Small Ways the Cubs Can Improve in 2018: Plate Discipline

Last week, I noted that there are three small ways that the Cubs can do better in 2018. And like I acknowledged then, this is not to suggest that the Cubs had many flaws last season. It's hard to find a whole lot of fault in a 92-win team that advances to the NLCS. But the competitive field is changing, and teams like the Yankees and Dodgers are growing into powerhouses, so the Cubs would do well to pour some energy into these ways of improving.

The first way was pitching, and as I said, I believe that Kyle Hendricks and Justin Wilson could be the difference makers, though the bullpen will have several arms with the potential for having great impact.

Today, we'll look at the other side of the roster, specifically the slight dropoff in plate discipline from 2016 to 2017.

First, there's the obvious change in K% and BB% from the championship team to last season's iteration. On both counts, the numbers went the opposite direction of what they should. In 2016, the Cubs had a team walk rate of 10.4 percent, good enough to be the best in baseball that year. At the same time, they struck out 21.1 percent of the time, and this put them solidly in the middle of the league -- a spot they can be forgiven for because of the youth of the lineup.

A year later, the walk rate drops to 9.9 percent, which still put them behind only the Dodgers (the World Series champion Astros walked only 8.1 percent of the time, for comparison), but their strikeout rate went up to 22.3 percent, which was nearly in the worst third of the league. This is a difference of about seventy strikeouts across the season.

Part of the problem is that the Cubs went chasing more often in 2017. Based on the Fangraphs measurement of when batters swing outside of the zone, the Cubs did so 31.3 percent of the time this past season, and this put them among the worst teams in the league in that respect. In 2016, the Cubs chased outside of the zone 29 percent of the time, and this small difference put them on the opposite end of the spectrum that year, among the top six teams in the league.

These are all relatively slight changes, but they are enough to make a significant difference. Just like the individual players, growth is not always linear, and as a team they could practice better plate discipline in 2018 without any drastic changes.

It is worth looking more closely at what contributed to this change from 2016 to 2017, and unsurprisingly, losing Dexter Fowler was a notable part of it. At just 19.4 percent, he was the least likely to swing outside of the zone on the 2016 team. Of the regulars in the 2017 lineup, no one comes close to that mark. Alex Avila was especially good at not being enticed by pitches out side of the zone, but his sample size is too small for fair comparison. Otherwise, the best on the team this year was Ben Zobrist, at 23.4 percent. And for Z, this is a roughly three percent increase from 2016, so he is trending in the wrong direction. Hitters such as Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo actually improved, but Addison Russell and Javier Baez went the opposite way. And adding Jon Jay to the roster in 2017 didn't help in this regard either; he was among the worst on the team.

Going into 2018, it's encouraging to know that Bryant and Rizzo are trending in the right direction, but it's not as if Fowler is coming back. We can keep checking for him to waltz onto the practice fields in spring training, but that kind of thing happens only once, I'm afraid. So who makes the difference? Obviously, we'd like to see Baez and Russell do better, but it could be Zobrist, however limited his at bats might be.

This was unquestionably the worst season of his career. He was barely above replacement level, and he has really never performed so poorly at the plate since debuting with Tampa Bay in 2006. At 10.9 percent, this was his worst walk rate since 2013, but that season he still posted a 5 fWAR compared to the 0.3 of this season.

Not feeling encouraged about Zobrist turning things around? That's understandable. He'll turn 37 next May, and the days of batters improving much beyond their mid 30s passed when Victor Conte was exposed and baseball stopped pretending that players hadn't been chemically enhanced for decades. But, Zobrist had a nagging wrist injury last season, something that makes hitting difficult regardless of age, and for whatever it's worth, he had a better second half of the season, presumably after his wrist had stopped barking at him at least a little. In August, Zobrist hit .280, but his best plate discipline happened in April and May. The hope is that Zobrist can combine the two in 2018, and make his approach at the plate a more patient one while remaining at least moderately productive with his bat. If, at least, he can work on seeing more pitches per plate appearance, that alone might make enough of a difference. Zobrist saw a career-best 4.15 pitches per plate appearance in 2016, but that dropped to 3.90 this year, his lowest mark since 2013.

