2018 Rundown: Outfield

The Cubs outfield had mixed results in 2018.

On the one hand…

  • Jason Heyward had his best season as a Cub!
  • Ben Zobrist was awesome despite his age!
  • Kyle Schwarber was a reliable masher of right handed pitching!
  • Albert Almora had a pretty good first half!
  • Ian Happ more or less repeated what he did in a strong rookie campaign!

On the other hand…

  • Jason Heyward’s season wasn’t that much better than what he had done before.
  • Ben Zobrist is old and can’t necessarily be relied upon going forward.
  • Kyle Schwarber didn’t take any kind of step forward against left handed pitching.
  • Albert Almora regressed in a big way in the second half.
  • Ian Happ turned a streaky rookie year into a streaky sophomore year.

The outfield is often a place where contenders are going to have at least one reliable “big bat.” Aaron Judge, JD Martinez, and Christian Yelich are just a few of the standouts from various contenders’ outfields. The Cubs aren’t really there in terms of having an everyday, reliable bat in the outfield – everyone has asterisks; age, platoon splits, or inconsistency. And as a whole, the outfield didn’t hit for as much power as one might’ve hoped.

Given this, it should be no surprise that Bryce Harper is the Cubs’ most hyped potential free agent target in some time. He would instantly be a legitimate everyday bat in the outfield, a place where you hope to have at least one of those. Time will tell.

As for the current group, here’s how the did in 2018 and how they might factor into the Cubs’ plans in 2019.

Albert Almora (.286/.323/.378, .305 wOBA, 89 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR)

As with a number of Cubs, it was a tale of 2 halves for Albert Almora in 2018.

  • 1st half (298 PAs): .319/.357/.438, .120 ISO, .343 wOBA, 115 wRC+
  • 2nd half (181 PAs): .232/.267/.280, .048 ISO, .242 wOBA, 47 wRC+

While ground ball and line drive rates were similar in the first and second halves, the 2nd half also saw a 6% drop in hard contact percentage.

The number that really stands out above all others is an alarming BABIP differential between halves. Almora’s 1st half was largely fueled by a completely .372 BABIP, whereas his 2nd half was sapped by a much worse but not outrageous or unsustainable .279 BABIP. That 2nd half BABIP is perhaps a little unlucky, but it’s not that unlucky.

Other than hard contact rate, peripheral stats were more or less steady throughout the year. As a result, it’s hard to muster up a lot of evidence to support the idea that Almora’s first half represents anywhere close to what we should expect from him going forward.

As has been the case to this point, Almora did put up a significantly better body of work against left handed pitching, to the tune of a .322 wOBA/101 wRC+ compared to .297/84 against right handed pitching. Almora’s defense also passed both the eye test and the stats as he ended with an eye popping 9 DRS.

Given Almora’s ability to be at least serviceable against left handed pitching and his strong defense, he could have a place in a 2019 Cubs outfield. Almora would make a lot of sense as a defense first platoon 4th outfielder in a group that included Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, and Bryce Harper across the outfield.

If 2018 was an audition to be anything more than a platoon outfielder though, it’s audition that he probably failed.

Kyle Schwarber (.238/.356/.467, .343 wOBA, 115 wRC+, 3.2 fWAR)

A lot of talk so far in the offseason has framed Kyle Schwarber as having a disappointing season in 2018. I think that’s pretty unfair – just look at those numbers! If you judge Schwarber relative to an expectation that he was going to be on the level of Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo, I guess he’s failed. He hasn’t been Babe Ruth (and neither have they).

What Schwarber has been is someone who has worked very hard to improve his defense and is a reliable bat against right handed pitching. Joe Maddon was pretty aggressive about giving Schwarber good matchups in 2018, as he had only 91 PAs against left handers compared to 352 against right handers. The results were pretty significant, with Kyle posting a 121 wRC+ against right handed pitching and only an 85 wRC+ against left handed pitching. Only 1 of his 26 home runs came against a left handed pitching and that was at the tail end of the season.

Schwaber did have a low batting average, but made up for it by drawing walks at a good clip and smacking the ball around when he did make contact. 83.2% of Schwarber’s contact was either medium or hard and he had a 19.2 line drive percentage. With those numbers, a low batting average isn’t something to be super concerned about because Schwarber’s game just isn’t dependent on it in the same way that someone like Albert Almora’s is.

What Kyle Schwarber isn’t is a clone of Anthony Rizzo. What he is is a player who is a very useful part of a lineup on a good team. Given the team’s need for players who can take pitches, draw walks, and hit for power coupled with the fact that he is controlled for several more years, I would be very surprised if Schwarber is not a member of the Cubs in 2019. If they do trade him, I can’t imagine they’d do it for anything less than a pretty significant major league ready return.

Jason Heyward (.263/.343/.410, .331 wOBA, 108 wRC+, 2.0 fWAR)

Jason Heyward had his best overall season as a Cub in 2018!

Jason Heyward was still just okay in 2018.

