Cubs manager David Ross: It’s harder to hit than it used to beon April 17, 2021 at 11:34 pm

Entering the game Saturday against the Braves, the Cubs had the lowest team batting average in the majors and the only one below .200. There were three teams — the Dodgers, Red Sox and Reds — with batting averages higher than the Cubs’ .267 on-base percentage.

The question after Saturday is whether they are beginning to put that behind them. It’s not a secret the Cubs have struggled to win because they have struggled to hit.

A little more than two weeks into the season, manager David Ross isn’t looking to make excuses for his offense, but he would like to point out that hitting these days is tougher than it was a few years ago.

”There are a lot of things in our game right now that are in favor of defense and pitching, for sure,” Ross said.

For instance, teams are shifting on defense about 33% of the time so far this season. That’s nearly three times as often as five years ago, when Ross last played. Batters increasingly are watching hard-hit balls fly into a glove instead of landing on the grass. And on the mound, pitchers are throwing with greater spin rate, which also is making things trickier for hitters. Strikeouts have outnumbered hits across the majors this season.

The major-league batting average is down 10 points from 2020 and 20 points from 2016, and the Cubs are at the bottom of the rankings in nearly every offensive metric. Two areas of particular concern are their struggles against fastballs in the zone and getting pitches to hit.

”That’s been one of the things on the radar the most,” Ross said. ”We see some of the least amount of strikes in the game.”

Only the White Sox, Blue Jays and Pirates have seen fewer pitches in the strike zone this season. But when the Cubs are getting strikes, they’re not putting them in play. Entering play Saturday, they had the fourth-lowest contact rate against pitches in the zone this season and had the worst strikeout rate in baseball (32.2%).

Happ in the leadoff spot

If the offense is going to find its footing for good, one key might be at the top of the order.

Ian Happ has started almost every game as the Cubs’ leadoff hitter this season. Though he has hit only .163 through 14 games, he consistently has found ways to get on base, and Ross sees signs of hope in that.

”With a guy like Ian, who does have a great idea of the strike zone, sometimes the results aren’t going to show up when the swing might be there, but he’s still getting on base,” Ross said. ”He feels like he’s in a really good place. His at-bats are quiet because he’s not hitting home runs right now because he’s trying to get on base for the guys behind him. I’ve been happy with Ian’s process, and his approach has been great.”

In the series opener Friday, Happ reached base three times on two walks and a single. He was 1-for-5 on Saturday.

Roster moves

The Cubs activated relievers Dan Winkler and Brandon Workman from the COVID-19 restricted list and sent relievers Pedro Strop and Justin Steele to their alternate site in South Bend, Indiana.

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