Can the Chicago Cubs' offense get hot enough to make a run in September?
There's micro question and a macro question about the Chicago Cubs' offense.
Manager Joe Maddon was asked over the weekend if he thought his batters could get hot over the season's final month and propel the team to the playoffs.
"Oh, yeah. I absolutely believe that to be true," he said. "We're going to have some guys coming back, which is going to make that better.
"Javy's (Javier Baez) just been in a little bit of a slump. Javy's not going to be that way for the rest of the season. I really believe that 100 percent. I think Happer (Ian Happ) looks better right now, a lot better.
"The ingredients are there. We've just got to go out, obviously, and do it. I've been involved with teams that just all of a sudden clicked at the right time of the year, and everything just takes off. I do anticipate that happening. But it's only going to happen if you keep pushing and believing. If you don't, it's not going to happen."
That's the micro question. That and others like it were asked all weekend as the Washington Nationals came to town and singled the Cubs to a three-game sweep by putting the ball in play and creating runs. It was a refreshing change from watching the Cubs and their three-true-outcome (walks-strikeouts-home runs) all year.
The macro question is whether the Cubs' young veterans are as good as they're going to get.
Back in 2015 and into 2016 and 2017, Maddon preached that as the Cubs' hitters aged and matured, their numbers would really take off and their contact rates and plate discipline would increase.
But is that really happening?
Kris Bryant has bounced back from an injury-plagued 2018 and his putting up solid numbers. The back of Anthony Rizzo's baseball card will end up looking like it usually has year after consistent year.
Baez's numbers have gone like this over the past three years:
2017: .273/.317/.480 for an OPS of .796 and an OPS-plus (where 100 is league average) of 102.
2018: .290/.326/.554 for an OPS of .881 and an OPS-plus of 129.
2019: .281/.313/.530 for an OPS of .844 and an OPS-plus of 111.
Schwarber's numbers have gone this way:
2017: .211/.315/.467 for an OPS of .782 and an OPS-plus of 99.
2018: .238/.356/.467 for an OPS of .823 and an OPS-plus of 117.
2019: .225/.318/.486 for an OPS of .804 and an OPS-plus of 103.
Baez's walk and strikeout rates are about the same as they've been in he past. Schwarber leads the Cubs with 30 home runs (tying his career high), and he already has a career-high 69 RBI.
Both of these players has had his moments, but there has been no real leap for either.
Another of the Cubs' "core" players of yore, Addison Russell, has fallen through the floor offensively and has been a part-time player after coming up from a stay in the minor leagues.
So can the Cubs get hot over the final month? Sure.
But are their hitters pretty much who we thought they were? It certainly looks that way.
Being productive with outs:
The Cubs' offense failed several times this past weekend to make "productive" outs, that is, advancing or scoring a runner with an out.
Joe Maddon said that has to change, and it is a matter of putting bat on ball.
"We've had this problem," he said. "It's something that we have to continue to work at to move the ball and score runs with outs. With second and third and nobody out, groundball to second base, you score a run and get the other guy to third base. Scoring runs with outs is an art form we have to accomplish, too."
Comeback for an old stat:
It's also not unusual for Maddon to go against the grain of today's baseball thinking.
Batting average and pitcher wins have gone out of fashion. On offense, OPS, OPS-plus, on-base percentage and weighted runs created-plus (similar to OPS-plus) are all the rage.
"I think batting average, believe it or not, is going to become more substantive as we move it forward," Maddon said. "It just indicates to me a consistent method or hitting ability on a daily basis, where I think OPS can be somewhat deceptive at times."
Those duds were duds:
Good riddance to the white-on-white Players Weekend uniforms. Numerals were impossible to read, and if Major League Baseball wanted fans to know the players' nicknames, those were impossible to make out, too.
When the Cubs donned their white baseball caps Saturday (after being chided by MLB for wearing blue Friday), the players looked like house painters. Epic fail.
The game notes teams print every day are essential. They're filled with stats and information. The Cubs add a dose of humor, as well.
A note about the Cubs' season series against the Nationals read: "Last year, the Cubs enjoyed a four-game set in Washington interrupted by postponements, rain delays, locusts, a 40-year flood, cicadas, the plague and a subsequent Wrigley Field home series."