First Week Questions: The need for OBP, the lineups, and the bullpen

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

  1. Bonifacio, CF
  2. Kalish, LF
  3. Rizzo, 1B
  4. Schierholtz, RF
  5. Valbuena, 2B
  6. Castro, SS
  7. Castillo, C
  8. 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.

  1. Bonifacio, CF
  2. Lake, LF
  3. Rizzo, 1B
  4. Ruggiano, RF
  5. Castillo, C
  6. Castro, SS
  7. Olt, 3B
  8. 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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  • Wins are very important, but how Olt, Lake and Katish fit into
    our future plans is more important.

  • Wins are very important, but seeing how Olt, Lake and Katish
    fit into our future is more important.

  • I cant believe you didnt question Renteria's questionable in game decisions in regards to PH and more importantly all the SAC bunts. MoneyBall says no Sac Bunts ever...I thought we had an analytics department now. Renteria seems clueless and there really is no reason Sweeney should ever take ABs from Junior Lake. Who cares if he signed a 2 yr deal, its only worth $3.5Mil or something. Let Lake play almost everyday and determine if he is an everyday big leaguer. Why give Renteria a pass, he has been awful in my opinion and often looks like moves either surprise him or he isnt ready to PH a righty vs a lefty reliever...

  • In reply to ChiTownD:

    I have heard quite a bit of complaining about the SAC bunts, but I don't know that I agree. I question the execution and I think the only way to improve that is by doing it in game. We have played in two games that the outcomes would have been better if we executed well enough to get a run across.

  • In reply to KC Cubs Fan:

    well the reason you have heard people complaining is because any type of advanced Metrics in baseball say NEVER to Sac Bunt. You are never to give outs away. HoyStein have talked for several yrs about getting their analytic department established and up and running. Sac Bunts run counter to everything they have been saying. i would assume they could tell "Ricky" to stop bunting if they wanted to. Funny yesterday when JD said the CUbs will lead all of baseball with manager hugs...

  • In reply to ChiTownD:

    I understand your point but the cubs can't get 3 hits in a inning to score a run.

  • In reply to KC Cubs Fan:

    It's sac bunts, guys. These bunts aren't from Sacramento or the Strategic Air Command.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    are you joking? did u understand what I was talking about it? jeezus with the grammar police (did i misssspelllllll Jeebus?)

  • In reply to ChiTownD:

    Jest havin a lil fun witcha, D.

  • In reply to ChiTownD:

    too much too soon, D. If you don't think Renteria is having his every move dictated by Theo's computer readouts, you're mistaken.

  • In reply to ChiTownD:

    I don't think it's so black and white that you can say you should never sac bunt. I know SABR people look down on it and Moneyball says it's a waste of an out, but when utilized properly they can be very helpful. It's not like the Cubs have a powerhouse offense here; runs will be hard to come by for the most part, so using some sac bunts to create a run or two is alright in my book. When they actually have an offense that's capable of scoring 5, 6, 7 runs a game I'll be with you complaining about giving away outs, but for now I'm fine with it, and you seem to be blowing one week of games way out of proportion.

  • In reply to briney212:

    bunts should be "rarely" used. not "never" used. sac bunting with a bad hitting pitcher is fine.. bunting with 0 outs and runners on 1 st and 2nd, late in a close game is a bunt situation. "never" would be incorrect.

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    In reply to briney212:

    If Renteria is sacrifice bunting in the middle of July when it is hot and the wind is howling out, then there's a problem. When it is cold, the game is tied or close, and you're not getting many walks or runners on base it seems like a better idea. Situation dictates strategy and if executed well can work.

  • In reply to ChiTownD:

    I'm not a fan of sac bunts, which is pretty well known around here, but I didn't see it as a major issue.

    I never understand why people think that if you don't play them everyday, you won't know if they're a good player. I think the Cubs know exactly what Lake is (or at least better than we do) and are developing him accordingly.

  • Don't know how you could give the ball back to Veras in a closer situation until he shows he is back in control. That was scary yesterday. Worse than Marmol on a bad day.

  • In reply to Oneear:

    Personally I'd like to see Strop, but it's hard to judge Veras on two performances, especially when those performances don't reflect what he's done over his career. He's never had big control issues like this.

  • We talk a lot about Valbuena playing 2B, but I don't recall it actually happening this season or in ST. How many innings has he actually logged there? I think it is important to point out that Barney has been pretty solid taking walks so far this year. BA stinks, but the OBP isn't bad. The challenge situation earlier this week was pretty awesome as well.

