Mark Gonzales: Buy-in working well for Cubs' unselfish offense

  • Cubs second baseman Nick Madrigal -- here batting Wednesday against Tampa -- leads the team in contact rate, which has improved greatly from last season.

    Cubs second baseman Nick Madrigal -- here batting Wednesday against Tampa -- leads the team in contact rate, which has improved greatly from last season. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 4/21/2022 5:35 PM

The cries for Brennen Davis have temporarily quelled, thanks to an early buy-in on the simple concept of making contact with more frequency.

How long this will last for a Cubs team that lacks the power of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in recent seasons?

 

It's an interesting landscape, especially since the 2021 Cubs flirted with respectability for 2½ months before crashing and fueling a roster turnover with two months left in the season.

But there's a curious vibe around this current group, comprised of veterans trying to sustain their careers with a new team, a few trying to show that their strong second halves were no flukes, and youngsters attempting to take advantage of their status as full-time players.

And Seiya Suzuki, an impressive 27-year-old rookie from Japan who has led by example while acclimating quickly to a new team in a new country.

"Everyone wants to be the best version of themselves," said Jason Heyward, who has made the switch from right field to center to accommodate Suzuki. "And the guys who have been in other places, they understand what it's like to have a new opportunity. They understand what it's like to step into a place where they had high expectations, so it's been fun to see how that kind of gels."

The manner in which the Cubs have embarked on a 6-6 start heading into Thursday's game has been refreshing, especially to those who had low expectations in the wake of several veteran departures last season and/or were understandably disgusted with a major league-high 1,596 strikeouts.

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Their 78 percent contact rate, according to FanGraphs, ranks fifth in the National League and is a 4.7 percent improvement over their last-place mark in 2021. Keeping Nick Madrigal (90.5) and Nico Hoerner (85.5) healthy over a full season, along with the addition of Suzuki (79.7), will enhance that mark.

Wade Miley's return next month should stabilize the rotation, and second-year reliever Keegan Thompson, who has rebounded from right shoulder tightness last season, has evolved into a midgame shutdown specialist.

Despite a revamped defense, the Cubs didn't commit an error until their 11th game.

Yes, it is early. There will be growing pains, and the events of last season serves as a warning. Under miserable conditions on May 4, Baez battled from an 0-2 count against Clayton Kershaw to draw a rare walk that led to four runs in the first inning of a 7-1 win over the World Champion Dodgers (despite three errors by Baez) that started a three-game series sweep and ignited a 30-17 run to first place in the National League Central.

Baez's walk represented a temporary turning point that merely delayed the inevitable following an 11-game losing streak that dropped them nine games out of first and necessitated the fire sale.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Perhaps Suzuki's first major league at-bat against 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes will provide more sustainability.

Suzuki laid off a 2-2 cut fastball around the letters for a ball and eventually drew a walk that helped jack up Burnes' pitch count.

Suzuki didn't score, but he set a tone that has been infectious for an unselfish offense.

"Everybody's passing the baton, get to the next at-bat, get to the next pitch," Kyle Hendricks said. "Everyone's bought in."

But every team faces at least one ominous stretch, and the Cubs will encounter a 14-game streak starting Tuesday against World Champion Atlanta, Milwaukee, the White Sox, Dodgers and San Diego.

And don't look to Davis for immediate help. Despite hitting his third home run Tuesday for Triple-A Iowa, Davis is batting .214 with 16 strikeouts in 42 at-bats.

Two spots on the pitching staff likely will be trimmed as the Cubs and the other 29 teams must cut their rosters from 28 to 26 players on May 2 with 13-pitcher limits.

So instead of wins and losses, the measuring stick during the Cubs' 14-game test could be whether they can sustain their improved contact rate and cutting down on the frequency of their double plays.

"I do think that we should be a fairly high contact team," President Jed Hoyer said. "But with that comes we're probably not going to hit as many three-run home runs as we once did, And as a group we can't be waiting around for that.

"We have to create our own offense through contact and probably putting guys in motion a little bit and grinding out at bat. So far this year, we've done a good job with that."

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