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The Cubs return to Wrigley Field to open a nine-game home stand Tuesday night, but obviously, they aren’t far removed from a disappointing nine-game road trip.
There were some positives to come from it — especially in some individual hitting performances — but the overall negatives sunk them. They couldn’t get the offense, the rotation and the bullpen clicking at the same time. That has now led to even more ire from the Cubs fan base.
While the Cubs players and coaches will attempt put the road trip behind them, it’s still pretty fresh in our minds. Here are nine stats that stood out from the Cubs’ time away from home.
7 – Christopher Morel home runs
How much more exciting of a start to his second stint in the majors could Morel have had? The Cubs couldn’t scrape together many wins on the trip, but Morel seemingly held up his end of things. In just 40 plate appearances, Morel smoked seven home runs. Along with his two doubles, those homers helped Morel record a .947 slugging percentage on the road trip.
Add in his first two games of the season at home against the Cardinals, and Morel has eight home runs in just 11 games — that makes him the first Cubs batter with eight home runs in his first 11 games of a season in franchise history. While it’s more on the extreme end, it’s still a display of Morel’s raw power. We saw it when he deposited a ball onto Waveland in the first at-bat of his big league career last year. We saw it with the 22 extra-base hits he recorded in 29 Triple-A games to start 2023.
It remains to be seen how long he can keep up this power stroke, but it’s been very impressive nonetheless.
40% – Christopher Morel strikeout rate
This is other side of Morel as a hitter. As great as he looked on this trip — and according to his 248 wRC+, he really was great — the strikeout rate was way too high. He struck out at least once in all nine games, at least twice in four, at least three times in two and four times once. That’s kept his overall strikeout rate with the Cubs at 37.5 percent, which is the 14th highest in baseball among hitters with at least 40 plate appearances.
It’s probably too early to panic about the strikeouts. The way Cubs coaches have talked about him, allowing him to stay aggressive seems to be their game plan. As long as it helps lead to more wins, they’ll surely be willing to take the swing-and-miss risk that comes with his offensive firepower. However, it’s unlikely that he stays this hot for long. If his slugging cools off, Morel will have to figure out how to get the K-rate down, too.
1.234 – Seiya Suzuki OPS
The discourse surrounding Suzuki’s struggles to begin his season never really made sense. This is someone who didn’t have a spring training because of an oblique injury. He was more than a couple weeks behind his teammates when he finally made his season debut, so he should’ve been allowed some time to get into season mode before criticism was really warranted.
The criticism came regardless, though, so it was on Suzuki to quiet the doubters — and that he did. The 1.234 OPS he recorded on the road trip was outstanding, and looking at the graph below, it’s clear that Suzuki is finding his stride at the plate.
And just in case anyone thinks that number is empty, with runners on base during the last nine games, Suzuki’s OPS rose to 1.650 (13 plate appearances). With runners in scoring position, that rose even higher to 2.029 (seven plate appearances). While certainly encouraging, that all came in a pretty small sample size, of course.
It’s on Suzuki to show this is the hitter he’ll be going forward. The Cubs spent nearly $100 million to bring him last year believing he’d be a staple in the middle of the lineup for the next few seasons. If he can keep performing anywhere near how he did on the road, he should prove the Cubs right in making that investment.
.203 – Team batting average with runners in scoring position
It feels like this has been the Cubs’ story for the last month — they do a good job of getting runners on, but they just can’t seem to get the big hit for the most part. That didn’t change on the road trip; the Cubs had 64 at-bats with runners in scoring position over the last nine games, but they hit just .203.
The offense wasn’t the biggest culprit in the struggles over the road trip. It was actually more middle of the pack overall during that stretch (101 wRC+), and it would’ve taken a lot for it to make up for the pitching staff’s issues. But there were certainly games during the trip when a big hit could’ve turned the tide in their favor. As has been the case a lot recently, though, the big hits didn’t come enough.
2 – Drew Smyly quality starts
Smyly has been a model of consistency for the Cubs this year. It seemed like a smart move for the Cubs to re-sign him last winter, and he’s done everything to prove that correct.
