We were served a full plate of narrative heft last fall when the Cubs bested Cleveland in the World Series. As I have relayed elsewhere, there was an abundance of good stories for those who wanted them: the historical angle, of course, but also the return of Kyle Schwarber, the feats of Andrew Miller, the last hurrah of David Ross. How would the Cubs fare against Cleveland’s super bullpen? Would Cleveland’s starters be able to bridge the gap? If the Cubs’ bats went cold, would their pitching carry them?
One story that looks rather petty in retrospect is the Cubs’ struggle against breaking balls throughout the playoffs. At the time, writers zeroed in on the young hitters’ inability to parry All-Star opponents’ curves and sliders and place them between the foul lines. “The Cubs Can’t Touch Cleveland’s Breaking Stuff.” “Heavy breaking ball usage fueling [Cleveland’s] success.” “The Cubs’ Continuing Curveball Crisis.” The pieces reached a fever pitch on Halloween night, as the series went back to Cleveland with the American Leaguers up 3-2.
The all-consuming nature of the World Series victory subsumed the other stories, though, and we never quite got closure on the breaking ball one. That’s all well and good, but it’s worth considering: are the Cubs’ hitters still flailing at those breakers?
In short… well, sort of. Overall, the Cubs aren’t mashing breaking balls. On 314 batted balls versus sliders, they’ve only managed 49 hits, good for a .156 batting average and .236 slugging percentage. Both of those are dead last in the league. The next-worst teams in those two categories are the Reds, with a .188 average, and the Rays, with a .305 slugging percentage. The gap in slugging, 69 not-very-nice points, is as wide as the margin between the Rays and the Rangers, who rank 11th. The Cubs are not just the worst at hitting the pitch—they’re the worst by a wide margin.
Compared to last season’s team numbers, the Cubs have slipped. In 2016, they were in the middle of the pack versus sliders, hitting .220 with a .383 slugging percentage, 12th and 11th in MLB, respectively. They were mediocre against curves, too. In the playoffs, pitchers attempted to exploit the Cubs’ hitters perceived struggles versus sliders: they saw 16 percent sliders throughout the postseason—twice as many as Cleveland faced—and, as a result, had twice as many batted balls on the pitch as any other team. They hit .317/.554 against sliders in the playoffs, though! That was second-best in average and best in slugging for all ten playoff teams, despite facing some of the game’s best pitchers multiple times.
If opposing pitchers decided to take a cue from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cleveland in last year’s playoffs, though, it’s not showing up in the stats. Pitchers are throwing only about 14 percent sliders versus Cubs hitters, the fourth-lowest in the majors. Curves make up 10.2 percent of pitches Cubs hitters have seen, squarely in the middle of the pack at 15th league-wide. This could be a function of the Cubs’ abundance of good left-handed and switch hitters, as the highest teams in terms of sliders as a percentage of total pitches seen are the more right-hand-heavy Blue Jays and Astros.
To test that hypothesis, and to see who is contributing the most to the team’s futility versus breaking balls, we can see how individual players have fared. We’ll start with Kris Bryant, the engine of the offense. Bryant is mostly replicating his 2016 MVP performance, with a lower average contributing to a lower slugging percentage (his isolated power is nearly identical to last season). His walks are up and strikeouts are down, indicating continued evolution for the ever-improving Bryant. But how is he versus the slider?
Last year, Bryant killed sliders: he hit .285 and slugged .509, with seven homers. Against the curve, he socked five home runs and slugged .516. This year, those numbers have plummeted, despite overall better performance. Against four-seamers, sinkers, and changeups, Bryant is hitting very well. Sliders and curves have confounded him to the tune of averages, slugging percentages, and BABIPs all in the .100-.200 range. He’s missing fewer of them, as his whiff rates have also gone down, but he hasn’t hit a home run on a breaking pitch this year. Bryant’s struggles are the most obvious of the factors resulting in poor team performance.
Anthony Rizzo has similarly upped his walks and cut his strikeouts this season, but his overall performance so far is 50 to 75 points worse than in each of his 2014-2016 seasons. In 2016, Rizzo his sliders even better than Bryant: .321/.615/.406 were his AVG/SLG/BABIP numbers. The curve troubled him, which makes sense for a left-handed hitter. He’s improved slightly versus the curve this year, with two homers to show for it, but his slider results are now .207/.345/.294. That’s more in line with his 2015, so it’s possible that it’s closer to Rizzo’s true talent level versus the pitch.
Kyle Schwarber has struggled versus breaking balls too. In 2015, Schwarber killed sliders, with a .595 slugging percentage and three homers despite a low .214 BABIP. This year, he’s cratered. Schwarber only has one single versus 97 sliders. Schwarber sees slightly more curves, though, and he has been only a smidge better than he has against sliders. Similarly, Ben Zobrist has tallied a mere four singles on 76 sliders, in line with his poor 2016 numbers versus the pitch. Addison Russell has three base hits on 143 sliders, and opponents love to attack him with that pitch. Few pitchers throw sliders to Jason Heyward, as they still think they can blow fastballs past him, but he hasn’t a hit on the 73 sliders he has seen. Clearly, the key bats in the Cubs lineup are not hitting well versus breaking pitches.
The only regular starter to have success against breaking balls is Willson Contreras, who sports a .250 average and .464 slugging percentage versus sliders, and .286/.429 marks versus curves. Despite his reputation as one who flails at breaking balls way out of the zone, Javy Baez has actually been the second-best Cubs regular versus the pitches, hitting .243 versus sliders with a respectable .405 slugging percentage.
This is a fairly easy problem to diagnose, but a very difficult problem to solve. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for these hitters to take, and for Bryant and Rizzo, it might just be a matter of time before they turn around their performance versus breaking balls. Two of the three young righties in the lineup, Contreras and Baez, actually have had the best performances, so it’s not a matter of youthful impotence with room to grow. The Cubs have a few mature hitters who can’t hit these pitches, and it’s likely that pitchers will aim to exploit that soon. The club as a whole is in the middle of the pack for most plate discipline measurements (swing percentage, contact percentage, etc.), so it’s not affecting them adversely there.
In the end, the Cubs’ breaking ball problems seem to be a quality of contact problem. The team is making less hard contact than most other teams, and they’re near the bottom in BABIP despite having the most Baserunning Runs of any club. Perhaps the Cubs’ swings are, in general, not tailored to make good contact on breaking balls. Either way, the Cubs will have to improve versus sliders and curves, or they’ll risk a season of frustrating offensive mediocrity.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports