Emma: Cubs Have Been Unrecognizable So Far

By Chris Emma–

CHICAGO (CBS) — One by one, the Cubs stepped to the plate and trotted back to the dugout Sunday night and into the early hours of Monday.

Ben Zobrist, the World Series MVP, ended a ninth-inning rally with a weak groundout to second base, which stranded the bases loaded. Addison Russell, the author of several walk-off wins, struck out in the 12th with Anthony Rizzo 90 feet away from home. He struck out again to end the 14th.

Albert Almora Jr. went down to end the 17th. As the position players had all been used up, the Cubs pitchers had their chances to pinch-hit. The results were what you’d expect. Kyle Hendricks was the final chance, with two runners on base in the 18th. He fanned at a pitch in the dirt to end the game.

When the marathon of six hours and six minutes ended with the Yankees winning 5-4 in 18 innings, the Cubs had struck out 26 times and left 18 men on base. They joined the Yankees for a combined 48 strikeouts, the most ever in a game.

“Ever’s a really long time,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “It was an incredible thing to watch. It was just frustrating, exasperating. But you got to play tomorrow night.”

Tomorrow had already arrived when Maddon met the media just shy of 2 a.m. Sunday. Known for his cool demeanor, Maddon was left flustered by his team’s performance — not just in this marathon loss or the cumulative three-game sweep at Wrigley Field but the Cubs’ play as a whole.

Sunday was a microcosm of the Cubs’ first 31 games of their World Series defense. They gave up a first-inning run, somehow lowering the team’s ERA in the opening inning from 11.40 to 11.32. After that, starter Jon Lester settled in. The Cubs’ bats were quiet early on but mustered another late-inning comeback, this time in the ninth to tie it, but then they fell silent again in nine scoreless extra innings.

The Cubs are now 16-15 on the young season. It’s no World Series hangover — they’re just not playing good baseball. This team could and should be better. I argued in March the Cubs would be better than their 2016 greatness. They’ve been unrecognizable at times this season.

For all their power at the plate, the Cubs are hitting .246 and own a collective .321 wOBA, which ranks 15th in baseball. Their wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) is at 96, which ranks 16th. Cubs pitching has a 3.93 ERA and 4.06 FIP (fielder independent pitching), both placing them middle of the pack. They sit at 14th with 2.5 defensive win shares, that a year removed from having the best mark in baseball by a landslide.

Last season, the Cubs led the National League in wRC+ at 106 and were second in wOBA with a .333 mark. They got on base and drove in runs. And with a league-best 3.15 team ERA, they could get by on the quiet days at the plate.

Those 2016 Cubs had great bats producing runs, an outstanding run from the pitching staff and terrific defense to back it all. This season, every facet of their game has been just average.

One could point to the smaller details within — Jake Arrieta’s velocity has dropped and he’s struggled with command; Kyle Schwarber is hitting .198 in the leadoff hole; etc. — but there are greater trends warranting concern.

Perhaps the bats will find their best form soon — maybe they’re pressing a bit, as Maddon has suggested — but Arrieta, John Lackey and Hendricks have each seen their pitch selection altered as a result of velocity and command issues. Brett Anderson may not start for the Cubs again after allowing a combined 12 earned runs and recording just five total outs in his last two outings. The starters have a 4.64 ERA, which is 24th in baseball.

Then there are the defensive issues. Gold Glove first baseman Anthony Rizzo has been the team’s worst defender in defensive win shares at -3.4. Kyle Schwarber is working on his craft in left field, but his great diving catch into the stands Sunday aside, he still has a negative rating. Jon Jay, with a -1.3 mark in 27 games, could’ve prevented 18 innings if he properly tracked Aaron Judge’s triple to the center-field wall. The Cubs have 24 errors on the season, including a costly throwing gaffe by catcher Willson Contreras in the 18th inning that cost them Sunday.

The Cubs take pride in their resiliency. On the championship rings, “We Never Quit” is engraved. It’s a reminder of their ability to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the World Series and has recently been the slogan of comeback victories.

But this team shouldn’t need rallies each time out. The Cubs’ prowess hasn’t shown its form much this season, and the numbers back it — they rank mostly in the middle of the pack.

Some trends will retreat to the norm. It’s been barely a month of baseball played in often frigid temperatures. Maybe the warmth of summer will find the Cubs heating up.

For now, they’re just not playing the good baseball we’ve been accustomed to seeing.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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