CHICAGO — There was a moment on Friday when it looked like the Cubs offense might enjoy the kind of breakout day the team has been starving for this season. And it arrived only three pitches into the afternoon.
Ian Happ slashed a pitch from Braves righty Kyle Wright off the bricks in left-center for a leadoff hit, providing a quick spark. However, like a stubborn match on a cold day, the offense just could not light the flame, leading to a 5-2 loss at Wrigley Field.
“You’re kind of waiting for that day when you really break out big,” said bench coach Andy Green, who filled in as manager while David Ross served a one-game suspension.
Here is a look at two statistics that tell the story of the Cubs’ offensive showing out of the gates this season.
.084 average with runners in scoring position
The Cubs did not lack opportunities on Friday afternoon, but the first inning was an unfortunate snapshot of the team’s shortcomings to date.
Following Happ’s leadoff single — he thought better of pushing for two bases when left fielder Marcell Ozuna got the ball in swiftly — Willson Contreras was hit by a pitch. From there, Wright set down Anthony Rizzo (groundout), Kris Bryant (strikeout) and Javier Báez (flyout) in order.
“Listen,” Rizzo said, “the more we put guys on base, the more opportunities we get to hit with guys on base. And the more opportunities you get, the more you’re going to come through, hopefully.”
The Cubs put the first two runners aboard in the second and could only produce a sacrifice fly from Eric Sogard. They loaded the bases via three walks in the ninth, but Joc Pederson went down swinging against lefty Will Smith to end the game.
Overall, the Cubs went 0-for-8 with RISP, dropping their season slash line to .084/.204/.120 in 83 at-bats. Heading into Friday, the Cubs, Mets and Nationals were the only teams with zero homers with RISP, and Chicago’s 33 percent strikeout rate with RISP paced the National League.
“We put a lot of baserunners on,” Green said. “We just couldn’t seem to put runs on the board. It just hasn’t happened. … Everybody wants to do something big. All these guys care a ton.”
Green pointed to a moment in the eighth, when Báez popped out to catcher Travis d’Arnaud on a bunt attempt. Báez was trying to move Pederson to second in an effort to ignite the lineup.
“You’re looking at guys that are trying to do whatever they can to win a baseball game,” Green said.
.208 average on fastballs in the zone
Jason Heyward pulled a four-seam fastball from Wright into right field for a base hit in the second inning. Pederson hustled up the line and narrowly beat a throw to first for an infield single off a Josh Tomlin cutter in the eighth.
Those were the only fastballs in the zone on which Chicago collected hits in Friday’s loss.
“If you’re chasing results,” Rizzo said, “which we all are right now, it’s a tough spot to be in. That’s when you rely on your process.”
The Cubs entered Friday with a .210 average (30th in the Majors) and .432 slugging percentage (25th) on fastballs in the strike zone, per Statcast. The 2-for-11 showing against the Braves knocked the average down some more.
Contreras’ towering homer off Wright in the fifth came on a slider that hung over the heart of the zone and was ripe for a trip to Waveland Ave. It has been the heaters that have given Chicago’s hitters fits, as was also the case in 2020.
Looking at the overall picture — not just fastballs — the Cubs entered Friday with a 79.7 percent contact rate on pitches in the zone (15th in the NL and 28th in MLB). The team’s contact rate on all pitches (in or out of the zone) was an MLB-low 69.9 percent.
The veterans in the room are banking on a return to more expected production as the season progresses.
“The sample is two weeks,” Rizzo said. “When it happens in the beginning of the season, it’s actually the worst, because it’s so magnified. But, you’ve just got to keep playing.”