Contact Probably Not Key to World Peace, Might Help the Cubs Win Anyway

How do you greet a friend? With a hug? A handshake? A kiss? Whatever it is, in all likelihood it involves contact. Oftentimes, this greeting, however it’s made, can be very telling; it’s a small but crucial bit of information. That’s item one.

Item two? Studies show that newborns thrive on skin-to-skin contact with both mother and father. My wife—a NICU nurse—was once told at a conference that if every parent held their newborn skin-to-skin, we’d achieve world peace.

And item three, which I remember from some college electrical engineering lab I was halfheartedly (listen,there’s a reason I chose this career path!) participating in: more often than not, when you’re troubleshooting an issue, the problem comes down to contact. Some tiny wire isn’t in contact with another tiny node and—poof!—the entire experiment becomes worthless.

If you take all those items together, it’s clear: contact is crucial. And when it comes to contact rate, the Chicago Cubs offense ranked dead last in baseball this past summer. Of the position players, seven had a contact rate above the league average of 78.8 percent.

Player (Plate Appearances) Contact Rate
Tommy La Stella (75) 90.5%
Mike Baxter (66) 83.9%
Jonathan Herrera (132) 83.7%
Anthony Rizzo (701) 83.1%
Starlin Castro (578) 82.2%
Chris Coghlan (503) 81.8%
Dexter Fowler (690) 80.1%

Rizzo is a mainstay and we can likely count on that strong contact rate being sustained going forward, but the rest are pretty much up in the air. Both Baxter and Herrera played sparingly in 2015, and neither are going to be back next season. Fowler is likely to depart after having a strong walk year. Coghlan may find himself relegated to the bench as the Cubs look to upgrade their outfield defense as one outfield corner will likely be held for the suspect glove, but impressive bat of Kyle Schwarber. Castro, for his part, can make contact, but will it be of the weak variety that we saw in the first five months of the season or a little closer to the white-hot September he delivered?

La Stella was acquired last season was for his contact rate, but an oblique injury sidelined him for much of the year, limiting him to just 33 games. If he’s healthy, that could be one way the Cubs improve themselves in a weak area. No, this team isn’t completely devoid of contact hitters, but there’s no getting around the fact that they were dead last in that category as a team in 2015 and that it was a detriment to their offense.

But how did the team’s struggles to avoid the swing and miss really affect the Cubs at the plate? In the first half of the season, the offense averaged 3.85 runs per game. In the second half they improved that number by quite a bit, upping it to 4.72. But they did so by slugging—something that was expected of them from the start—pushing their ISO from .135 to.176 and hitting 17 more home runs in 12 fewer games. And while their offense therefore improved in the second half, their contact rate actually dropped from 75.4 percent to 73.9 percent.

So if their offense got better when they were actually making less contact, why should they care about improving that aspect of their team? The fact is they could have been even better if they were a stronger contact-hitting team. If you want to put numbers to it, it’s quite simple. The Cubs were third in the NL with 331 plate appearances with a runner on third and less than two outs. For many of us, this is looked at as a situation where a run must score. The reality is, last season the league average for converting on those opportunities was 51 percent. The Cubs, however, converted at a 40 percent rate, dead last in baseball by a significant margin. Think about that: the Cubs had the third-most opportunities in baseball with a runner on third and failed three-fifths of the time. Not only is that unacceptable, but it really shows us how the Cubs—by rectifying one clear weakness—could go from a very strong offense to an elite one.

So how will the Cubs go about fixing this issue?

“You can improve that to a certain degree with coaching and emphasis,” Epstein said at the close of the season, adding that it was already something he and Joe Maddon had discussed for be work next spring. “To a greater degree, maturation, especially with players who experienced a spike in their strikeout rate in the big leagues versus what their track record in the minor leagues indicated. They usually find a way to get back to where they were or close to it at the major-league level.”

The Cubs could thus improve their rate by having La Stella on the bench for a full season, along with Coghlan and a hopefully more consistent Castro. But the maturation of players is an interesting point by Epstein. While we don’t have contact rates for players in the minors, we can look at how much they struck out and see if we could expect better numbers in those areas for certain players going forward.

Player Career Minor-League K% Major-League K%
Kyle Schwarber 20.8% 28.2%
Jorge Soler 17.1% 28.9%
Addison Russell 21.1% 28.5%
Kris Bryant 26.6% 30.6%

Outside of Bryant—who we’ll get to shortly—the Cubs rookies all struck out at much higher rate in their rookie seasons (with Soler, we’re looking at his time in the bigs in 2014 as well) than they did during their minor-league careers. So expecting some improvement with the kids isn’t unreasonable, in fact, if they develop as hoped, it should be expected. However, it may not happen as quickly as the front office would like. Remember, this team is competing to win a World Series every year from now until the foreseeable future, and to improve their chances of doing so, they’ll need to identify and attempt to fix every deficiency they can. It’s certainly not an easy task, but one that this group is capable of taking on.

