The Cubs’ Losing Streak Portends Further Dismantling

Two weeks ago, on June 24 at Dodger Stadium, Zach Davies and three relievers combined to throw the 2021 season’s umpteenth no-hitter, even while walking the ballpark. The defeat of the Dodgers lifted the Cubs to 42–33 and kept them tied with the Brewers atop the NL Central. But for as pretty as Chicago appeared to be sitting at that moment, the team didn’t win again until Wednesday night, as an 11-game losing streak not only knocked it out of first but below .500 — a slide that probably marks the end of an era, as it changes the calculus for how the organization should view its current roster.

While five of their losses during the streak were by a single run — including three straight to the Reds in Cincinnati last weekend — the Cubs also surrendered 13 or more runs four times in that stretch, losing to the Brewers by the lopsided scores of 14–4 and 15–7 (blowing a 7–0 first-inning lead in that one, yeesh), and to the Phillies, 13–3 and 15–10, the latter on back-to-back nights. Compounding their misery is that they abetted Milwaukee’s 11-game winning streak and briefly dipped to fourth place.

Having lost again to the Phillies on Thursday, the Cubs enter Friday tied for third in the NL Central, 9 1/2 games behind Milwaukee, and eight games back in the Wild Card race. Their playoff odds, which were a modest 35.7% in the wake of the no-hitter, have dwindled to 4.7% — a fact of which club president Jed Hoyer is well aware. With a trio of pivotal players — Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo — all on expiring contracts, Hoyer effectively put up the “For Sale” sign while speaking to reporters on Thursday. Via The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney:

Hoyer stopped short of characterizing the team’s approach as a teardown on the order of what he and Epstein undertook beginning in the winter of 2011–12, saying, “We are going to have roster turnover. That was inevitable…. This is certainly not a rebuild by any kind of definition that we’d be using from our past.” He’s correct; this time around, he’s not charged with unloading several players on lengthy and undesirable contracts. But suffice it to say that next year’s Cubs could look very different (not that they couldn’t afford to keep the Báez-Bryant-Rizzo core together if they actually wanted to).

Until the past two weeks, it looked as though Chicago could at least defer that decision while focusing on another run at a division title, but the losing streak exposed the current roster’s flaws, which are largely rooted in the tight-fisted approach of a franchise that both Forbes and Sportico ranked as the sport’s fourth-most valuable after the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers. Despite last season’s NL Central title — the team’s third in the past five seasons and fifth playoff appearance out of six — the Cubs spent this past offseason as though headed for another rebuild, shedding payroll as if to justify owner Tom Ricketts’ claim of “biblical” losses (uh-huh). They non-tendered Kyle Schwarber, traded Yu Darvish off of a Cy Young-caliber season, let several other free agents such as Jon Lester, José Quintana, and Tyler Chatwood depart, and made noise about dealing Bryant, who was coming off a dismal, injury-marred 2020.

Ultimately, the Cubs were unwilling to sell low on Bryant, but even with him on the roster, we projected the retooled team for just a .491 winning percentage and a 19.3% chance of winning a particularly unimpressive division. After an 18–20 start, they looked ready to make that projection look silly, winning 14 out of 17 — including series victories over the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds — and taking a 1 1/2-game lead atop the Central. Then, as if unable to resist the gravitational pull of .500, they proceeded to split their next 20 games, the last of which was the the no-hitter by Davies and friends.

