2018 Rundown: Infield (and Catcher!)

A big part of the Cubs success and hope over the last several years has come from the infield… and catcher! After the 2016 season, it was easy to imagine that the Cubs were set around the diamond for years with a group that included Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, and Willson Contreras. That has mostly worked out but 2018 added more question marks than had previously existed for these Cubs.

Some high highs and low lows were the story of this group of players (and their backups) in 2018.

Willson Contreras (.249/.339/.390, .321 wOBA, 100 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR)

Willson Contreras was an All Star in 2018, which seems like a mean joke given how difficult of a season it was for him.

Of all the players to take a step back in the power department in 2018, no one stands out more than Willson Contreras. Willson saw pretty significant drop compared to 2017.

  • ISO: .223 –> .141
  • Hard contact: 35.5% –> 29.1%
  • Home runs: 21 –> 10

Those numbers are ugly overall, but even worse when you look at his numbers from just the 2nd half.

  • .200/.291/.294
  • ISO: .094
  • wRC+: 62
  • wOBA: .264

U-G-L-Y

I’ve written pretty significantly about the potential effects that Chili Davis had on Willson’s decline this year, so I won’t dive too deeply into that here. However, it’s worth nothing two big things from Contreras’ 2018 season that may have contributed to his down numbers this year.

First, Willson increased his opposite field hitting percentage from 20.9% to 26.6%. That is a very, very significant increase and it meshes with the philosophy the Cubs were preaching going into this year. In Willson’s case, he seems to have gotten the message and implemented it at the cost of basically all of his power.

The other factor worth considering with Willson is that he played in 138 games this year. That’s 21 more games than he played in last year and 12 more games than he had ever played at any level of professional baseball. Joe Maddon has stressed the importance of rest since coming to the Cubs, and Willson likely could’ve benefited from more of it this year.

Of course, he didn’t get it because the Cubs didn’t have a competent backup catcher at any point during the 2018 season. The hope was that Chris Gimenez would play a competent David Ross veteran backup role or that Victor Caratini would translate his minor league offensive success into the ability to become a competent offense-first backup catcher – neither one of those things happened. As a result, Contreras had to play the most physically taxing position in the game just about every day.

Willson entered 2018 as a borderline MVP candidate. To return to that, the Cubs will have to allow him to go back to being what he is as a hitter and giving him a chance to rest during the year. I expect a backup catcher will be one of the Cubs big targets in the offseason. Hopefully, that will help Willson rebound from a rough 2018.

Anthony Rizzo (.283/.376/.470, .359 wOBA, 125 wRC+, 2.9 fWAR)

Anthony Rizzo secretly had his worst season as a Cub since his first full season in 2013. He was solid, he was fine, he was still the guy we all love! But by his standards, this wasn’t a normal Anthony Rizzo season.

Like much of the team, Rizzo had his worst power numbers in some time. Rizzo’s .187 ISO was his lowest since 2013. Unlike other Cubs however, not much about his approach or his peripherals appear to have changed in 2018.

  • Rizzo’s 24.7 LD% was the best of his career
  • Rizzo hit less ground balls than he has in any season since 2015.
  • His pull/center/opposite field numbers were more or less in line with career averages.
  • Same for his soft/medium/hard contact numbers – Tony actually put up his lowest soft contact percentage of his career.
  • His BABIP numbers were more or less in line with career averages.

You can’t point to obvious factors like an increase in opposite field approach, an uptick in ground balls, or more soft contact as reasons for Tony’s relatively unimpressive numbers this year.

So what does all that add up to?

Almost certainly, it adds up to bad luck.

Anthony did basically all of the same things he’s always done in his very successful career and had a little less to show for it. If he does all the same things in 2019, it’s a pretty good bet that his numbers will wind up a little closer to career averages.

Javier Báez (.290/.326/.554, .366 wOBA, 131 wRC+, 5.3 fWAR)

2018 will not be remembered fondly by most Cubs fans. That’s understandable, but it is a shame that the way the season ended has overshadowed just how fun Javy was for the entire year.

Báez became the player we all hoped he might become in 2018, putting up an incredibly productive season without really changing his game all that significantly – he still didn’t walk, he still chased more breaking balls than we might like, and he still struck out quite a bit. Javy did all the good things and all the bad things he had done before, but he did the good things so much better.

As if to underline the point, Javy actually walked less this year than he did last year. He struck out a touch less too. What really changed was a significant increase in avoiding soft contact and hitting line drives. Javier’s 22.1 line drive percentage was a noteworthy 6.6 improvement from last year. He did hit to the opposite field quite a bit more too, but unlike others on the team, that didn’t come at the expense of power at all – Javy’s .264 ISO was the best mark of his career by a significant margin.

Báez is tough to project offensively going forward because his game is always going to be so dependent on getting hits – he can’t really produce value with the bat in any other way. With that said, there’s not really any sign he lucked into success this year as his .347 BABIP was basically in line with career averages. He did see a big spike in HR/FB ratio, but his significant increases in line drives and hard contact can help explain that.

