Cubs: Now’s not the time to throw the towel in on Nick Madrigal

Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

When Chicago Cubs infielder Nick Madrigal went on the IL with lower back tightness, he was slugging .241. That’s math for “bad.” Madrigal had the 12th-lowest slugging percentage for any NL player with 50 or more plate appearances. This is by far the worst mark he’s turned in during his professional career, barring 21 plate appearances in his first season in rookie league.

Madrigal has been a parody of his low-power rep so far, failing to barrel a single pitch according to Statcast. Only two other zero-barrel players have regular major league gigs: the Brewers’ Lorenzo Cain (because he covers that part of the Earth not covered by water) and the Rockies’ Jose Iglesias (because Rockies).

What jumps out about Madrigal’s performance this season is the strikeouts: he’s struck out in 16.7 percent of his plate appearances. By today’s whiffacious standards that number barely registers; there are position players on major league payrolls striking out at twice that rate. But by Madrigal’s standards this represents unprecedented indiscipline. Madrigal was striking out at more than 50 percent over his career rate, and more often that he has at any stop in the minors.

The pitches eating Madrigal’s lunch are fastballs, both four-seamers and especially sinkers. His strikeout rate against these pitches has soared this year. It doesn’t appear that pitchers are approaching him much differently than before; he’s faced pretty much the same pitch mix this season as he has throughout his (short) major league career. The difference is that suddenly this year the fastballs are carving him up.

Which brings us back to that lower back injury. Baseball fans are understandably skeptical when a poorly performing player suddenly lands on the list with an injury not previously publicly disclosed. The practice is not limited to baseball: in the English Premier League the phrase “stomach illness” can mean anything from “you really should have stopped after that fourth bottle of Smirnoff’s”* to “you should begin considering a career in real estate.”

*No Russian products were imported in the preparation of this post.

But in Madrigal’s case, a lower back injury is a very logical suspect in his swing decay. His high contact game depends on precision bat control, which in turn depends on precision body control. The torque a batter applies to his body to generate a swing can place enormous stress on the lower back. The resulting pain in turn can deprive the batter of the control he needs to start, finish, and (where unfortunately necessary) interrupt his swing.

Cubs: It’s clear to me that Nick Madrigal hasn’t been playing at 100 percent

Moreover, some very smart people have concluded that a “rapid ramp-up of playing volume at the start of the season … will overload the musculoskeletal system and lead to injury.”  In other words, this season’s spring training was almost purpose built to give rise to exactly the sort of injury Madrigal has suffered; a particular concern with him since he was just coming off a shoulder separation that had enforced a lengthy absence from game action.

The good news in all of this is that it is reasonable to expect a much better performance from Madrigal once he heals. This season’s numbers were entirely outside his performance history, and his injury is the likely cause of his severely eroded bat control. The bad news is that the Cubs will need to be patient with him, and make sure his back is as healthy as possible before returning him to combat duty.

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The worse news is that the Cubs can afford to be patient since wins probably aren’t going to matter much this year.