Wearing ‘Em Down: Cubs’ Hitters Are Really Good at Running Up the Count

In my recap of last Tuesday’s satisfying win over Zack Greinke and the Dodgers, I noted that the victory was, among other things:

as good a model as any for the template the Cubs have used all season long to beat good pitchers: run up their pitch counts, and get them out of the game. Greinke pitched brilliantly, but at 111 pitches through six innings pitched, even old-school manager Don Mattingly wouldn’t let Greinke stay in for the final third of the game, and even the best bullpens are (usually) worse than a Cy Young winner pitching at the top of his game.

For a simple recap, I was comfortable leaving it at that: a gut feeling, illustrated by the anecdote of the game in front of me. But, as I’ve noted here before, the human mind is uniquely fallible, and it wasn’t long after I’d filed the piece that I set about making sure that my intuition about the Cubs’ approach was correct. In the days that followed, I thought about what questions I wanted to ask, asked them, and dug up some numbers that start towards an answer.* And it turns out my intuition was correct—even more correct than I could have imagined. Today, let me take you on a walk through what I found in the data, starting from the beginning.

The first, and most obvious, question I wanted to answer was this: How many pitches have Cubs hitters seen, on average, from opposing starters? That’s the basic thing I’m trying to get at, after all—the Cubs’ seeming ability to run up opposing starters’ pitch counts and get them out of the game early. And why is that important, again? Because even the best relievers aren’t better than the best starters, and starters tire as they throw more pitches. If you can get a starter to throw more pitches against you, you’ll get him out of the game faster, and your chances of winning the game will be improved by virtue of facing a lesser quality of pitcher.

So, back to the first question I needed to address: How many pitches have opposing starters thrown, on average, against the Cubs in 2015? Well, that question turns out to have a relatively easy answer: it’s 99.8 pitches. In other words, the guys starting the game on the hill for opposing teams this year have averaged 99.8 pitches in their starts against the Cubs. But what does that mean, really? On the face of it, it seems pretty high, but let’s just be sure and look at how it compares to other teams’ values. Here’s a chart of the teams that have seen the most pitches from opposing starters in 2015, through games played on June 25th:

Team Games Played Pitches Seen / Game σ
Chicago Cubs 71 99.83 2.19
Boston Red Sox 74 98.91 1.74
Kansas City Royals 69 98.46 1.52
Pittsburgh Pirates 72 97.71 1.15
Tampa Bay Rays 74 97.22 0.91

So, it turns out that 99.8 pitches is a really good number. In fact, it’s the best in the game. And notice who’s in second place: Theo Epstein’s old team, the Boston Red Sox. Fancy that. That last column, by the way, is just the standard deviation of the values from the third column, and it tells us that the Cubs’ value of 99.8 is a full 2.2 standard deviations above the major-league mean of 95.4. Assuming that the data is normally distributed (which seems like a safe assumption), that puts them in the top 15 percent of possible values. That’s pretty good.

All right. That set of information, by itself, is pretty interesting. But I think we can go further. (In fact, I know we can go further, because I wrote this piece and I know how it ends.) Let’s look at how many pitches Cubs starters have thrown against their opposition, again through June 25th, and compare it to the values we’ve just looked at. That’ll give us a sense of the difference, if any, between the approach Cubs hitters are taking, on the one hand, and the approach their opponents are taking, on the other. And, you know what, to make it more interesting, let’s repeat that same exercise for the entire league. Here’s a list of teams, ranked by the difference between the pitches their hitters have seen from opposing starters, on the one hand, and pitches thrown by their own starters, on the other, again with the standard deviation of the difference in the final column:

Team Games Opposing Pitches Seen / Game Pitches Thrown / Game Difference σ
Tampa Bay Rays 74 97.22 89.23 7.99 2.33
Kansas City Royals 69 98.46 90.78 7.68 2.24
Chicago Cubs 71 99.83 95.59 4.24 1.24
New York Yankees 73 96.33 93.42 2.91 0.84
Boston Red Sox 74 98.91 96.39 2.52 0.73

Another chart, another high-ranking Cubs team. Here, their performance is somewhat less of an outlier than before, as the Rays and Royals are running up their scores on the backs of the exceedingly low pitch totals they allow their own starters to reach. Still, third place isn’t bad, and again assuming a normal distribution, the 2015 Cubs are in the top 36 percent of possible values for this metric. That means they’re among the best at seeing more pitches from opposing starters than their own starters throw, and I’m going to go ahead and posit that that’s probably a good thing. In fact, I could end the article right here and I think it would still be interesting. But (repeat after me) we can go further.

What we’ve looked at so far is, essentially, cross-sectional data. In other words, we’ve looked at data that is time-indifferent, and doesn’t follow individuals through time (longitudinally), to their other performances. Let’s change this up a bit and focus, instead of on the thirty teams, on the starters themselves. Let’s look at how they do against the other teams they pitch against, and also against the Cubs. This’ll give us a sense of whether the Cubs’ lead, from above, is just a result of having lucked into facing teams with particularly durable starters and managers with slow hooks, or if there’s actually something going on here. In that spirit, here’s a table of the starters with the highest average pitch counts against the Cubs in 2015, as always through games played on June 25th:

Starter GS Mean Pitches
Tyson Ross 2 119
Wily Peralta 1 118
John Lackey 1 117
Zack Greinke 1 115
Anibal Sanchez 1 114

