At 24.8%, the Chicago Cubs have the highest strikeout rate in Major League Baseball.
I doubt that surprises anyone who’s been paying attention, but that is obviously quite high. Despite bearing the league worst K-rate, though, the Cubs find themselves with the sixth highest winning percentage in baseball. Given how fundamentally important we think not-striking out is to winning, that is a relatively interesting trend. Grantland’s Jonah Keri took notice of this and several other strikeout-related oddities in a very interesting read, reevaluating our perception of strikeouts.
In order to support the theory that K’s aren’t everything, Keri takes a look at four teams’ relationship with strikeouts – on both sides of the diamond – in 2015. Each team has a very interesting story, so I encourage you to check out his article; but to peak your interest, I’ll use Keri’s own summary:
The Red Sox employ MLB’s second-toughest batch of hitters to strike out, and they’re still in last place. Cleveland’s starting pitchers are on the verge of making strikeout history, yet they’re in the cellar, too. Cubs hitters have struck out more than any other MLB team, and they’re one of the 10 best teams in baseball. As for the Dodgers, well, they’re just really good, thanks to, among other things, the whiff-iest bullpen in the majors.
On the Cubs, specifically, Keri emphasizes a unique approach that is underscored by a league leading strikeout rate (24.8%) and top three walk rate (8.8%) in all of baseball. When you combine those values, then, you find that the Cubs plate appearances have ended without contact over 33% of the time – most in MLB.
At first blush, that doesn’t sound all that positive. Given our knowledge of BABIP, we know that simply putting the ball in play results in a base hit roughly 30% of the time. But, Keri took notice to a beneficial side effect of less contact: lots and lots of deep counts. Indeed, the 2015 Chicago Cubs have worked the most full counts in all of baseball.
When a team is consistently working deeper counts, the opposing pitchers are forced to throw more pitches over longer innings, which we know can benefit an offense as they see tiring, middling starters two and three times through the order. Even when facing dominant starters, the Cubs have grinded their way into the opposing bullpens sooner and more frequently, where more damage can be dealt than against an ace. I’m not sure the Cubs are actively trying to prolong at bats just to force pitchers out of the game, but it is certainly a welcomed effect of their patented selective aggression.
From May 11 – 14, for example, the Cubs faced the New York Mets and their intimidating ensemble of starting pitchers. In the most difficult matchup of the series, though, the Cubs faced a dominant Matt Harvey for seven full innings, mustering just three hits and no runs. However, during that stretch, the Cubs struck out nine times and walked twice, forcing Harvey up to 100 pitches and out of the game. As soon as he left, though, the Cubs pounced on the Mets’ bullpen, scored two runs and won the game.
Of course the Cubs weren’t trying to strike out enough to get Harvey out of the game – scoring enough runs would have done that, too, and that’s the preference – but by sticking to their approach, they were able to win by attrition. Getting on base and hitting for more power is enough reason to buy into selective aggression on a player-to-player basis, but when a whole team (or system, for that matter) does so cohesively, the benefits stretch beyond individual performance and begin to show up in the win column.