The Cubs Are Winning Without Their Offensive Stars

If I told you at the start of the 2020 season that the Cubs would win the division by a comfortable margin, you probably would rightly make some assumptions about the events that led to this result. Probably the most obvious is that a National League Central victory would involve big years from the three biggest names in the lineup: 2016 MVP Kris Bryant, 2018 MVP runner-up Javier Báez, and three-time All-Star and Gold Glover Anthony Rizzo. But that most obvious of assumptions would be wrong in this case. Through Tuesday’s games, these key contributors to the team’s success over the last five years have combined for just 1.1 WAR in 581 combined plate appearances, about the same WAR as players such as Kevin Pillar and Victor Reyes. In 2016, the year the Cubs won the World Series, this trio combined for 15 WAR, or 4.8 WAR per 581 plate appearances.

All three are eligible for free agency no later than the end of the 2021 season and their poor performances have changed their outlooks enough to potentially have consequences for both their career trajectories and future contracts. With their performance this year, the Cubs have gotten a taste of what the team’s future might hold if all three depart Chicago. There are mitigating factors all over the place — the shortened, odd 2020, Bryant’s plethora of injuries — but the fact remains is that for stars, the risk is fairly one-sided. What this means is that for the best players in baseball, it’s far more likely that events will reduce their value than increase their value; I can think of a lot of scenarios that would cause Mike Trout to underperform his WAR projection by five wins, but very few in which he’d exceed it by the same margin. Poor baseball is one thing, but uncertainty is also a problem for a superstar. How have the outlooks for these three changed over 2020? Let us count the ways.

Anthony Rizzo

Of the three, Rizzo has had the mildest decline season and is the one primarily responsible for the combined 1.1 WAR. Having 0.9 WAR in 228 plate appearances would put Rizzo on course for his worst season since before he broke out in 2014, but his .220/.338/.403, 99 wRC+ line is more in the vein of a disappointment rather than a wreck of disaster-movie proportions. He’s still contributed defensively and has the least dropoff in terms of hitting the ball hard. Rizzo is also the player most struggling with the cruel vagaries of BABIP, as his .218 mark is a galaxy or two below the .297 zBABIP that ZiPS generates from the advanced data for 2020. Technically, he can hit free agency after this season, but as, uh, “thrifty” as the Cubs are, I can’t imagine them not jumping at the chance to effectively have Rizzo for one year at $14.5 million ($16.5 million salary vs. a $2 million buyout).

ZiPS Projection – Anthony Rizzo (Pre-2020)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .281 .386 .507 495 77 139 31 3 25 95 67 81 5 130 4 3.9
2022 .277 .378 .486 477 71 132 28 3 22 87 61 77 5 123 3 3.3
2023 .269 .368 .463 454 64 122 25 3 19 79 56 71 5 115 3 2.5
2024 .265 .361 .450 431 58 114 23 3 17 71 50 63 4 110 3 2.1
2025 .257 .350 .418 404 51 104 19 2 14 61 43 55 4 99 2 1.3

Rizzo was never going to have a huge payday by virtue of being a few years older than Báez and Bryant, not to mention baseball’s front offices falling quite out of love with slugging first basemen. Still, ZiPS projected him to age well to merit a four-year, $80 million contract, not that dissimilar from the one J.D. Martinez signed for five years and $110 million, considering the latter was coming off a monster season.

ZiPS Projection – Anthony Rizzo (Now)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .269 .377 .472 498 74 134 25 2 24 91 67 87 6 119 4 3.3
2022 .267 .372 .471 484 70 129 26 2 23 87 63 84 6 118 4 3.0
2023 .260 .365 .451 461 64 120 24 2 20 78 58 78 6 111 3 2.4
2024 .255 .355 .428 439 58 112 21 2 17 71 51 70 6 103 3 1.8
2025 .250 .345 .417 372 46 93 16 2 14 56 41 55 5 97 2 1.2

ZiPS isn’t projecting a full trampoline bounce from Rizzo, but it does think that he’ll rebound to the three-win level for a few years, pegging a four-year, $70 million for his valuation post-2021.

