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Cubs shortstop Javier Baez was the most recent player to steal home in a postseason game. He accomplished this feat in Game 1 of the 2016 NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers with Kenta Maeda on the mound.
The good news for the 2020 Chicago Cubs is that they won a division title for only the eighth time in franchise history (the previous seven were in ‘84, ‘89, ‘03, ‘07, ‘08, ‘16, and ‘17). There is more good news for the North-Siders as their first round playoff opponents, the Miami Marlins, may be the worst team to reach the postseason in baseball history.
The Cubs won the NL Central, a division that sent four of its five teams to the postseason this year, and they did so with only two legit starting pitchers. Their division-winning formula is highly flammable material for a bullpen and an offense described as “broken” by team president Theo Epstein just last week.
The Cubs got to October by going 13-3 to start the season, where the offense turned in a .244/.344/.431 slash line as a whole. It’s not stellar, but it was enough to get the job done, especially with Yu Darvish in Cy Young form and Kyle Hendricks being well, Kyle Hendricks. From game 17 through game 56, the Cubs’ slash line dropped to .213/.307/.365. They went 21-23 over that span. Including that game 56, where they achieved only two hits and lost 7-0, the Cubs offense had a stretch of scoring only 13 runs in nine games.
The offense did break out big time in the season finale series at the Chicago White Sox, but even that statistical inflation, 25 runs over the three-game explosion, wasn’t enough to save their final regular season numbers from the dredges.
The offense is so broken that back on Sept. 10, we did a statistical comparison between the current Cubs and the 1906 White Sox, a deadball era team forever known as the “hitless wonders,” and found them to be, basically, fraternal twins.
So what’s the problem here? Well, there is blame all around, up and down the lineup, but the primary culprit is the severe decline of the so-called “core four,” defined today as: Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, and Javier Baez.
The core four is a term that has evolved over time, since the start of the Jed and Theo era, and it refers to the building blocks of the rebuild. Former Cubs players who were once considered “core four” include Albert Almora, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler. Like Margaritaville, the core four is more a state of mind than a concrete truth. But right now, having been largely inactive in the last couple off-seasons, the Cubs largely depend on this quartet. Here’s how those four did in 2020.
The first baseman put up a .222/.342/414 slash line in 2020, versus a career slash line that reads .271/.372/.485. Rizzo homered 11 times and drove in 24 runs in 203 at bats. The power numbers aren’t awful, but they are still far below what is expected from a player of his stature and pay grade.
If you want hilarious, brutally honest in-game tweets and Cubs analysis, I suggest you follow @frustrated_fan on Twitter. His account recently tweeted: “If a .200 batting average is called the Mendoza Line then I propose that a .190 batting average be called the Schwarber Line.”
Mendoza, by the way, was a .215 career hitter, well above the unsightly .188 Schwarber hit in 2020. For his career Schwarber is a .230 hitter, but still has an OPS above .800 and he was amazingly above .700 this season.
This is the most puzzling of all, by far. With one swing of the bat, against the White Sox on Saturday night’s penultimate game of the season, he achieved an 80% increase in his season RBI total. The grand slam brought his season RBI total from five to nine! The 2015 NL ROY and 2016 MVP finished the season with a putrid .206 batting average, four home runs and only 11 RBIs in 131 at bats.
One of the most exciting players to watch in all of baseball last season, his 2020 OPS was a pathetic sub-.600. That goes along with an awful on-base percentage of .238, accompanying an ugly .203 batting average.
Ian Happ, who up until this year was a guy that often shuttled back and forth between AAA and the majors, had a breakout season, leading the club in all major offensive statistical categories except RBI. The leader in that department was David Bote, largely considered a platoon player.
So there you have it. The core four is in decline, and with that, the Cubs’ window for competing in the postseason is rapidly closing. Fans had been worried about trying to get extensions for the core four, with contract expirations on the horizon.
Fans also wondered, “how will the team afford all of them?” It probably won’t be a problem anymore, as it’s hard to imagine their value on the open market being as high as it once was. Moving forward, these guys cannot be the nucleus that the team should depend on for future success.
It’s hard to be a Chicago Cubs fan. Everyone gets that. There have been so many close calls, like in 1962, when they missed the post season by 42.5 games. – King Kaufman
Paul M. Banks, whose favorite color is Cubbie blue, runs The Sports Bank.net. His work has regularly appeared in WGN, Sports Illustrated, Chicago Tribune and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @paulmbanks.