Goatriders of the Apocalypse

Almost One Third Through: Hitting Review

The Cubs have nearly completed the first third of their season, so I thought it might be interesting to see how everyone's favorite team is doing and see if maybe we can get some kind of insight into what they might do for the last 2/3. With that...

The Obvious

We all know the Cubs are pretty good at going yard, but what else do they have going for them? Oooo, sounds like time for a table. Did you just get a chill? I know I did (not really, I just said that for effect).

Category Total Rank
Homers 68 1st
Runs/game 4.51 8th
Avg .269 6th
OBP .328 12th
SLG .443 1st
OPS .770 1st

(OPS link talks about why we are interested in OPS as well as why it is flawed)

Looks like things are looking up. We all knew the Cubs could take the ball out of the park, but who knew that they lead in OPS (reminder: OPS=On base % + Slugging %)? I certainly would have guessed St. Louis over the Cubs (they are second at .769), but a 15 point Slugging advantage is carrying the Cubs to the lead in OPS. If only that counted in the standings. Slightly more important is the old runs scored stat (which, unfortunately, is a category the Cardinals do lead).

So what's the problem? What's going on here? Isn't OPS supposed to be a good representation of a team's offensive ability? Well, yes and no. It is pretty good, but it undervalues On Base Percentage, which various studies have shown is worth almost twice as much as Slugging (if you don't make any outs, you're never going to lose a game). It gets a little more complicated than that but, suffice to say, the Cubs 12th rank in OBP is dragging them down in a big way. On the plus side, 12th is pretty good for the Cubs. Things are looking up!

This recent 7 game winning streak has lifted the Cubs' overall numbers up nicely and so all we have to do is hope they stay where they are (or, dare I dream, get better). With the return of Walker and the re-emergence of Ramirez (and there's this Neifi! guy, too), the Cubs are getting a major offensive boost and are seeing the effect in the win column.

The Slightly Less Obvious

The numbers above are all the ones that people mention the most when talking about the Cubs, but what about a few numbers that don't get the press? The lonely numbers. The loser numbers. Let's take a look.

Category Total Rank
Strikeouts 324 13th
Stolen Bases 33 6th
Fly Balls 660 2nd
Pitch/PA 3.59 15th
RC27 5.03 3rd

(pitches/PA = pitches/Plate Appearance)
(RC27 will be explained, I promise)

So the Cubs had this reputation of being an all or nothing team, which I think is due to a combination of leading the league in homers and having struck out so much last year. But the Cubs advertized fewer strikeouts this year, and so far are following through. Only three teams in the entire NL are harder to strikeout than the Cubs, which is pretty amazing given that they must be swinging pretty hard to hit all those homers. Impressive, to be sure.

Of course, one explaination for this lack of strikeouts is that they spent the first, oh, 45 games swinging at every first pitch they saw. Before a supposed "airing out" by Baker (or something to that effect) regarding this very problem, the Cubs saw the fewest pitches per Plate Appearance. Now that number is very slowly climbing upwards and the Cubs are now next to last in pitches/PA. Frankly, I would take a few more strikeouts if it meant the Cubs were going deeper into the count.

The other company line was that the Cubs would run more, and it seems they are doing just that. They are showing a decent amount of speed to go along with their lack of strikeouts. Actually, they have done almost exactly what they promised regarding the offense, except they are also hitting homers.

A lot of the frustration concerning the Cubs, I think, is due to that last stat - so many fly balls. I mean, who here has wanted to hang themselves after watching a dozen straight hitters drop their shoulder and hit a lazy fly to left (you can put your hands down now). It is absolutely maddening, but I guess that is how you end up leading the league in homers. There is an extremely positive aspect to this that I don't want to ignore, though, and that is the fact that the Cubs have hit into the fewest number of double plays in the league. Unquestionably, double plays suck. I just haven't decided if the Cubs have hit into the fewest because of the fly balls or because they never have anyone on base. Hmmm...probably both.

The final number is a number that I hope ends up being somewhat predictive. "RC" stands for Runs Created and is a moderately complicated formula invented by Bill James (Wikipedia definition) that looks at many different offensive ingredients and predicts how many runs a team with those stats should score. It tends to agree pretty well over the course of a season with the real number of runs scored (within 5-10%). RC27 is basically how many runs the team should produce per game, and serves as a sort of interesting comparison with the actual number of runs the Cubs are scoring. The Cubs, right now, are 3rd in Runs Created per Game, but are only 8th in actual runs scored. Maybe I'm reaching here, but it strikes me that the Cubs have been fairly unlucky so far, and there might be reason to be optimistic about their future run scoring ability. Maybe.

What Does The Future Hold?

I expect some good things out of the Cubs in the next third or two. The last time I looked at the offense I was foolish enough to predict that Derrek Lee would cool down. I'm not going to make that mistake again - clearly Derrek is not human. In fact, I'm not going to predict any Cub's offensive numbers to decline (although I'm itching to pull the figurative trigger on Neifi!). Other than Lee and Neifi!, nobody is above their career averages.

What I do expect is for Patterson, Burnitz, DuBois, and Hollandsworth to all improves slightly. I expect Ramirez to improve dramatically (i.e. continue his current tear). And I expect Barrett, Walker, and Hairston to remain about the same. This team should continue to climb towards mediocrity and, while it will never score lots of runs, may begin to actaully score an above average number of runs (which is plenty).

I hate to say it, I really do, but I see many, many reasons for optimism regarding this team. Of course, the last time I said that the Cubs went on a 7 game losing steak. But, too late. I said it. Hopefully the Cubs don't read this blog.

Sometime in the next few days there will be a just over 1/3 of the way pitching review. Be sure to check back for that.

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