A lot of new things are happening with the Chicago Cubs these days. They’re winning games late (twice), calling up top prospects (twice) and genuinely demanding our attention. One of the less notable, yet equally important things the 2015 Cubs are doing, though, is developing a solid approach at the plate.
In order to determine what approach the Cubs are taking at the plate (and if it will be successful), let’s work backwards through their swing and contact rates to see what we find. If you recall, a while back, I took an in-depth look at these discipline rates from a Cubs perspective in a two part series. If you are unfamiliar with any of these statistics – O-Swing%, Z-Swing%, O-Contact%, Z-Contact% – I suggest reading up first, and returning once you are comfortable. Also: FanGraphs’ leaderboards on plate discipline come in handy.
So far, the 2015 Cubs have had the peculiar distinction of being among the best in the league in some categories (BB%) and among the worst in others (K%). While we’re used to seeing the Cubs lead the way in strikeouts, the number of walks they’ve taken in 2015 is something new. Let’s figure out what’s changed, since last year.
In 2015, as of Tuesday night, the Chicago Cubs have the fourth best walk rate (9.9%) in MLB. That is a fantastic number on its own, and a huge improvement over last year’s 7.2% (18th in MLB). Players like Dexter Fowler, Anthony Rizzo and Miguel Montero can most likely be thanked for the upgrade, but it has generally been better across the board. The cause for this overall increase? The 2015 Cubs are swinging less frequently.
The Cubs have the fourth lowest swing percentage (43.8%) across the majors. In 2014, that number was up at 47.2%. Breaking that down, the Cubs have swung at 65.3% of pitches in the zone (18th most in MLB) and only 27.3% of pitches out of the zone (26th most). At first blush, you notice two things: the Cubs are letting a fair amount of strikes go by, but they have been pretty good at not offering at the junk, either. The latter is a pretty obvious good thing: don’t swing at balls out of the zone. But the former is probably more deliberate than you think.
The Chicago Cubs front office and coaching staff has consistently promoted an approach at the plate that involves waiting for a pitch you can drive, while letting other pitches go by (even if they’re strikes). We’ve said it before: “Just because you can make contact doesn’t mean you should.” When you swing less, and wait for your pitch more, you necessarily see more pitches and increase your chances of walking – explaining the improved walk rate.
The Cubs’ walk rate isn’t the only thing that is increased, though, remember?
The 2015 Chicago Cubs are also striking out 21.5% of the time (10th highest in MLB). Surely, that is partially due to offering at fewer pitches in the zone, while waiting for “their” pitch, but there is more here than called strike threes. Namely, the Cubs are whiffing a lot.
So far, as of Tuesday night, the Cubs have the lowest overall contact rate (75.2%) of any team in baseball. In fact, it is even lower than the 2014 Cubs (76.1%), who were notoriously prone to swing and miss. Breaking that down, the Cubs have made contact with just 59.1% of pitches out of the zone (2nd worst in the Majors) and just 84.1% of pitches in the zone (4th worst in the Majors). There’s a bit to unpack here, so let’s take it one stat at a time.
Making contact with just 59.1% of pitches out of the zone is bad, but is more acceptable when you are offering at those pitches far less than most teams. In fact, having a low contact percentage with pitches out of the zone may be a blessing in disguise: it’s more difficult to make hard contact on pitches outside the zone than inside, so perhaps whiffing isn’t the worst outcome there. You may actually extend your at bat by missing, instead of incurring weak contact, resulting in an out. Unfortunately, this brings us to our next problem, though : the Cubs haven’t been great at making contact in the zone, either.
In 2015, the Cubs have made contact with only 84.1% of pitches in the zone. Presumably, the Cubs want to connect on pitches at which they offer in the zone. But this, too, could be an effect of the Cubs approach at the plate.
In an effort to create more solid contact, the Cubs’ plate approach encourages fewer, yet harder, swings. You can afford to take big cuts at pitches you want, if you are allowing worse pitches to go by. Perhaps, then, this approach is leading to Cubs players taking huge cuts at pitches in the zone – trying to do some real damage with a single swing – and whiffing more often.
Determining whether or not this approach has been working isn’t an easy task. One obviously good byproduct of this approach is the increased walk rate and attending OBP increase (the Cubs’ OBP is 7th highest in baseball), but the opposing, negative byproduct is the high strikeout rate (8th highest). The Cubs are right in the middle of the pack in terms of ISO (.136), which is something you’d like to see increase. But at the same time, we know that power isn’t going to be this team’s enemy.
Ultimately, it’s good to see the Cubs appearing to buy into this approach at the plate so far. If anything, it shows that the team is capable of picking out a strategy and committing to it. In my opinion, this team will continue to get on base and walk at a much higher clip than we are used to, and soon enough the power is going to catch up.