You know that irking, lingering feeling you get when you see a young Cubs hitter go down in a count, or worse, strike out looking, because of a pitch that appeared to be out of the zone?
Well, you’re not being sensitive.
You know that tingly, devious smirk you make when a Cubs pitcher strikes out a batter on a pitch that was clearly out of the zone?
You’re not wrong to make it.
If either of these scenarios feels familiar to you, I have good news: you’re not just being sensitive, you’re not making things up, and you’re not a biased Cubs fan (well, you might be, but just not in this particular case). At least not entirely.
As it turns out, Cubs hitters have definitely gotten more strikes called on them than they should have (bad), and Cubs pitchers have done the same (good).
In an article at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan takes a look at the extra strikes for every team, broken apart by hitters and pitchers. The Cubs, it would seem, are just below average in terms of luck at that plate. More specifically, Cubs hitters have been negatively affected by a net of 38 wrongly-called “strikes” so far in 2016, while Cubs pitchers have benefited from 21 wrongly-called “strikes”.
The total difference (-17), is the sixteenth worst total in baseball. For reference, the Brewers, (+111), Pirates (+94) and Astros (+88) lead the way with the most extra strikes in their favor, while the Reds (-105), Padres (-77) and Braves (-65) bring up the rear. The remaining NL Central team, the Cardinals (-34), come in at 20th overall.
But is the Cubs’ placement really such a bad thing? Well, in terms of what could have happened differently in the past, of course. Be it by luck or skill, you’d just prefer the Cubs get as many calls as possible. But those games are in the past and the Cubs have already won a lot of them. What I meant by that question a few sentences back, was what it means for the future.
As Sullivan rightly points out, the pitching half of this equation is a lot “stickier” than the hitting. Why is that? Well, your team is generally a lot more in control of the amount of pitches out of the zone called strikes while on defense, because a team gets to pick its catcher. It’s no surprise, then, that the Brewers (Jonathan Lucroy), the Pirates (Francisco Cervelli) and the Yankees (Brian McCann), and others, are among the teams with the greatest extra strike benefit for their pitchers (good catchers -> good framers -> more called strikes).
The Cubs’ extra strike benefit for pitchers (+21), was aided in no small part by the typically-excellent framing of Miguel Montero and David Ross. For the most part, you can expect that number to stay roughly (and relatively) similar all year.
But as an offense, you’re constantly dealing with different catchers and pitchers day after day. The amount of variance makes the extra strikes for hitters number inherently less sticky. It is to that end, then, that you can expect some good news for the Cubs. Given enough time, the Cubs -38 “extra” strikes for hitters should positively regress to a more average figure, which could mean a lot of good things for their offense – an offense that was already clicking on a fairly high level (.335 wOBA, 5th best in baseball). None of this is guaranteed, of course, but isn’t it a lovely thought?
I thought so, too.