If Zobrist can muster some improvement in the upcoming season, it's not reasonable to expect too much. With apologies to the man, he is just past the time in his career when this is terribly likely to happen. The other, perhaps more likely, candidate to swing the offense back in the direction of better plate discipline might be Kyle Schwarber.

For all of his struggles at the plate last season, Schwarber led the team in pitches seen per plate appearance, at 4.34. This was noticeably higher than Bryant or Rizzo. The left fielder also still managed to walk 12 percent of the time, and he chased outside of the zone only 28.2 percent of the time, which was quite a bit below the team average. Without delving into a different subject, there is evidence to suggest that Schwarber could be a very good leadoff hitter. He might never be, but the thought isn't crazy.

In short, either Zobrist or Schwarber -- or both of them together -- might be the best bet at making a difference in plate discipline in the upcoming season. Either way, the Cubs need to do better at this as a team, or they risk falling behind.

Filed under: General

Tags: ben zobrist, kyle schwarber

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  • Nice article, thanks for all of the research you put into this. I thought the Dodgers pitchers exposed one weakness of the Cubs hitters during the regular season, and that is the high fastball. They'd start low and then move higher, usually the strike 3 pitch arriving at the chin level. I assume the pitch looks like its over the heart of the plate to the batter. It seemed to fool quite a few of the Cubs hitters.

  • Good point about the competition continuing to improve. Good point about young hitters needing to turn around walk and k rates and not chasing out of the zone. Good point about Zo return to his usual. Is that enough without a good leadoff? Color me a sceptic.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Color me sceptical that a ‘good’ lead-off is the end all be all. I think Jared layed out pretty well the areas needed to improve on. I put it down more as sophmore type years, hangover and nagging injuries.
    We didn’t miss Fowler, that guy is no more, he spent more then a fair share last year not leading off. There are only a handful of true Lead-off hitters in todays game. And if they are not homegrown, the price is prohibitive.
    I agree with Theo, it’s a luxury in todays game.

  • I'm hopeful that Chili Davis can work some magic with the young bats in the lineup. Last year, everyone really seemed to scuffle throughout the year and no one seemed to have a career or really even above average year. That chase rate is probably part of it. Another is I'd actually like to see a slightly more aggressive approach. Not insanely so, but it seemed like opposing pitchers know that driving up pitch count is a part of our offensive strategy and they would just groove 1st pitch fastballs down the middle which our hitters would just look at. I'd love them to go up to the plate looking for that this year and force pitchers to start to nibble more which will, in turn, drive up the pitch count.

  • I have to believe that the regression in plate discipline in both Russell and Baez was a part of the reason Mallee is gone. The window of opportunity is too short to waste ABs and help the opposing starter get through innings quickly.

  • Excellent article. At the end of the year I had suspected that there had been some issues in their approach - too often it seemed during rough stretches the aproach was to try to muscle up and hit one out. That worked on some days and you'd see some gaudy numbers but all too often they'd have a huge multi home run day followed by a couple games of nothing.

    In 2016 it seemed that when they had those tough games someone like Fowler or Zobrist would have a good at bat and the rest of the team would follow suit - almost like they had to be reminded by seeing someone take a good professional at bat. It's the old adage "hitting is contagious". Maybe I'm totally off base - I didn't watch nearly the number of games last year than I did in 2016 for various reasons. But it seemed that way to me.

  • It seemed that way because it was. There is a sixth sense to being a good hitter. It comes with experience. Generally, one needs to have a patient approach, but occasionally it's doesn't hurt to take the pitchers head off(not literally) every once in a while so that one is not always hitting down 0-1. This leads to 0-2 and easy outs. Good hitters set pitchers up and pounce when the game is on the line.

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    I think not having a true table-setter had negative impacts on the rest of the lineup. I haven't heard too many calls for signing Lorenzo Cain. He would provide excellent OF defense, and provide solid lead-off at bats.