He also continued to dazzle defensively at both second base and shortstop, settling into the latter position permanently once Addison Russell stopped getting playing time. If Javy doesn’t win a gold glove this year, it will only be because he split time between two positions. Javy’s success at shortstop will give the Cubs flexibility next year if they decide to pursue someone like Manny Machado to play shortstop or a lesser option like Jed Lowrie to play second base.

I wouldn’t necessarily bet on Javy repeating his 2018 season in 2019, but I wouldn’t bet against it either. Because his offensive production is so dependent on hits, we’ll likely see some fluctuation between what he did in 2017 and 2018 going forward – and that’s fine, because he was a very productive player in both years.

This year we got to see Javy hit (probably?) his ceiling. It was a treat, and I hope we get to see it a few more times before his career is over.

Kris Bryant (.272/.374/.460, .359 wOBA, 125 wRC+, 2.3 fWAR)

KB had his worst season as a big leaguer in a season that was limited to 102 games due to a chronic shoulder injury that he was never really able to heal from.

There’s not a lot of need to do a deep dive into KB’s season. It was not up to his standards and it was almost certainly the result of that shoulder injury. For proof, check out how Bryant did in the first two months of the season prior to his injury in June.

  • March/April: .291/.441/.506, .405 wOBA, 156 wRC+
  • May: .282/.368/.536, .381 wOBA, 140 wRC+

A full season’s worth of those numbers is probably the best Kris Bryant we’ve ever seen. A full season of those numbers is almost certainly in the running for NL MVP. A full season of those numbers probably has the Cubs at 100 wins and avoiding the Wild Card game.

Unfortunately, that’s not what we got. KB hurt his shoulder in June and wasn’t able to get back to being healthy despite two separate DL stints for the injury.

  • June: .267/.333/.373, .306 wOBA, 90 wRC+
  • July:.250/.362/.425, .348 wOBA, 118 wRC+
  • August: Did not play.
  • September/October: .259/.354/.412, .333 wOBA, 108 wRC+

Bryant was never bad in any month, but he clearly wasn’t the same player. His hard contact percentage in the first half fell from 35.4% all the way down to 19.2%. His FB% fell from 42.5% in the first half to 35.6% in the second half.

KB without power was still a somewhat useful player, but the Cubs need him to be more than that to reach their goals. A full offseason of rest should do Bryant good. We can only hope back that he comes back to spring training in 2019 as the Kris Bryant we got to know from 2015-2017 and not the injury sapped version we saw in 2018.

Addison Russell (.250/.317/.340, 80 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR)

Russell’s numbers aren’t really the story of his 2018 season. Rather,  his 2018 will be defined by continued developments in the investigation of Russell’s abuse of his ex-wife, Melissa Reidy. The Cubs front office has stated repeatedly that they value character. If they mean it, Russell has already played his last game for the organization.

On the field, Russell wasn’t good. He posted his usual strong defensive season with 13 DRS. That was about the only positive. Russell had an ISO of only .090, which is pretty remarkable for a player that has displayed not insignificant power for most of his career to this point.

Like Willson Contreras, Russell may have sacrificed a decent amount of power trying to hit all over the field. Russell had been more or less a dead pull hitter at all levels of pro ball prior to this year. In 2018, Russell pulled the ball only 30.6% of the time compared to a career average of 39.8% (which includes 2018) fueled by major league pull%’s that have been consistently in the low to mid 40%’s. Russell also had a career worst 1.28 GB/FB ratio as he repeatedly produced easy grounders for outs, especially in the latter part of the year.

Russell was bad in 2018. Chili Davis could have been a big contributing factor towards that end. He’ll almost certainly get a chance to test that theory in 2019, but I hope and believe it will be in a different uniform.

Daniel Murphy (total between Nationals and Cubs: .299/.336/.454, .338 wOBA, 110 wRC+, .8 fWAR)

With the exception of a couple of strong weeks, Murphy wasn’t productive as a Cub – not productive enough to overcome his poor defense anyway. His lack of offensive production coupled with truly horrible defense and his troubling attitudes around homosexuality combine to create a giant box of reasons I hope he is not back with the team in 2019.

Theo was pretty noncommittal about Murphy’s future as a Cub compared to his statements on say, Cole Hamels, so I’d guess he sees the situation about the same way.

The rest

  • David Bote: The exit velocity king had a lot of big moments in 2018, but he did really struggle after a hot start to his big league career. I think there’s a decent chance that Bote will get a chance to earn a decent amount of playing time coming into 2019, especially if the Cubs don’t sign a big middle infield bat. He offers a lot of defensive versatility and has shown that he had the fundamental ability to hit big league pitching – now he has to show he can make adjustments.
  • Tommy LaStella: LaStella managed to get a number of key pinch hits while not hitting for any power at all in 2018. LaStella is arbitration eligible this year and I wouldn’t be totally shocked if the Cubs let him go instead of giving him a raise.
  • Victor Caratini: Caratini finished strong but had a disappointing 2018 overall. The Cubs knew going in that he wasn’t going to offer much defensively, but his bat was also a non-factor for much of the year. I’d be surprised if Caratini is the primary backup option in 2018.

 

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Image from AP/USA Today
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