And here’s the starters, who have faced the Cubs at some point this season, with the highest average pitch counts against teams that are not the Cubs:

Starter GS Mean Pitches
Joe Ross 2 107.0
Lance Lynn 11 106.5
Tyson Ross 13 104.9
Danny Salazar 12 104.9
Clayton Kershaw 14 104.4

And now let’s put those two tables together, and look at the pitchers with the highest ratios between the pitches they’ve thrown in their starts against the Cubs, on the one hand, and the pitches they’ve thrown against the rest of the league, on the other. It’s the same subject as before, but now approached longitudinally:

Starter GS vs. Cubs Mean Pitches vs. Cubs GS vs. League Mean Pitches vs. League MPvC / MPvL
Brad Hand 1 85 2 54 1.57
Jordan Lyles 1 104 9 76 1.37
Wily Peralta 1 118 8 90 1.31
John Lackey 1 117 13 91 1.29
A. Wainwright 1 102 3 80 1.28

Huh. Looks like there are some starters running up some unusually high—by their own standards—pitch counts against the Cubs this year. But perhaps these guys are the outliers, and taken as a whole, starters who’ve faced the Cubs so far this year throw about the same number of pitches against the Cubs as they do against other teams. In order to see if that’s the case, let’s look at all the data. Here are a few facts:

  • Through June 25th, there were 71 starts against the Chicago Cubs, by 56 different pitchers;
  • In those 71 starts, those 56 pitchers threw a total of 7,088 pitches against the Cubs;
  • That averages out to 99.8 starter pitches per game—the same value we discussed before.


  • Those 56 pitchers, through June 25th, made an additional 607 starts against the rest of the league;
  • In those starts, those 56 pitchers threw a total of 58,490 pitches;
  • That averages out to 96.4 starter pitches per game.

That last number, 96.4, is a new value. It’s not the same as the value we discussed above, 95.59, which was the mean number of pitches the Cubs have thrown against opposing teams, per game, in the 71 games they’ve played through June 25th. That number was cross-sectional. This is the mean number of pitches that pitchers who have pitched against the Cubs at any point this season have thrown in all of their other starts. It’s therefore quite different, and actually very instructive. By dividing 99.8 (the first value from the bullet points above) by 96.4 (the second value), we can helpfully conclude that starters, this year, are seeing a 3.6 percent ‘bump’ above their normal pitch counts in starts when they face the Cubs. If you run that same calculation for the other twenty-nine teams, you’ll find that that value, for a second time in this article, is the highest in the league. To wit:

Team Mean Pitches vs. Cubs Same-Starter Mean Pitches vs. League Percentage Bump
Chicago Cubs 99.83 96.36 3.6
Boston Red Sox 99.18 96.44 2.8
Pittsburgh Pirates 97.89 97.28 0.6
Oakland Athletics 97.67 98.40 0.5
Kansas City Royals 98.46 96.13 0.1

I know this has gotten a bit confusing, so let me clarify that the way to read this table is to say, for example: “In 2015, starting pitchers who face the Red Sox throw 2.8 percent more pitches against them, on average, than they do against any other team they face.” Which they do. But that isn’t the best value in the league, 3.6 is, and that value belongs to the Cubs. The point is, the Cubs are the best at this. They force starters into high pitch counts that they wouldn’t normally be in.

And again, wearing starting pitchers down is a good thing. It gets you to the bullpen faster, and bullpen pitchers are, in general, worse than starting pitchers. This year, the Chicago Cubs have been very good at wearing starters down. They’ve seen more pitches than any other team. They’ve seen more pitches, relative to the amount of pitches they throw to the other guys, than almost any other team. And they’re forcing the league’s starters to throw more pitches against them than those same starters do against other teams they face. In short, they’re wearing ‘em down, and they’re really good at it.

Lead photo courtesy of Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

*BP’s Rob McQuown deserves all the credit in the world for coming up with the SQL queries that helped find the answers to these questions, and for being a patient and clever individual, more generally.

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2 comments on “Wearing ‘Em Down: Cubs’ Hitters Are Really Good at Running Up the Count”


Interesting numbers, but aren’t you leaving out an important variable in terms of how long those starters lasted in those games? I.e. A high pitch count by a starter against the Cubs might be due to them running up counts, but could also be the product of the offense being ineffective and therefore able to last 8 or 9 innings of effective pitching. If you look at the highest game scores (e.g. The 20-strikeout Kerry wood game), they all have super-high pitch counts. Not sure that having a high average starter’s pitch count means that you’re actually getting to the bullpen.

Rian Watt

Hey, great to hear from you! It’s an interesting point, although I should say at the outset that I was referring to overall pitch counts, rather than Cubs’ hitters working deep counts (though there are of course interaction effects). Here’s a couple of ways to get at your question:

1. Look at the Cubs offense independently of the pitching. The Cubs have a top-7 NL offense by tAV (.263) and a top-5 MLB offense by offensive VORP (156.1) so, generically, I think it’s unlikely that they don’t have the offense to push pitchers out of games;

2. Look at the runs allowed per pitch by opposing starters against the Cubs, vs. against the rest of the league;

3. Look at the innings starters pitch against the Cubs, versus the rest of the league;

4. Look at how many pitches per plate appearance the Cubs are seeing;

5. Possibly others, but I’m quite tired at the moment.

I’ll put in some data requests and look into it. I generally think point #1 strongly suggests it isn’t inneffective offense, but I’m happy to be proven wrong.

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