Michael Busch’s hot start shows why the Chicago Cubs are so high on the slugger: ‘That’s raw power’

SEATTLE — Chicago Cubs first baseman Michael Busch is in the type of offensive zone in which every plate appearance becomes a must-watch event, even for coaches and teammates in the dugout.

Four consecutive games with a home run will do that.

Busch’s two-run homer in the fourth inning Sunday against Seattle Mariners starter Luis Castillo gave the Cubs a three-run lead that proved to be the difference in their 3-2 victory. Busch entered Monday night’s game in Arizona one shy of the team record for most consecutive games with a home run, shared by Christopher Morel (May 2023), Sammy Sosa (June 1998), Ryne Sandberg (August 1989) and Hack Wilson (July 1928).

Instead of focusing on how locked in he appears at the plate, Busch prefers looking at his approach and producing good at-bats: getting to 2-2 and 3-2 counts, barreling the ball and making the pitcher work hard.

“It’s not just the guy who’s getting the hits, it’s the guy who’s having a six-, seven-, eight-pitch at-bat before that,” Busch said. “A good pitcher on the mound, just being able to grind out some at-bats against him and being able to get into the bullpen as early as possible. You don’t really see that on the stat sheet, but it goes a long way for the lineup.

“I’ve always cared about just getting on base.”

The Cubs could not have hoped for a much better start for Busch. His numbers put him among the best sluggers in the majors 2½ weeks into the season. He ranks in the top 20 in several key offensive categories, including isolated power (.367, fifth), slugging percentage (.694, sixth), weighted on-base average (.457, 12th) and weighted runs created plus (184, tied for 15th). His five home runs through Sunday were tied for sixth in the big leagues.

There haven’t been many cheap hits either.

Only 11 players have barreled more balls this season than Busch with seven, which ties him with eight other players, most notably Manny Machado, Mike Trout and Pete Alonso.

“When you swing at good pitches and you have the power and the contact ability that he has, he’s going to hit the ball really hard,” Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly said Sunday. “It’s similar to Seiya (Suzuki) in the sense that when they get pitches in the zone, the bat path is so good, the contact points are so good that they’re going to get good results because they hit the ball really hard.

“But that all stems from: Are you swinging at the right pitches? Because the soft contact generally comes from pitches that are outside the zone if they’re off time, and he’s on time a lot.”

Pitchers have not shied away from attacking Busch with fastballs, which account for 59.9% of pitches thrown in his plate appearances. That approach isn’t exactly surprising based on his small big-league sample size from last year, when he struggled against elevated velocity in 81 plate appearances with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

So far Busch has feasted on teams still employing that strategy this season, posting a .357 average, .463 wOBA and .679 slugging percentage on fastballs with three doubles and two home runs.

Kelly views Busch’s early success versus fastballs as part of the natural adjustments players make, especially when hitters don’t see that type of velocity consistently in Triple A.

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“The good ones make them a lot quicker and we’re seeing that with Michael,” Kelly said. “He is able to time up a fastball, the pitcher’s best fastball.

“And then the way that he stays in the zone and doesn’t chase, he’s going to hit some in-zone spin like we saw (Saturday) night with that cutter that just fell in there and (he) ends up hitting it out. He caught it on the end a little bit but still has plenty of juice to put it in the seats.”

Manager Craig Counsell hasn’t been surprised by how well Busch has hit after earning the opportunity to get everyday starts.

“With Michael, it’s just consistency,” Counsell said. “His approach and who he is off the field — it’s very consistent and it’s going to lead to performance that’s very consistent, and hopefully that evens out some of the peaks and valleys for him. He’s still going to have them, but it evens them out a little bit.

“The thing that I’ve been impressed with is the damage that he’s capable of doing. That’s raw power.”

Busch, whose 0.7 fWAR is tied with pitcher Shota Imanaga for the team lead, makes the Cubs lineup so much more dynamic by giving them another lefty slugger in the middle of the order. He understands there inevitably will be stretches when he finds himself in a slump.

Staying focused on the process instead of numbers can help combat those moments, and even now, as Busch rakes, he’s looking beyond the numbers when evaluating his performance, something he doesn’t expect to change during the highs or lows.

“I just keep going back to just having good at-bats,” he said. “I’ve been happy with the way I’ve been swinging at strikes, taking balls and really, at the end of the day, as hard as it is, be happy with just that result.”