The opening series of every baseball season gives the first look at real data, but it also usually provides a chance to overreact to early trends. Three games in, it’s tempting to make too much of what we’re seeing, but one of the initial markings of the 2023 Cubs is that the offense needs greater balance.
Before Sunday’s 9-5 loss to the Brewers, Dansby Swanson and Ian Happ had combined for nine hits through the first two games. The rest of the lineup had just two. That’s a .643 batting average from Swanson and Happ, and .043 from everyone else.
Three games in, it’s evident that the pitching and defense will be sturdy and reliable most of the time. Cubs pitchers started the season with 16 straight scoreless innings, and they were mostly solid throughout the series against the Brewers except for the sixth-inning walks and bloop singles that made the difference in Sunday’s game. Three of the Brewers’ four singles had exit velocities under 70 miles per hour, and one of those was just 58. Soft hits that just found grass while the bases were already packed with runners put on by walks.
The Cubs probably have a floor this year of 78-81 wins, and it will be the offense that decides whether they reach beyond that.
It’s way too early to diagnose anything officially, but to some degree Occam’s Razor might apply best here: The simplest explanation is always best, and in this case, the simplest explanation might be that there are several new faces in the lineup, and the opening series creates some added desire to do well. Especially at home.
“I know the new guys probably want to put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform,” manager David Ross said. “You just want to show everybody what you’re made of and produce. I’ve seen some guys probably a little more jumpy than we saw in spring training. Amped up. Adrenaline. Wrigley Field’s a special place.
“You can just see in some of the rhythm of their at-bats, they’re just a little bit more amped up than they were in spring.”
The most notable new batters outside of Swanson are Cody Bellinger, Trey Mancini, and Eric Hosmer. Bellinger has 4 strikeouts and no hits in 11 at-bats so far, Mancini is 2-for-10 with four strikeouts, and Hosmer has 2 strikeouts and no hits in 7 at-bats.
“I’m not going to lie, I haven’t felt great at the plate necessarily,” Mancini told CHGO. “But you also don’t want to freak out and let that spiral.”
It’s worth noting that these are all veterans, and two of those are veterans who have made moves to new teams before. With that comes the experience that can guide them through a rocky opening series. Still, consciously or not, they want to get the season started on the right foot.
“We all have that thought,” Mancini said. “You want to get your first hit out of the way, you want to have a good start to the year, but we play so many damn games. Especially those of us who have been playing a long time, [we] know how long the season is.”
But regardless, where Swanson is off to a 7-for-12 start and Happ has a homerun under his belt, many of the other hitters are still looking for something to jumpstart their offensive numbers. And veteran or not, a cold start can be hard to shake, especially when they came into the season with high standards for themselves.
“Probably the toughest expectation to manage is obviously going into a season you want to get off to a good start, and if you don’t, how you respond to that,” Swanson told CHGO.
Parallels exist in other sports. Swanson said that watching Saturday’s NCAA Final Four games reminded him of the weight of preseason expectations. There’s a similarity in what teams and individual players believe is possible, but the reality always exists that some disappointment is inevitable.
“The couple days leading up to it and the game, everyone’s belief strongly is that they’re going to win the national championship,” Swanson said. “And after the 40 minutes of the game, someone’s going to be heartbroken, right? And it’s really about managing if you don’t get what you’re wanting the first couple of games, how to maintain that level headedness.”
Happ, who is 3-for-8 with four walks and a homer, said that it often takes around a month into the season before hitters start to put stock into what their personal numbers are showing. And even then, playing most of your games at Wrigley Field means taking certain results with a grain of salt.
“You might get 100 at-bats in April and play in 60-plus degree weather a handful of times. You could hit five homers that come backwards,” he told CHGO. “You have to have enough time and have a really good barometer of where you’re at, and you can’t base that off of April because you’re going to smoke some balls that don’t go out. There’s all kinds of factors.”
Sunday’s results were a bit more encouraging, at least for the offense. Patrick Wisdom homered in the second and seventh innings, and the Cubs got hits from all but two guys in the lineup, and one of those was Happ, who walked twice.
There is a lot of potential in the Cubs batting order. Bellinger was on a Hall of Fame trajectory early in his career. Mancini has a .265 average and 125 home runs in his seven-year career thus far. Hosmer has been an All-Star and has a World Series ring. The pressure and adrenaline of the first series of the season may have played a part in slow starts at the plate, but it’s a safe bet that one – maybe even all three – of them might start to click and make the difference between a team that fights to finish .500 and one that’s fighting for the division title.