Two offseasons ago, the Cubs landed big free agent targets Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist to shore up their inconsistent offense and provide a boost to an already elite defensive unit. The 2015 Cubs tore up the National League in the second half and finished with 97 wins, but their bats fell silent in a rather depressing NLCS loss to the Mets. The offense’s inconsistency could be traced back to a primary problem: contact. The lineup beyond sluggers and on-base machines Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo had trouble putting the ball in play consistently, and so the lineup would often fail to plate the two All-Stars.
Heyward and Zobrist were meant to remedy this issue: slotting in the middle and end of the order, the two highly regarded hitters brought exceptionally high contact rates with them, positioning themselves well for the slew of RBI opportunities they would receive. And the two hitters made the best of those chances, with Zobrist’s 88.3 percent contact rate resulting in 76 RBI, and Heyward’s 85.5 percent plating 49 despite a generally impotent offensive season. It was a perfect storm for the Cubs offense, despite shaky seasons from Heyward and Addison Russell, and the club exploded for big run totals versus tough pitchers in the playoffs.
Throughout this somewhat disappointing 2017 campaign, the Cubs have again struggled to find offensive consistency. One of the primary factors has, of course, been a spate of health problems for Zobrist and Russell and Willson Contreras, and the departure of leadoff behemoth Dexter Fowler has made setting the table for the big boppers more difficult, but—especially recently—the middle and bottom of the order have once again toiled in the contactless doldrums of 2015.
To help visualize this phenomenon, here are the contact rates and OBP of the Cubs’ key offensive players. Bolded marks are below league average.
|2017 OBP||2016 Contact %||2017 Contact %|
Last year, the Cubs consistently deployed only two or three hitters with below average contact rates, including Kris Bryant. Javier Baez and Willson Contreras only played part time with the club, and Ben Zobrist hit very well in addition to sporting his eye-popping contact rate. This year, the Cubs have regained Kyle Schwarber, added Alex Avila and Ian Happ, and played Javier Baez nearly every day. What’s more, those players have repeatedly been inserted into the middle and bottom parts of the order, directly behind the Cubs’ three best OBP players (Jon Jay, Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo). Additionally, while Bryant’s contact rate has improved as a result of his maturing approach at the plate, Baez’s has taken a turn for the disastrous. It’s now almost twelve points below league average, and while the young infielder has finally found his stroke and put up an .800-ish OPS this year in full-time play, he has not turned his strikeout and walk rates into strengths, nor has he put the ball in play more often.
That’s a pretty big information dump, and for that I apologize. It is, however, important to get a holistic picture of the Cubs’ contact proclivities and sketch out some general trends before figuring out what this might mean for the offense down the stretch.
A quick Baseball Reference search reveals what most of us probably suspect: the Cubs have hit very poorly over the last week or two, with OPS marks of .604 and .734 over those two periods, respectively. After an August when the Cubs posted their best team slash line, hit more homers, and scored more runs than any other month, September has been a month of impoverished hitting. In ten games, the Cubs have hit .224/.302/.342, a rather abysmal showing. Overall, the team just hasn’t looked good at the plate. Has the bottom of the order had an outsized impact on these numbers?
In short… well, maybe. The Cubs have won four of ten games this month, and two of those were victories in which they score 13 and 8 runs. In the other eight games they have played this month, they have scored three runs or fewer, and they have been shut out twice. Here are the total hits, walks, and strikeouts of the 5-8 spots in the order for those eight games:
The bottom of the order has, perhaps predictably, hit very poorly in those eight games. There’s a selection bias here, of course, in that these players are generally worse than those who hit at the top, and these are games in which the Cubs scored few runs. But the five through eight spots have combined for a dismal 65 percent contact rate, putting the ball in play in 80 of 124 plate appearances. The Cubs’ best OBP players—Jay, Bryant, and Rizzo—have hit very poorly over the same period, well below their season averages. It’s not sound to conclude that the bottom of the order has been the primary cause of the Cubs’ boom and bust offense.
Overall, the Cubs’ contact numbers from last year to this year have been surprisingly consistent, from a 77 percent team mark last year to a 76.2 mark in 2017. In 2016, that placed the Cubs 24th in MLB; this year, 23rd, as overall contact rate has dipped a bit. Does that mean this exercise has been for naught? I don’t think so—the Cubs still head into the final few weeks of September with a small lead on the Brewers and Cardinals, carrying low-contact players (Avila, Baez, Contreras, Happ, Schwarber) who will garner a significant portion of plate appearances. And with the playoffs a probable outcome, the Cubs will be facing tougher pitching, putting a premium on not striking out. That means higher contact players are more valuable in the crucible of October. Very quickly, the Cubs’ contact rate can become a contact problem, and it will be worth monitoring closely as they attempt to stave off their NL Central rivals.
Lead photo courtesy Patrick Gorski—USA Today Sports