Three takeaways as Cubs continue to search for the elusive hot streak

CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs honored Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg by unveiling a statue of him outside Wrigley Field before Sunday’s loss to the New York Mets. The team then did its best defensive impersonation of the Gold Glove second baseman, flashing the leather on multiple occasions. But it may have taken the homage too far because it looked much too similar to some of those dreadful Cubs teams from the ’90s that couldn’t score runs and bored audiences regularly.

After a 5-2 loss to the Mets, the Cubs are now 37-41 on the season, going 4-5 on their nine-game homestand.

“We didn’t certainly gain any ground here and do anything to move us forward,” manager Craig Counsell said. “It’s going to take better than 4-5, no question about it. Try to start it tomorrow.”

Here are three takeaways as the Cubs continue to search for that elusive hot streak.

A lack of power with men on base

When the offense has a good game, almost inevitably it means it’s hit for power with runners in scoring position. Take a look at Saturday’s 8-1 victory. The Cubs had four non-homer extra-base hits. Three came with runners on base, and each time the hit scored runs.

On the season, the Cubs have a .148 ISO with runners in scoring position, 18th in baseball. Not good enough, but not dreadful. But it’s when you look at what they’ve done since April 27 — a day they entered eight games over .500 and looking like a strong team — that really makes it obvious. Since that point, they’re last with a .108 ISO with runners in scoring position.

Sunday they had four singles overall until Christopher Morel launched a two-run homer. Power is essential to a consistent offense. Last season, when the offense really turned it on in the second half, the Cubs were sixth in baseball with a .187 ISO. This season they’re 22nd at .140.

Michael Busch answering questions at first

The Cubs acquired Busch in the offseason from the Los Angeles Dodgers hoping to address the need they’ve had at first base since they traded away Anthony Rizzo. Despite a lull in late April and early May, Busch is proving to be one of the better additions of the Jed Hoyer era.

Among first basemen, Busch is fifth in baseball with 1.6 WAR and fourth with a 130 wRC+. He’s the only Cubs regular with an OPS above .800 on the season. Outside of a slight blip from April 21 to May 12 where Busch had a 47 wRC+ and struck out at a 42.1 percent rate, he’s been incredibly productive.

Busch’s struggles at that time were mostly due to chasing, something he rarely does.

“Part of that stretch was just getting outside the zone,” Busch said. “It’s hard to hit a 95 mph heater two balls above the zone. That goes for everybody. If I’m able to take those or foul those off and get them back in the zone, it’ll be just fine.”

But there’s also something else Busch does when he’s not quite right. It’s swing-and-miss at pitches within the zone.

Michael Busch

The above shows his extreme dip in performance came when he was chasing. But then as he improved, he was still swinging and missing at pitches in the zone. Lately, that hasn’t happened as frequently and with that has come more positive results.

Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly says that some in-zone swing-and-miss is just part of Busch’s game.

“It’s definitely something that we monitor,” Kelly said. “If it starts to get more out of hand and he’s not barreling anything, then it’s something we’ll talk about. But we know there’s going to be some swing-and-miss.”

Why does this happen for Busch?

“Some of it has to do with timing,” Kelly said. “There’s times when he catches the ball a little late. Part of why he makes really good decisions for the most part is because he does let the ball travel. But there’s times when that four-seamer or those pitches with more velocity kind of get on him. It’s part of who he is as a hitter. It benefits him in the swing-decision part. But there’s also a give-and-take to some of that too.”

For the most part, Busch can handle velocity just fine. He’s got a .379 wOBA against all fastballs this season, his best against any pitch type. So even if that’s the one bugaboo in his game as far as in-zone misses, he’s overall doing quite well. The Cubs have plenty of questions on offense right now. Busch is not one of them.

Another weak spot for PCA?

It’s been well-documented that Pete Crow-Armstrong has had trouble with fastballs up and in and above the zone. That was on full display Sunday evening against the Mets. Crow-Armstrong chases too much in general. If he were eligible, his 38.7 percent chase rate would be ninth-highest in baseball.

While the fastballs continue to be an issue, breaking balls are a real problem for Crow-Armstrong as well. According to Statcast, he has a 51.2 percent chase rate on breaking balls. Javier Báez leads baseball at 53.1 percent. Crow-Armstrong has a 35 percent swing rate at pitches right down the middle and a 34 percent swing rate at pitches down and in, outside of the zone. And this was before Sunday’s game when these were the breaking balls Crow-Armstrong swung at.

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Crow-Armstrong is an elite defender. That’s why he’s on the team. He’s already worth half a win this season despite posting a 54 wRC+ at the plate. So he’s valuable even though he’s doing little on offense. He needs to improve, and this experience will likely give him that chance. It’s worthwhile to go look at what St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Masyn Winn and Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Brice Turang did last year at the plate and compare it to this season.

Development absolutely takes place at the highest level, and Crow-Armstrong can and very likely will improve as he continues to put in the work. He’s also not the reason this offense is in the funk it’s in. He’s here to provide elite defense — which he’s doing — and learn on the job. Others have to produce offensively so Crow-Armstrong’s growing pains don’t sting as much. They’re not doing that.

If the heart of the offense doesn’t step up soon, talking about how a struggling Cubs team is still in the thick of the wild-card race won’t matter much. Eventually, some team will get hot — like the Mets already have — and start pulling away. Counsell and the Cubs have to hope they’re the ones to do so in the coming weeks.

(Photo of Michael Busch: David Banks / USA Today)

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