So Far, Michael Busch Has Been a Big Hit for the Cubs

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Coming up through the Dodgers system, Michael Busch gained a reputation as “a bat-only prospect,” a player whose offensive skills far outpaced his defensive ones. So when the Dodgers landed Shohei Ohtani in December, it closed the door on the team finding room for Busch as a DH, and they were already set at first base — Busch’s main position in college — with Freddie Freeman in the fold. Busch needed a trade to clear his path, and in January he got one, a four-player deal with the Cubs. So far, the 26-year-old rookie is off to a flying start, ranking high on the leaderboards after reeling off a streak of five consecutive games with a home run.

Busch’s streak, which ended on Tuesday night in Arizona, took place during the Cubs’ nine-game western road trip, beginning with a game-tying two-run homer off the Padres’ Dylan Cease at Petco Park on April 10. Two days later in Seattle, he went deep off the Mariners’ Ryne Stanek. The Cubs lost both of those games, but he helped them win three straight, starting with a solo shot off Tyson Miller in the seventh inning of a 4-1 win Saturday night, then a two-run homer off Luis Castillo in the fourth inning of a 3-2 win on Sunday. Moving on to Arizona, he didn’t waste any time, connecting off Merrill Kelly in his first plate appearance of Monday’s game, an 11-inning, 3-2 win.

Those weren’t cheapies. All but the Miller shot had projected distances of 405 feet or longer, with the Castillo one leading the way at 437 feet. The home run off Kelly wouldn’t have gone out at Oracle Park, according to Statcast, but it would have been out at the other 29, and the other four homers would have been out at all 30 ballparks.

Busch was unable to extend his streak in a wild 12-11, 10-inning loss to the Diamondbacks on Tuesday, though in his first plate appearance, his loud foul ball off Tommy Henry into the left field corner missed being fair — and high enough — by just a few feet. On the next pitch, Busch hit a 94-mph warning track fly ball to left field, and in the sixth he added a 95-mph warning track fly to left center. He drew a walk off Kyle Nelson amid a four-run rally in the seventh, but struck out twice, once against Henry in the third, and again versus Miguel Castro in the ninth.

Busch is the fifth Cub with a home run streak of at least five games, but the second within the past year:

Longest Home Run Streaks in Cubs History
Player Streak Started Streak Ended G PA HR
Hack Wilson 7/3/1928 7/7/1928 (1) 5 21 6
Ryne Sandberg 8/7/1989 8/11/1989 5 23 6
Sammy Sosa 6/3/1998 6/8/1998 5 25 5
Christopher Morel 5/17/2023 5/23/2023 5 22 5
Michael Busch 4/10/2024 4/15/2024 5 21 5
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

The major league record for consecutive games with a homer is eight, shared by the Pirates’ Dale Long (1956), the Yankees’ Don Mattingly (1987), and the Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. (1993). Six other players have reached seven, all of them in this millennium, with Joey Votto (2021) and Mike Trout (2022) the most recent. Busch is the first rookie to homer in five straight games since the Red Sox’s Bobby Dalbec from Septmeber 5–10, 2020, and the 100th player to homer in at least five straight games during the Wild Card era.

Including his homer off the Dodgers’ Dinelson Lamet on April 5, Busch is now tied for fourth in the majors with six, behind Trout, Tyler O’Neill, and Marcell Ozuna, all with seven. He’s hitting .304/.394/.679, trailing only Ozuna and Mookie Betts in slugging percentage among National League qualifiers; his 183 wRC+ is fifth.

This is all a best-case scenario for Busch, who spent five seasons in the Dodgers organization before the Cubs acquired him along with reliever Yency Almonte on January 11 in exchange for two prospects, 20-year-old lefty Jackson Ferris and 19-year-old outfielder Zyhir Hope. The Dodgers drafted Busch with the 31st pick in 2019 out of the University of North Carolina, where he had starred as a first baseman and left fielder. Coming up through the minors, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound lefty swinger and righty thrower played mostly second base with a smattering of left field until last year, when he played more third base than second. Given his plus power and an above-average hit tool, he looked like a player with a big league future as he climbed the ladder. He made the FanGraphs Top 100 Prospects list four times as a 50 FV prospect, ranking 85th in 2021, 79th in ’22, 46th last year, and 84th this year; he was well represented on other publications’ Top 100s as well. Here’s Eric Longenhagen on his bat last year:

“His power on contact is exceptional, and even though his hit tool has looked more average than above as he’s traversed the minors, the combination of power and patience here belongs in the heart of a big league order. Busch’s swing is simple but still athletic and explosive. His hands work with natural lift, but Busch keeps their path short and on time, and he can move the barrel all over the zone… [H]e is one of the more well-rounded near-ready bats in the minors…”

The knock on Busch was his defense, which Longenhagen graded as a 30/35 (with a 40 throw) in 2021 and ’22, writing in the latter year, “Scouts who have had an extended look at him think he could eventually be passable at second base, but definitely not good, much like Tommy La Stella.” Longenhagen dropped his grades to 20/20 (with a 30 throw) last year, writing in part, “[H]e has no defensive position (Busch’s issues at second base go beyond just range, and he isn’t a fit there no matter what the rules around shifting are).” Other outlets have been only slightly more charitable, with Baseball America writing, “[H]is lack of range makes him a liability without the help of a shift. He’s a below-average runner who lacks quickness and agility and is a below-average defender at the keystone,” and MLB Pipeline noting that “the game speeds up on him at the hot corner.”

