When the Cubs are presented with next year’s schedule, there’s nothing I’d like more than to see Theo Epstein cross off the part of the calendar with the west coast trip and write in six days at California Pizza Kitchen.
Last week was quite the rough stretch of baseball, wasn’t it? The last time I sat through that much painful late night TV was the six weeks The Magic Hour was on the air.
When the team goes through such a prolonged period of struggle, it’s easy to have some pretty insane thoughts. For instance, up until the seventh inning of Saturday’s game with the Cardinals, thousands of people had the bright idea to send Kyle Schwarber to Iowa. Because apparently the only person who could help him hit a high fastball was a senator with a background in hog castration.
During the road trip, I had several similar crazy thoughts myself, though once I took a step back, I dismissed most of them as folly. But there was one that stuck with me, and it’s such a bizarre and backwards idea that I have quite a bit of trepidation sharing it in such a public forum. So against my better judgment, here goes…
The Cubs’ losing streak shows that sometimes batting average matters.
I realize that I might as well just spend the rest of this piece telling you that story you’ve already heard 10 thousand times about how I invented the batting glove. Or share the results of this comprehensive historical analysis…
|Greatest Exit Velocity in Baseball History|
I will now sit back and await my 60 game suspension from the Commissioner of BP.
Thanks to advancements in our understanding of statistics, batting average will never again be as big and important as it was in…say…the 1980s. Its name might as well be Corey. Today, it’s looked down upon and derisively mocked as a stat for luddites—we would never think to cite it as something important on a blog for intelligent baseball discussion such as this.
Except…during the winless road trip, the Cubs really could have used some of it.
Throughout that ordeal, the Cubs offense slashed a putrid .171/.275/.301. The entire team needed a hot stretch just to become Jason Heyward’s 2016. But put on your protective eye gear and take another look at that OBP. It’s over 100 points higher than the batting average.
The one thing the Cubs offense was still doing during this stretch was drawing walks and getting hit by pitches. As usual, they were finding any way they could to get on base. Except hitting the ball.
Their paltry on base percentage from this road trip was almost entirely driven by that .171. And as anyone unfortunate enough to witness the San Diego series could attest, just one or two hits could have made a difference in those games.
Granted, that would have meant the road trip would have only gone from the pain of Batman v. Superman to Superman III. But that still would’ve meant trading Ben Affleck for Richard Pryor, and that’s a deal you make ten times out of ten if you want to win a championship.
Those days when the Cubs were getting runners on base but the ball wasn’t leaving the park were precisely the situation where batting average would have had value. Unfortunately, when the everyday lineup featured Kyle Schwarber’s .162, Addison Russell’s .213, Ian Happ’s .235, Anthony Rizzo’s .232, and Ben Zobrist’s .233, it made sense that the Cubs could go 3-for-40 with runners in scoring position. On this road trip, the Cubs somehow found a way for all nine spots in the lineup to be the Designated Hundley.
Even a modern thinker like Joe Maddon lamented this:
“There’s no bank shot, 15-foot banker, the pull-up jumper…The opposite field base hit isn’t as prominent as it had been. The stringing singles together, the bunt hit, it’s just not part of the landscape right now.”
Again, this is not exactly someone prone to yelling at clouds about walks clogging up the bases. But in that quote about the modern emphasis on power, Maddon identified so much of what the Cubs were missing when they went 0-6. And all of those skills are tied up in hitting for average. They aren’t something to build an entire team around, but it’s clear Maddon believes there’s still a place for them in the game.
In that respect, a good batting average has on field benefits. But just as importantly, it also plays a big role in a hitter’s confidence during the day-to-day grind of the long season. Even in a modern game that relies on launch angle and exit velocity more than ever, Maddon unwittingly underlined batting average’s role in discussing Schwarber’s mindset during his extended slump:
“I don’t care about [the batting average]. I’m looking at at-bats, the process, what he’s doing for the team, getting on base. But for the guy, when he looks up at the scoreboard and sees numbers everywhere, and they evaluate themselves based on numbers, I don’t want him to do that. I want him to get back to the process.”
Even in a statement that begins with him professing not to care about batting average, Maddon fully admits that it plays a large part in a hitter’s mindset. And when that number is poor, he has to throw every clever motivational slogan he’s got at the player to try to overcome it.
In another week, expect to see a new Korked Baseball shirt reading “Try Not to Count.”
If a batting average like Schwarber’s can have such an adverse effect, it’s fair to speculate that the converse is true, and a good average can put a hitter’s mind more at ease. He doesn’t have to worry about how to raise his average by 30 or 40 points and can approach each game one at bat at a time. In so doing, he can achieve the biggest measure of success a baseball player can have: living a cliché.
All of this is not to suggest that we go back to a pre-sabermetric mindset when it comes to hitting stats. It’s just a reminder that even as we discover better and more precise ways to measure the skills of major league hitters, there still comes a time when baseball shows us that poor neglected batting average can still be a useful tool to have. And the Cubs’ west coast nightmare was one of those times.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to my research on Jake Arrieta’s TWTW.
Lead photo courtesy Jake Roth—USA Today Sports