You can be happy with Heyward’s 2018 campaign, as I am, and still believe both of those statements to be true. Heyward was basically a league average bat with elite or something close to elite defense in right field. There was a while that it looked like Heyward would be something even better than a league average bat, fueled largely by a stellar June (134 wRC+), but that’s not how things ended up. And that’s ok – Heyward still had 3 separate months with a wRC+ above 100 and that’s a major step in the right direction.

Like Schwarber, Heyward was deployed mostly against right handed pitching, getting nearly 4x as many plate appearances against right handed pitching than left handed pitching. Surprisingly, Heyward had similar results regardless of the handedness of the opposing pitcher but that could be owed I part to Joe Maddon’s hesitancy to use Heyward against particularly tough left handed pitching.

By DRS, Heyward did have his worst offensive season as a Cub posting only 6 in that category. At times in the early part of the season he seemed to inexplicably lose fly balls, but that problem largely resolved itself and it’s fair to predict that any single season drop in defense we saw this year is probably a blip given that Heyward still isn’t even 30.

Heyward is likely to be a Cub in 2019 for two seasons; 1) he has value and 2) he is owed a lot of money. Were the Cubs to make no changes in the outfield, he would likely see more or less the same role as this year. Were the Cubs to add a corner outfielder (like hey, Bryce Harper!), Heyward could scoot to centerfield to accommodate Schwarber and Harper in the corners.

It’s hard to say that Heyward hasn’t been at least somewhat of a disappointment for the Cubs relative to the expectations set by his contract and past performance, but he has consistently provided excellent defense and by all accounts, leadership in the clubhouse. Hopefully he will continue to trend upward next year.

Ian Happ (.233/.353/.408, .329 wOBA, 106 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR)

Something worth remembering from the jump is that Ian Happ is only 23 years old. He’a also a switch hitter with significant power potential who has a good eye at the plate and can play at least 6 positions in the infield and the outfield.

He also can’t play any of those positions exceptionally well, has a significant strikeout problem, and didn’t take a real step forward from his rookie season in 2017.

With all that in mind, Happ is a difficult guy to put into a basket. In my view, his season was somewhat disappointing because he didn’t take that step forward. But coming into the 2017 season, many thought we wouldn’t see Happ until 2018 anyway, so this could have just as easily been his rookie year.

Happ saw significant jumps in both his BB% (9.4->15.2%) and K% (31.2->36.1%) in 2018 while also seeing a notable decline in power as his ISO fell from .261 to .176 despite an 6.5% improvement in hard contact percentage. Happ also improved his line drive percentage by a couple of points.

It might be tempting to think that Happ suffered some bad BABIP luck, but that wasn’t the case either. Happ had a very high .362 BABIP in 2018, an improvement on his .316 mark from 2017.

With peripherals that mostly stayed constant or improved, it’s hard to explain some of Happ’s struggles this season by pointing to anything other than his significant difficulty making contact in the first place. A 36.1 K% isn’t going to be a good recipe for success for most hitters.

Happ did enjoy a significantly stronger first half (123 wRC+) than second half (80 wRC+) but his overall body of work was just okay. I think Happ has a lot of room to grow and could end up being a fairly solid contributor who can hit for power and draw walks while offering defensive versatility and by all accounts a good attitude.

With that said, he might be the worst fit of the current crop of outfielders on this Cubs team. He’s not as good a defender as Albert Almora or Jason Heyward, he’s better against right handed pitching but not as good of a platoon option as Schwarber, and isn’t likely to be someone the Cubs are ready to tie the wagon to as the everyday centerfielder in 2019.

With that said, I think Happ is the most likely to be dealt of the current group of Cubs. I take no joy in saying that as I really like Ian Happ. I think his odds of staying are significantly higher if the Cubs were to sign Manny Machado instead of Bryce Harper. If the Cubs were to sign Harper or any other big bat in the outfield, it’s really hard to see where Happ would fit in.

Ben Zobrist (.305/.378/.440, .355 wOBA, 123 wRC+, 3.6 fWAR)

It feels a bit strange to put Zobrist in the outfielder review, but that’s where he played the most in 2018 so here we are. As it was important to remember Happ’s age, it’s also important to remember Zo’s – 2018 was his age 37 season. And it was really good!

By fWAR, Zobrist had his best season since 2016. He continued to do basically what he’s always done – draw walks, avoid strikeouts, and mostly avoid soft contact (only 11.9% of his contact in 2018). Zobrist didn’t hit for a ton of power, but that’s probably getting greedy at this point in his career.

Something to keep an eye on going into 2019 is that Zobrist had a .331 BABIP last year. His peripherals were more or less in line with his career averages, but he likely had a decent amount of luck on his side in putting together the great season that he did.

One of the biggest disappointments about the Cubs quick exit in the postseason is that it feels like they wasted a truly terrific season from a player who you can’t necessarily count on repeating it, mostly because of his age.

Zobrist is entering the final year of his contract in 2019 and will likely play often but not all the time, as was the case in 2018. Because of his defensive versatility, he should have a place on the team regardless of who might be signed in the offseason.

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