Contact, OBP, and an Early Slump

Monday evening, the Reds shut out the Cubs and allowed only two hits in the process. Sunday afternoon, the Marlins shut out the Cubs and scattered eight hits in the process. Had I heard of either starting pitcher before these two games? Well, no. Dillon Peters and Tyler Mahle are not world-beating pitchers (although Mahle was BP’s fifth-ranked Reds prospect heading into this season), but the Cubs’ bats have been silent. No big flies, no situational hitting, no manufactured runs via running and bunting and fielder’s choices. A big ol’ zero, two games in a row.

Now, this is not alarming. REMAIN CALM. ALL IS WELL. The Cubs have played five games, and only a fool looks at actual stats after five games and panics. However, it’s an opportunity to discuss something that I believe—and have believed since last season—is a significant factor in how the Cubs offense performs. That is, the six through eight spots in the order, usually occupied by some combination of Addison Russell, Jason Heyward, Javier Baez, and Ben Zobrist.

It might feel like nitpicking to harp on the latter portion of a generally productive lineup, and it sort of is. After all, the Cubs ranked fourth in the majors in runs scored in 2017, scoring more runs than they did in their World Series season of 2016 (when they placed third in the same category). This team doesn’t have offensive issues like other teams around the league, and that’s largely due to the presence of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. However… it’s hard to watch this club and not believe that they could be better on the offensive side of the ball. One can imagine a thick lineup that rivals the Astros or Nationals if just one or two more hitters come close to their offensive potential.

That’s not the point of this piece, though, since what kind of analysis is that? “If the Cubs only had better hitters, they would be better.” Galaxy brain. No, this is about the qualities of those bottom of the order hitters, and how their respective skill sets can make slumps deeper and more frequent than they are with other offensive units. I’m speaking primarily about two qualities of these hitters: their on-base skills, and their contact skills.

To start, some history and some numbers. Contact has been a concern for this Cubs club since at least 2015, when they ran into the buzzsaw that was Mets pitching in the NLCS, and when they led the majors in strikeout rate by almost two percentage points. While the team’s strikeout rate has improved in terms of league rankings over the last three seasons, the Cubs’ contact rate has remained in the lower stratum of teams. Here are the team’s strikeout and contact rates from 2015 to 2017, along with league averages and rankings.

Cubs K% (rank) League K% Cubs Contact % (rank) League Contact %
2015 24.5 (1st) 20.4 74.7 (30th) 78.8
2016 21.1 (16th) 21.1 76.8 (24th) 78.2
2017 22.3 (11th) 21.6 75.9 (23rd) 77.5

All contact numbers courtesy Pitch Info.

That’s not very fun to look at, even knowing that the Cubs offense has steamrolled teams at times over their three-straight playoff seasons. Contact and strikeouts have been thorns in this team’s side for a long time, and a major factor in their acquisitions of Heyward and Zobrist prior to 2016. Their impact on the club’s overall contact and strikeout rates, along with the maturation of some young hitters, is seen in their improvement from 2015 to 2016, but struggles from key players caused the number to slide back again in 2017.

With these trends in mind, let’s look at the Cubs offense in 2018. The players listed below are the ones expected to garner most of the plate appearances doled out by Joe Maddon, and so I have listed their 2017 and career OBPs and contact rates.

2017 OBP Career OBP 2017 Contact Rate Career Contact Rate
Ian Happ .328 .322 67.0 66.5
Kris Bryant .409 .389 77.4 72.1
Anthony Rizzo .392 .367 82.9 81.0
Willson Contreras .356 .354 71.2 70.7
Kyle Schwarber .315 .329 72.4 70.6
Addison Russell .304 .314 74.3 72.9
Jason Heyward .326 .344 84.4 80.9
Javier Baez .317 .298 65.5 66.8
Ben Zobrist .318 .355 86.9 85.4
Albert Almora .338 .327 76.7 77.8
Tommy La Stella .389 .347 88.2 84.9

All contact numbers courtesy Pitch Info.

I threw a lot of numbers at you, which I normally hate to do, but I trust that you will see the patterns I’m seeing. There are a handful of poor contact hitters and a handful of poor OBP hitters, and they are concentrated at the bottom of the order. This is intuitive: if you lack those two skills, you’re probably not good enough to crack the top of the order. Take a look at Baez’s crater of a career OBP and his team-worst contact rates; at Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell’s trio of below-average contact rates; at the 2017 OBPs of Schwarber, Russell, Heyward, Baez, and Zobrist. These are the offensive weak spots, and there are a few ways to interpret these data points.

