Cactus Catchup: Before the Games Count, What Can We Glean From Spring?

It seems like just yesterday. Cactus League games started and Cubs Nation rejoiced with the return of baseball. Fans watched practice games and fielding drills like idiots on their first trip to the zoo. Now the batters have their timing, starters have stretched out their arms, the front office has dispatched most of the minor leaguers to the backfields, and Cubs spring training games (five of which ended in a tie!) have lost their pizzazz.

This week the wellspring of excitement that is late-March Spring Training extruded mostly hubbub about the Cubs’ Opening Day roster. Who would make the team between Tommy La Stella and Matt Szczur? Would Zobrist and Russell start the season on the disabled list? And even those riveting subplots failed to deliver, as both La Stella and Szczur are on the roster for now (with lefty Brian Duensing going on the disabled list), and both Zobrist and Russell put in impressive performances on Thursday night and will play Opening Day.

The Duensing move means that, barring any late developments, the Cubs will open the season with Mike Montgomery as the sole left-handed reliever. A source of intrigue? A dent in the Cubs’ armor?!? Not really. A few of Cubs’ right-handed relievers are particularly adept at retiring lefties. Specifically, Carl Edwards Jr. and Justin Grimm are both among the top 10 right-handed relievers in retiring left-handed hitters, and Koji Uehara is a reverse-split guy. Don’t be surprised if Maddon asks some combination of that group to get lefties out late in games. 

Weeks after most online outlets, and perhaps emblematic of the changing media landscape, TRONC rolled out their season preview, meaning that even fans dialing up on AOL and Prodigy have shifted their attention to games that matter. Opening Day, and the dawn of the Cubs’ world championship defense, is Sunday. Team and fans and This Guy are ready.

Putting in work

But wait!

Before we submerge ourselves in a vat of regular season bliss, let’s look back at the players’ work down in Mesa. Conventional wisdom says that Spring Training performance is useless, and that holds up for many offensive, pitching, and defensive metrics which require a larger sample size, but that would be tossing out the baby with the bathwater! A few stats normalize fast enough that Spring Training sample sizes correlate with regular season performance. Namely, strikeout rate, walk rate, and groundball/flyball ratio—for both hitters and pitchers.

I put together the following charts showing how Cubs starting pitchers’ (including both Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson) and hitters’ 2016 performance compares to their 2017 Spring Training numbers across those three metrics. Note that I have excluded relievers from these charts: Only starting pitchers face enough batters for their stats to normalize even in these categories. Note also that, in lieu of numbers from Anderson’s 11.1 innings in 2016, I used 191.2 innings worth of data lumping together his 2015 and 2016 seasons.

First, the hurlers:

Now, the stickmen:

What can we take away from this? I see both promising and worrisome developments. First, the good:

  1. Arrieta’s strikeout rate is up and his walk rate is down. If you toss out the eight pitches he threw left handed, his walk rate would be even lower. Looks a lot more like 2015 and early-2016 Arrieta.
  2. Lester’s walk rate is down, and his GB/FB ratio is looking strong, which may douse some fears about his age-33 season.
  3. Montgomery’s strikeout rate is way up.
  4. Anderson generates a TON of ground balls, maybe a little below his atmospheric 3.5 in 2015-16 in Spring Training, but well above all the other starting candidates.
  5. Zobrist is hitting a lot more fly balls. I previously pointed out that Zobrist’s average exit velocity equaled Rizzo and Bryant, but his average launch angle was quite low (below 10 degrees). With more loft, Zobrist would generate more power.
  6. Heyward is also hitting more fly balls. I think the jury is still out on his retooled swing, but this represents one positive indicator.

Now, a few things that Cubs fans should worry about:

  1. Montgomery’s GB/FB ratio has turned upside-down. Could be a blip, but his ability to induce ground balls sure improves his efficacy on the bump.
  2. Lackey’s strikeout rate is down.
  3. Lester’s strikeout rate is down, which may reignite fears about his age-33 season.
  4. Willson Contreras’s GB/FB ratio is worse than last season, when it was already not good. He may have six dingers in Spring Training, but I can’t shake the concern that he hits too many ground balls to expect a major jump in power.
  5. Rizzo’s strikeout rate is up 10 percent, from 16 percent to 26.

(Non)Camp Happenings

As noted above, the team and fans alike have shifted their focus to opening day at this point, plus the Cubs sent Ian Happ to AAA, so nothing is really Happ-ening at camp. There are, however, some interesting happenings in other parts of the realm:

  • The Cubs announced a schedule of events, including a weekly farmer’s market, craft food and beer festival, and movie nights, for the new plaza on the West side of Wrigley Field, awkwardly named “The Park at Wrigley Field.” Will Alderman Tom Tunney and his band of neighbors find this space much more appealing than the old players’ parking lot? Or will they complain that it brings too many hooligans to their neighborhood? Just get rid of TBOX and everything should be good, right?
  • In another classic battle, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Cubs High-A affiliate, and Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets Short-Season-A affiliate, will attempt to settle the Chicago-style (read: deep dish) vs. New York-style (read: flat floppiness) pizza debate with an August promotion. To the suprise of many, the teams will not play each other. Rather, the teams will settle “which city can truly lay claim to the title of Pizza Capital of the World” by conducting “a series of competitions between players, front office staff and fans.” Why a team in Mytle Beach, South Carolina, has any skin in this game is beyond me, but whatevs this is silly fun. On August 8th, the teams will go by the “Brooklyn Slices” and (ripe-for-ribald jokes) “Myrtle Beach Deep Dishers.”
  • Many observers speculate that the Cubs will start their own TV network in 2020 when their current TV deals expire. On Wednesday, Chicago 14th Ward Alderman Edward Burke warned the Cubs against doing that. Burke’s rationale is that too many loyal fans, who have stuck with the Cubs through thick and thin, could not afford what would almost inevitably be a premium cable subscription. While Burke acknowledged that council has no official power to prevent the Cubs from creating their own network and capturing the market value of their product, he suggested the City Council would hold such a move against the Cubs in the future: “[T]hey, I’m sure, are going to be coming back here in the future, and it’s something to be considered.” 

Game Results

3/27: Cleveland 4, Cubs 3

3/28: San Francisco 10, Cubs 7

3/29: Cubs 15, Oakland 11

3/30: Houston 8, Cubs 6

Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports

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