CHICAGO — Don’t look now but the Chicago Cubs are charging for first place. They’ve already pushed their way into a tie for the final wild-card spot and after a 5-2 homestand that included taking three of four from the formerly first-place Cincinnati Reds and then winning a three-game set with baseball’s best team, they look poised to take hold of their division.
Sunday’s nail-biting 6-4 win over the Atlanta Braves moved the Cubs to four games over .500 for the first time since they were 14-10 on April 27. This looks like a completely different group than at any point in the season and confidence is oozing from the clubhouse. They’ve won games in a lot of ways over the course of the year, but it’s been hard to ignore just how different the Cubs’ offense has looked in recent weeks.
Unless otherwise noted, all of the following statistics are prior to Sunday’s game. Since June 13, the Cubs’ 120 wRC+ is third in baseball and they’re second in MLB with 6.4 runs per game, joining Atlanta as the only other team to average over six runs during that span. Things have actually been taken to another level since the All-Star break. The Cubs’ 140 wRC+ is tops in baseball and they’re averaging 7.2 runs per game.
So, what’s happening here? How did the Cubs go from what was viewed as a mostly middling offense to a behemoth so quickly?
A deeper and healthy lineup
Let’s not ignore the obvious. Cody Bellinger returned to the lineup on June 15 and has played like a star. He was NL Player of the Month in July and after another two hits and a walk on Sunday, he has a 147 wRC+, ninth in all of baseball.
“Belli’s good,” manager David Ross said. “If we’re just tuning in, Cody Bellinger is back to being a really good player, believing in himself and doing everything well. It does feel like he’s getting two, three hits a night, a big walk here and there. He’s been a game-changer for us in the middle of the lineup.”
There’s also been Dansby Swanson’s return to the lineup. The dynamic shortstop went on the injured list just prior to the All-Star break and since returning on July 22 has a 187 wRC+ — and that’s before going 1-for-3 with a double and a walk on Sunday.
Mike Tauchman, who singled twice and came around to score each time on Sunday, has been a revelation at the top of the lineup. He was called up on May 19 after Bellinger went on the IL and started batting leadoff regularly on June 10. He’s largely been productive the entire time he’s been up, but there was a little blip in production in late June and early July. But since July 8 he’s had a 172 wRC+ while coming up with some of the team’s biggest at-bats along with two huge defensive plays (the home-run stealing catch in St. Louis and cutting down Ronald Acuña Jr. at the plate Sunday afternoon).
“Just incredible at-bats,” hitting coach Dustin Kelly said. “He does an unreal job. That’s always the player he was, but it was the perfect match for what we needed when he came up. He’s put together some really good at-bats and he’s got a little power in there when we need it. But for the most part, just him putting quality at-bats together help us grind through starting pitching this year.”
Add in the addition of Jeimer Candelario at the trade deadline and this offense suddenly looks strong throughout and has the ability to put up a quality lineup against both lefties and righties.
“He just deepens our lineup so much,” Ross said. “He’s such a good hitter. He’s a good player. That’s why we went out and got him and identified him as a really important piece. The value he brings to deepen our lineup from both sides of the plate makes really tough matchups for the other manager.”
This team wasn’t expected to slug, but it’s been there over the past few weeks. Since the break, the Cubs are second in baseball to Atlanta with a .224 ISO and 39 home runs. The over-the-fence slug is largely coming from Bellinger, Swanson and Ian Happ (who have seven, seven and six homers since the break, respectively), but Tauchman also has a .266 ISO, Wisdom has handled part-time duty well (five homers, .577 ISO in 33 plate appearances) and Yan Gomes has been brilliant with a .200 ISO.
“We thought we could slug, but some of the weather stuff played a factor,” Kelly said. “Wrigley is not a great place to hit in the early parts of the year when the wind is blowing in. Now you start to see those flags blowing out and it gives our guys a little more freedom to take some chances.”
Perhaps this is a blip. But it’s coming at a great time and this team has also shown they can score in a variety of ways. The power is essential though when it comes to extending leads on occasion and not taxing the bullpen on a daily basis.
Speed and aggression on the basepaths
Like power, this isn’t exactly what the Cubs are built on, but it’s been showing up at the right times, especially of late. The Cubs have scored from second 84 times on a single, most in baseball. They’ve gone from first to third on a single 68 times, tied for third in the game. They’re eighth in baseball in percentage of extra bases taken (44 percent), according to Baseball-Reference.
“We’ve been able to take some extra bases, especially this homestand,” Ross said. “I think that’s an important part of our game when we can take advantage of things. I don’t think that’s how we’re going to win every game. But when the opportunity is there, our guys are becoming smart baserunners. Being able to take the extra 90 feet, get in scoring position or get in motion and good things happen. I don’t know that it’s a thing we’re gonna hang our hat on. But being a well-rounded baseball team is really important to me and I know it is to the guys in that room.”
Ross pointed out that it puts pressure on the other team and forces the opposing pitcher to think about other things than trying to get the batter out. That leads to slide steps, perhaps a hung slider or just general distractions from the task at hand. On Sunday, the Cubs stole four bases and two of them directly led to runs. A third time, Happ was running on the pitch and scored from first on Bellinger’s double.