And then came the losing streak, which for as bad as it was didn’t come close to the majors’ worst this season:

Longest Losing Streaks of 2021
Team Start End Games RS RA Dif Opponents
Diamondbacks 6/2/21 6/20/21 17 64 119 -55 NYM, MIL, OAK, LAA, SFG, LAD
Orioles 5/18/21 5/31/21 14 48 93 -45 TBR, WSN, MIN, CHW
Diamondbacks 5/16/21 5/29/21 13 34 73 -39 WSN, LAD, COL, SFG, STL
Royals 5/2/21 5/13/21 11 33 74 -41 MIN, CLE, CHW, DET
Cubs 6/25/21 7/6/21 11 35 83 -48 LAD, MIL, CIN, PHI
Pirates 6/6/21 6/16/21 10 22 49 -27 MIA, LAD, MIL, WSN
Rangers 5/25/21 6/3/21 9 30 55 -25 LAA, SEA, COL
Royals 6/23/21 7/1/21 9 25 69 -44 NYY, TEX, BOS
Cleveland 6/30/21 7/7/21 9 24 57 -32 DET, HOU, TBR
Marlins 5/27/21 6/5/21 8 23 44 -21 PHI, BOS, TOR, PIT
Orioles 6/9/21 6/17/21 8 23 59 -36 NYM, TBR, CLE
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

On the other hand, the streak was the team’s longest since the Cubs lost 12 straight from May 15–27, 2012 — the first year of their rebuilding program, during which they went 61–101.

Through this year’s skid, the Cubs exposed their weaknesses on both sides of the ball, hitting .224/.306/.365 (86 wRC+) and scoring just 3.18 runs per game, and pitching to a 6.85 ERA and 5.96 FIP. Rubbernecking just a few extremes for entertainment’s sake: Joc Pederson (.143/.262/.200, 38 wRC+), Rizzo (.185/.267/.333, 69 wRC+), and Ian Happ (.194/.265/.355, 71 wRC+) were the lineup’s most inept regulars, and Jake Arrieta (12.96 ERA, 9.05 FIP in 8.1 innings over three starts) and Trevor Megill (zero batters retired, six runs allowed in that 14–4 June 28 loss) their worst pitchers.

But cherrypicked stats only go so far in describing the current mess, which is best appreciated in the larger context. Yes, the Cubs are a team with some positives, but also some glaring weaknesses. Their overall offense is subpar, averaging just 4.18 runs per game (ninth in the NL) through Wednesday (the cutoff for all of these stats) and hitting .226/.304/.396 (92 wRC+); they’re third in the league in homers (113) but ninth in slugging, 12th in on-base percentage, and 14th in bating average.

Individually, Bryant has rebounded to hit .268/.349/.498 (130 wRC+), but only three other Cubs who rank among the team’s top nine in plate appearances have wRC+ figures above 95: Rizzo (.246/.339/.433, 111 wRC+), Willson Contreras (.236/.342/.421 , 112 wRC+) and Báez (.234/.282/.496, 107 wRC+). On the other hand, Chicago has gotten a 72 wRC+ from its second basemen (mainly Eric Sogard, David Bote, Nico Hoerner, and Sergio Alcántara) and a 94 wRC+ from the outfield. Pederson, whose one-year, $7 million deal represented the largest commitment the team made to a free agent since the 2017–18 offseason (save for the in-season deal for Craig Kimbrel), has been subpar (.226/.294/.409, 92 wRC+) because he still can’t hit lefties. Even so, he’s far outhit the team’s other two regular outfielders, Happ (79 wRC+) in center and Jason Heyward (73 wRC+) in right. Their detrimental effect on the offense has been mitigated somewhat by the platoon work of Jake Marisnick in center (115 wRC+) and by Bryant making 44 starts in the outfield (14 in left, 10 in center, 20 in right), with 29-year-old rookie Patrick Wisdom picking up the slack at third base (.274/.330/.623, 154 wRC+).

If there are at least a few happy stories to be told within the Cubs’ lineup, that’s not the case when it comes to the team’s rotation. Last year, the unit ranked among the NL’s top five in both ERA and FIP and seventh in the majors in WAR, but such was the turnover that it ranked 28th in WAR in our preseason Positional Power Rankings. Only three of the nine pitchers who made starts for the 2020 club returned to do so in ’21: Kyle Hendricks, Alec Mills, and Adbert Alzolay. The losses of Chatwood, Lester, and Quintana, none of whom had much to do with the rotation’s success in 2020, haven’t been as big a deal as as the Darvish trade, which swapped him for the contact-oriented Davies in a significant step down. Buying low on Arrieta after an increasingly rough go in Philadelphia and on Trevor Williams after he was DFA’d by Pittsburgh hasn’t worked out well, either. The unit as a group ranks third-to-last in the league with a 4.74 ERA and dead last with a 5.01 FIP.

