In an early season filled with promise, boasting the best April on record since 2008, the Chicago Cubs are currently one of the most exciting teams in baseball to watch. For better or worse, their combination of veteran experience, raw youth talent and Joe Maddon‘s post-game press conference flair are winning the hearts and minds of baseball fans everywhere.
To say that these Cubs are a quirky baseball team would be an understatement, as the quality of their game has been fluctuating as of late.
After dropping two consecutive matches to the lowly Brewers, who recently fired their manager, and losing an absolute heart-breaker on May 4th to the Cardinals (a game which they led 5-0 after the top of the first), doubt has crept in.
Typically, losing three games in a row is not a big deal for a baseball club, especially in early May, but the Cubs seem to be missing something; a certain “je ne sais quoi”.
While there are plenty of theories as to why the Cubs have lost their swagger, one that sticks out is the lack of power hitting that the Cubs have displayed in recent games. With a strong roster bloated with good power hitters like Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, etc. it seems odd that the Cubs would struggle to score runs.
The real question is: Are the Cubs suffering from a total power outage, or is this simply how they were destined to perform? Let’s look at the raw data.
As far as production goes, none of the peripheral stats seem to indicate any red flags. The Cubs are 16th overall in total runs scored (106), are slightly ahead of the NL mean in team ISO (.132) and are slightly NL ahead of the mean in SLG (.384). While hovering around 15th in most run scoring categories isn’t cause for celebration, it certainly isn’t cause for panic either. It’s roughly where you’d expect this team to be considering how green certain portions of its lineup are.
If we focus strictly on home runs, we see a bit of a different story, which supports the ISO data you see above. The Cubs have only 20 home runs, ranking 18th overall. To put it into perspective, the league-leading Astros currently sit at 40 HRs, doubling the Cubs’ total. The Cubs are also going an average of 41 PA between HRs, a number that falls well below league averages.
You could argue that the Cubs, being an NL team, never relied on the long ball in the first place and you would be correct in that assumption. Small ball has often been the strategy and this season has Joe Maddon rotating the pitcher batting slot to the 8th hole in an effort to turn the lineup over quicker.
But for the sake of argument, let’s look at another power indicator; one that I enjoy a ton: doubles.
The Cubs have only 36 doubles to their name so far in the 2015 campaign, putting them at 23rd overall and well behind the league average. To ice the cake, they’re 24th overall in extra-base hits which leads you to believe that you’re squandering a lovely team OBP of .330 if you can’t bring your guys in. Singles are great, but the reality of the game is that you’ll need a few XBH knocks to win close ball games, especially when the Cubs are averaging 7+ LOB/game. Ouch.
So where is the power going? We now have a cause, but what’s the effect? The answer is simpler than you think:
The Cubs are being neutralized at the plate at an alarming rate. They currently posses the top spot in the majors for K% at 25, which is to be expected from their young, adaptive roster. Pitchers are now learning how to approach certain Cubs’ power batters like Jorge Soler, for example, who has been pressing at the plate for some time baiting towards breaking pitches low and away to the tune of 12.28%. Hard to blame him when almost a quarter of the pitches he’s been seeing have been out of the zone, low and away. A simple adjustment to lay off said pitches will bring him back to the right side of the hitting conundrum, but it’s always easier said than done.
On the other side of the coin, some pitchers clearly fear pitching to the Cubs to the tune of a 9.3 team BB%, good for 4th overall in the MLB. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant have been OBP machines this season drawing walks at an obnoxious rate – and for good reason. Pitchers simply refuse to challenge them, knowing that they are smart hitters who can capitalize on mistakes for extra bags. If you never show them a pitch to hit, they’ll never take you yard. As a pitcher, I’d rather give them a free pass and attack the K prone side of the lineup for my outs. What’s a few extra baserunners when your opponent stuggles with XBH, anyway?
These conditions will change as the players adjust their approach to hitting and it’s almost certain that the Cubs will find their power stride eventually. For now, they’d be wise to accept as many free walks as possible, work on limiting the Ks, and hope that the Gods of Baseball toss them some luck.