This may be the hallmark of the offense. Of late, the team has really ground down opposing starters but in general, they just force the opposition to throw so many pitches.
“We’ve chewed through starting pitching and gotten to their bullpens,” Kelly said.
They’re tops in baseball at 4.05 pitches per plate appearance. Happ is eighth in baseball at 4.28 and Tauchman would be 13th if eligible at 4.21. Seiya Suzuki is struggling, but he sees a ton of pitches too (4.27) and so does Wisdom (4.51) when he’s in the lineup.
The league average is 3.92 and only Gomes, Nico Hoerner, Nick Madrigal, and Christopher Morel are below that line. The first three, that’s just not their game and they thrive on swinging and being aggressive. In Morel’s case, he’s seen a significant jump since he took three games off against the Angels and returned to the lineup on June 13. From that point on, he’s been at 4.03 pitches per plate appearance.
“We’ve done a good job of getting the starter out early,” Happ said. “We’ve pushed them to make moves earlier. We’re not fighting in the seventh, eighth and ninth, we’re making that happen earlier.
“Guys do a really good job of learning from the first (at-bat). Even if we go through our order one time and don’t have success, we learn from that and are able to be really productive. The feeling of being one swing away or a couple good at-bats away from getting something started is really nice for the lineup. We’re pretty deep right now.”
Luck going their way
Don’t read this as a bad thing. Because the luck just wasn’t going their way early on. Nobody wanted to hear it when they were losing close games, but that’s the reality of baseball. The Cubs started the season 10-22 in one- and two-run games. They’ve gone 8-3 in those games since July 4.
Some of that is the ball bouncing their way. They do have a .327 BABIP since June 13, tops in baseball. That could mean regression is coming. Or perhaps this is just a better team now. They’re more complete and this healthy and now deeper lineup is producing regularly.
Remember all the concerns about their issues with runners in scoring position? By month, starting with April, their batting average in those situations has gone like this: .294, .224, .273, .277 and .316 in August prior to Sunday’s game. The extreme outlier there appears to be May.
“In my view, the quality of the at-bat has been there pretty consistently this year,” Ross said. “It felt like a narrative for a month that we were loading bases and couldn’t get anybody in. We said that was bad luck and maybe some of those things have turned around. I think the depth of our lineup contributes to that a little bit and just having more guys that are swinging the bat well as a whole throughout the lineup has really contributed.”
Playing the best lineups
Outside of their ability to work counts and grind at-bats, this is perhaps the most important aspect. Ross had to be patient at times to see if players could work their way into form. Someone like Madrigal benefited from a reset at Triple A and now has earned regular at-bats. Happ worked through a slump and is now consistently producing. Other aspects of his patience didn’t pan out. Trey Mancini has been released and Suzuki is on the bench.
But now they’ve found the right players to put in the best position to succeed and Ross is not messing around with trying to coax more out of struggling hitters. They’ve added an important bat to the group in Candelario and almost everyone is sticking to their strengths and putting up great at-bats. It’s led to a lot of winning and a team that’s suddenly .
“I’ve always said if you want to win, you’ve got to put the best players out there as often as possible,” Swanson said. “We’ve been doing that over the last six, seven weeks and I feel like we’re starting to see some dividends from it. It’s been fun to be a part of. Consistency creates clarity and clarity creates the ability to be able to perform. At the end of the day, the message is clear. We trust you to do your job and we’re putting faith in you to be who you are. You don’t have to do anything outside of what you’re good at. Just do what you’re good at and it will lead to good results. It has so far for us.”
Ultimately, May really feels like a blip. Their strikeouts jumped that month (26.4 percent) but have mostly hovered a little above 22 percent otherwise. It’s not going to be like it has been this past week or even since the break, but it’s clear this team is better offensively than what they were two-plus months ago.
They’re hitting the ball harder with more regularity and avoiding a lot of ground balls. The power has finally shown up and they have a former MVP playing like he wants another one in the middle of their lineup. They know when to take the extra base and are aggressive in the right moments. Their skill of taking walks (fourth in baseball at 9.4 percent) is an aspect that doesn’t slump and they wear down opposing pitchers.
The Cubs will need their pitching to find its form again. The starters haven’t been as strong of late, but Marcus Stroman is getting time to work through things while on the IL and Drew Smyly is inching back to being a solid fifth starter as he figures out how to correct his sudden issues with lefties. They’ll need that to happen because this team is built to win with pitching and defense. But a suddenly potent offense could change the outlook and perhaps expectations with it.
“The season comes in waves and pitching does really well at times and the offense has the ability to do what it’s doing right now,” Ross said. “On any given night, when you have the things that you can bring every single day, which is pitching and defense, the things we try to focus on every day, the offense is free to go out there and have their at-bats. I feel like it’s been a real cohesive group throughout the lineup for a while now. So yeah, if we’re able to put up these types of numbers offensively, you do feel like the ceiling goes way up.”
(Top photo of Cody Bellinger: David Banks / USA Today)