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'The Run That Never Was': The Curtain Closes on the Cubs, Uncertainty Awaits

Another Cubs season ended in the same way as the others since 2016: the offense is broken.

On Nov. 4, 2016, the largest recorded mass of humanity in the history of the Western Hemisphere gathered to celebrate the death of a curse. It would be no stretch to assume that many of the five million people on the streets of downtown Chicago that bright day envisioned another such party soon—even the most sober of them. Unburdened, the Cubs could be the new Red Sox, ripping off another championship or two.

Why not? Full of insouciance and talent, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series that year with what still is the youngest world championship roster since the 1969 Mets. The Cubs were the rare championship team that would remain largely intact.

On Friday, however, it seemed like the curtain closed on a show that never lived up to the early reviews. Another Cubs season ended in the same way as the others since 2016: the offense is broken.

Do not overlook the role here of the Miami Marlins, who played unencumbered by expectations and with a palpable belief the young Cubs once had. “They believe in each other,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “You can feel that from the other side.”

Practically speaking, the Marlins also have powerful arms that exploited Chicago’s broken offense, just as the Dodgers did in 2017, the Brewers and Rockies did in 2018, and just about everybody did in 2019. Chicago scored one run in the Wild Card Series while getting swept two games in its home park, departing the 2020 postseason without leaving a footprint and heading into a cold winter of uncertainty.

If The Run That Never Was isn’t over, it’s close. Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo (assuming his 2021 option is exercised) and Kyle Schwarber are eligible for free agency after next season. Uncertain revenues in the game will make wholesale changes difficult this winter.

President Theo Epstein has the difficult task of assigning weight to this latest collapse. After all, it was a short season with an ad hoc summer camp. As Bryant said through his mask after Miami showed the Cubs the exit with a 2–0 smothering, “It’s different than any other year we were eliminated. It’s just a weird feeling. I don’t know how to describe it.”

But it’s also very much the same. The core of the Cubs’ young hitters has stagnated, if not flat-out regressed. In 14 October games since winning the World Series, including the 2018 tiebreaker game, the Cubs batted .158 and were outscored 60-28. They scored two runs per game in crunch time. Their offense simply does not work in the pitching-rich postseason environment of today’s game.

This season Báez, Bryant, Rizzo and Schwarber combined to hit .198. Báez had the lowest contact rate of his career. Bryant, sometimes fighting the length in his swing, hit .179 against above-average velocity fastballs (94+ mph). The usually reliable slugging of Rizzo, 31, cratered. Schwarber, being fed more and more breaking pitches, is a .196 career hitter against spin, including .169 this year. Epstein thought enough of Schwarber’s hitting skills to think he might one day put up David Ortiz numbers. Instead after 551 career games, Schwarber (.230/.336/.480) is Rob Deer (.233/.334/.455).

Sep 11, 2020; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA;  Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (44) reacts after striking out in the eighth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

What the heck happened? The game changed that quickly, and the type of offense Chicago played could not adjust it.

Four years is an eyeblink of time, but not in terms of how much baseball has changed. When the Cubs won in 2016 their hitters saw 58% fastballs that season. This year they saw 47%. The rise in use of breaking pitches and cutters—especially the increase in use and spin of sliders and cutters—created an extremely difficult hitting environment. There is no such thing as a fastball count any more. Where the Cubs saw 33% breaking pitches and cutters in 2016, they saw 40% this year. They hit .205 against them.

Like most teams, the Cubs built an offense on taking walks and punishing mistakes, with swing paths designed to meet the plane of belt-high and low fastballs for maximum slugging. The subtleties of the game were far less important than managing two or three game-changing swings per game.

Home runs still win baseball games. The Marlins proved that with three big swings in the two Wild Card Series games. But in absence of those home run balls, you better find other ways to win a game. Low-average hitters without speed do not provide many such avenues.

In 13 postseason games since winning the World Series, the Cubs are 4-9 with a .161 batting average, five attempted stolen bases and zero sacrifice flies.

Ross is new to the job of manager and is a tremendous leader. In Game 1, hamstrung by the silly three-batter minimum rule, he allowed Kyle Hendricks to be the first starting pitcher in 294 postseason starts to lose a game in the seventh inning or later. In Game 2 he told Yu Darvish to intentionally walk a right-handed batter, Miguel Rojas—something that had been done just once in Darvish’s career (to Jose Bautista six years ago, not counting two instances because the pitcher was the next hitter.) The next batter, left-handed hitting Magneuris Sierra, singled home an insurance one. It didn’t matter.

When asked about his team’s offensive woes, Ross decided to take this season and isolate it, rather than connect it to the previous three.

“We just never really got going,” he said. “We never really hit our stride. Offensively, it just felt like we could never really get going this year.”

As it happened, the Reds, Cubs and Brewers all built an offense with a similar profile. With the proper short-season disclaimer, they ranked 1-2-3 among the worst hitting playoff teams of all time (.212, .220, .223). They were dismissed from the playoffs by going 0-6 with a total of three runs and a .163 batting average.

“I guess it gets back to this game being extremely tough,” Bryant said.

From a hitter’s perspective, he is right. This environment is the toughest ever for hitters. Four or five pitchers per game are spinning the ball madly. Miami starter Sixto Sánchez Thursday threw 16 pitches clocked at 100 mph, the most by any pitcher this year and the most by a starting pitcher since Noah Syndergaard four years ago. And he’s their No. 2 starter. Brandon Kintzler closed the game by tickling the outside edge of the plate with 94-mph two-seamers with 8 inches of horizontal run.

Aug 19, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Baez (9) reacts after striking out against the St. Louis Cardinals during the fifth inning at Wrigley Field.

But if you think hitting is hard, imagine the job in front of Epstein. It’s the same question: How do you fix this offense? Who stays? Who goes? And how much planning can you do without knowing what revenues will look like in 2021? These are difficult questions, which is why Bryant provided the perfect ending to this season when he was asked by reporters what might be coming this winter.

“I have no clue,” he said. “I really don’t. Your guys’ guess is as good as mine.”