The Cubs’ organizational attempts toward building an offense with complete control and comprehension of the strike zone began to pay dividends in 2015, and looks to have made another leap early in the 2016 season.
August Fagerstrom noted that the Cubs were on pace to be one of the most disciplined lineups ever, while Rahul Nallappa at The Athletic highlighted the patient, yet relentless nature of the Cubs offense due to walks and contract rates. Though, it’s not as if the Cubs drawing walks is a new concept, as the team’s 9.1 percent walk rate was tied with the Blue Jays for the second best in baseball in 2015.
And through nearly two weeks of baseball, the Cubs’ 12.5 BB% ranks as the best in the bigs.
But it’s how the team is getting there that stands out.
Players like Dexter Fowler, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist were expected to draw their walks coming into the season. Each had walk rates of 10 percent or better in 2015 and have enough of a track record to suggest their plate discipline was no fluke.
But what the Cubs have received from Addison Russell is nothing short of remarkable, and at least in part speaks to his ability to make adjustments on the big league level.
Check out these numbers entering the Cubs’ first series against the Cardinals.
|WALK RATES||2016 BB%||2015 BB%||DIFF|
Naturally, Russell isn’t the only Cubs player showing an early season improvements in approach. Five Cubs have improved on their 2015 walk rate by four percentage points or more in the opening weeks of 2016, but Russell and Jorge Soler are the only two who have done so after posting a walk rate in the single digits.
Russell’s leap of 5.3 percentage points is the third biggest of the group and has help keep the line moving while batting in the bottom half of the order. His improved walk rate can be attributed to a number of factors.
|PITCHES TAKEN AS BALLS||2016 BALL%||2015 BALL%||DIFF|
Russell is seeing more balls out of the strike zone in 2016. In fact, he is seeing 6.6 percent more than he did in 2015, which is the biggest net increase for a Cubs hitter compared to their 2015 numbers. Given his prominent move in the batting order – he now often has the pitcher or another lower-order hitter behind him, rather than the leadoff hitter that was behind him in 2015 – that’s understandable.
But seeing more pitches outside the zone, alone, is not enough to improve one’s walk rate – it must be coupled with the discipline to lay off of those pitches. Otherwise those pitches never become a ball in the first place.
Even though FanGraphs has Russell’s 27 percent swing rate at pitches out of the zone near the top among Cubs regulars, as you can see, he has begun to cut down on chasing pitches that aren’t strikes. This has also helped aid in cutting his strikeout rate from 28.5 percent down to 18.4 percent.
Of course, Russell isn’t alone in making improvements in his plate discipline game. Traditionally, batters at the top of the order are the ones working counts in order to make a pitcher show his arsenal and wear him down in the process. But that kind of approach seems to trickle down throughout the Cubs order.
Catcher Miguel Montero, for example, has shown the most improvement when it comes to swinging at pitches out of the zone, while Rizzo and Bryant aren’t too far behind. Soler has slightly reduced his tendency to chase pitches so far this year, has seen more pitches called as balls, and has drawn a higher percentage of walks as a result.
The bottom of the Cubs’ order has been as impressive in working counts, drawing walks and being productive as their teammates at the top and in the middle of the order. It’s only a two week sample size, but there is no denying where the Cubs’ batters are trending. It will be interesting to see how the league counters and what the team’s answer to that will be when the time comes.
[Brett: If it means working in the zone more against the Cubs – which seems likely – then they’ll just have to start doing even more damage in the zone.]