CHICAGO – Given the way the Cubs’ lineup was constructed this season, there was always going to be an obvious blueprint for offensive success. Out of the gates, the North Siders put it on full display with a solid start to the campaign.
“Our strength’s going to be bat-to-ball skills, putting balls in play,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I don’t think we’re built to slug maybe as we were a little bit in the past.”
That reiteration from Ross came in the hours before Wednesday night’s 4-3 loss to the White Sox at Wrigley Field. It was a tightly contested tilt between the crosstown rivals, but some of the Cubs’ recent offensive issues persisted.
The Cubs’ brand of ball-in-play baseball has taken a hit over the past couple of weeks, as opposing teams have taken note of the North Siders’ collective approach and started to adjust accordingly. That early-season contact rate has dipped, the called strikes have climbed and the margin for error has become razor thin.
“There’s times where we’re just one hit away,” Cubs second baseman Nick Madrigal said. “I think we’re in the right position. It just takes one hit to really break through. I really don’t think we’re far off and need to change any game plans or anything. I just think it’s part of baseball.”
What the Cubs do not want to revert to is an offensive style that leans on the three-true-outcome formula (walks, home runs and strikeouts). In the defeat to the White Sox, however, nearly half of the plate appearances (16 of 33) fit into those categories.
The Cubs’ only offensive outburst arrived in the second, when Frank Schwindel drew a one-out walk against Lucas Giolito, who then surrendered a two-run homer to Nico Hoerner. Two batters later, Patrick Wisdom also sent a shot to the left-field bleachers.
That patience-and-power-fueled rally was a great development for the Cubs, but that is where the production ceased. The North Siders went 3-for-24 the rest of the way, including an 0-for-3 showing after two batters reached to open the eighth.
“We’ve got to change our luck,” Ross said. “We had plenty of opportunities to push a run across there at the end and tie the ballgame up, or make a pitch, or make a play. I don’t think we played particularly bad. I just think there’s some things that didn’t go our way.”
That included in the sixth, when Willson Contreras drilled a Reynaldo López pitch 106.3 mph off the bat to deep center field with two outs and the potential tying run on base. Sox center fielder Luis Robert chased it down, slamming into the bricks and ivy after making a highlight-reel catch.
“Not many players in the league make that play,” Madrigal said. “He’s a special one out there.”
Even with the tough break like that one, it was still an overall offensive performance that fell in line with the previous dozen games.
Entering Wednesday, the Cubs had hit .222/.304/.317 as a team going back to April 20, averaging 3.7 runs per game and posting a 26.5% strikeout rate. Those numbers include the historic 21-run, 23-hit shutout win over the Pirates on April 23.
For comparison, the Cubs turned in a .267/.349/.437 team slash line in the 11 games prior to that stretch, going back to Opening Day. In that stretch, they averaged 4.8 runs per game and had a 20.7% strikeout rate.
One change Ross noted has been pitchers altering their attack against the Cubs on the first pitch or in early-count scenarios.
“How we started off,” Ross said, “taking walks and commanding the zone and making pitchers work, once you see that start happening, the other team’s going to be like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get ahead of these guys. Be aggressive.’ We’ve seen that.”
That can at least partially explain the Cubs’ surge in called strikes.
“[That’s the] product of who we are,” Ross said. “We’re going to have more looking, called strikes, right? If you’re going to command the zone, you’re going to strike out looking more than if you chase, right? That’s kind of how that works.”
Entering Wednesday, the Cubs had the fifth-highest rates of called strikes (17.9%) and called strikeouts (29.2%) in the Majors. The 301 called strikes on the first pitch were the fourth most in baseball, per Statcast.
In Wednesday’s loss, the Cubs took 28 called strikes, including nine on the first pitch and five for strikeouts. Both Ian Happ and Hoerner were called out on strikes on heaters low in the zone to end the eighth and ninth, respectively.
“We’re just kind of going through the ebbs and flows offensively of a season,” Ross said. “And pitchers adjusting to us, and [we’re] adjusting back.”