The Chicago Cubs did a lot of awesome things on offense in 2015. Despite being second to last in batting average (.244), they were tied for 12th in all of baseball in OBP (.321). To make up that ground, they had to maintain a 9.1% walk rate – which was second best in baseball. Moreover, they finished with the most pitches per plate appearance, 3.97, of any team in baseball. Making opposing pitchers work gets them out of games sooner and increases the likelihood of a costly mistake.
However, their league leading P/PA wasn’t accomplished by taking walks, alone. The Cubs paired their second best walk rate with the highest total strikeout rate of any team in baseball (23.5%)*. That rate was 33% higher than the first place Royals, who finished with a strikeout rate under 16%.
Certainly, the Cubs took a different strategy to their offense – sacrificing strikeouts and contact for power and patience – and it worked out just fine, but there’s no doubt that this is an area ripe for improvement. The Cubs, themselves, have been vocal about wanting to improve their contact rate this offseason, and, so, have made moves accordingly.
In an article at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan took a look at team strikeout rates for 2015 and compared them to the projected strikeout rates for 2016. The Cubs – who admittedly still appear in the bottom five of the latter list – are projected to see the third greatest improvement in 2016, behind only the Mariners and the Nationals.
Cubs’ 2016 strikeout rate is projected to decrease by over two percentage points – to right around 21% – which would push them up to 4th worst in baseball. However, improvement is improvement, and there are multiple reasons to be confident in the projections.
One of the main reasons the Cubs could be able to improve on their strikeout rate so dramatically is thanks to their offseason acquisitions. Considering that their two biggest free agent signings – Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist – have career strikeout rates of 18.5% and 15.1%, respectively, and it’s easy to see why. Look at the duo’s most recent seasons alone, and the numbers get even better: Zobrist – 10.5%; Heyward – 14.8%.
Of course, the counterargument revolves around which players that offensive duo is primarily replacing – Starlin Castro and Dexter Fowler. Each new addition provides a career (and 2015) improvement over Castro and Fowler, but neither of the former Cubs were the biggest strikeout offenders. Still, not all contact is created equally, so even if the contact story were entirely a lateral move, the overall offensive improvement should be there. But that’s slightly beside the point here.
In addition to the new players, according to Sullivan, the Cubs’ young hitting core also generates much of the expected improvements to the 2015 strikeout rate.Addison Russell, for example, struck out 28.5% of the time in 2015. In 2016, he’s projected to strike out just 23.9% – an enormous leap forward. Joining him is Jorge Soler. The Cubs’ right fielder struck out an even 30% of the time in 2015, but is projected to bring that down to 25.1% in 2016 – another seriously huge drop. Each player struck out relatively little in the minor leagues, so there are reasons to hope that the projections will hold true.
Kris Bryant is projected to shave 1.6 percentage points off his strikeout rate, Kyle Schwarber is projected to drop 3.2 percentage points and Javier Baez – the guy who struck out 41.5% of the time in 2014 – is projected to strike out just 28.0% of the time in 2016.
Overall, the Cubs are projected to be very, very good on offense in 2016. They kept most of the same players, improved on two positions and seriously addressed their biggest weakness. They still project to strike out among the most whiffy teams in baseball, but dramatic improvements have been made. With their already polished, advanced approach at the plate, any improvement to their contact is going to make this team scary. Why is it only February?
*(23.5% K-rate excludes pitchers, for AL comparison purposes. The final strikeout rate, including pitchers, is 24.5%.)