CHICAGO — Futility at the plate continues to be the theme for the 2021 Chicago Cubs, as they opened a nine-game home stand the way they finished their recent road trip: with next to nothing on offense when it mattered.
The Cubs are putting up historically bad statistics, beginning with the most important one of them all: runs scored. Chicago is averaging just 2.62 runs per game after a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves on Friday. That’s the worst in baseball.
“It’s been a grind,” team leader Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s not been fun to watch.”
That might be the understatement of the year, especially when measuring the team in any sort of clutch situation. The Cubs were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position on Friday, lowering their batting average on the season in those moments to .084 — the worst through 13 games since 2004. With two outs in any situation, the Cubs are hitting .095, including 0-for-7 on Friday. That’s the lowest mark through 13 games in 45 years.
“I think everyone wants to do something big,” said Andy Green, who is filling in as manager for the suspended David Ross. “All these guys care a ton and want to be great for this club and have been great for this team plenty in the past.”
That’s the biggest mystery of them all. The same Cubs who dominated just a few seasons ago, on the way to the World Series and multiple playoff appearances, are currently a shell of their old selves.
Rizzo is hitting .182, Javier Baez .191 and Kris Bryant just .220, after a brutal day at the plate for him on Friday. He stranded five runners on two strikeouts and a double play ground ball. And Bryant was actually the one hitter who looked halfway decent to this point in the season.
All of this came against Kyle Wright, who was called up from the Braves’ alternate site to take the place of Drew Smyly at the last minute. The same Kyle Wright who has a career 6.22 ERA. He gave up only three hits in 4 1/3 innings, but despite that, the Cubs did have baserunners, with four players hit by pitches and two drawing walks.
“We have guys up we really want in those situations, and those guys are going to come through over the course of the year,” Green said.
It might be wishful thinking on Green’s part, as Cubs fans have seen this act before. The team limped to the finish line offensively in 2018 and 2019 while maintaining its struggles throughout all of 2020.
Why would 2021 be any different?
“The sample is two weeks, and I’m sure you could go through two weeks every year for the past few years and have collectively really bad offensive numbers,” Rizzo stated. “When it happens at the beginning of the season, it’s the worst because it’s so magnified. You just have to keep playing.
“Good thing it’s 162 and not 60 for us.”
Rizzo is traditionally a slow starter. So are a few other Cubs. A case could be made that the entire 2020 season was the length of a start to a normal one. But there’s bad, and then there’s historically bad. The Cubs are in the latter category. Their 65 hits through 13 games is the lowest total since the 2003 Detroit Tigers, who lost 119 games.
So what’s the answer? Winning anything significant might not be attainable with this offense, so Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, has big decisions to make come the July trade season. But if his hitters, many of whom are free agents at the end of this season, give him no value to work with, then the Cubs are really in trouble. They’ll have little to show for 2021 no matter how you break it down. Getting out of their slump is paramount on many levels.
“Not trying to get five hits in one at-bat,” Rizzo offered as strategy. “You can’t drive in 10 in one at-bat.”
Driving in one would be a nice start. On a cold, sunny day at Wrigley Field on Friday, in front of a sparse crowd due to COVID-19 regulations, the 2021 Cubs were a reminder of what used to be the norm for them. When they were known as the loveable losers, when few attended their games and those who did were usually disappointed.
It’s starting to feel that way again.
“We just have to keep playing baseball,” Rizzo said. “It’s not fun not getting many hits as a unit. Winning cures it all. When you win it makes a lot easier.”
Green added: “Kind of waiting for that day they break out big.”
So is the rest of baseball. The wait could be long.