hitting the panic button at all,” Madrigal said. “I know we’re still early in the season. It is frustrating, but I feel like I can get back. I just need one hit to get me right back where I need to be.”
What’s going right?
Madrigal had three trips to the plate on Tuesday night in what he called “one of the toughest games I think I’ve ever played in.” Even in daunting conditions, he hit the ball hard consistently, registering two of the seven hardest-hit balls in play in the game for both teams.
Third inning: 102.3 mph (groundout to short)**
Fifth inning:** 98.6 mph (single to center)**
Seventh inning:** 101.8 mph (lineout to center)
“I feel comfortable right now. I feel like I’m seeing the ball a lot better,” Madrigal said. “Even the one I hit to center field, I feel like I’m just kind of hitting balls right at people. I’m not too worried about it. I think it’s going to come pretty quick.”
Entering Tuesday, Madrigal was hitting the ball harder (87.9 mph on average) this season than in 2021 (87.9 mph), per Statcast. That plays into the fact that his expected numbers (.268 xBA, .324 xSLG and .287 xwOBA) and right in line with last year (.263 xBA, .328 xSLG and .289 xwOBA).
What’s going wrong?
There are the expected stats, and then there is reality.
With Tuesday’s showing, Madrigal is now slashing .215/.271/.262 with a 58 wRC+ through 18 games this season. That is a far cry from last year, when he turned in a .305/.349/.425 slash line and a 113 wRC+ before a right hamstring injury ended his season after 54 games.
Madrigal has still rated near the top of the Majors in contact rate (88.5 percent) and swinging-strike rate (4.8 percent), though his percentages are down slightly.
His called strike rate (24.7 percent) is one of the highest in the Majors and he is fouling off more pitches than usual, too. Those have played a hand in the spike in strikeout rate (15.7 percent in 2022, compared to 7.9 percent in ’21).
There is also the fact that Madrigal has been pulling the ball a lot more (37.3 percent in 2022, compared to 21.2 percent in ’21). That has been combined with a negative launch angle (minus 1.5) this year, leading to a pile of ground balls.
What’s the solution?
Madrigal said he has been working with the Cubs’ hitting group to try to pinpoint the source of the early-season struggles. It could be something subtle in his mechanics or an adjustment in his plan of attack.
One thing Madrigal knows for sure is that he has to avoid running himself into the ground while searching for a fix.
“I felt like early on in the season, when things weren’t falling,” he said, “I was taking extra swings and kind of was wearing out my body a little bit.”
Madrigal believes timing is at the heart of the issues. Cubs manager David Ross sees it that way, too.
“Historically, he’s done a nice job of putting the bat on the ball,” Ross said. “So once he gets his timing down, I think they’ll come in bunches.”
Being caught in-between in that regard could help explain Madrigal’s struggles against fastballs this season (.200 average and .200 slugging percentage, per Statcast) after feasting on heaters in 2022 (.264 average and .514 slugging).
The good news on Tuesday night was that Madrigal’s hit was not only up the middle, but it came against a 94 mph fastball from White Sox righty Michael Kopech. That hit also ended his old friend’s outing one batter into the fifth inning.
“When he was leaving,” Madrigal said, “he kind of gave me a hand wave.”