Sacrificing power for contact is not a new idea. In fact, it’s a well-known tradeoff weighed by players, hitting-coaches, and front offices members for time immemorial. And for the Cubs – at least, in the last few seasons – the choice has been pretty obvious:
Power: 10th in ISO
Contact: 16th in AVG, 20th in K-rate
Power: 7th in ISO
Contact: 14th in AVG, 16th in K-rate
Power: 10th in ISO
Contact: 29th in AVG, 30th in K-rate
For the three years that preceded 2018, the Chicago Cubs found themselves among the top ten in ISO (isolated slugging – a measure of power). In that same period, however, they’ve also found themselves, AT BEST, around the middle of the pack in strikeout rate and batting average (while sometimes bottoming out around the very worst in the league).
From 2015-2017, John Mallee served as the hitting coach for the Cubs and, I’m comfortable saying, did a pretty darn good job. You might have your own opinions on the best way to get an offense to where they need to be, but he undeniably helped steer a very young team to three consecutive NLCS appearances with some very good individual offensive performances sprinkled throughout.
This past offseason, however, the Cubs made a big change, parting ways with Mallee and hiring former Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis. And so far, that power-for-contact choice has been turned on its head:
Power: 17th in ISO
Contact: 4th in AVG, T-9th in K-rate
For the first time in four years, the Cubs ISO is outside of the top ten, but their K-rate and batting average is within that top grouping. That’s a very big difference and probably not entirely unrelated to the change at hitting coach. Of course, this isn’t something we haven’t discussed before.
What has me a little bit worried is the fact that we were concerned about the Cubs trading too much power for contact nearly a month ago, and things haven’t really naturally course-corrected since then. The Cubs post a .417 SLG, .168 ISO, and 105 wRC+ with the bases empty, all among the best in the league. With runners in scoring position, the Cubs post a .351 SLG, a .115 ISO, and an 82 wRC+, all among the worst in the league. At what point do you reasonably wonder whether it’s not just the players in a normal slump or whatever – and you wonder instead if there was a philosophical shift that simply went too far?
With runners on base, the Cubs need to worry a little less about making *any* kind of contact, and go back to trying to make hard contact. Like in any other plate appearance. Just hit it hard. And if you swing and miss a little bit more, that’s OK.
So, then, have the Cubs gone too far? Have they perhaps traded a bit too much power for contact? Well, on the one hand, it’s hard to say that what they’re doing is wrong. Even if they’ve been uniquely inconsistent, the Cubs offense is still clearly one of the best in baseball. However, that’s not really the question, is it? The question is whether or not they’ve the best versions of themselves? That matters more.
For his part, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon likes the direction of things (Cubs.com): “Homers will come. Pitchers throw homers. When hitters try to hit homers on all the pitches thrown to them, the results are normally bad. Let pitchers throw you home runs. Be in position to hit the ball hard with two strikes. Understand they’re not giving you that pitch to drive out of the ballpark. Why not adapt? That’s where the action will come back into the game, that’s where you’ll get more movement, that’s where you’ll get the entertainment you’re looking for.”
There’s a lot to break down in that, but one of the bigger takeaways is that Maddon/the Cubs are so frequently trying to zig when everyone else zags. As soon as everyone starts hitting homers and striking out at historic rates, the Cubs go the other way and try for contact. Which makes me half-jokingly think to myself that the only true competitive advantage is doing whatever everyone else isn’t.
But maybe that’s not entirely it. Cubs GM Jed Hoyer says he’s seen the power vacuum and thinks it’s concerning “in theory,” but he’s not willing to worry about it yet, because it’s still in a small sample (ESPN). And as for Davis, he quipped that the loss of power isn’t good because “power was down for my team last year,” too (which is something we know to be true about the 2017 Red Sox, but is hardly to attach solely to Davis).
With that said, Davis did go on to more or less confirm that the Cubs are trading power for contact (ESPN): “It makes sense because if you’re up there swinging for home runs, you’re going to strike out more,” Davis said. “You’re going to leave your zone more, and your swings will be bigger.” That’s undoubtedly true, but why exactly have the Cubs decided on that tradeoff?
Maddon seems to believe that the tradeoff may be happening too soon in his players’ at-bats (i.e. before the guys get to two strikes), but aside from that, he and Davis seem to agree on one thing: the power will come. “The guys that have power are going to hit for power,” Davis said. “You don’t have to force power. … It’s when they try to hit for power when a guy isn’t pitching to him, that becomes a problem.” On that point, I think everyone can agree.
So for the time being, it seems as though Chili Davis and Joe Maddon are happy to watch their guys sacrifice power for contact, particularly with two strikes, but are slightly more concerned when they do it earlier in the count. But even when that is happening, they (and Jed Hoyer) suspect that some normal regression will take over and the ball will begin leaving the park with more consistency.
In the meantime, we have a half-finished product of an offense, but one that has scored the most runs per game in the National League. So … it could be worse?