I would have to say that two of my favorite Cubs teams were the 1984 Cubs and the 2008 Cubs -- and the one common thread with each team is that they were willing to work counts and take walks.
Unfortunately for Cubs fans, that skill and approach has been frustratingly scarce overall. Part of this skill is innate -- some players naturally just have better pitch recognition and patience. But according to one front office person I've spoken with, it can also be a learned skill -- though it's best to get this instilled in players early. It's not as easy to teach at the MLB level, or even at the AAA level for that matter.
As you already know, I like to observe baseball closely, sometimes obsessively -- at times to the point where I have to remind myself to enjoy the game and not analyze every at-bat, delivery, approach, etc. One thing I've observed is a change in the minors over the last two years as far as many players' approach at the plate. Some have picked up on it early and there are others who are starting to show good signs more recently -- and although in some cases, the sample size is too short for an accurate statistical analysis, it's not too early to see that there is a trend developing as far as the general approach with some young prospects. I'm going to list 12 of those players, in no particular order. Age is in parenthesis.
- Arismendy Alcantara, SS, AA (21): Alcantara defined the word "hacktastic" early last season. From April through June, he walked just 12 times in 313 PAs, a 3.8% walk rate. Since July 1st of last year, he has increased that walk rate to 11.8% (136 PAs). It's a short sample size, but it's not hard to see that Alcantara is taking pitches and working the count in many of his ABs this season. It's been a gradual trend and it's starting to show in his numbers. With Alcantara, the improvement has allowed him to get on base more (.361 OBP) and giving him a chance to utilize his speed more. He has 10 SBs already on the season, 8 in the last 6 games -- a time span in which his OBP has been at .571. As a reminder, plate discipline and a solid approach isn't just about walking more, it's also about waiting for your pitch and getting yourself into more favorable hitting situations. Not coincidentally, we are also seeing an increase in Alcantara's power numbers. He has hit 4 HRs already (he hit 7 all year and has just 12 in his professional career) and his ISO has gone up from .145 to .178 so far this season.
- Jeimer Candelario, 3B, A (19): We know Candelario put up great walk rates in the DSL two years ago, but that's the DSL. The Cubs challenged him and skipped AZ, sending him straight to Boise. After some struggles early with more advanced pitching, Candelario seemed to find his batting eye again and finished with a respectable 8.4% walk rate. So far this year, now that he has had time to catch up to the competition, his walk rate has jumped to 14.9%. Candelario hasn't hit for much power, but I expect that, like Alcantara, that will come soon because he will get better pitches to hit. I think the cold affects players like Candelario more than a few others because he relies on his hand strength to generate power. For now, he is contributing with a .290 average and a .392 OBP.
- Jorge Soler, RF, A+ (21): Soler's approach was a bit of a mystery since he spent much of his formative years in Cuba. There were good signs there, but nothing so definitive that you could say he had good discipline at the plate. His early numbers at AZ didn't bolster confidence either, but Soler was a case where you can see a trend developing before the numbers caught up. Watch Soler play, it immediately struck you that he did take a lot of pitches and worked deep into counts, but made uncanny contact last year and didn't give himself a chance to actually draw walks. This year has been a different story. Soler has gotten better at working counts and more and more are resulting in walks.
- Matt Szczur, CF, AA (23): The transformation with Szczur began last year in his age 22 season. Szczur has always been adept at making contact, but didn't have the right approach for the type of player he is. Szczur is the kind of player who can best help by getting on base. Last year that clicked for him and his walk rate jumped to 13.4% at Daytona after posting a 2.7% rate in the same league the prior season. He has leveled off a bit at AA (8.8%), but that is still a respectable number, especially is Szcaur can hit .280-.290 like some believe he can.
- Jae-Hoon Ha, CF, AA (22): Like Szczur, Ha began to improve his walk rate last season. He always had good pitch recognition skills but now he's playing for an organization that values that skill. Ha has adjusted easily from an organization that valued batting average one to one that emphasizes OBP. Ha's walk rate went from 4.5% to 9.5% last year, raising his OBP from .320 to .352. This year Ha is showing it's no fluke and has an even better walk rate early on at AA (13%).
- John Andreoli, OF, A+ (22): Lovie Smith was fond of saying the Bears got off the bus running. Andreoli gets off the bus walking. He's a smart player who knows his role. He has above average speed and superb instincts on the bases, so he knows his job is to get on base any way he can. Andreoli had the best walk rate in the Cubs system last year (15.1%) as well as the best OBP for a full season player (.402). This year so far in his return to Daytona, Andreoli has topped that (18.4% walk rate, .451 OBP).
- Zeke DeVoss, CF, A+ (22): Like Andreoli, DeVoss is a smart player who knows his role and he does it extremely well. DeVoss was right on Andreoli's heels as far as walk rate (14.1%) and OBP (.383). This year DeVoss has shown signs of hitting the ball better, especially in terms of power. His ISO has increased from .120 to .180 so far this season. Being an extra base threat is going to help DeVoss maintain those walk levels as he progresses. He has enough wiry strength and pop in his bat to punish pitchers for laying one in the middle of the strike zone.
- Rock Shoulders, 1B, A (21): Sometimes players have less plate discipline than their goodr walk rates imply. That was the case with Shoulders last year. He has always had great walk rates but seems to have gotten better at being selective and waiting for his pitch. In other words, there seems to be more of a purpose to Shoulders' patient approach this season. His walk rate is roughly the same as last season (12.9% from 11.8% last year) but he isn't chasing as many bad pitches and his strikeout rate has dropped to 18.6% from 29.1% last year.
- Ronald Torreyes, 2B, AA (20): Torreyes has an uncanny abilityto make contact and it seems this year he is learning that he doesn't have to swing early in the count every time. Like Ha, he always seemed to show good pitch recognition, but now is adding the patience to work counts. Torreyes had a 6.8% walk rate and this year in a very small sample has raised that rate to 14.3%. As with all of these players, however, it's not just about the numbers -- it's the observable change in their approach that bodes well. The early numbers are just reflecting that.
- Daniel Vogelbach, 1B, A (20): We get excited about Vogelbach's power and we forget sometimes that he's a smart hitter with a very good idea up at the plate. He had a 13.7% walk rate last season and so far this year it's down to 8.1%, but Vogelbach seems to have settled down after appearing more anxious than usual early in the season. He seems to be slowing things down now. He's been working counts, getting ahead, and there are signs that the power is coming back. When it does we know pitchers are going to be very careful again and we'll see them pitch around Vogelbach, so the walk rates should rise again.
- Gioskar Amaya 2B, A (20): We saw Amaya become a more well-rounded hitter last year, raising his walk rate from 5.7% to 10.4%, resulting in a .381 OBP. Amaya has struggled this year early and hasn't shown the same patience early on so far, but Amaya is an intelligent, instintcual player. I expect him to adjust to pitchers and return to the solid approach he showed last season.
- Wilson Contreras, catcher, A (20): Now this is really, really early but I've had quite a few chances already to observe Contreras and was struck immediately as to how he is consciously trying to take more pitches and get better pitches to hit. The result has been an early jump from a 4.1% walk rate to 11.1% so far this season. I've learned a lot about Contreras since last fall and one of these things is that he is as hard a worker and as fierce a competitor as you'll find in the organization. If he knows the organization is going to value him more for working counts and raising his OBP, then I imagine that Contreras will do whatever he needs to do to improve in that area. So far, so good.
I want to also note that there are players I did not include because I wanted to focus on AA and below as well as new trends. Brett Jackson and Logan Watkins are excellent examples of more advanced players with a good approach. We have also seen Junior Lake make some improvement in this area as well.