It's just a week into the season but one thing that was apparent over this past weekend is that the Cubs can't hack away at the scoreboard. At the risk of oversimplifying things, the last two days are a window into what separates the bad Cubs offense from the good Cubs offense. And in this particular example, it seems counter-intuitive as far as the hits portion is concerned. But offense isn't just about collecting hits. It's about getting men on base and getting timely hits -- or least sequencing those hits where you bunch them together.
Saturday: The bad Cubs offense got 10 hits. They left 10 men on base. They scored 0 runs.
Sunday: The good Cubs offense got 6 hits. They left 6 men on base. They scored 8 runs.
The difference? The most obvious is the Cubs old bugaboo, their average with RISP. It was 0 for 7 on Saturday. It was 4 for 7 on Sunday. But although the Cubs seem to struggle with RISP more than most, that isn't something that's entirely in their control. Studies show that over greater sample sizes, average with RISP tends to reflect and individual's batting overall.
On Sunday, the Cubs also bunched their hits together, getting 2 of their 6 hits in a 4 run first and another 3 in their 4 run 6th. They managed only one other hit in the other 6 innings. That's efficient sequencing. 5 of their 6 hits led to runs.
The difference I want to to focus on, though, is OBP. That is the factor that is the Cubs can control better than the others. The Cubs batted .270 on that Saturday and .216 overall on Sunday. So why so many more runs on Sunday? Aside from the RISP and sequencing, the big difference is that on Saturday, the team OBP was .297. On Sunday, it was .429. The Cubs saw 14 more pitches on Sunday despite batting in one less inning.
I really liked the way the Cubs set the lineup on Sunday (yes, even without Mike Olt). Emilio Bonifacio, Ryan Kalish, and Anthony Rizzo are among the Cub players most willing to take a walk. The 5th hitter, Luis Valbuena, leads the team in walks with 5. That's 4 of the Cubs 5 most disciplined hitters. With A.J. Burnett struggling a bit with his control, they did not help him out and take him off the hook. They waited for him to throw strikes, they made him work hard early, and they put pressure on him by putting men on base. That is what the Cubs need to do to score runs. The hits with RISP will even out to some degree, the key is to get more players on base to begin with.
It also helps that Bonifacio and Kalish add an element of speed at the top. With his pickoff issues apparently in the rearview mirror, Bonifacio has made things happen on the bases. He has stolen 4 bases and scored 5 of the teams 16 runs. Despite just 7 ABs, Kalish is tied for 2nd on the team with 2 runs scored. Between the two they've combined to score almost half of the Cubs runs. Bonifacio has already become an everyday player and I think the Cubs need to consider starting Kalish vs. all RHPs.
Ryan Sweeney is struggling this year and it's not just a matter of BABIP. Too often he has hit the ball weakly. It looks to me like he's rolling his wrists, causing him to ground out to the right side. The Cubs just signed Sweeney for 2 years, so I understand the commitment while also understanding it's still early, but I think the Cubs need to consider rotating him in rather than making him the primary CF vs. RHP.
I'm wondering if the Cubs should just keep Bonifacio out in CF on a full-time basis while splitting Valbuena ABs at 2B with Darwin Barney and also moving him back to 3B against some tough RH matchups for Mike Olt. That would increase Olt's playing time without necessarily making him an everyday player quite yet. They can still put him in a position to succeed while increasing his reps.
Lineup vs. RHP
- Bonifacio, CF
- Kalish, LF
- Rizzo, 1B
- Schierholtz, RF
- Valbuena, 2B
- Castro, SS
- Castillo, C
- Olt, 3B
I"m okay with Starlin Castro 6th. He's not an on-base guy and putting him in the 6th spot just allows him to concentrate on what he does best which is make solid contact. With the OBP guys in front of him, that could give him a lot of RBI opportunities. I'd even consider moving Schierholtz to 6th, Castro up to 5th and Valbuena up to 4th. Valbuena isn't a clean-up hitter, but right now my goal is to get your best OBP guys at the top of the lineup.
You could sub in Sweeney to CF, Bonifacio to 2B, and move Valbuena to 3B some days to rest Olt's shoulder and/or vs. tough RHPs.
Lineup vs. LHP
This is a little more difficult because you lose two significant OBP players in Kalish and Rizzo (in the sense that he doesn't hit LHP as well and his OBP will be lower). But Rizzo is still patient vs. LHP and I think because of that he deserves to stay near the top of the lineup. Surprisingly, his career OBP vs. LHP is a very solid .341 -- at home. Where he's really struggled with LHP is on the road (.200 OBP lifetime). I think that will balance out over time.
- Bonifacio, CF
- Lake, LF
- Rizzo, 1B
- Ruggiano, RF
- Castillo, C
- Castro, SS
- Olt, 3B
- Barney, 2B
I'd keep Lake at 2nd because he's hitting well and he has actually drawn 2 walks, so he deserves to stay there until he proves he can't maintain that pace. Barney has shown patience vs. LHP, walking a surprising 3 times and he's an alternative for that spot, as is Starlin Castro. Ruggiano is struggling but has a decent .319 OBP vs. LHP in his career.
It's a weaker lineup but I don't see any reason to rotate other players in vs. LHP, in part because options are slim and also because it's the short-side of platoon. Players like Olt and Lake will get the majority of their ABs here so keep them in the lineup. One place you can consider rotating is moving Olt to first and resting Rizzo, but even then you'd have to replace him in the lineup with another LH hitter in Luis Valbuena. Valbuena actually has a respectable .326 OBP vs. LHP in his career, thought that only spans 216 PAs.
At some point I think the Cubs will have to decide what to do with their OF rotation and it's probably a bit early to make those decisions, but Ryan Kalish's ability to get on base and create may force the issue sooner rather than later.
If Kalish does start getting more ABs then the focus shifts to Sweeney vs. Schierholtz. Given Sweeney's slow start, that seems like a gimme but Schierholtz has also started slowly. Sweeney has also been the more disciplined hitter in his career and has the added advantage of being able to play CF, making him the better 4th OF'er if the Cubs wind up with a set everyday OF. With neither player establishing themselves early, the Cubs have time to let that play out a little bit.
Another alternative is moving Darwin Barney, which would allow Bonifacio to slide between CF (vs. RHP) and 2B (vs. LHP) with Valbuena playing 2B vs. RHPs and Sweeney playing CF vs. RHP -- with perhaps Junior Lake getting some ABs at CF as well.
The Cubs also need to monitor the bullpen situation closely where Jose Veras has gotten off to a terrible start, walking 6 batters in 1.2 innings. But considering Veras has never been that wild in his career, it's too early to decide if this is the sign of a bad season to come. It could just be statistical noise or maybe Veras is pressing in this relatively new role. He was brought on as "an established closer" but Veras only has 26 career saves -- and 21 came last season.
The good news is that some of the younger, strong arms have started well. Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm, and Pedro Strop in particular have pitched well in the early giong.
Pedro Strop's good start follows last year's strong finish and he would be the first candidate to replace Veras if the Cubs decide to make a change at any point. In fact, has already picked up a save and yesterday came into bail Veras out when he couldn't find the plate.
The temptation is to say this is too early to make a change, but the Cubs found out that a season can get away from you quickly if your bullpen is blowing late leads. It may not be a bad idea to let Veras work out his problems in a lower leverage role and let Strop close in the meantime. And if Strop takes the job and runs with it, so be it. The Cubs will have to find out sooner or later whether Strop can fill that role for them long term -- and if Veras continues to struggle, it could be sooner than many of us thought.
And those questions are already beginning to emerge in the first week of the season.
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