He’s made nine starts in 2023. Just two (April 3 in Cincinnati, May 6 versus Miami) can really be considered “not great” to “bad” outings. Outside of that, he’s gone at least five innings and allowed two or fewer runs in every other start, and four of his last six outings have been qualifying starts
That includes the two he had on the road trip. The first came on opening game of the trip on May 12, when he allowed just four hits, a walk and two runs in six efficient innings as the Cubs rallied for the win. The second was even more dominant of an outing, when he held the Astros to one run on four hits while striking out eight in six innings. He would’ve earned his second win of the trip, too, had the Cubs’ bullpen not blown a late 6-1 lead.
Smyly might be one of the more underrated starting pitchers in the majors. He owns the 16th-lowest ERA among starters in baseball at 2.86, and his 1.3 fWAR ranks 18th. His road trip success was just an extension of what he’s done all season long.
6.45 – Rotation ERA
Going into the season, the rotation was seen as the Cubs’ strength. For most of the season, that proved to be true. But the starting group ultimately wasn’t immune to the issues that plagued the team on the road trip.
Every starter but Smyly had a clunker on the trip. In two starts apiece, Justin Steele (3.75), Marcus Stroman (7.27) and Jameson Taillon (12.86) posted ERAs higher than the Cubs needed. Hayden Wesneski allowed seven earned runs (and four homers) in his lone start and was then optioned to Triple-A Iowa. Smyly did what he could to provide some stability, but the rotation as a whole struggled.
One road trip won’t define this group. Cubs starters still own ninth-most fWAR (3.9) and the ninth-lowest ERA (3.94). It’s still the strength of the team, and this feels more like a bump in the road for the group than anything. Regardless, this road trip proved how much it can hurt the team when the starting pitching as a whole struggles.
9.10 – Bullpen ERA
Maybe we all got spoiled by the Cubs slapping together solid bullpens every year the past few seasons. They’d done it pretty successfully, and it was fair to think they would figure it out again in 2023. That obviously hasn’t come to fruition, with their veteran additions (Brad Boxberger and Michael Fulmer) failing to deliver in high-leverage roles while the younger options have had their share of ups and downs.
After dominating in a relief role in 2022, Keegan Thompson just hasn’t found that consistency this year. His part in the Cubs blowing a late five-run lead in the series finale in Houston led to him being optioned to Iowa before the series in Philadelphia. But it wasn’t only Thompson that had some failures on the road. Mark Leiter Jr., who’s become one of manager David Ross’ go-to relievers, allowed two runs in the eighth inning of that same game that resulted in Thompson entering in a save situation. Adbert Alzolay — another reliever in Ross’ circle of trust — took the mound in a tie game Sunday, but within 10 pitches, had given up the two runs that decided the game.
The bullpen hasn’t felt very reliable in recent weeks. There were reasons to believe the Cubs could figure out how to make a group of relievers mostly without long track records of success work again, but that hasn’t really happened. And this road trip was possibly the worst the bullpen has looked all year.
-27 – Run differential
The fact that the Cubs’ run differential is still the third-best (entering Monday) in the National League after that road trip is surprising. It sort of tells you how well they’d performed overall in a run-scoring capacity prior to that, even though they’d been on a tough stretch ever since they made the trip to Miami.
But that doesn’t take away the fact that it was just an awful trip in the run-scoring department for the Cubs. Seeing a “-27” next to their name can tell you that by itself. But that doesn’t tell you the whole story. Had it not been for a nine-run thrashing of the Phillies to open up the last series of the trip, that differential would’ve been even lower. They were blown out three separate times. Their four other losses were by a combined eight runs. So, while they’re still competing well enough in most games, the cracks started forming in a long stretch against playoff-caliber teams.
For a team that for most of the year could point to its run differential as a sign that the team was better than the results, this trip was a major hit.
2 – Wins
This is really the only thing that matters. At the end of the day, regardless of what the numbers say, the only thing people care about is how many wins you can earn in a 162-game season. And the Cubs didn’t earn many during the road trip.
A 2-7 record on the road isn’t going to get it done. An 8-19 record since Smyly flirted with perfection on April 21 (second-worst record ahead of only the A’s in that time) isn’t going to get it done. For a team that was supposed to be more competitive in 2023 — and which actually looked the part for the first three weeks of the year — this was beyond a disappointing trip away from home.
When things are going this bad, every misstep is magnified. A mistake on Ross’ part gets even more scrutinized. Same with the bullpen’s struggles, the rotation’s first bad stretch and the offense’s continued issues in RISP situations.
The saying goes that winning cures everything. The Cubs need to start doing more of it soon.
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