MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Chicago Cubs

Taking the Zone by Force: The Most Important Area of Improvement for the 2015 Cubs

Theo Epstein was on AM 670 The Score on Tuesday, in the hours leading up to the Cubs’ Game Four win over the Cardinals. Though Epstein was careful to note (more than once) how much work remains to be done, the interview was at least partially a victory lap for the Cubs’ chief architect. Epstein fielded a number of questions about the roster, the behind-the-scenes work that brought some crucial talent into the fold, and the team’s big-picture philosophy. He even delivered a short, unprompted soliloquy about The Cubs Way—the comprehensive codification of the team’s preferences and objectives. One line in there stood out: “Without going into too much detail,” Epstein said, “we found ourselves focusing a lot on controlling the strike zone.”

That may have been the focus from Day One, but it took a long time to show up on the field at the big-league level. The Cubs’ offense finished 15th, 11th and 10th in the National League in walks in 2012, 2013 and 2014, respectively. Their pitchers finished 16th (back when that was possible, before the Astros moved to the American League), 15th and 11th in walks issued during those years, and 15th, 11th, and second in strikeouts. Obviously, the hard work of retraining incumbent employees and implementing the new philosophy was ongoing, from the bottom of the system on up. The hardest and most important task on the checklist, though, remained undone. Every day, the big-league Cubs were going to the ballpark and having their strike zones handed to them.

Even as the talented young players the team collected during the first years of the rebuild began to populate the big-league roster, the Cubs struggled to win the battle for control of the plate. The offense improved in several ways from 2012 to 2014, but their non-pitcher OBPs in those seasons were .310, .308, and .305. They were, in at least one regard, getting further from the head of the class, not closer.

This was always going to get better in 2015. Kris Bryant offered one guaranteed upgrade, in both walk rate specifically, and in on-base ability more generally. Jorge Soler seemed a sure thing to do better than the .246 OBP Nate Schierholtz had given the Cubs as the regular right fielder in 2014. It was also perfectly possible to foresee improvement up the middle, where the team’s aggregate OBP was .288. If the Cubs meant to contend, though, it was going to take more. Much more.

At some point early in the fall, Epstein and Jed Hoyer came to that same conclusion, and once they did, they set about their task aggressively. Over the winter, they made several key acquisitions that helped them become one of the best teams in baseball at controlling the zone.

It started with Miguel Montero, whom the team targeted after losing out on Russell Martin as a free agent. Montero offered a potential boost in offense from the catcher’s spot; just as importantly, he offered excellent framing skills behind the plate. Somewhere along the way (probably toward the end of that 2014 season, with their pitchers showing dominant stuff and missing bats, but still issuing too many walks), the front office realized that they couldn’t effect dominance of the strike zone on the part of their pitchers without some help from their catchers. Montero is as good a framer as Welington Castillo is a bad one, and after signing Jon Lester, Epstein and Hoyer were able to bring David Ross on as an even better-framing backup.

Montero, Lester, Ross, and? Don’t forget the re-signing of Jason Hammel. The Cubs made no fewer than four excellent additions to the unit responsible for dominating the strike zone on the run-prevention side, and it’s paid huge dividends.

Most Improved Teams, Catcher Framing Runs, 2014-15

Team 2014 Framing Runs 2015 Framing Runs Change
Cubs -9.5 17.6 27.1
Dodgers -1.5 20.4 21.9
Mets -3.7 17.8 21.5
Twins -16.2 -3.0 13.2
Blue Jays -3.8 10.8 13.0

The Cubs allowed 99 fewer runs, meaning nearly 30 percent of their improvement in run prevention this season traces back to their improvements behind the plate. (All five of the teams listed above allowed fewer runs in 2015 than in 2014, which helps highlight the importance of framing.) A lot of the rest still goes back to superior control of the strike zone—in other words, it’s just thanks to Lester, Hammel, and the team’s other new arms, on their own. The result? In 2015, the Cubs not only led the NL in strikeouts, but they issued the fourth-fewest walks to boot.

That left the offensive side of things still to be resolved. Montero and Ross did their jobs: the Cubs got a .323 OBP out of the catcher spot this year, up from .285 in 2014. There was still a gaping hole, though, in center field. The Cubs got a .264 OBP from that position in 2014, from a combination of Arismendy Alcantara, Emilio Bonifacio, Junior Lake, Justin Ruggiano, and… you get it. Things could only just barely have been worse.

Enter Dexter Fowler, via a trade from Houston. It took a lot of faith in Bryant for the Cubs to trade Luis Valbuena, but they had it, and they’d given themselves some insurance by trading for Tommy La Stella earlier in the offseason. Fowler was exactly the thing the Cubs were still missing, not only in that he could lead off competently, but in that he would deliver strong on-base skills at a position where the team had previously been a disaster. Fowler didn’t have a career year, but he walked in 12.2 percent of his plate appearances, and by seeing a lot of pitches and frustrating opposing pitchers, he set the tone for the offense. The Cubs led the NL in walks this season, and their non-pitcher OBP shot all the way from .305 to .332.

A front office has to do several things (among others) well in order to build a winning team:

  1. Value the right things;
  2. Have a set of priorities and guiding principles in place to make sure all decisions are part of a coherent strategy;
  3. Never miss an opportunity.

That’s what the Cubs’ executives did in building the 2015 juggernaut hurtling toward the World Series. They committed themselves to commanding the strike zone, and they correctly realized that that had to happen in three different dimensions: pitching, catching, and batting. They made great small decisions, like the 2012 waiver claim of Valbuena that set up the Fowler trade, and they made great big decisions, like stepping back from the bidding war on Martin and making a trade for Montero at much less cost. The strike zone now belongs to the Cubs, in almost any matchup, and the value of that is not to be overlooked.

Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.

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