In Hitting Environment All About Surviving, Cubs Offense Thriving

With an eight-run outburst in Arizona Tuesday night, the St. Louis Cardinals took over the runs per game leadership of MLB from the Chicago Cubs. The Pittsburgh Pirates, enjoying the thin air and thinner pitching staff in Colorado, padded their league-leading team OBP (it was .378 entering play, and the steam uncannily matched that figure by reaching base 17 times in 45 plate appearances Tuesday). For all the talk about the Cubs’ relentless offense and well-rounded, dominant roster, maybe they don’t even have the strongest offense in their own division. There’s a case to be made for either of the other two teams, each of whom are also exceptionally deep.

Whatever some Cardinals or Pirates fans may have you believe, though, the national attention the Cubs have gotten for their offensive exploits isn’t a result of their market size or their offseason or their place in the mythology of baseball. (Okay, it might be somewhat a result of those things.) Rather, the Cubs are of special interest because they’re the team advancing what might be the best hope for the future of offense in MLB. Some teams do certain things well, and some do certain things poorly. The Cubs do certain things differently, and the things that make them stand out also make them successful.

Okay, stop. We’re going to go into the data-diving segment of this post next, but a couple crucial caveats must be nudged into the light before we do so. First of all, talking about teams’ offensive approaches is difficult. It involves a lot of smoothing, a lot of treating individuals with unique attributes and intentions as identical and replaceable, a lot of assuming. While most teams have certain points of emphasis and specific objectives that apply to many of their hitters, no team asks all of its players to approach plate appearances in precisely the same way, nor any individual to approach all of his own plate appearances the same way. Secondly, the Cubs aren’t the only team engaged in an interesting experiment aimed at solving the problem of pitchers’ creeping global advantage over hitters. They’re merely the most fascinating at the moment, and even as I say that, I acknowledge that my own bias might color that perception. Now, then: numbers.

The Cubs’ team approach came somewhat into focus by the end of last season. The crucial tenets thereof were, roughly: hunt for something to crush early in the count, then (counterintuitively, perhaps) back off and become more patient if the plate appearance runs deep. Be opportunistic, but work hard to get ahead in the count. In 2015, the Cubs were the eighth-most likely team to swing at the first pitch, doing so 31.4 percent of the time. When they connected, amazing, wonderful things happened: they led the league in OPS and extra-base hits on the first pitch.

Because that team swung and missed so often, though, those early swings often didn’t connect. Only 10.8 percent of all plate appearances ended on the first pitch, a number that fell in the bottom tercile of the league. Between all those other first-pitch swings and a hefty number of taken strikes, the Cubs began 49.3 percent of their plate appearances down 0-1, about the average frequency for the league last year. In those cases (3,059 PA), they struck out 33.5 percent of the time, and had a .584 OPS, fourth-worst in the Majors. Another symptom of the swing-and-miss problem, and in part, of the whole approach summarized above: 54.4 percent of Cubs plate appearances reached two strikes, the highest share in baseball, and once that happened, they had a league-worst .467 OPS and a 45-percent strikeout rate.

Those problems hitting from behind in the count and battling when the count reached two strikes weren’t fatal for last year’s Cubs, partially because the whole league is trending that way. Hitters throughout MLB are finding more success and getting more aggressive on the first pitch, but struggling more when plate appearances don’t resolve quickly, and the rate at which they strike out once they reach two-strike situations is about 40 percent. The Cubs executed the consensus gameplan for the modern offense very well, so the fact that that gameplan remains flawed and vulnerable didn’t hurt all that much.

This year, the team has found another gear. With six walks Tuesday night, they crossed the threshold of 100 drawn in their first 20 games. Their current pace (one they’re violently unlikely to sustain of course, not only because it’s a 20-game sample, but because April tends to be the month in which the global walk rate is highest every season) would carry them to 834 team walks, one shy of the all-time record held by the 1949 Red Sox. They’re still scoring over six runs per game. So what’s changed?

Unsurprisingly, I guess, a lot of it boils down to fewer whiffs. The 2016 Cubs swing at the first pitch a hair less often (30.6 percent of the time), but are doing more when they do swing, and choosing their times to swing better. They rank fifth in percentage of PA ending on the first pitch (12.8 percent), have an OPS north of 1.100 when that happens, and lead the league in both homers and isolated power in that split.

However, they’re also hanging in much better when they do fall behind, and they’re doing so less often, to boot. Only 45.7 percent of their PA have seen them start off down 0-1, the lowest frequency in baseball. Yet, they lead the league with 33 walks drawn after 0-1. Their 9.5-percent walk rate in those situations is better than all but five teams’ walk rates for all plate appearances. Their .312 OBP after 0-1 is the league’s best.

Two-strike counts have come up less often, in just 50.6 percent of PA–below the median figure. In those cases, the Cubs have a .556 OPS that ranks among the top five in baseball, and they’re striking out just 39.8 percent of the time.

Nor is it only the new guys, the reinforcements who were supposed to cure the Cubs’ contact woes, who have changed the narrative and improved upon the process. Dexter Fowler has an 1.180 OPs in 37 PA after starting 0-1, allowing him to patiently approach his at bats and start the meat grinder through which the Cubs pass opposing pitchers right away. Anthony Rizzo’s first 25 first-pitch swings resulted in 15 0-1 counts, four outs, a triple, and five home runs. Tommy La Stella has taken 16 plate appearances that reached two-strike counts, but has yet to strike out, and has five hits (including two doubles) and a walk in those 16 PA.

Clearly, the first few weeks of the season aren’t the benchmark against which the Cubs’ offense ought to be measured for the rest of the year. This offense is very good, but won’t score six runs per game. The scary thing, though, is that it doesn’t feel like the team has met its full potential early on, and if they maintain the improvements they have made to key elements of their team approach, they could have some 20-game stretches in front of them in which they score even more runs than they did in this first one. More importantly, they’re providing a road map to other teams. League-wide adjustments have resulted in a modest recovery, over the last year and a half, from the huge drop in offensive output over the previous few years. However, they’ve all been adjustments of the simplest and least sustainable kind. They’re tradeoffs of on-base opportunities for power, and those are tradeoffs pitchers can counter pretty easily. If the Cubs can show the way toward an offensive paradigm that reestablishes the primacy of OBP, they’ll have done baseball a service that outshines their success in the standings.

Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports.

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