Last night, Matt Szczur hit a home run on the first pitch he saw in the third inning (and, indeed, in the game). Here’s what it looked like:
There’s any number of interesting angles to talk about here. You could draw a parallel between Szczur’s alma mater (Villanova) and what happened in Houston on Monday night. You could talk about the fact that Szczur’s blast came just one at-bat after he drove in three runs with a ninth-inning double in Game One of the series, and that those two hits in combination (more properly, the approach that produced them) have complicated the Cubs’ imminent roster decisions surrounding their final bench spot.
But I don’t want to talk about those two angles right now. I want to talk about, instead, the fact that Szczur’s home run came on the first pitch of his at-bat. Moreover, I want to pair that fact with another, linked one. And that’s this: the Chicago Cubs walked exactly zero times last night in Anaheim (except, after the game, to the team bus). Think about that for a moment. If you knew nothing about the Cubs, and nothing about their reputation, except for those two facts, what might you conclude about their offensive profile?
I’m guessing you might conclude that they’re a free-swinging team. I’m guessing you might not think that they’re a patient team, offensively, which is how they’re usually portrayed. And here’s the thing about that: small sample sizes aside, and looking at the broader picture, the Cubs aren’t a particularly patient team at the plate, if you define patient (as many seem to) as seeking out walks above everything else. They’re not trying to be one, either. They’re trying to be selectively aggressive, and there’s a difference.
A selectively aggressive team is patient when they need to be. Such a team waits for exactly the pitch they want—a pitch they can drive—and then swings as hard as they can at that pitch, and that pitch only. If they take four balls before that pitch gets there, they’ll take the walk happily. But they aren’t looking for it, and that’s important. If the pitch they can drive comes on the first pitch of the sequence, as it did with Szczur last night? They’ll swing then, and that’s what he did. Sure, that requires patience. But it also requires aggression, when there’s reason for that patience to expire.
There have only been 312 pitches thrown against the Cubs this season, so small sample size alerts apply (and please ladle on the salt), but I think it’s fascinating where the Cubs stand on the plate discipline leaderboards so far: third in O-Swing percentage (percentage of swings at pitches outside the zone), ninth in Z-swing percentage (swings inside the zone), and tenth overall in swing rate. The high O-Swing rate can be explained, partly, by the Cubs’ tendency to intentionally foul off a bunch of marginal pitches in order to keep the sequence alive. That, too, is part of their approach: you don’t want to strike out looking on a pitch on the corner, if you don’t have to. So, foul it off and wait and see what comes next.
All of which is to say this: don’t let anyone tell you the Cubs are chasing walks. The Cubs, when they need to be, are a highly aggressive team at the plate. They just pick their moments carefully, and structure their sequences at the plate in such a way that they push the pitcher back into the zone as much as possible. Then, they pounce. For the last two nights, that’s worked brilliantly for them, as it worked brilliantly for Szczur on Tuesday night.
Lead photo courtesy Jayne Kamin-Oncea—USA Today Sports.