MILWAUKEE — It wasn’t that long ago that the Cubs were sitting pretty. At the end of play on Sept 6, they’d swept San Francisco in impressive fashion and their playoff odds stood at 92.4 percent. They were just 1 1/2 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies for the top wild-card spot and the same distance behind the Milwaukee Brewers for the division lead. All was well. Even after a tough stretch, as recently as Monday they still had a 58 percent of getting into October.
But despite taking Saturday’s game 10-6 over the Brewers, the Cubs fell short of the postseason after the Miami Marlins topped Pittsburgh to clinch a wild-card spot. With how the past few days played out, Saturday’s results felt rather anticlimactic, but it punctuates a dramatic fall in the standings for a team that seemed destined for postseason play not that long ago. The playoff field is set, as the Diamondbacks clinched a berth with the Reds’ 15-6 loss to the Cardinals. Of the teams on the outside looking in, none had higher playoff odds (according to FanGraphs) at any point in the season than the Cubs did when they peaked early in September. That’s the type of gut punch that fans will likely be feeling through the winter.
“We win together and we lose together,” Yan Gomes said after the team was officially eliminated on Saturday. “There was never a transfer of blame, especially with what happened towards the end. We just got cold. It wasn’t because of a lack of effort. We went out there and we gave it our best. It just didn’t work out.”
There’s no one person to blame or a singular game to highlight. The full season wasn’t enough to get the team to October. As Gomes said, it was a team effort. Both the good and the bad fall on the entirety of the group. Still, September was ugly. It was only their second losing month of the season and many of the issues that plagued them in a poor May resurfaced, just with different names as the culprits.
So, what the hell happened? Here’s a look at some of the key issues that sunk the team in the final month of the season (all stats are through Friday’s games).
The offense’s failure to come up clutch
Remember the issues that dogged the team in big moments early in the season? In April and May on offense, the Cubs were 30th and 27th, respectively, in a statistic FanGraphs defines as Clutch. They slowly corrected the issue in the following months — 11th in June, fifth in July and third in August. But it all came crashing down again in September as they dropped to 26th.
Many reading this will already know one of the bigger culprits. Of the everyday guys, Dansby Swanson was second-worst in Clutch (-0.42) for September and hit just .200 with no walks and one extra-base hit in what FanGraphs defines as “high-leverage” moments.
“Just playing bad,” Swanson said. “Which I own. Obviously coming to work every day with the expectation of playing well and just haven’t performed in moments recently. It sucks. Definitely something I’m fricking working on, but it’s just not happening.”
Swanson actually was one of the Cubs’ best hitters with runners in scoring position in September, but in those moments when the game could have been swung in his team’s direction, he couldn’t come through. The Cubs lost 12 games by one or two runs in September. In those contests, Swanson went 7-for-47 with three walks.
But he wasn’t alone in failing to come through in the biggest moments in that final month. The only everyday player who had a worse Clutch figure for the Cubs in September was Cody Bellinger. Bellinger had just one hit in high-leverage moments in the season’s final month, but most should be able to forgive him considering he carried the offense during their best stretch and is a primary reason the team ever had a chance to play in October. The same could be said of Swanson with regard to his defense and even-keeled leadership that set the tone in the clubhouse. Still, his poor performance at the plate over the final month will linger in many fans’ minds.
But this shouldn’t fall on just two players. At different points in the year, different players struggled in the big moments. Seiya Suzuki was awful in those high-leverage spots early in the year and repeatedly came up big over the final two months. It just so happened that two of the bigger names on the team failed to come through in the final month.
A tired and depleted bullpen faltered
This may sound like a broken record, but this is exactly what happened in April and May. The Cubs’ bullpen just didn’t come through in September. Adbert Alzolay struggled in his three appearances early in the month and then went on the injured list. Michael Fulmer had two separate IL stints. Julian Merryweather and Mark Leiter Jr., the latter especially, struggled with effectiveness after being ridden hard over the summer.
Ross worked hard to figure out the right mix early in the season. Keegan Thompson, Brandon Hughes and Brad Boxberger were all expected to be key contributors to the group. Either injury, ineffectiveness or a combination of both led to the trio combining to give the Cubs a 5.34 ERA in 62 1/3 innings. Finally, a quartet of relievers stepped up and Ross found consistent roles.
But there was little depth over the course of the season. Whether it was a lack of moves at the deadline (Jed Hoyer and the front office only added one reliever, Jose Cuas, in July) or struggles for the youngsters who came up from the minors, Ross never developed much trust with others and felt the need to rely on too few arms as the Cubs made a furious run back to relevancy. It likely ended up costing the team.
“We’ve lost so many close games with a short bullpen,” Ross said. “It’s definitely hurt, I think that’s clear. It’s baseball, you can’t make excuses of it’s this or that. It’s next-man-up mentality. Guys have to produce. It’s a team, it’s the organization, it’s depth, it’s everybody. I say it in spring training to these guys: It takes more than the 26 that are going to break camp with the team. That’s evident every year. You’re going to need guys in the minor leagues to come up and produce. Some guys have, some guys have struggled in moments and continue to grow and learn.”
Ross needed guys like Cuas, Hayden Wesneski and Daniel Palencia to show him they could be trusted in big situations. The trio were all negative in Clutch in September and in high and medium-leverage moments, Palencia and Cuas both had ERAs over 7.00. Leiter’s high usage over the course of the summer appeared to finally catch up to him. Pitchers like Luke Little and Drew Smyly got solid results, but couldn’t make up the deficit.
In the end, it was probably the most inconsistent bullpen that Ross has watched over during his four years managing the team. Whether that’s on him, the players or the front office will be debated over the next few months. It’s fair to point blame in all directions.
What happened to the defense?
By almost any measure, the Cubs’ defense is among the best in baseball. Both Defensive Runs Saved and Outs Above Average, two advanced defensive metrics, had them as the sixth-best group in the game. But if it seemed like nearly every mistake ended up biting this team, it wasn’t your imagination. Coming into play on Saturday, the Cubs had 70 unearned runs, third-most in baseball. They were also third in percentage of runs allowed being unearned.
“We have to as a pitching staff pick guys up,” Ross said. “We’re not going to be perfect, we’re not a perfect team by any means. Offensively, defensively, pitching, you’re gonna have good months, you’re going to have bad months from different aspects. You’ve got to pick each other up when you make mistakes. That’s just how a team works.”
Far too often, the pitchers weren’t able to work their way out of jams when mistakes were made behind them. This especially seemed to bite them over the final weeks of the season. They allowed 15 unearned runs in September. Fourteen of those came in seven games, all of which were losses. In those losses, the Cubs were outscored by a combined 13 runs. For a team that could always seemingly hang its hat on its brilliant defense, that stat alone has to be gut-wrenching to all involved.
Ultimately, the fact that the Cubs once again found themselves in so many close games and failed to come up with the big hit, execute a big pitch or make a big defensive play sunk them. It happened in late April, through May and then once again in September. Hoyer said it before the season started and it’s been repeated throughout the year, but the best way to avoid those situations is to blow out teams more regularly. Playing fewer close games prevents a team from getting exposed to the random variance that’s bound to occur over 162 games. The Cubs know their deficiencies and they know their strengths. It’s now up to the front office to spend this winter working to cover up the former while being sure to accentuate the latter.
(Top photo of Dansby Swanson: Rick Scuteri / USA Today)