Busch spent most of 2022 and ’23 at Triple-A Oklahoma City, and hit a sizzling .323/.431/.618 (150 wRC+) with 27 homers there last year en route to the Pacific Coast League MVP award, that while playing 61 games at third base, 25 at second, seven at first and two in left field. Notably, he refined his approach at the plate, cutting his strikeout rate from about 26% in both 2021 and ’22 to 18.8% in ’23.

Just as notably, the Dodgers didn’t put Busch into the big club’s infield mix after Gavin Lux tore his ACL during last year’s spring training, instead going mainly with Miguel Vargas and then Betts at second base, but he did get his first major league action in three brief stretches with the Dodgers. Initially called up in late April when Max Muncy went on paternity leave, he stuck around to play seven games in a span of just over two weeks, then returned for 10 days in June when Muncy landed on the IL with a hamstring strain, and came back once more in August when J.D. Martinez was sidelined by a groin strain. Amid those three stints, which respectively lasted 23, 28, and 30 plate appearances, he hit just .167/.247/.292 (49 wRC+) with two homers and a 33.3% strikeout rate. Defensively, he played 13 games at third base and eight at DH, with brief cameos of 10 innings or less at first, second, and in left field.

It was an inauspicious debut, but hardly a fair representation of Busch’s capabilities, and when the team replaced Martinez with Ohtani, the writing was on the wall as far as his organizational future was concerned. The Cubs acquired him with the intention of trying him at first base, though the re-signing of the versatile Cody Bellinger — who played 59 games at first last year — plus the late-February addition of first baseman/outfielder Garrett Cooper and the pending arrival of center field prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong made it clear that Busch would have to produce or risk getting lost amid several moving parts.

So far, so good. While 66 PA and 39 batted ball events both constitute samples small enough that most of Busch’s stats haven’t stabilized, we can at least note that just about everything that can be measured has improved by at least a few percentage points. He’s swinging a bit less often (down from 47.6% to 44.7%), chasing outside the zone less often (down from 30.8% to 25.7%), making more contact in the zone (up from 83.3% to 87.4%), and has cut his strikeout rate to a still-high 27.3%. When he’s made contact, he’s hitting the ball much harder:

Michael Busch Small Sample Statcast Profile
Season BBE EV LA Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2023 46 89.1 4.7 6.5% 50.0% .167 .182 .292 .341 .241 .264
2024 39 93.5 22.4 20.5% 51.3% .304 .301 .679 .746 .453 .470

Note the big increase in launch angle. Busch generally hit only slightly more grounders than flies throughout his minor league career, but last year he had a 58.7% groundball rate and a 1.80 GB/FB ratio in the majors. The pendulum has swung in the other direction, as he now has a 23.1% groundball rate and a 0.45 GB/FB ratio — a good reminder that we’re dealing with limited data. Combining his 2023 and ’24 data, his overall 42.4% groundball rate and 1.03 GB/FB ratio bear a much closer resemblance to his minor league data.

With the sample size in mind, Busch’s 15.1-point jump in barrel rate is the highest among player with at least 50 PA in both seasons, ahead of Bobby Witt Jr.’s 13.5-point jump; meanwhile, his 4.4-mph jump in average exit velocity is eighth. His xSLG trails only Ryan O’Hearn and Witt, and he’s fourth in barrel rate.

At the risk of squinting too hard at the teensy amounts of data we’ve got, the other thing that stands out is that last year Busch was overwhelmed by four-seam fastballs, hitting .091, slugging .136, and striking out 12 times in 26 PA that ended with heaters. This year, he’s got a .304 AVG, a .652 SLG, and five strikeouts in 25 PA ending with four-seamers. On the Cubs’ broadcast on Tuesday night, he was quoted as conceding that his timing was off regarding fastballs last year. Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly chalked that up to his not seeing that level of velocity at Triple-A, adding that now, “He is able to time up a fastball, the pitcher’s best fastball.”

Seventeen games into the season, all of these numbers are at best early indicators that Busch is at home in the majors as projected. So far, nobody’s lodged any complaints about his defense, either. With the loss of Seiya Suzuki to an oblique strain, there will be more pressure on Busch to continue driving the offense and support the Cubs’ 10-7 start, but so far he’s been up to the task.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 month ago

There was a time in history when he would have been tried in LF like Greg Luzinski or Willie McCovey, Dave Kingman, or even Jack Cust. His fairly common profile may explain both why the Dodgers didn’t get much back and why teams don’t spend much on 1B.

1 month ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Why bother to ask Michael Busch to even try to fake it anywhere on the diamond. There is a position for men who should never be seen on a baseball field with a glove on their hand and that is called designated hitter. There is a long list of men who have been extremely valuable members of their respective teams by doing nothing more than sitting on the bench when their team is on the field. That list starts with Hall of Fame greats headed by such luminaries as David Ortiz, Edgar Martinez, Frank Thomas and I will even include Harold Baines. J.D. Martinez has been a welcome member of several championship teams during his fine career. Future elite hitters, who are limited in their defensive skills, should certainly be valued extremely highly without having to carry the stigma that seems to be a part of their profile,

1 month ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

There is nothing elite about Busch’s profile except this stretch of 66 PA.

1 month ago
Reply to  evo34

LOL at the Busch downvoters. Check back here in August…