The Chicago Cubs Have Removed a Ton of Ground Balls from Their Lineup This Offseason

Ground balls: they are bad for hitters. Evaluating baseball may have become increasingly complex in the analytical era, but that one? Yeah, we know that’s still true.

In 2022, batters hit a spritely .235/.235/.255 when they put the ball on the ground. That was good for a 35 wRC+, meaning that ground balls, on average, were about 65% less productive than the outcome of an average plate appearance. That’s bad!

Fly balls and line drives in 2022 combined for a .389/.382/.733/211 wRC+ slash line. Quite a bit better!

Double-plays? Also bad. Did you know that of all the “grounded into double-plays” in 2022, 100% of them started with a ground ball? That’s wild.

Even in the brave new world of shift restrictions, ground balls are still going to be a non-preferred outcome for hitters. Sure, the BABIP is going to climb a touch, but you’re still not going to slug on grounders, and the difference in production between the average grounder and the average ball in the air is so monstrously enormous that a 10 to 20 point bump in BABIP just isn’t going to do much of anything to change the core calculus. (And, frankly, I think line drives are actually going to see the most boost from the shift restrictions when all is said and done.)

Back in August, Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer lamented that his offense simply put the ball on the ground too much. Too many easy outs. Too many double-plays. The Cubs wound up third worst in baseball in groundball rate (45.7%) and groundout to air out ratio (1.11), and also hit into the 6th most double plays (despite being 14th in plate appearances with runners on base in the first place).

There were a number of other issues with the offense overall, but I gotta tell you, putting the ball on the ground too much really was a huge problem. Jed was right about that.

So, against that backdrop, I got a little curious: have the Cubs swapped out some expected grounders for expected non-grounders so far this offseason?

We have talked about overall production a bit when reviewing ZiPS, but I kinda wanted to get a little more simplistic today. I just wanted to know if some of the grounders are going away. (Of note, a double-play grounder shows up in an individual player’s stats as a mere groundout, but for the team, it’s considerably more harmful than that!)

Let’s start with the kinda unhappy part, because we all loved the guy, but this was definitely his biggest wart: Willson Contreras was a groundball machine. Contreras put it on the ground a whopping 51.4% of the time in 2022, the 11th highest rate in all of baseball. Of course Willson still produced overall because, when he DID lift the ball, he walloped it. But ground balls are nevertheless bad, and his 14 GIDP led the Cubs by a considerable margin.

Yan Gomes hits it on the ground just 38.5% for his career, though his 2022 rate – 45.3% – was actually above league average (42.9%), so that’ll be something to watch out for. New catcher Tucker Barnhart is above league average, too (45.9%), but still nowhere close to where Contreras is historically. So there’s a position where the Cubs figure to hit a whole lot fewer groundballs thanks to their offseason decisions.

How about out in center field? Well, that’s an easy improvement, as Jason Heyward and Christopher Morel were big-time groundball offenders (need to work on that, Christopher), and Rafael Ortega’s fly ball tendencies weren’t enough to flip the number in his limited duty. By contrast, Cody Bellinger is an extreme air guy, with a groundball rate that barely reaches 35%, even in his down years. Another position where the Cubs figure to hit a lot fewer groundballs in 2023.

How about shortstop? Well, Dansby Swanson is another big air guy, with a groundball rate solidly under 40% each of the last four seasons. By moving Nico Hoerner to second base, Swanson’s addition actually replaces some of the at bats of Morel, Nick Madrigal (second highest groundball rate in baseball last year), David Bote (way above league average groundball rate in 2022), Jonathan Villar (WAAAY above), Esteban Quiroz (merely above), Ildemaro Vargas (WAAAY above), and Andrelton Simmons (WAAAY above). In fact, the only guy in that mix who had a below-average groundball rate is Zach McKinstry, and you start to think about why the Cubs are keeping him around, eh?

So, again, the Swanson swap means yet another position that goes from WAY above-average groundball rate to solidly below-average groundball rate. It remains to be seen what happens at the corner infield spots when all is said and done, though it’s worth pointing out that Matt Mervis was a pretty extreme air guy in the minors last year. (But be warned: Eric Hosmer is an extreme groundball guy.)

To be sure, “adding balls in the air,” alone, is not going to improve your offense. Some fly ball hitters suck! But we know that, all else equal, a line drive or a fly ball is far more productive – for the hitter and for the team – than a ground ball. On paper, the Cubs have this offseason swapped out a TON of projected ground balls for projected air balls. Given what Hoyer has said in the past, that is not a coincidence, and maybe the fruits will show up in the offense being just a touch more productive in total than you might otherwise expect based on the sum of the parts.

written by

Brett Taylor is the Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and on LinkedIn here. Brett is also the founder of Bleacher Nation, which opened up shop in 2008 as an independent blog about the Chicago Cubs. Later growing to incorporate coverage of other Chicago sports, Bleacher Nation is now one of the largest regional sports blogs on the web.

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