As the first half of the season comes to a close today, let’s hand out first half grades for Chicago Cubs hitters. (Pitchers will be posted on Monday.)
Victor Caratini: B+. At age 25, Caratini has emerged as a solid backup for Willson Contreras and also has shown that he can occasionally sub for Anthony Rizzo at first base. He’s unspectacular but solid behind the plate, while he’s proven that he can contribute offensively with a .298/.372/.524 AVG/OBP/SLG slash line, each by far a career high.
Ben Zobrist: Incomplete. We wish Zobrist well while we await his possible return this season. Baseball-wise, the early returns weren’t promising. After a great 2018, Zobrist was batting .241 with just one extra base hit (a double) in 83 at-bats. One good sign was that he was walking (14 times) more than he was striking out (12).
Addison Russell: C+. Russell looked like he was on a mission when he returned from his suspension, hitting four home runs in his first 12 games (in May), but he only has one home run – and three extra base hits total – in 20 games over June and July. Overall, the offensive numbers are about in line with what we’ve come to expect. The defensive metrics continue to like him, as he has a 0.5 defensive WAR, though he’s looked uncomfortable at times in his return to second base.
David Bote: A-. His late-inning heroics from last season might have set up some unrealistic expectations moving forward. Yet Bote has settled in as a nice part-time player, posting a solid .777 OPS and driving in 35 runs. We’d still like to see the strikeouts (64 in 246 PAs) come down a little. His willingness to play both 2B and 3B has also been valuable to the team, and he’s played them both respectably, posting a 0.4 defensive WAR.
Daniel Descalso: F. On April 17, Descalso had a AVG/OBP/SLG line of .364/.429/.523. Since then? .116/.231/.170. Jon Lester actually has a higher OPS for the season than Descalso. No one could have foreseen Tommy LaStella’s incredible season with the Angels, but the front office’s decision to basically swap out LaStella for Descalso this past offseason has turned into a disaster.
Albert Almora, Jr.: B-. The good? As we were hoping, Almora is hitting for more power, with eight home runs after only five all of last season. The bad? The OBP has gone down for the second straight year, plummeting from an already unspectacular .323 last year to just .286 this year. Almora never projected to be a OBP machine, but that number needs to come back up if he’s going to have any real value as an offensive player moving forward. At least the defense has still been great.
Willson Contreras: A-. After looking lost at the plate in the second half last year, Contreras is posting career highs in AVG, OBP, and SLG this year, leading the team with a .957 OPS. He also should fly past his career highs in home runs (currently has 18) and RBI (52). He continues to be one of the most dynamic catchers in the game, though the defensive metrics haven’t liked him this year: After a 1.4 and 1.7 defensive WAR the past two seasons, he sits at 0.0 in 2019. Contreras can earn an A in the second half by helping turn around the largely underachieving starting pitching.
Jason Heyward: B+. Overall, Heyward is enjoying his best season with the Cubs. His .827 OPS would be his highest mark since his rookie season of 2010, while he has a chance to reach his career high in home runs of 27, which he set in 2012 (he currently has 14). He doesn’t get a higher grade because he’s been inconsistent: his OPS went from .932 in April, to .618 in May, to .968 in June. Though he’s not the dominant defensive player he once was, the fact that he’s been willing to play both RF and CF with regularity has been valuable to the team.
Kyle Schwarber: C+. I know the Cubs don’t have a great option for a leadoff hitter, but I’m still not convinced that Schwarber is the best choice. In his third full season, he’s just not developing as an overall hitter like we expected earlier in his career. He’s on pace for career highs in home runs (currently has 18) and RBIs (41), but his OBP, which is where he is supposed to have value, has fallen from .356 last year to .326 this year. Meanwhile, his 96 first half strikeouts are also a concern. On defense, after posting a -0.4 defensive WAR last year, he’s already at -0.6 this year.
Kris Bryant: B+. Overall he’s had a decent bounce back year, pulling his OPS up from .834 last year to .947 this year. But I still feel like Bryant should be more of a run producer for this team. After hitting 10 home runs in May, he only has four since. And I’m still concerned about his ability to come through in clutch situations: In what Baseball Reference refers to as high leverage situations, he’s batting just .184 with a .289 SLG. I’ll admit that, with Bryant mainly batting second with Kyle Schwarber in front of him, perhaps he hasn’t had as many opportunities as we’d prefer with runners on base. But if this team is going to make a deep postseason run, Bryant is going to have to be more of a run producer.
Anthony Rizzo: B+. Rizzo has been remarkably consistent over the past several years, and his overall numbers are about where we’ve come to expect; in fact, at 19 home runs he has a chance to set a career high. Yet that’s largely due to a great month of May, when he posted a 1.123 OPS with nine home runs and 24 RBIs. He fell off quite a bit in June, hitting just four home runs with a .739 OPS. Like Bryant, Rizzo is going to have to do more than that if this team is going to make a postseason run.
Javier Baez: A-. If you’re looking for something to complain about with Baez’s first half, his whopping 107 strikeouts might be a concern. Yet Baez has continued to produce at a high level in spite of that and ironically might be becoming a better overall hitter. For example, after an 0-2 count he’s batting .300. Is this level of production sustainable with this high rate of striking out? We’ll see. But if we can accept the fact that Baez is never going to be a walk machine, we can appreciate that he’s become one of the game’s elite players.