From among the Cubs’ top six starters, only Hendricks and Mills have an ERA- below 100, and only Mills has a FIP- below 100, and he’s made just six starts while spending the rest of his time in the bullpen and on the injured list. Hendricks, for so long the game’s preeminent soft tosser, has pitched to a 3.83 ERA and a career-worst 4.91 FIP due to a spike in his home run rate to 1.82 per nine, 0.85 above his career rate. Homers have bedeviled the rest of the unit as well, with only Mills and Davies below 1.0; the latter owns the lowest strikeout rate (14.6%), highest walk rate (12%) and lowest strikeout-walk differential (2.6%) of any NL starter. Only Alzolay, Williams, and Mills have strikeout rates above 20%, and both Williams and Arrieta have walk rates above 10%. The latter has been the worst of the bunch in terms of both ERA (6.30) and FIP (5.99). Earlier this week, he said, “I still have a lot left in the tank. There’s no question about that. The stuff plays. The execution’s not there.” The numbers — including a 4.1 mph dip in his sinker speed from his Cy Young-winning 2015 season to ’21, not to mention career-worst quality-of-contact stats — testify to a lack of stuff or execution. (As it stands, he’s out of the rotation for now thanks to a hamstring strain that landed him on the injured list.)

The bullpen, at least, has been a bright spot, thanks largely to Kimbrel’s recovery of his dominant form. The 33-year-old closer has put up his best strikeout and walk rates (46.2% and 8.5%) since 2017 and posted a microscopic 0.57 ERA and 1.12 FIP. Righty Ryan Tepera and and lefties Rex Brothers and Andrew Chafin have been good as well. If the Cubs can get a lead to the late innings, they can hold it; their 36–2 record when leading after six is better than any NL team besides the Padres (37–1) and Cardinals (33–1). It’s the getting of leads that remains a problem.

Where the Cubs looked like potential buyers at the trade deadline a month or even a couple of weeks ago, now they’re geared to sell. Báez, Bryant, and Rizzo might each rank as the best available player at their position even if they’re not at their peaks, capable of bringing back something significant in return. And while it’s not out of the question that any of those players could be retained if the Cubs stopped pretending they were the Pirates, Báez reportedly turned down an extension offer in the $160–$180 million range last year, and Bryant spent years pursuing a grievance against the team over its service time manipulation in 2015. Rizzo, the oldest of the three, reportedly rejected a five-year, $70 million extension offer, but as he won’t command a nine-figure deal, he ranks as the most likely to stay.

Of the rest, Kimbrel has a $16 million club option for next year, which given his current performance hardly seems out of line. Davies, Marisnick (who has a $4 million mutual option for 2022), and Pederson (who has a $10 million mutual option for ’22) could be useful to the right contenders, warts and all.

It didn’t have to happen this way for the Cubs, who could have retained Darvish and Schwarber and fortified this core for a legitimate run at another championship instead of fortifying the Ricketts family’s bottom line. It’s overstating the case to call the recent losing streak a self-fulfilling prophecy given the way Cubs have handled things — they’re a .500-ish team, not the Diamondbacks — but at this juncture, they might as well steer into the skid and work towards building their next contender.

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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Original Greaser Bob
2 years ago

Thanks for not writing anything new here Jaffe. I wish I could just regurgitate the same shit and get paid for it. Oh wait you can’t, that’s why memberships have flattened.

Jason Bmember
2 years ago

Jaffe run over your dog, or are you just an all-around terrible person? Genuinely curious.

2 years ago

Spoken like a true Cubs fan.