john lackey cubsThe Cubs’ offense gets plenty of credit for the team’s ridiculous early season run differential, but the pitching staff’s ability to prevent runs should also be noted. And nothing exemplifies the prowess of the Cubs’ pitching and defense like its astronomical strand rate.

The Cubs’ 79.7 LOB% was the best in the majors entering Saturday, edging the Rangers (79.6 %) and Nationals (79.4%) for the best in the big leagues. Then Saturday happened and the team’s magnificent strand rate dipped slightly to 78.6 percent, putting them one percentage point behind the league-leading Rangers.

Analyzing the Cubs’ early season strand rate is like walking a fine line between admitting there is some skill involved with good defense, and the ability to induce weak contact and ground balls, and the fact that there is a certain amount of luck or good fortune involved with the sequencing in which hits happen to occur – and that, of course, won’t last forever.



CATEGORYBABIPSOFT%HARD%GB%
Empty.269 (26)19.8 (8)30.1 (18)52.8 (1)
Runners on.218 (30)24.3 (2)27.9 (22)47.7 (7)
Scoring pos..220 (30)24.6 (5)30.0 (14)49.6 (5)

No matter how it’s sliced, the Cubs have a knack for inducing ground balls in any situation. For example, Jake Arrieta really bears down when guys reach base, getting his ground ball rate jumping to 63.3 percent. However, it’s Jon Lester who sees the biggest increase in ground ball rate when the going gets tough, inducing a 57.6 GB% when runners reach – or 12.9 percentage points higher than his season ground ball rate.

Four of the Cubs’ five starters (sorry John Lackey, you miss the cut) have a soft-hit percentage that ranks in the top 50 among 186 qualifiers. And prior to Saturday’s start, Jason Hammel’s 30.6 percent soft hit rate with runners on was among the league leaders. Further, the relief staff has four pitchers who have a soft hit rate of 30 percent or higher with men on, led by Pedro Strop’s outstanding 44.4 percent. So, it’s not as if teams are getting off easy when they get into the bullpen.

Perhaps opponents haven’t found much good fortune when they put the ball in play (in part) because of the high percentage of soft-hit balls and grounders into a defense whose 10 Defensive Runs Saved was the fifth most in baseball entering Saturday.



Then again, there are the times opposing hitters don’t make contact at all.

CATEGORYK%BB%
Empty26.3 (2)7.2 (17)
Runners on24.2 (2)7.7 (26)
Scoring pos.25.3 (2)7.7 (28)

There isn’t much variance in the strikeouts and walk rates when comparing situations with runners on and when the bases are empty and that really stands out (not all teams can claim that). This could be a testament to the staff’s general command of the strike zone in the early going, as they have not complicated matters by issuing walks when runners do reach base.

The Cubs have three starters who rank in the top 25 in strikeout rate with runners on base among 113 qualifying starting pitchers. Arrieta leads the way (31.3, 7th), while Lester (25.5, 20th) and Lackey (25.0, t-24th) each strike out one in four batters faced with runners on.

Further, Cubs starters have minimized damage by not issuing walks. Hammel’s 12.2 BB% entering Saturday was an outlier compared to Lackey (5.0 BB%), Arrieta (6.3%) and Lester (7.8 %), who have been excellent in this area.



If any of this sounds familiar, it might be because it wasn’t that long ago we dipped our respective toes into the Cardinals’ historic strand rate. As late as August 2015, opposing hitters were batting just .198 with runners in scoring position agains the Cardinals, despite yielding 1,052 of those opportunities – which was around league average.

And perhaps that’s where the biggest difference lies so far for the 2016 Cubs. Their pitchers have faced the fewest batters with men on (364), and the second fewest with runners in scoring position (194).

It’s a small sample size and could be worth re-visiting later in 2016. But as of now, Cubs pitchers have been as good keeping runners from reaching as they have been at surrendering runs.


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