So, yes, expect them to add some players who can help in this department.

“It probably doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to go out right now and add a boom-or-bust, high-strikeout, high-power, right-handed hitter into our mix right now,” Epstein said. “It would probably make more sense to go the other way and find a player who has a lot of his value wrapped up in being able to put the ball in play on a consistent basis, being able to get on base in front the middle of our lineup. If we do make moves with our position players, you’d want to see someone who can really compliment the group we already have in place.”

That means we should get used to hearing names like Howie Kendrick, Jason Heyward, Gerardo Parra, Denard Span, Ben Zobrist, and Daniel Murphy. They all have strong contact rates and would fit with this current Cubs roster.

But let’s not get things twisted: the Cubs aren’t going to completely change the DNA of their team. Anyone who has followed this group as they were being put together understood that many were free swingers. It’s not as if the front office suddenly realized this could be an issue (as mentioned earlier, it’s one of the main reasons why they targeted La Stella in a trade). It certainly was a problem in 2015, but the fact is some of the Cubs best players—primarily Kris Bryant—will thrive despite contact issues.

“We have a number of hitters who will strike out a lot as a byproduct of their approach at the plate,” Theo Epstein said when discussing the balance of improving a weakness on his team. “Trying to cut out the strikeouts might be cutting off your nose to spite your face because it would take away from the things they do really well as hitters. So we’re going to have to live with some strikeouts.”

At just 66.4 percent, Bryant had the worst contact rate of the regulars on the Cubs. But he was arguably the most valuable position player on the team, so to suggest contact rate is the be-all, end-all of offensive skillsets would be folly. And that’s certainly not what I nor Epstein would do when saying the Cubs need to improve in this area.

You could try and build a narrative around contact rate if you so desired, and suggest that to win in today’s high-strikeout game, building a high-contact offense is the right way to do so. This year’s World Series teams were both in the top 10 in contact rate, with the champion Royals finishing second in the category for the second year in a row while appearing in their second straight World Series.

Yes, it’s nice to have a contact-hitting team. The Royals have proven to be maddening for the opposition, and if you make a mistake, they’ll rarely fail to capitalize. Just ask the Astros, Blue Jays, and Mets. So contact certainly is helpful, but a closer look at things tells us that contact isn’t essential in getting to the playoffs. Of the ten teams that made the postseason, three were in the top third in baseball in contact rate (Royals, Yankees, Mets), three were in the middle third (Blue Jays, Cardinals, Rangers), and four were in the bottom third (Dodgers, Pirates, Astros, and Cubs).

“If you do dissect the data over time, having a better contact rate always helps and it does help in the postseason,” Epstein told reporters after the season wrapped up. “But there’s not just one way to do it. You have to be really careful extracting too many narratives from the postseason.”

That’s the key. The Cubs don’t need to completely change who they are—it’s not as if they went about building the team improperly. They don’t need to go from a high-strikeout, slugging team to a dink-and-dunk, speed-oriented, contact machine. But it’s also not something they should ignore. If they can just slightly improve their contact rate and enter that group in the middle third, that could take the offense to another level. And the goal, whether you’re the worst team in baseball or coming off of a World Series, is to always improve.

When addressing the media after the season, Epstein said the postseason is all about being the hot team. When you’re that hot team, it’s almost as if you’re transformed into a tidal wave and nothing an opponent does will slow you down; they become the dinghy.

“That’s the nature of the postseason: It’s really dramatic, really meaningful, really intense, really good baseball, and it’s fickle and can be arbitrary too,” Epstein said. “Playing your best baseball at this time of year is really important. You can never tell if you’re going to be the wave or the boat, that’s why you want to get back there as often as you possibly can. The way we’re going to win the World Series is by getting to October again and again and again. Hopefully just again and then winning it next year, but we want to get there as often as possible.”

The point was never that there’s one way to do it, it’s always been to get there. And after every season, whether it ends with a win or not, to always aspire to improve. For 2016, one of the main areas the Cubs will look to get better is with their situational hitting. In doing so they aren’t going to get us any closer to world peace; they’re just looking for a World Series. And contact may be the key.

Lead photo courtesy of Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

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3 comments on “Contact Probably Not Key to World Peace, Might Help the Cubs Win Anyway”


The Cubs are not the Royals and never will be, but they gave us a blue print on how to deal with the Mets and we actually have more dynamic hitters. The royals are extremely unique and nearly impossible to reconstruct (but we can learn from the importance of a strong bullpen as I feel we were a tad lucky). The Cubs need to simply grow, keep doing simple better, and most importantly, stress the importance of their 2 strike approach. Taking a lot of pitches is still really important and they will continue to strike out as long as they work deep into counts–we just need to do it less and perfect the art of contact.


Interestingly, Rizzo has the highest contact rate among starters and the most home runs. And as far as I can tell, he’s the only one who chokes up with 2 strikes. Is there a lesson there?


Royals name new hitting coach (again): Dale Sveum …

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