What's working for Cubs (and what's not)

May 13th, 2021

CHICAGO -- Things did not go the Cubs' way during their brief two-game stop in Cleveland this week, but manager David Ross was still able to sift through the two losses and find some positives heading into Thursday's team off-day.

"The grit and determination and the fight," Ross said, "and how these guys have approached really good pitching, while we've been short-handed, I've been impressed with to be honest with you.

"It's been a positive sign. We didn't come away with two wins and that's what ultimately matters, but yeah, I would definitely say I like where we're at."

Here is a look at three good developments and three trouble areas as the Cubs prepare for a weekend series in Detroit.


1. The homegrown arms

Earlier this month, rookie lefty sat down for a Zoom interview, wearing a shirt that read, " is nasty."

Steele and Alzolay have been close friends since their early days in the Cubs' farm system. Now in the Majors together, they are trying to help rewrite the narrative that the franchise struggles to procure and develop impact arms.

"You can definitely look at it as I guess a chip on the shoulder for us," Steele said. "I'm not going to say we've been bashed, but people have definitely undervalued us. It's just now we're finally getting here to Chicago and y'all are finally able to see what we've been working on."

Alzolay currently features one of baseball's elite sliders (a pitch he developed last year) and ranks in the Top 20 in strikeout rate (29.3 percent) among MLB pitchers with at least 30 innings. Steele has a 38.1 percent strikeout rate, which ranks 15th in MLB among relievers with at least 10 innings.

Alzolay has helped give a contact-based Cubs rotation an arm with wipeout stuff, and gives the team a potential core starter to build around in coming seasons. Steele may find his way back to starting eventually, but for now has helped strengthen Chicago's bullpen. Oh, and Keegan Thompson (zero earned runs in 8 1/3 innings) has held his own in his first taste of the Majors, too.

"Cubs fans should really be excited about these three arms that we've got with us right now," veteran Jake Arrieta said.

2. Pederson's production

The power that displayed in the spring (1.000 slugging percentage in 18 games) still is lacking, but the Cubs outfielder is steadily finding his rhythm and moving beyond his April slump.

With his three-hit showing Wednesday, Pederson has hit .444 with a .965 OPS in seven games in May, following a .137 average (.498 OPS) in the first month. One big difference has been Pederson hitting .533 (8-for-15) off fastballs this month, compared to .167 (4-for-24) in April.

3. Davies turning things around

Right-hander logged a 9.47 ERA in five April starts (19 innings), but has since turned in a 1.10 ERA in three outings in May (16 1/3 innings). That included a 15-inning scoreless streak that ended in the sixth on Wednesday.

Batters are hitting .273 with a .364 slugging percentage off Davies' changeup in May, compared to .343 with a .486 SLG in April. It's not the dominance Davies experienced with the changeup last season (.176 average and .331 SLG), but he has continued to move in the right direction.


1. Heyward's plate discipline

In an abbreviated season last year, pieced together arguably his best offense showing (131 wRC+) since his rookie year. A driving force behind his production was a very controlled approach in the batter's box in terms of swing rate.

Heyward's 36.7 percent swing rate in 2020 was the lowest of his career. Within that, the Cubs right fielder swung at a career-low 21.7 percent of pitches outside. This season? He's chased a career-high 34.7 percent of pitches out of the zone and has seen his swing rate spike to 49 percent (also a career-high pace).

On the season, Heyward is batting .171/.246/.315 with a diminished walk rate (8.2 percent in '21 after 16.6 percent in '20) and increased strikeout rate (26.2 percent in '21 after 20.4 percent in '20). His hard-hit rate (46.8 percent) is up, but he has put the ball on the ground at an alarming clip (50.6 percent).

If Heyward can get back to the discipline he displayed last season, and continue to make the kind of hard contact he has accomplished this year, some of these issues should naturally see a correction.

2. Chicago's defense

The Cubs captured the first-ever Rawlings Gold Glove Team Award in the National League in 2020 and defense was a priority again this season, especially with a rotation so reliant on soft contact. Entering Thursday, Chicago ranked 25th in baseball with minus six defensive runs saved.

Ross has pointed to a number of factors: Gold Glove winner has been battling through minor injury issues, the rotation has given up a lot of hard contact and some players ( for example) have been playing out of position, among other things.

"I still think we have a quality defensive group," Ross said. "We're definitely on top of that, trying to find the solution to be better."

3. Bote's bad luck

An 0-for-2 showing on Wednesday dropped second baseman 's average to .180 and slugging percentage to .280 on the season. Per Statcast, however, Bote has a .255 expected batting average and a .468 expected slugging percentage based on his batted-ball data. In fact, Bote's minus -0.188 SLG-xSLG is the fourth-lowest in MLB (min. 250 pitches faced), trailing only Matt Carpenter (minus .241), Tommy Pham (minus .207) and Juan Soto (minus .204).