Kris Bryant

Whereas Anthony Rizzo has had a normal down year, Kris Bryant’s season has pretty much nothing on the positive side of the ledger. In just two months, Bryant has missed time due to or played through injuries to his wrist, elbow, finger, back, and even missed a couple games with a stomach ailment that initially triggered a COVID-19 test. Now as the Cubs prepare for the postseason, he’s out for an indeterminate period of time with an oblique injury. The results when he’s been on the field have been even uglier, with his 2020 amounting to a .195/.283/.301 line thus far, good for a 62 wRC+ and 0.1 WAR. It’s not even a season that can be blamed on a fluke BABIP, with ZiPS thinking he’s only earned a .275 mark compared to his actual .268.

The power loss has been extreme to the extent that Bryant’s average exit velocity ranks 228th among 257 qualifiers in baseball, behind noted burly sluggers like Martín Maldonado and Cedric Mullins. And it’s not just the average exit velocity that has gone down, but also those spikes that lead to home runs, as he’s only hit four barrels all season. Overall, Bryant’s hard-hit percentage has declined every year of his career (with the exception of 2019), and his latest career-low of 32.1% risks dropping him into the lowest-quintile in baseball.

The hope, of course, is that it’s purely the injuries causing these issues. But we don’t really know — and won’t until we see a healthier Bryant, hopefully in 2021 — just how much of the down year is indeed due to health. That creates a great deal of uncertainty in his future projections.

ZiPS Projection – Kris Bryant (Pre-2020)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2020 .270 .369 .504 534 96 144 32 3 29 77 70 141 5 124 -1 4.4
2021 .268 .366 .501 515 92 138 33 3 27 74 67 134 5 123 -2 4.0
2022 .269 .367 .499 499 89 134 31 3 26 72 65 126 4 123 -3 3.7
2023 .266 .363 .492 482 84 128 30 2 25 68 62 121 4 120 -4 3.3
2024 .262 .358 .474 462 77 121 28 2 22 62 57 112 4 114 -5 2.7
2025 .257 .350 .459 440 71 113 25 2 20 56 52 102 3 109 -5 2.1
2026 .254 .343 .448 417 63 106 23 2 18 50 46 92 3 101 -6 1.6

Entering 2020, ZiPS projected Bryant to get a five-year, $124 million in free agency after the 2021 season. When I projected players who would be the biggest losers if the 2020 season was unplayed and players did not receive service time, Bryant was projected with the most to lose. That would have been an especially bitter pill given that he had already lost his grievance against the Cubs for the manner in which the team allegedly manipulated his service time. Considering he had been prognosticated as the player with the most to lose dollar-wise should this season not occur, a lost campaign due to injuries and ineffectiveness having a similar impact on his future payday shouldn’t be a surprise.

ZiPS Projection – Kris Bryant (Now)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .258 .354 .469 488 81 126 28 3 23 62 61 131 4 112 -2 3.0
2022 .258 .355 .480 469 78 121 29 3 23 61 59 124 3 115 -3 3.0
2023 .256 .351 .463 454 74 116 27 2 21 58 56 117 3 110 -4 2.4
2024 .253 .347 .451 435 69 110 25 2 19 53 52 109 3 106 -5 2.0
2025 .249 .340 .430 414 62 103 23 2 16 48 47 99 2 99 -6 1.3
2026 .245 .333 .410 376 54 92 19 2 13 40 40 85 2 92 -5 0.8

The effect of 2020 is enough that ZiPS now suggests that Rizzo is a better bet than Bryant in free agency. ZiPS is only projecting a four-year, $57 million contract based on what we know today. Oddly enough, 2020 being what it is diminishes the negative impact of Bryant losing that year of service time; coming off a short season and struggles on and off the field, this would not have been a great winter for Bryant to try to score a big contract.

Now let’s assume that 2020 is a pure outlier and given another chance, Bryant completely wipes out this season and performs at exactly the same level of his 2019.