  • In reply to KC Cubs Fan:

    He's played 2B in every year of his major league and minor league career, and it was his primary position as recently as 2010. I think it's safe to say he can play the position.

  • In reply to KC Cubs Fan:

    Valbuena was originally a 2B, Cubs shifted him to 3B for their needs. Between the minors and the majors he's logged 1504 innings at 3B and 1496.1 at 2B so he can handle it, no problem

  • our offensive problems as whole is all starlins castes fault. lol. anyways I think Sweeney would get the bench before schierholtz just for the fact we wanna flip schierholtz

  • 1) Veras is definitely burning whatever goodwill he had, but let's see him in an actual Save Situation or two before we bury him

    2) On the other hand, I don't want to see 32 year old Justin Ruggiano suck. Let's let 25 year old Josh Vitters come up here to suck against lefties. If we are going to suck offensively, let's at least see the May Never Be's instead of the Never Were's.

  • In reply to Rob Letterly:

    I'd much rather have the 24-year-old (all year) Vitters getting consistent ABs in AAA than sporadic ones in a crowded big league OF.

  • In reply to Rob Letterly:

    Ruggiano was a good player and one of the better ones they had this spring. People change their mind after 11 ABs. The guy has hit lefties his whole career, it's hard to imagine he suddenly can't do it for no reason.

  • Good stuff, John.

    I like Justin Ruggiano and what he brings to the table as far as being on the roster but he should not be hitting third or fourth in a big league lineup. I'm not disagreeing with your lineup against lefties in the article though. It makes sense based on the options. I hope they have Kris Bryant taking fly balls in beeps every day. I'm sure they probably do but don't know for sure. Do you have access to that intel??

    For me, the most basic blueprint for a winning club goes: Lockdown Ace, All Star 3 hitter, Dominant closer. I'm really hoping Bryant is going to be that guy that can hit in front of Rizzo in the 3 hole.

    Also hoping they shut down Veras in the closer role and give it to Strop. Its hard to be surprised by Veras' command issues when you actually watch him pitch, huh? A lot going on with that delivery.

  • In reply to Ben20:

    Thanks. Bryant can play the OF. If the time comes he'll start taking flies and getting games in then. He played OF well enough to play CF at the collegiate level.

  • Just waiting for late July

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    In reply to emartinezjr:

    emilio, as a wise Brit once said, "life is what happens while you're making plans." Don't keep waiting for the future to arrive - it's baseball season now. Enjoy the games, get what pleasure you can out of them, learn from them. The future will be here soon enough, and it might not be as pretty as we hoped.

  • In reply to SKMD:

    That was John Lennon, wasn't it? Even if I'm wrong, great quote!

  • Junior has a .368 OBP. I'm not a believer, but maybe he proves us all wrong. If he can do that while hitting for the kind of power he's capable of, he'll be a starter in the majors.

  • In reply to Eddie:

    I think that if he continues to hit in this role, he'll start to steal ABs in the OF vs. RHP. And if he continues to play well for an extended period of time, they'll make room for him to play everyday. I really don't have concerns about that with him or with Olt. They're getting a good amount of PAs, certainly enough to show what they can do.

  • Castro seems to be seeing more pitches again, but seems to get nervouse when he gets to a 3-ball count.

    Twice he did so on Sunday (3-1 and 3-2) but both times grounded out softly.

    Would love to see his career average with a 3 ball count. I don't think it is as good as it would be compared to the league average.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    Castro's MO seems to be, get 3-0 count, take a pitch down the middle, swing at a bad pitch to get to 3-2, make soft contact on a bad pitch and ground out on the infield.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    I'd have to see it but he may be getting amped up for a fastball with a 3 ball count. I hope he's not mentally deciding to swing before the pitch is even thrown, but it sure seems like it sometimes.

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    In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    Starlin's career average with three balls (regardless of strike count) is .279 with a .520 OBP.

    3-1.....239/.546/.268/.814 (very surprised to see the low avg and slg in such a hitter's count)

  • In reply to Mike Partipilo:

    Thanks Mike!

  • Thanks for the detailed and sound analysis, John. I think, however, that in addition to examining stats, most players need consistent playing time to be most productive. In other words, player A may produce at a lower level if there is little consistency in his number of at-bats, too. So you can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, that by turning guys like Lake and Olt into part-time players, their production ends up being similar to part-time players.

    I think there is room for hot players like Kalish and Bonny to play, as well as giving significant playing time to the kids that potentially are more important to the future.