First, the Cubs’ contact issues do not necessarily live at the bottom of the order. Contreras, Schwarber, and Russell have been the Cubs’ four through six hitters this season, and they figure to remain in those spots for much of the year. They are the three hitters directly behind Bryant and Rizzo. While the four through six hitters hit with a good amount of power, and while Contreras and Schwarber both have the ability to get on base at good rates, there are bound to be rallies killed in frustrating fashion by a trio of hitters who have difficulty putting the ball in play.

Six of the 11 hitters listed above posted below-average OBPs in 2017, and two of the above-average marks belonged to the sparingly used Almora and La Stella. Those six—Happ, Schwarber, Russell, Heyward, Baez, and Zobrist—will be regulars once again in 2018, and there is a good chance that most of those players will repeat their poor OBP seasons. Schwarber and Happ have opportunities to blossom into good major league hitters, and Zobrist could return to form after a surprisingly poor 2017, but the other three appear condemned to a career of OBP marks in the low-.300s, or even high-.200s. This compounds the contact problem that the middle of the order carries, as pitchers will likely attack these players with lots of pitches in the zone. While a couple of these lower-OBP players do draw walks, they are not threats to do as much damage if a pitcher pounds the strike zone.

These ingredients combine to produce an unsatisfying stew of strikeouts, runners left on base, and missed opportunities. We veer into the anecdotal here, but one can sense the frustration bubbling already among the team and fans, as time after time the Cubs have failed to find a well placed hit with runners on base.

So, what is to be done? Cubs brass can’t transform these players into prolific hitters through coaching or magic, and every team has worse hitters at the bottom of the order. Is there a solution to these woes, or are these just the Cubs we will have to live with?

It would be a dramatic overreaction to significantly change personnel or strategy six games into a season, with a good squad in tow. I do think there are small tweaks that can mitigate some of these problems, though, and they involve the players who have solid OBP or contact numbers, and yet don’t find themselves in the everyday lineup.

Almora, La Stella, and Zobrist make contact at high rates and get on base at good clips when they are healthy and deployed in the right situations. As of today, though, they are the role players on this squad: Almora lost the center field job to Happ, La Stella backs up a stuffed infield, and Zobrist aged into a smaller role last season. With that in mind, Joe Maddon has used them selectively this season, but not in the most advantageous ways. Almora has started in center versus lefties—sensible enough, since he mashes lefties and struggles against righties—but he has lead off in both games he has started. Zobrist has two starts as well, and La Stella has pinch-hit four times without playing the field. They’ve received a mere 15 percent of this year’s plate appearances, and yet they offer a good combination of the skills that the above players lack.

With Baez and Happ struggling to begin the season, there are at-bats to be had at second base and in the outfield. The three of Almora, La Stella, and Zobrist could snag an extra start or two against pitchers who might prove difficult to handle for the strikeout-prone Baez and Happ. Instead of slotting in at leadoff, they could hit behind the meat of the Cubs order, providing a contact and on-base boost where the Cubs currently lack it. With Zobrist’s early form, La Stella’s line drive-happy contact stroke, and Almora’s lefty-mashing, there are hits and runs to be gained with Bryant, Rizzo, and Contreras on base.

This isn’t a cure-all, as the Cubs will still need someone to lead off, and replacing Happ or Baez with one of the three suggested hitters removes an element of power from the lineup. There’s also a good possibility that those three would be exposed with greater playing time—there’s a reason they are used selectively, as they have obvious strengths and weaknesses. Zobrist could truly be old and bad; La Stella could merely be a pinch-hit extraordinaire; Almora could be a pure platoon player.

There also exists a bit of reasonable optimism for two Cubs hitters who have struggled to make contact. The Cubs drafted both Happ and Schwarber as polished college hitters; they believed in the pair’s approach at the plate, their discipline, and their bat-to-ball skills. Schwarber’s contact rate jumped five percent from 2015 to 2017, despite his notable struggles last season, and his pedigree as a player who can hit for average and get on base is well-earned. Happ arrived with a similar reputation, but instead of being a high-average, high-contact hitter in his debut season, more power manifested than expected, and Happ struck out in over 31 percent of his plate appearances. Contact rate and general plate discipline numbers trend in good directions for hitters aging into their mid- and late-20s, so both could grow into the hitters that prospectniks and draft hounds saw over the past few years, should they make some positive tweaks to their approach or mechanics.

With early scuffles rooted in offensive doldrums and starting pitching struggles, there is a small sense of urgency to do something about the former. There’s a possibility for natural improvement if Happ and Schwarber make steps forward as hitters, but for the moment, Joe Maddon and the Cubs might benefit from adding contact and on-base skills behind the sluggers in the lineup.

Lead photo courtesy Steve Mitchell—USA Today Sports

Related Articles

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username