ZiPS Projection – Kris Bryant (Full Bounce)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .264 .361 .489 511 89 135 30 2 27 71 64 137 4 119 -2 3.7
2023 .263 .361 .491 491 85 129 30 2 26 68 63 132 3 119 -3 3.5
2024 .261 .358 .482 475 81 124 29 2 24 64 59 125 3 116 -4 3.0
2025 .257 .352 .464 455 75 117 27 2 21 59 55 117 3 110 -5 2.4
2026 .254 .347 .450 433 68 110 24 2 19 53 50 106 2 105 -6 1.8

In this scenario, Bryant gets right back to where he was pre-2020. Any metaphors involving Bryant at a crossroads or a fork in the road are justified.

Javier Báez

Báez is having just as much of a down year as Bryant, but he doesn’t even have the injury excuse for his dreadful performance. At .207/.237/.355 and a 55 wRC+, let’s just say that it’s fortunate for him that he can more than handle himself defensively at shortstop. Despite striking out at career highs, he hasn’t actually had a setback in terms of plate discipline; he’s having his best season in terms of not swinging at out-of-zone pitches (40.7% vs. 43.5% for his career). Known as an aggressive hitter against fastballs, Báez has been the third worst against the hard stuff in 2020, ahead of only Evan White and Eduardo Escobar in wRC. Missing 44% of fastballs offered at (compared to 36% in 2019, 31% in 2018, and 33% in 2017), one has to wonder if his bat speed has slowed just enough that his aggressive approach, which formerly made him one of the most exciting players at the plate, is now causing him to decline as an overall hitter faster than he would have otherwise.

ZiPS Projection – Javier Báez (Pre-2020)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .269 .307 .527 524 83 141 32 5 31 95 27 157 12 111 3 3.5
2022 .270 .308 .538 511 81 138 31 5 32 94 26 149 12 114 2 3.6
2023 .274 .313 .553 497 81 136 30 5 33 96 26 140 11 119 2 3.7
2024 .273 .311 .545 479 77 131 29 4 31 91 24 132 11 116 1 3.3
2025 .270 .308 .540 459 72 124 26 4 30 86 23 124 10 114 0 3.0
2026 .266 .303 .518 436 66 116 24 4 26 77 21 113 9 108 -2 2.3
2027 .262 .297 .495 412 60 108 22 4 22 69 18 101 8 101 -3 1.6

Entering 2020, ZiPS projected a six-year, $160 million contract for Báez once he hit free agency after the 2021 season. ZiPS liked him more than Bryant long-term, thanks in part to Báez playing a premium defensive position and playing it well, giving him more breathing space if his defense declined. With just a week left in the 2020 season, ZiPS is setting its algorithmic eyes much lower.

ZiPS Projection – Javier Báez (Now)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .256 .293 .487 554 85 142 31 5 29 93 27 169 13 98 2 2.6
2022 .259 .297 .508 532 84 138 32 5 30 94 26 157 11 103 1 2.9
2023 .261 .297 .517 518 82 135 30 5 31 94 25 150 11 106 1 2.9
2024 .261 .297 .523 499 79 130 28 5 31 92 24 143 10 107 0 2.8
2025 .259 .294 .509 479 74 124 26 5 28 85 22 132 9 103 -1 2.3
2026 .255 .290 .492 455 68 116 23 5 25 78 20 121 8 98 -2 1.7
2027 .249 .283 .469 429 61 107 21 5 21 68 18 108 7 91 -4 1.0

ZiPS now only projects Báez to get a four-year deal for $85 million, and over the same six years as the preseason projection, $99 million, a loss of $61 million from what was forecasted before 2020. A Báez without cashing in on his aggressive approach as frequently is still projected to hit for power, but also with BABIPs that drop enough to make him a .260 hitter who falls short of the .300 OBP line. He’s still a good player with these assumptions, but not a star, and MLB teams aren’t particularly incentivized right now to open their wallets.

If the Cubs steamroll their way through the 2020 postseason, all will likely be forgiven when it comes to their struggling core. But 2021 is looking like an absolutely crucial year for these three, one that could make or break their places in history, not to mention their wallets.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Charlie
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Charlie

Why is Báez’s best season (in either scenario) projected to be his age-30 season, measured by OPS+ and WAR? Would’ve expected a peak at age 28 or earlier.