  • In reply to HefCA:

    Consistent ABs doesn't necessarily mean playing everyday from day one. They're getting consistent ABs. Olt has more ABs than Valbuena, though Valbuena has more PAs. The Cubs have 8 players between 11 and 19 ABs and Olt is among them (he's tied for 7th on the team with 13). I think Renteria is spreading them out fine and Olt has certainly had enough ABs to produce. He has an opportunity, which is all he can ask for, now it's up to him to do something with it. If he does, he'll be playing everyday at some point this year.

    I don't think we should assume playing everyday is necessarily the best for all young players in every situation -- yet that's what I keep hearing people say, implying that the Cubs aren't developing guys unless they play them everyday. I don't think there's one way to develop MLB players and I have to think the Cubs decided their approach would be that they would try to put Olt and Lake in situations where they are most likely to succeed

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Actually (i dont know if its correlation or accidental) but seems to me Lake was doing really well until Svuem decided to platoon him that last month. As a young hitter if you have a bad game I would assume you would want to get right out there the next night rather than have a couple days to think about it and start pressing. Also a potential prospect when he is up at the big league level, he needs to experience failure and success (what a boost for a hitter to go 2-4 against one of the best pitchers in the league, if he goes 0-4 then that might be expected) you bring them up let them play if they are going to be good they will figure it out, if not then they arent in our plans anyway. Many all-stars and some hall of famers started out poorly but worked thru their problems (sandberg & a-rod come to mind).

  • In reply to bleachercreature:

    I remember that as well. Lake came flying out of the gate, then pitchers figured him out, then Sveum played matchups with him and he had a solid last month. I think it's the right thing for him, but we'll see.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    actually (Lake is the example I am not sold on him as of yet he doesnt look good at the plate) but he played everyday in July hit .310 played everyday in august hit .290 played half the time in september/oct and hit .250

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Both you and Bleachercreature make solid arguments here, John. My heart sides with BC, maybe the pups need a little support at this new level they are operating at. But my mind says the rooks need to learn that no job will (nor should it ever) be handed to them solely because of potential. Of all people on this team, the rooks need to earn their playing time. And be danged grateful for every morsel thrown their way. Deep down, I kind of dig the message that RR is sending their way, whether it is intentional or not, no matter....

  • I was at Friday's game for a while and watched the other 2. I've been impressed with the patience overall. Not so much the RISP... but that changed dramatically yesterday.

    I know it's the ultimate small sample size... but EB and Kalish at the top give you decent patience and burners.

    Just my opinion but Rizzo looks a whole lot more patient overall.

    Even Barney has looked remarkably patient, seemingly willing to work deep in the count.

    Grimm has been a wonderful surprise. Rondon continues to impress.

    The starting pitching has been remarkable in the first go-through of the rotation. Nice problems to have till Arietta comes back.

    Valbuena absolutely crushed one yesterday that only the April winds off the lake killed. He slammed his helmet in frustration.

    As frustrating as the RISP has been there have been, to me, more positives than negatives so far.

    Really, really like your lineup thoughts, John. Even better, like the flexibility RR has with the current roster.

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    Agree with you John. Be it one week, you have to get more offense out of the outfield bats. Ruggiano, Sweeney and Schierholtz are supposed to be the RBI guys. I assume Kalish can't play center-that would help us the most. As for Sweeney, he's making less than 4m over two years, I don't think it matters whether he starts or comes off the bench.

  • In reply to Dale Miller:

    Kalish can play CF, just not as well as Sweeney or Bonifacio. I think Sweeney may eventually end up in the bench, but to decide that after 6 games is probably premature.

    I think we tend to hyper-focus on the first few games and that if Sweeney had this slump mid season in a year when he was playing well, people wouldn't be calling for him to ride the pine. That's not to say he'll play well, it's just saying he hasn't had the chance to show that he can yet. 6 games isn't enough to judge any player.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Agree about the 6 games but also see where playing the hot hand is going to be the best way to determine playing time given the similarity of resources. I like Sweeney, it's just he doesn't look good right now and had a rough spring. I know you're down on Vitters but if he keeps hitting he'll get his chance. Think they'd move Lake to right if Vitters/Kalish is producing in left?

