‘as blatant a switch as you can have’

The Chicago Cubs have managed to turn around their season thanks to big contributions from players like Nico Hoerner (2), Mike Tauchman (left) and more. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
The Chicago Cubs have managed to turn around their season thanks to big contributions from players like Nico Hoerner (2), Mike Tauchman (left) and more. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

The St. Louis Cardinals were mired in the depths of a disastrous season when rookie Alec Burleson almost hit a two-run, walk-off home run to beat the Chicago Cubs. Instead, Mike Tauchman leapt, glove outstretched, and crashed into the padded outfield wall. He landed in a summersault and by the time he stood, he was roaring in celebration. It was July 28 and the Cubs’ 3-2 victory — their seventh in a row — put them above .500 for the first time since May 6.

“Tauchman’s catch was obviously a highlight of the whole Major League season really, as far as drama,” Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner said this week.

Of all the predictions made across every corner of the baseball ecosystem before the 2023 season, that was surely not among them. Thirty-two-year-old Tauchman signed a minor league deal with the Cubs in January after spending 2022 in Korea, playing for the Hanwha Eagles, a KBO team that finished last season with a .324 win percentage.

“I think that they were intrigued by the fact that they weren’t very confident in their outfield depth, especially as it relates to center field, and that’s something that has been part of my game for a lot of years now,” Tauchman said this week about how he ended up on the Cubs — first in Triple-A, and then as part of the big league club when Cody Bellinger spent a stint on the IL when the failed former superstar who signed a one-year contract in Chicago after being non-tendered by the same Dodgers team for which he was once an MVP.

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Bellinger is back, in more ways than one, but Tauchman has continued to get playing time, culminating in that catch. Hoerner pegged it as the moment he realized the Cubs had successfully played their way from one side of the trade rumor machine to the other.

Just a week before, on July 20, the Cubs were 45-51: 8 1/2 games back in the weak NL Central division, seven games back of the last wild card spot, with playoff odds down from a tepid preseason 11.2% to 6.3%. After Bellinger’s bounce back — he’s now hitting .331 with an overall offensive profile 50% better than league average — and an All-Star first half from pitcher Marcus Stroman, they were expected to be among the most attractive sellers at the deadline.

Since then, they’ve gone 14-5, their playoff odds are up to 48.1%, and somewhere along the way they stopped being seen as sellers and went out and traded for one of the best bats available in Jeimer Candelario. The Cubs, who have struggled to get from the 2016 World Series winning club to the next championship-caliber core, are officially contending.

“Such a good feeling,” Hoerner said. “I think the belief that we could have been pretty high even through the tougher parts of the season, but obviously the last two or three weeks have been pretty critical for our group. It’s fun because there’s not really a certain expectation or identity with the group and it’s fun that we get to kind of create that ourselves.”

And that includes being the kind of club that can force a front office to reverse course.

“I think ours is probably about as blatant a switch as you can have this season,” Hoerner said.

How the Cubs have turned the tide

Tauchman described that newfound and newly forged identity as “multifaceted in terms of scoring runs” and “never overly reliant on any one person.”

Since that July 20 turning point, the Cubs lead baseball in runs scored — they’re third in batting average, second in home runs, and second in stolen bases. They have four position players in the top 30 for fWAR over that span. Only two of their 10 players with at least 30 plate appearances have a wRC+ below league average (and one of those, Seiya Suzuki, was 3-for-4 with a home run in his first game back after sitting out a few games for a brief mental reset).

They’re winning because everything is working, and each facet is the product of untold effort and individual development. But let’s consider just one example:

From the time he debuted in 2019, the first of his draft class to make the majors, until the end of last season, Hoerner stole 28 bases across 247 games. Through the first 115 games this year, he has stolen 28 bases. They’re bigger — the bases, that is — and as part of the pitch clock implementation, pitchers can only hold runners on so much, but Hoerner has a different explanation. Last season was a chance for the team to practice pushing their running game. They finished fourth in stolen bases as a team, but also were caught stealing third most. Each one was a learning experience in a 2022 season that was best served by providing those.

“I think because we weren’t in contention for most of last year there was a little bit more freedom to see the different skill sets that guys have and have a bit of, you know, mistakes along the way but knowing that that was towards improving,” Hoerner said. “I think that was really valuable for us.”

The same skills the Cubs honed in the dog days of summer last season are serving them now that each game is a high-stakes step closer or further from the postseason. For the first 3 1/2 months of the season, the Cubs were middle of the pack in terms of stolen bases — 13th out of the 30 teams. As they’ve gained momentum in the standings since July 20, they’ve been running more.

“We’ve taken some risk,” manager David Ross said about the uptick in aggression on the basepaths. “If I want to take a risk, what moment should it be in? And that’s worked out, it has recently.”

It’s riskier to run now, but also a lot more fun. For the first time in his career, Hoerner is playing August baseball that feels refreshed.

“It almost feels like a new season right now,” he said. “We’re past the deadline. And we’re into this amazing stretch of just getting to play meaningful baseball every day.”

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