The team has the worst batting average in baseball, and watching it unfold has been a cruel form of punishment.
Most people don’t have jobs that come with oppressive slumps, at least not slumps that are public and subject to scrutiny. Certainly not slumps like major-league hitters go through.
Bob down at the bottle-opener factory goes the equivalent of 2-for-30 from the plate and no one outside of his supervisor cares. Betty in HR makes a mistake on someone’s overtime claim and fixes if with a few keystrokes. No harm, not foul language from social-media critics. I’ll beat you to the punch: Rick from the sports department has been in a four-decade slump, nobody is in the forest to hear the sound of his fall anyway and somehow he has remained gainfully employed.
But a baseball player forgets the mechanics of a good swing for two weeks and the glare of the spotlight makes him look like a lurching extra in a zombie movie. This happens regularly in the sport, and it’s easy to tell who’s hitting well and who isn’t. The slumping players are the ones with a grimness of purpose on their faces and a heaviness to their steps. The players who are hitting well are the ones doing everything humanly possible to stay away from the slumpers, these days thanking God for the pretext of masks, six feet of separation and the regular washing of hands.
Once in a while, there is the phenomenon of an entire baseball team that, for the life of it, cannot hit a baseball for a considerable period of time. That would be the current fortunes of the Cubs, who were batting a combined .189 heading into Wednesday night’s game against the Mets. Watching this has been like watching someone unable to pass kidney stones.
On Tuesday, the Cubs managed to beat the Mets 3-1 on just four hits, all of them singles. Afterward, all anyone associated with the team wanted to talk about was how opportunistic they had been, which is like bragging about a bomb-sniffing dog’s sense of hearing. But I get it: You want to build on the positives because if you don’t, you’re left looking at the team’s Major League Baseball-worst batting average. The Cubs took advantage of Taijuan Walker’s six walks and his frustration with home plate umpire John Libka’s strike zone. They scored one run on a throwing error and another on a bases-loaded walk.
Nothing about the Cubs’ hitting problems was solved Tuesday, unless you believe that a victory can produce momentum. I do, but momentum usually has to be tied to something positive. It’s hard to use a team’s four-hit evening as a rallying cry. (On the other hand, to the Cubs’ if-it-moves-it-can-be-moved business department: Can this be monetized? T-shirts? A Bad Is Good boutique hotel? Just spitballin’.)
Newcomer Joc Pederson is hitting .137, and every time he swings a bat, it comes with a wind-chill warning. Anthony Rizzo is hitting .236 but will come out of it because he always does. Jason Heyward is hitting .200 with one home run. Kris Bryant leads the team with a .264 average and is tied for the team lead with five home runs. Compared with his teammates, he looks like a combination of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.
Javy Baez is looking more like the undisciplined rookie who swung and missed at everything than the MVP candidate who hit .290 and had 111 runs batted in three years ago. He leads the majors with 31 strikeouts (in 16 games) and has drawn just one walk. Cubs manager David Ross says it’s simply Baez’ way, that things will get better, but jeez. I pull a hammy just watching the guy swing.
“I think he’s the best version of himself when he’s turned loose and able to play freely,” Ross said. “Asking Javy to cut down his swing, spread out and play pepper, put the ball in play, I don’t know that that’s going to be the best version of him.
“I know he is trying extremely hard to get the ball in. And I think when he is at his best and seeing the ball well, he does that really good.’’
There are various theories about what ails Cubs hitters. Poor plate discipline. A strange, concerning inability to catch up with fastballs. Aging hitters. Weather. It was 39 degrees at Wrigley Field at the start of Tuesday’s game. Other teams have to play in the cold, too. Boston won’t be mistaken for Miami this time of year, but the Red Sox lead the majors with a .287 average, .026 better than their next closest competitor, the warm-weather Angels.
For the Cubs, there was a weird vibe to this season well before it started, with trade talk dominating the discussion. Whatever happens going forward, these are the last gasps of the 2016 World Series team, and everybody in baseball knows it. Maybe that has played a part in the club’s poor hitting. We’re told constantly that baseball is a mental game. What’s the effect on the psyche when all the talk is of a breakup?
I worry more about Cubs fans. We don’t know what the long-term ramifications are of watching ballplayers swing and miss so often. A decline in workplace production? A flagging will to live? You see the problem. Somebody, anybody, make it stop. Get a hit.