At this point last season, the then-cursed Chicago Cubs are on pace for another 100-win season, winning in a variety of ways, via clutch performances from a variety of players.
But, as of writing, these Cubs are 25-26, third in a supposedly weak division in the MLB, and are on a worrying six-game losing streak.
Are Joe Maddon’s men still on a championship hangover after finally putting an end to a 108-year title drought, or are they just regressing just like most teams after winning the World Series?
WHERE ARE THE BATS?
Chicago lost some key offensive players of their title-run in the winter, as veteran David Ross retired, Dexter Fowler moved to division rivals St. Louis and Jorge Soler transferred to Kansas City, but their core run producers are still in Wrigley Field.
2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant is still here, along with slugger Anthony Rizzo and fan favorite Javier Baez, and so are Kyle Schwarber, Wilson Contreras and the expensive Jason Heyward. 2016’s super bats are still here, the “only” problem is they are all struggling.
Bryant is hitting a solid .277, but far from his .292 batting average in his MVP season last year. Rizzo is worse at .230, while Baez hits at .261. Shortstop Addison Russell should not even hold a bat because he’s hitting just .218, and, if not for his power threat, Schwarber would have been demoted to Triple-A leagues with his .174 average.
The Cubs are sixth-worse in hitting in the league this season, no wonder they have just scored 240 runs in 51 games.
In a sense, their average of 4.69 runs per game this year is just a little below the 4.99 runs per game they scored last term. But not only the bats are struggling, the men from the bullpen are, too.
Last season, the Cubs have five pitchers whose performances were worth of Cy Young award nominations. All of five starters had sub-4.00 ERAs, and the bullpen was solid, especially with the trade deadline addition of Adam Warren and Aroldis Chapman.
2016 Cy Young winner Kyle Hendricks had a 2.13 ERA, while Jon Lester won 19 games and had a 2.44 ERA. Jake Arrieta had 3.10, while John Lackey had a 3.35 and Jason Hammel had the “worst” ERA at 3.83. They had 881 strikeouts among them, and they struck out an average of eight batters per nine innings.
In 2017, no starter has a sub 3.00 ERA, despite the exit of Hammel. Hendricks moved up to position number 2 and has a 3.75 ERA in 10 stars. Ace Lester has a 3.86 ERA, while Lackey sports a 5.18 ERA and Arrieta has a 4.92 ERA. They have higher strikeouts per nine innings averages, but they also give out more hits per nine innings.
Maddon’s pitchers led the MLB in ERA in 2016 with a 3.15 ERA, and the next team was Washington at 3.51. But this year, the Cubs have a 4.11 ERA, just .09 better than the league average.
WHAT’S WRONG AT WRIGLEY
These Cubs sometimes show the kind of pep that won them 103 games last season. But maybe that’s the problem.
Last season, the Cubs were riding the energy of a city deprived of seeing World Series winners in the last 108 years. All the heartbreak, all the struggles, all the criticism and all the desperation that fed that beautiful run last season are gone this year. Because of how dominant they were in last season’s regular games, and how they improbably came back from a 1-3 deficit in the World Series, the Cubs are no longer the underdogs against the Billygoat curse and the Internet memes. They’ve become the target, the team that everybody will give their best against. They have the targets on their backs.
Also, winning the World Series takes a heavy toll on the body. The regular season has 162 games, compressed around 180 days, and then you have the postseason, where not only the body gets stressed but also the mind. Then we also had the World Baseball Classic. A very long season, an international classic plus a short break, that does not bode well for the champions, and there are not many repeat World Series winners in modern history to begin with.
Call it hangover, call it regression. It does not matter. Unless the Cubs find another big block to rally against, they might find it hard to replicate last season’s perfect story.