This time last year, the Chicago Cubs were showing that they were a team of destiny. They started 24-6, had the best ERA in baseball, and had two MVP candidates raking at the plate.
The start to the 2017 season has been a bit different.
After nearly being no-hit by German Marquez on Wednesday (he's a real pitcher, I assure you), the Cubs fell to 17-17 on the year. After losing five of six, they sit in fourth place in the National League Central, behind the Cardinals, Brewers and Reds.
It's easy to claim that a World Series hangover is the culprit of the Cubs' early-season malaise.
"The reality is we can't take anything for granted and right now, I feel like we do," catcher Miguel Montero said this week.
But "wanting it more" doesn't fly as a good reason in baseball — the game is far more complicated than that.
No, diving into the numbers, there are three pinpointable reasons for the Cubs' struggles through the first fifth of the season. Here's what the Cubs are doing wrong, and here's what they can do to fix it:
Isaiah J. DowningIsaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
The bats aren't as powerful
In their 18-inning loss to the Yankees on Sunday, the Cubs struck out 26 times. To some Cubs fans and sports-talk-radio callers, the extra-inning loss was the clearest example of the Cubs' biggest problem: They strike out too much.
The numbers don't back up that hypothesis, which probably stems from the Cubs' poor clutch performance at the plate this year. (If you strike out in a big situation, fans remember — unlike the K to start an inning).
The Cubs do have a plate discipline issue, though — they're swinging at too many pitches outside the strike zone.
Let's break it down: Chicago has the third-worst line-drive rate (18.4 percent) and hard-hit ball rate (27.5 percent) in baseball and the highest pull ratio in the league. But that's not too different from the start of the 2016 season (30 percent hard-hit rate, 21.7 percent line-drive rate, fourth in pull rate). In fact, the Cubs' walk and strikeout percentages from the start of last season are almost identical to the start of this season — both teams roughly had a .290 batting average on balls in play.
The big difference is that the 2017 Cubs are swinging at 30 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, per Fangraphs. Last year, Chicago wasn't exactly a roster of Joey Vottos, but its hitters swung at 22 percent of pitches outside the zone.
The contact rate on those out-of-the-zone pitches is roughly the same, though — 61.4 this year to 59.9 last year.
It's hard to drive pitches outside of the zone, but the Cubs are swinging (and making contact) with a lot of them in 2017. But the Cubs aren't slugging they did last year: They have a sub-.400 slugging percentage as a team in 2017. Last year they were consistently around .430 all season.
If you're looking for a reason why Cubs aren't slugging they did last year, their sub-.400 slugging percentage is the clearest culprit.
The solution is simple: Stop swinging at so many balls.
Isaiah J. DowningIsaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
They're not getting as much from their starters
Cubs manager Joe Maddon knew that his team was going to have starting pitching issues this year, but he was more concerned about the number of innings they were going to throw after back-to-back postseason appearances — not the ineffectiveness of those innings.
So far this season, Chicago starters have a 4.51 ERA. Not terrible, but hardly great.
What's the problem? Well, aside from the baseline issues that plague all pitching staffs (control, velocity, depth), Chicago's starters have been downright horrific in the first inning of games this year, posting a 10.32 ERA.
How is that possible? Simple: they've allowed 11 first-inning homers this year and have a 2.03 WHIP in the opening frame (the next-worst team has a 1.52 WHIP).
Fix those first-inning woes and the Cubs will find themselves in much better positions to win games — particularly when you consider how strong their bullpen has been this year.
That said, the starting pitchers aren't entirely to blame for the ERA jump — their xFIP (fielding independent pitching) is almost exactly the same as it was in the first-half of last year (3.73 to 3.74).
The Cubs' starters need some help, but they might have used it all up last season.
Caylor ArnoldCaylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports
The defense is no longer spectacular
Last year's Cubs defense was arguably the best in the history of baseball.
From that level of success, you expect regression, but this much regression — no one saw that coming.
Chicago posted the best park-adjusted defensive efficiency rating in baseball history last year at 6.38. This year, the Cubs are 17th in baseball at 0.01.
To put it simply, a lot more balls are dropping in 2017, and it's not as if Cubs pitching is being hit disproportionally harder (there are only one percent upticks in line-drive and hard-hit ball rates year-to-year).
The outfield defense is particularly concerning. No one expected Kyle Schwarber to be a plus defender, but he's been worse than expected in left field this year, posting a -14.4 UZR/150 with minus-4 defensive runs saved in 225 innings — he boasts the fifth-worst defensive WAR of any regular left fielder in the game.
Albert Almora, who was supposed to play more in center field after a stellar defensive season there in 2016 and the departure of Dexter Fowler to St. Louis, has a -10.1 UZR/150, which could be tied to the fact that he has to cover for Schwarber in left.
Add in Addison Russell's subpar (by his strong standards) start and Anthony Rizzo's puzzlingly poor defense at first base and you can start to see why the Cubs' defense has slipped in 2017.
The problem: There's no easy solution. Defenders can play better, yes, but do the Cubs bench Schwarber because of his poor defense? That only exasperates their slugging woes.
Last year, Cubs pitchers posted a 3.09 ERA on a 3.74 xFIP thanks to the Cubs defense. This year, they have the same xFIP and an ERA a run and a quarter higher. The two problems are tied at the hip, and while the Cubs pitchers can do better in certain situations, they need better defense in all situations if the Cubs are to pull themselves out of their funk.
If you have a solution to stopping the Cubs' defensive slide, make sure to write a letter to Joe Maddon at 1060 West Addison Street, Chicago, IL 60613 — I can assure you he'd be receptive to any and all ideas.