After the second time the Cubs failed to score a runner from third base with fewer than two outs last night in the later innings of a one-run game, I fired up the old tweet machine:
Man alive. The Cubs just fail so frequently to get that runner in from third base with a sac fly or a chopper or something. Anything.
— Brett Taylor (@BleacherNation) August 16, 2017
That wasn’t just me spitting out heat-of-the-moment frustration (well, it was that, but it wasn’t only that) – I knew it was an actual issue for the Cubs this year, especially relative to their talent.
And it’s even worse than I thought: the Cubs are *THE WORST* team in baseball this year at getting runners home from third base with fewer than two outs, at under 44% (ESPN). Some of that is flukey – how many times have we seen a Cubs runner thrown out at home when the contact play is on, and a grounder just happens to be hit right at an infielder? But it can’t all be a fluke, right?
Yet it’s complicated to dig in on exactly what’s driving this team-wide problem. The most obvious way you fail to get a runner from third base in when there are fewer than two outs is that you fail to put the ball in play, but the Cubs’ team 20.1% strikeout rate with runners in scoring position (sorry, I cannot find a split for just runner on third, less than two outs, so I grabbed a proxy*) is actually better than average.
The team’s BABIP with runners in scoring position, by contrast, is a woeful .269, worst in the National League. Is that, too, just a fluke? Well, maybe in part, but the Cubs have a below average hard contact rate in those situations, and an above average soft contact rate. They also have the highest groundball rate in baseball (49.6%) with runners in scoring position, three and a half percentage points higher than their overall rate.
Are the Cubs, perhaps, getting overeager in those run-scoring situations? Pressing perhaps to make contact in a “GET CONTACT!” situation, and ultimately settling for crummy contact?
Maybe. The numbers, in the aggregate, do kind of suggest that.
Whatever the explanation, the Cubs have left a ton of runs on the bases this year because of a team-wide inability to come through with a fly ball or a base hit when there’s a runner at third base and fewer than two outs. I’m not sure if that will magically change over the final month and a half of the season, but, if it does, we’ll suddenly feel like the Cubs are scoring far more often than they had been.
*(Luis just hooked me up with the runner on third, less than two outs stats at MLB.com, which is something, at least, though they don’t have the rate stats I’d be looking for here. Still, I can tell from eyeballing that the Cubs’ strikeout rate in these situations is not abnormally high, so that doesn’t seem to be the issue. Thanks, Lu!)