The first two games of the 2017 NLCS followed a similar script. The Cubs scored first on a home run to left field, off a Dodgers lefty who’d go five innings allowing just that homer and a few other scattered hits, only for L.A. to tie the score against a tiring Chicago lefty. Then the Dodgers bullpen spun four shutout innings as the offense rallied with a game-winning homer against a lesser Cubs reliever.
And while the narrative of the series has centered—rightfully—on the Dodgers’ late-inning heroics and Joe Maddon’s curious management, L.A.’s emergence from the weekend with a 2-0 lead rests on an even more basic premise. The problem is that Chicago suddenly can’t hit at all.
Outside of its wild Game 5 NLDS win, Chicago has scored 11 runs in six playoff games, and the team is mired in a state of historic postseason offensive ineptitude. The 2017 Cubs are one of 92 teams in the wild-card era to win a division series and reach the LCS round. Among that group, their current .162 playoff batting average, .251 playoff on-base percentage, and .262 playoff slugging percentage all rank last.
In the NLCS, the team’s starting pitchers have combined for more hits than Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who have managed one cumulative hit in 14 at-bats, but despite the aspersions being cast their way, the lineup’s failures extend beyond its brightest stars to the whole group. Throughout the postseason, Javier Báez has gone 0-for-19 with eight strikeouts and two walks; Addison Russell has contributed some timely RBIs but barely reached base; Kyle Schwarber has one hit; Jason Heyward has looked broken and Ben Zobrist old; and Bryant, Rizzo, and Willson Contreras are all hitting below the Mendoza Line.
It’s not as if they’ve been unlucky, either, because they’re not hitting the ball hard. Statcast tracks a metric called “barrels,” which essentially describes batted balls that are hit hard enough to be expected to go for extra bases. In the regular season, the Cubs produced barrels at a rate near the top of the league, but in the playoffs, they rank last in the statistic. For more specific reference, the Cubs as a team barreled balls about as often as Francisco Lindor did in the regular season, but they’ve done so at about a Peter Bourjos rate in the playoffs.
That regular-season-versus-playoffs comparison is relevant in a wider lens, too, because the Cubs’ performance at the plate has fallen so far with seemingly no warning. In the regular season, Chicago boasted one of the majors’ most potent offenses, scoring more than five runs per game (fourth in MLB) and amassing a .775 OPS (sixth).
Offense usually diminishes in the playoffs, where the best pitchers roam, but not by anywhere close to this extreme. Returning to the 92-team LCS sample since 1995, the median lineup has seen its rate stats drop by about 8 percent from the regular season to the playoffs. Compared with its own regular-season marks, though, Chicago’s on-base percentage has dipped by 26 percent in the playoffs and its slugging percentage by 40 percent—both the worst figures among those 92 clubs. The Cubs’ OPS is down 34 percent in the postseason; the 2012 Yankees (down 29 percent) are the only other team whose OPS fell by more than 20 percent from regular to postseason.
The granular components of Chicago’s offense have seen similarly drastic swoons. While strikeouts naturally increase in the playoffs, Chicago’s whiff total has increased by twice the usual number, and its walk and homer rates have cratered.
Playoff Stats Compared With Regular-Season Stats
|Stat||Median LCS Team, 1995–2017||2017 Cubs|
|Stat||Median LCS Team, 1995–2017||2017 Cubs|
|BA||Minus 8%||Minus 37%|
|OBP||Minus 7%||Minus 26%|
|SLG||Minus 9%||Minus 40%|
|OPS||Minus 8%||Minus 34%|
|K%||Plus 18%||Plus 36%|
|BB%||Minus 1%||Minus 16%|
|HR%||Minus 3%||Minus 53%|
But even among playoff teams, Chicago has faced a particularly brutal slate of opposing pitchers over the past two weeks. Five starters have taken the mound against Chicago thus far in the playoffs: Among all qualified starters, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio González ranked second, third, and seventh, respectively, in OPS allowed this year, while NLCS Game 1 starter Clayton Kershaw ranked sixth and Game 2 starter Rich Hill would have placed between Kershaw and González had he thrown enough innings to qualify.
And the Cubs haven’t had an easier time once those starters have left the game. Through eight innings in the NLCS, the Dodgers bullpen has limited Chicago to just one base runner, on a Kenley Jansen hit by pitch. More than half of those bullpen outs have come from Jansen and Brandon Morrow, who each ranked among the top six relievers in the majors (minimum 40 innings) in opponents’ OPS this season.
Playoff pitchers are the best, and multiple trends in 2017—the playoff teams being better than they have been in decades and managers relying on their top pitchers for even more innings—exacerbate that difficulty for hitters. Here are the runs scored by each losing team in the 2017 playoffs: zero, zero, zero, zero, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, 8, 8, 8. The Cubs aren’t alone with their zeroes, 1s, and 2s in the runs column in a box score; rather, their untimely slump illustrates how difficult it is to analyze an underperforming October lineup.
Every time I try to write about a hitter who has done poorly this postseason I remember MLB is hitting .232/.312/.399 as a whole so far.— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) October 16, 2017
As Michael Baumann wrote for The Ringer on Monday, Aaron Judge is struggling in the AL playoff circuit because of two main reasons: first, his disastrous slump has lasted a whopping seven games, which wouldn’t register as abnormal at any time other than October; second, he’s facing dominant pitchers who are able to home in on his individual weaknesses. It’s important to remember that Judge didn’t strike out in the wild-card game against the Twins, but rather started collecting K’s against Cleveland’s historically great pitching staff. The worst pitcher to strike out Judge in the playoffs is probably Cleveland reliever Bryan Shaw, who still whiffed nearly a batter per inning this season and boasted the sport’s most effective cutter this side of Jansen.
While the Cubs are an outlier even beyond the usual bounds of playoff underperformance, it’s not so bizarre to think that they’d struggle over half a dozen games against a handful of the best pitchers in baseball. It’s just that they couldn’t have picked a worse time to plunge their bats into a teamwide ice bath, nor do they have much time to work back toward normal. In Game 3 of the NLCS, they face Yu Darvish, and in Game 4, they oppose Alex Wood, whose OPS allowed was almost as stingy as Kershaw’s this season. Good luck.