In isolation, batting average is not a terribly useful statistic. For one thing, we know that hits are subject to the vagaries of defensive positioning, fluky contact, great plays, and so on and so forth. For another thing, batting average doesn’t tell us how much a guy is getting on base or how much damage he’s doing when he does get a hit – both extremely important things to know.
But, here’s the thing: hits are still critically important.
I know. I shouldn’t even have to say it. We’re definitely sabermetrically-inclined here at BN, but it’s important not to let those leanings take you so far that you forget some fundamental truths. For example, OBP and SLG are far more important than batting average … but each of OBP and SLG gets its foundation from a player’s batting average. Get a lot of hits? You’re going to have a good OBP. Get a lot of hits? You’re probably going to have a decent SLG, too. And that’s not even to mention the part where a hit often scores a run when a walk doesn’t, and a single is often just as productive in scoring a particular run as a double or a triple.
Getting hits matters. They’re good. As a reflection of that, batting average is not entirely useless.
To that end, I wanted to take a quick look at the Cubs’ team batting average, and some things that jump out at me after a stretch when it’s felt like the Cubs aren’t getting many hits.
First thing’s first: the Cubs’ team batting average, .247, is middle of the pack in baseball, and slightly below the middle in the NL (9th). That’s not where you’d want to be, generally, but it’s even moreso not where you want to be if you’re a playoff contender with a potent offense. Thankfully the Cubs still take their walks and slug well, so they’ve still scored plenty of runs overall.
The other positive to take away from the low-ish batting average is that it’s not coming from a serious strikeout problem, which would drive batting average down. Instead, the Cubs’ 20.5% strikeout rate is better than average (21.9%). Heck, it’s better than the Royals!
So what’s going on, then, with the batting average? You already know: it’s the BABIP. The Cubs’ batting average on balls in play is just .291, which is slightly below league average (.293), and is 9th in the NL and 17th in baseball. Again, the Cubs are just below the middle-of-the-pack.
I have a feeling over time that’ll move northward, as the Cubs have several regulars with a history of better-than-average BABIPs thanks in large part to making consistently hard contact.
So, then, we see a team with a BABIP that’s likely to move up a bit, but isn’t horribly out of whack. And a team batting average that is lower than it should be, but, again, isn’t horribly below the rest of the league. Why are we noticing “batting average” problems?
Outside of the fact that it’s early in the year and the Cubs are coming off of two losses in three days where the bats went silent, I suspect the reason is probably this:
- Anthony Rizzo batting average: .186
- Kris Bryant batting average: .229
- Ben Zobrist batting average: .214
- Jason Heyward batting average: .205
- Jorge Soler batting average: .235
The Cubs’ two most prominent hitters, the two big offseason additions, and the young slugger stepping in for Kyle Schwarber. I get it. These low averages stand out to people because these players stand out.
But here’s the good news: none of those players is striking out at a crazy rate. All are taking a large number of walks. Rizzo, Bryant, and Soler have huge ISOs, too.
The real issue – you knew this was coming – is the BABIP figures. Pop quiz: which five Cubs regulars have the lowest BABIPs in the team? Yup. Those five, ranging from .167 for Rizzo up to .273 for Heyward.
BABIP is not entirely outside of a player’s control, and I don’t want to just throw it out there like a bogeyman that is automatically guaranteed to positively regress. However, we do know that, in the fullness of time, it tends to regress toward a player’s true talent mean. In other words, unless there’s a serious injury or a serious mechanical problem that’s disrupting hard contact, we expect these BABIPs to rise. With them, the batting averages will rise. Hits will fall. Smiles will come.
Yes, you could probably question whether notable offseason swing tinkerings – Bryant and Heyward, most notably – could be having an impact here, but I can only say that it’s way, way too early to be able to tell on something like that. We’re still at the stage of the year where a ball or two that bloops in instead of being caught can change these figures drastically.
So, all in all, I really don’t think there’s much going on here except small sample, early season fluke stuff. I think the hits will come. I hope that the contact level and slugging stay where they are, because they are generally looking very good for the Cubs. And, in the meantime, some more hits will fall in.