Chicago Cubs: Are Heyward and Russell the playoff X-factor?

The playoffs are officially underway. With the Chicago Cubs setting their rotation and roster, speculation begins on who will perform. Who will step up at clutch moments?

It never fails. Teams will find a way to neutralize star players in the playoffs. Or, the pressure to perform will overwhelm them. This leaves it up to some else to step up. Facts are facts.

Doubt it? Check out the Chicago Cubs in the NLDS last year. Anthony Rizzo batted .214 with two runs batted in. Kris Bryant? A lofty .176, one home run and two RBI. The team was led by Kyle Schwarber (.500, 2 HR) and Jorge Soler (.571, 2 HR, 4 RBI).

Not enough evidence? Okay, let’s try different teams. How about the New York Mets during the 2015 NLCS. Daniel Murphy was a solid player during the season, yet was a monster against the Cubs. However, we forget the Lucas Duda, who hit .244 during the season, knocked in the same amount of runs (6) as Murphy.

How about Hunter Pence in the 2014 World Series. The San Francisco Giants right fielder lead the team with .444 average, scored seven times and knocked in five. Not Buster Posey or Pablo Sandoval. Pence.

Bronx Bomber

Need more? Sure. How about the 2009 World Series Champion New York Yankees.Who do you think led the team is batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, and home runs? Derek Jeter? Nope. Mark Teixeira? Negative. Alex Rodriguez? Sorry, yet again that is wrong.

Answer: Hideki Matsui.

Sure. It is not always the case, but role players tend to step up at clutch moments. So, the question is who will step up for the Chicago Cubs this post-season. My two picks may surprise you.

Who to watch

Addison Russell and Jason Heyward

Russell’s improvement from 2015 to this year is impressive. The batting average is down a few points, but his on-base percentage, slugging, walks, and strikeouts all improved. He also has more runs batted in than any shortstop in the National League and is third in WAR. Plus, his defense is sensational.

Where Russell excels offensively in when games are after the seventh inning in either a tie or one-run game. In those 93 moments, Russell is .280/.366/.488 with 19 RBI. Also, when the Cubs trail, he is .267/.353/.452 with seven home runs, 24 RBI, and 19 runs scored. Maybe the average is not wonderful, but there is production. Furthermore, in high leverage situations, Russell is at his best, hitting .333/.391/.538.

So, on one hand, you have Russell, and on the other Heyward. The entire season he struggled, consequently frustrating us. But it never appeared to show on his face. He appeared calm and understanding. He said the right things, and Manager Joe Maddon supported him. Regardless of the situation, Heyward came up to bat, went out to the outfield, and played.

Heyward Strong

What is encouraging about Heyward is how he finished. There were several moments when he knocked in an important run or moved a runner over. And, let’s not forget his performance on September 4 against the Giants. On that day, Heyward accounted for all three Cubs runs, including the walk-off single in the bottom of the thirteenth inning.

Heyward also has playoff experience. His all-time average may be .208, but last year he hit .357 in the NLDS. The experience is there, and now is the time to step-up.

Honestly, it could be any player. The only regular position player on the roster for the Cubs without playoff experience is Willson Contreras. Maybe he is this year’s Kyle Schwarber. But, the maturity of Russell and the potential of Heyward may prove key in the playoffs.