Making Sense of Cubs’ Championship Hangover

Kris Bryant’s throw slayed the Billy Goat, vanquishing 108 years of suffering. The North Siders returned one of the youngest infields baseball has ever seen, an imposing rotation, a shutdown bullpen — adding Wade Davis, for good measure, and three-time Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon. If any team was title-defense-ready, this was the squad. Yet, those fortuitous omens weren’t enough, it seems. 

Sitting with a 32-33 record 65 games in — a far cry from their 45-20 mark at this point last season — is starting to show, more and more, shades of a campaign afflicted by the dreaded World Series hangover.

Epitomizing a wire-to-wire finish in the National League Central, Maddon and company dominated divisional rivals. This saw the club win the division by 17 1/2 games. This season has been a stark contrast.

Historically, proof towards the existence of post-championship struggles — the following season — has varied. 

Some teams — such as the 2008 Red Sox (95-67), 2009 Phillies (93-69), 2010 Yankees (97-65) and the 2012 Cardinals (88-74) — follow-up on the previous season’s triumph by continuing to blow away the competition. Others — using the 2007 Cardinals (78-84), 2013 Giants (76-86), 2014 Red Sox (71-91) and the 2016 Royals (81-81) as prime instances — struggled to regain the championship-form that saw them don ski goggles and shower the locker room with champagne, just a season prior.

Mid-June observations would lump the 2017 Cubs into this latter category. While there’s time to rekindle the winning-fire, the hole they’re currently in is no accident by any means. When analyzing the trials and tribulations of the current campaign for the Cubbies, perhaps the most notable is the drop-off in performance from the club’s starting pitchers. 

During their march to ending the century-long drought, the North Siders — boasting one of the best rotations in baseball — relied on quality pitching from their starters.

The 2016 rotation was scintillating from start-to-finish. The quintet of Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel struck out 881 batters. As a unit, they flaunted a 2.97 rotation ERA, while posting a mean win-loss record of 15-7. This kind of production is unheard of.

Snap back to reality. Of course, equaling the curse-breaking team’s accomplishments was always a tall order. As the 2017 season wears on, though, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this year’s starting pitching pales in comparison; and it’s problematic. Up to this point, despite little turnover — with the only change being the Jason Hammel-to-Eddie Butler switch — the staff has been battered. The struggles of Arrieta, Hendricks and Lester have been shocking and duly noted, as the trio has a combined. 

Arrieta, over the past three years, has looked unhittable in certain stretches. As it turns out the 2015 Cy Young Award Winner isn’t only human, but he is capable of experiencing slumps. This is evident, as he has had his worst season, thus far, since donning the blue pinstripes: as he has mustered up a meager 4.68 ERA. 

The Professor — as Hendricks is nicknamed — came bursting on the scene in 2016. Opting for finesse over power, the Dartmouth grad posted a team-high 2.13 ERA with 170 strikeouts. It’s been nothing short of an experiment gone wrong for Professor Hendricks in 2017, conversely. With a now 4.09 ERA, a return to normalcy, it would seem. 

Known for his inability to throw to first base — albeit, it’s been a work progress — Lester has put together an illustrious career predicated on reliability. 

This only exacerbates the befuddlement of this season’s struggles. 14 starts in, and a 3.89 ERA is all Lester has put together. This, and his propensity to giving up the long ball in 2017 has complicated matters, as the southpaw has already given up nine home runs.

In the midst of a World Series hangover, the Cubs’ only issue isn’t starting pitching. 

The production, as a team, from the dish, when comparing from 2016 to 2017 — especially since last campaign saw a potency at the plate — has been night-and-day. But, the onus is on two individuals more so than the rest: Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber.

Perhaps prematurely thrown into the fire, Russell debuted in 2015, playing in 142 games. 2016, though, was a revelation for the former top prospect. The 23-year-old put his power on display, clubbing 21 home runs to the tune of 95 runs batted in. Which, for a shortstop, is insane. The hope — the expectation — was to maintain the production heading into this set of 162 games, as the Cubs relied on his hitting exploits to provide an explosive spark later in the order. This reliance, it would seem, has been all for naught.

Russell, to put it lightly, has been a shadow of his 2016-self. This campaign, his stat-line is an eyesore. Hitting only a paltry .214/.294/.367 with only five home runs and 23 runs batted in, his performance at the plate has been disastrous, and pivotal in the North Siders’ struggles.

Another Cub that is failing to rediscover their previously superbly-talented form is Kyle Schwarber. 

Known for his long, long round-trippers, he has made Sheffield Ave his favorite hangout. Since arriving in Wrigleyville, Schwarber emerged in 2015 and made an immediate impact. Depsite playing in only 69 games, the outfielder — sometimes seen at catcher — hit 16 home runs to go with 49 runs batted in. However, he would only appear in the World Series, apart from a few games in the 2016 regular season, for the Cubs.

Look, the Middletown, Ohio native can go yard, but that’s about all he can do. While on pace to easily eclipse his 2015 home run and runs batted in total, his average continues to dip below the Mendoza Line. Now hovering at .178, it’s becoming apparent that Chicago’s seemingly position-less star either goes deep or gets out. That kind of risk-reward isn’t conducive to a proper title defense.

As Anthony Rizzo tossed his glove towards the sky in celebration, the curse had been broken. For once, there was a sense of stability and achievement at the Friendly Confines. 

As quickly as this confidence came a veil of uncertainty has seemingly begun to shroud the North Side in a malaise-like manner. The World Series hangover is on the horizon, and it’s looking more and more ominous with every loss.

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