CHICAGO -- Several hours before Wednesday's game against the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Cubs hitting coach John Mallee was on the field working with star shortstop Addison Russell. Russell, who made last year's National League All-Star team and earned a few MVP votes, is hitting just .220 to start the season.
"Just some small adjustments," Russell said.
For most players of Russell's age -- he turned 23 in January -- this wouldn't seem like a big deal, and, indeed, it wasn't. But it was notable because Russell is an All-Star with a championship ring, and it's easy to forget that even in his third season as a regular, he’s not yet a finished product. Perhaps more incredible was that Russell wasn't even the youngest guy in the Cubs' lineup that night. Ian Happ, who doesn't turn 23 until August, was penciled into the cleanup spot for his fourth big league game.
One day later, 24-year-old Javier Baez hit a grand slam and went 3-for-3 with five RBIs in a 9-5 victory over the Reds. Reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant, 25, hit a solo home run and continued to pace the Cubs' offense. Happ went 2-for-4 with a double. And Russell, who went 0-for-3, had the bat fly out of his hands on back-to-back swings -- small adjustments.
The Cubs’ tepid beginning to the season, and the 25 runs they put up in a sweep of Cincinnati, lean toward an important reminder: Despite winning a World Series, this team is young, and young teams can be inconsistent.
Well, they're half-young. The Cubs’ pitching staff is heavy on veterans with John Lackey, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, not to mention closer Wade Davis, who is 31, and setup man Koji Uehara, who is older than David Ross. According to baseball-reference.com, only the Atlanta Braves' staff is older in age weighted for opportunity.
By that same metric and in contrast, the position players rank as the fourth-youngest group in the majors. The teams younger in this respect are the Padres, Twins and Brewers, all in the midst of or possibly just emerging from rebuilding phases. The three teams behind the Cubs fit the same description: the Phillies, Reds and White Sox. The Cubs stand out among these groups of tenderfoot hitters because, you know, they are the defending champs.
The very fact of this collective youth is why so many consider the Cubs’ ascension to the National League Championship Series two years ago as the early manifestation of a budding dynasty. But even if the long-term trend line remains on an upward slope for the foreseeable future, it’s not a straight line; there are always dips and spikes. In 2015, Bryce Harper had one of the two or three best age-22 seasons of all time. In 2017, if Harper can maintain his current pace (which he probably can’t, but if anyone can do it, it would be Harper), it would be one of the two or three best age-24 seasons ever. But his age-23 season? Harper finished 24th in the National League in OPS-plus.
If we cheat and consider 34-year-old Ben Zobrist strictly a utility player, then the Cubs’ eight position regulars all are in their age-27 season or younger. That’s fairly remarkable for a team that won the World Series the previous year.
All eight of those young position players are on pace to get at least 350 plate appearances this season: Anthony Rizzo, Baez, Russell, Bryant, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora and Jason Heyward. According to baseball-reference.com, there have been just seven National League teams to have eight players that young get that much playing time:
Yeah, this is an extremely rare thing. And after the Cubs’ latest wunderkind -- 22-year-old Zobrist-in-training Happ -- was recalled from Triple-A Iowa this week, the Cubs, for the time being, got even younger. Against Cincinnati on Tuesday, when the Cubs started both Happ and fellow rookie Jeimer Candelario, the average age of the starting lineup was 24.
There’s no question that, so far, the Cubs’ group of position players have underperformed their collective expectation. That’s somewhat true at the plate and most definitely true in the field. The Cubs projected to lead the NL in runs, but they ranked eighth in runs per game through Wednesday. Their defensive efficiency, which was record-setting a season ago, ranks just 11th, and the Cubs lead the league in unearned runs allowed. According to the ZiPS projections at Fangraphs.com, only Bryant and Almora have posted a better WOBA than forecast.
From an intangible standpoint, you can’t really blame youth for the Cubs’ collective slow start. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that in some respects, a number of these guys are finishing off their development at the big-league level, even if they already have championship rings to slip on their fingers after the game.
Baseball always is about adjustments, and young players have even more adjustments to make as the strategies against them evolve with the length of their performance record. There likely is no one reason for the slow start, and even if there was, that reason probably would just be plain, old statistical randomness. But if the youth doesn’t hold up as an explanation for the relative struggles to date, it does come into play in a crucial way as we look ahead. That’s because we know one thing about young players: They usually get better. So not only can the Cubs expect to get better because of statistical correction, they can just flat out expect to get better.
That, as much as anything, is why freaking out about the Cubs’ first six weeks is just silly.
It’s certainly possible that a couple of the Cubs’ struggling hitters will continue to scuffle, perhaps for the entire season. It happens.
Even if it does, though, it’s important to do what team president Theo Epstein urged during his chat with the media Tuesday: Be patient. One or two guys might fall short. But eight of them? No way. When it comes to the Cubs’ position players, no matter how glorious the things that lie behind them might be, the things that lie ahead should be even better.