In his three seasons in the Major Leagues, David Bote has progressively worsened at a skill that the Cubs were hoping would be a strength: hitting southpaws. Doing so would provide him a natural role in an organization that has struggled against lefties, but in 2020, he contributed to the Cubs’ worst organizational performance against LHP in more than 100 years.
A look at Bote’s trending reverse split:
Bote 2018 vs LHP: 381 OBP / .490 SLG (63 PA)
Bote 2019 vs LHP: 311 OBP / .372 SLG (90 PA)
Bote 2020 vs LHP: 234 OBP / .293 SLG (47 PA)
For his career, Bote has now firmly established himself as a reverse-platoon player, with an OPS against righties 69 not-so-nice points above his mark versus southpaws. And as the Cubs finish constructing their 2021 team, I think it’s important they determine whether they’re comfortable with his bat in the lineup against lefties, otherwise another right-handed hitting bench option might be essential. This is certainly what his 200 PA suggest.
However, I believe within that sample lies some evidence to have some optimism that Bote could return to the successful lefty masher we saw in 2018. There’s something in there that doesn’t make sense, but before I share it, let’s first consider Bote’s strengths and weaknesses as a hitter in a more global sense.
Here’s what we know with a high degree of confidence about Bote. First, he swings and misses a good deal – 27.1% of the time – and I don’t know that we can assume much improvement in that number moving forward. Second, he hits the ball as consistently hard as anyone in baseball, as seen by his 95th percentile rank in Hard Hit% in 2020 (and 91st percentile finish in exit velocity). And third, he’s a man who likes the hard stuff. In each of his three seasons, Bote’s best xwOBA has been against fastballs, his second best against offspeed pitches, his third best against breaking balls (and digging deeper, he’s fine against sliders and awful against curveballs).
I’m taking these three facts as foundational truths about Bote, as I think all of them are examples of the numbers matching the eye test.
So to bring this back to his problem against lefties, when I was perusing Bote’s struggles there, one number just didn’t make any sense. For his career, Bote has a .128 batting average (and .340 slugging percentage) on four-seam fastballs against left-handed pitchers. It’s the pitch lefties have thrown him twice as often as any pitch, and other than four home runs, he just simply hasn’t made them pay.
And I have to tell you, I simply just don’t buy it as a real thing.
For one, this batting average is the result of an absolutely ridiculous .107 BABIP, which is just a 3-for-28 sample. He has a career .297 wOBA against lefty four-seam fastballs, per Baseball Savant (all the data in this piece comes from them), but a .362 expected wOBA. This was even more pronounced in 2020, when he averaged 100 mph on the lefty four seamers he put into play (good for a .388 xwOBA), but exactly zero of them fell into play for a hit.
One – I want to point out as an excuse to share anti-Cardinals video – did clear the fence, though:
You’re going to tell me, hey, this sample’s so small! But that’s MY point, too! You’re talking about his overall against-lefty results getting skewed by atrocious numbers against lefty fastballs in a teeny-tiny sample where the expected results were actually much better.
We can’t make complete assumptions about Bote’s TRUE ability against lefties on this sample, particularly with results that don’t match underlying metrics, and results that don’t match foundational truths about his abilities. Bote hits balls hard, particularly fastballs, and that should lead to higher BABIPs. Simply because that hasn’t been true in 200 plate appearances doesn’t mean the Cubs should stop trying. Let this man correct course and be the lefty masher he can be, and the organization will be better off for it.