  • My view of Olt and Lake are that both have issues at the plate that in all likelyhood will prevent them from being productive full time starters. Lake still struggles with breaking pitches and approach and Olt looks very susceptible to high hard stuff and breaking balls low and away. So throwing them out there in every situation will probably lead to poor results and perhaps ruin their confidence. I believe shielding them and putting them in the best possible situations early on is the right thing to do. Both can be productive players against left handers and perhaps against certain right handed matchups. I also believe that both of them probably would not get much benifit from playing every day at AAA. A month ago I argued for Lake to start AAA, but I have come to believe that he is physically ready to face MLB pitchers and it is not a matter of putting those skills to use against that competition and facing a lower level guy just isn't going to be that benificial. Sometimes I think guys need to start getting exposed to the top level competition in order to progress.

    The everyday, sink or swim reps should be reserved for high caliber players (Core Four types) or to players that have a high floor and/or polished approach. Giving backup caliber players every day reps just because you don't have anyone more exciting leads to the situation we are in with Darwin Barney. His salary is inflated in his arb years simply because he played a lot, not because he deserves it.

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    In reply to mjvz:

    "it is NOW a matter..."

  • Forgive me for going WAY off topic. Been watching a lot of espnClassic ballgames; very cool on so many levels, considering my age (53). Most r post season games, but right now showing a 4-7-84 between detroit @sox. Morris against Bannister. Brings back some memories: comisky, fisk, baines, seaver, larussa, kittle, fallstaff. Don't get me wrong, I could not bear to watch one game of their WS run. But had some good times there. Pudge blasting out of the box, throwing a seed to 2cd was something to behold.

  • Completely agree for the need for OBP, John. The Cubs offense thru 6 games has been anemic posting the 3rd worst OPS in the league in front of only the Cardinals and Padres. Obviously 6 games is way too small of a sample for anything, but it is the only data we have to go on at this point.

    That said, the Cubs have appeared more patient to the naked eye thus far. Their hitting coach had a career OBP of .373 and nearly a 1:1 K/BB ratio. The Cubs hitters may be listening. They currently ranked tied with their rival Cardinals for 6th in the majors in IsoD at .078. Last season, it was .062. Here's hoping this is a harbinger of things to come.

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    Watkins in cf tnight for iowa

  • Sweeney vs. Schierholtz,,, easiest decision ever.

    You don't play a slappy hitter like Swingles at corner OF. Schierholtz went yard more last year than Sweeney has in 2000 Major League ABs.

    Sweeney = Bench Player. Someone to fill in when the starter's tired or injured.

  • In reply to hoffpauir6:

    Actually, no. Sweeney isn't a slap hitter and if he hits double digit HRs with solid defense in CF and a better OBP than Schierholtz -- all realistic possibilities, he'd have more value than Schierholtz. Last year Schierholtz was a 1.4 WAR player while Sweeney was 1.1. I

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    In other words, they're both role players. Decision is based on what role you need and possibly what you can get for them if you need to make a deal.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    John, the back of his baseball card doesn't lie.
    Swingles has 20 HR's in 1924 MLB AB's.
    You can get away with that in CF, but RF?? No way...

    At 6'4" and 225 lbs, Sweeney is the very definition of "Looks like Tarzan, hits like Jane".

    BTW... Swingles was Sweeney's nickname when he played for the Red Sox. For a ballplayer, having a nickname that's the combination of your last name and "singles" (because that's what he hit) is not particularly flattering.

  • In reply to hoffpauir6:

    Back of baseball cards always lie.

    I'm not saying Sweeney is a great player. He's a role player -- but so is Schierholtz. The difference is a lot less than what appears on the back of a baseball card. One guys role is to hit for power vs. RHP and the others is to play all 3 OF positions, get on base a little, and nickname or not, he slugged .448 and Schierholtz slugged .470. There's less than a 1/2 win difference between the two players last year even though Sweeney played a lot less.

  • In reply to hoffpauir6:

    sweeney and schierholtz are almost exactly the same hitter (except for schierholtz home run total last year) their stats are extremely similiar. neither one really factor into the cubs future.

  • I think it's time to right a piece on pitchers and the relatively high tommy john surgery. Matt moore looks like he hurt his elbow. We have 3 pitchers having tj surgery for the 2nd time this year. It's getting out of control and I'd like some analysis.

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    Anybody know why Vitters came out after his first AB tonight?

  • In reply to Matt McNear:

    Took a bad step going after a fly ball. Left the field with the trainer. Baez hit 2 balls up against the wall, one to straight away center.

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    Maybe they're calling up Vitters? Perhaps a d/l trip for Ruggiano?

  • I agree with all of this, John, good article... I'm not convinced with Sweeney, he's not looking like he did last year and he's back to where pitchers are pounding him inside or low and away... Last year he was punishing those pitches inside, now he's chopping them.

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