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    In reply to Glen Krisch:

    I'd be all over Yelich if the Marlins want to move him. I'm sure Almora wouldn't be enough but hopefully a starting point. Maybe Almora and Happ and one of the young pitchers?

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    I'd love to have Yelich. I cannot imagine that the front office would not be kicking the tires on him.

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    In reply to 44slug:

    Just after I write this, I see that Jed and Theo are in Dallas to meet with Darvish. That would probably suck up the remaining money. I'm not sure how they get Yu in under the salary cap, though, unless he's willing to take less to play for the Cubs. (Maybe?)

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Almora and Happ and one of the good young pitchers seems a bit steep.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Many Cubs fans would scoff at that idea, saying there is already a log-jam in the outfield. That particular deal would free some of that. I don't think the FO went into the offseason with anything like that in their plans, but what Miami is doing is out of the ordinary. We'd be negligent not to inquire.

    Our outfield could have a very different look by Opening Day 2019. I know the media circus is focused on Harper, but Machado is there as well. We've all discussed how to make the $ work, and I think Heyward would be gone. Look at the way his contract is structured, with the full no-trade for the first couple years, and then the opt-out and limited no-trade before the 10-5 benefit kicks in. His contract was worked specifically to give the Cubs flexibility for next year's FA class.

    Somewhat OT, but has anyone heard the terms of the Dario Alvarez signing? I haven't been able to find them. I read all the news that it was a major-league deal and he was immediately added to the 40-man. I'm sure it isn't much, just curious.

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    In reply to BarleyPop:

    Honestly, I think you have to blow past the 206m soft cap if you want one of Machado or Harper. I think they should be in on Kershaw too if he's available. They really need to stay under the cap this year to minimize the penalties you pay going forward. (The Yankees and the Dodgers are doing the same thing.) Depending on how the network negotiations are going (God only knows), the Cubs could definitely spend with the two of them.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    I agree we stay under the cap this year, and surpass it for the next several after that. I've been preaching this for a couple years.

    We do still have substantial room under this year's cap. We will add a TOR-ish SP, but not Darvish or Arrieta, unless their asking price comes way down. I don't expect it to, as there are other teams witth the same ideas. This is a truly unique offseason in that Christmas is almost upon us and all the big FA have yet to sign. I'll stop way short of calling collusion, but maybe a shift in the market and the re-evaluation of spending money as it pertains to performance on the field as opposed to the gate draw. Organization's are probably re-thinking that theory, with the expanded revenue streams. The game, and the organization's look at things, is changing. Our FO is ahead of the curve, so I feel good, for now.

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    In reply to BarleyPop:

    I thought someone (Michael?) said we're only estimated to have $17m left after arbitration raises? Maybe I'm wrong. Hope I am because that opens a lot more doors.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    I think it is more like $37M under the cap now counting predicted arbitration.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    I haven't run the numbers after all the signings, but you are close. We have way more than $17M. Off the top of my head, I think we are around $160M now (don't quote me). We have plenty to spend to obtain what we need throught free-agency and/or trade, and still leave us a buffer under the threshold for in-season acquisitions. We are not done.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    Have you seen the site Cot's Baseball Contracts. They have very detailed spread sheets on team costs. That is where I came up with $37M.

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    In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    I am not nearly into the minutiae as I once was (this having a real job things blows) but I trust the two of you.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Michael was referring to the Yankees at $17mil based on my thoughts that they were near the tax limit after signing CC.

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    In reply to Mike Moody:

    That's what the Yankees have left. Cubs are between 35 and 40 million.

  • Thank you for the article and drawing attention to a real issue as regards the Cubs offense. I don’t think any hitting coach will “fix” this. Today’s players are not trying to reduce strikeouts and they are not trying to increase walks. Why? Because players who strikeout 150 plus times, walk 35 times, hit .270 with 30 HR are making $ 15 plus million per year. While players with .360 OBP or higher with lower power numbers are not. There is a saying among Latin American players “you don’t walk your way to the major leagues”. Under this way of thinking, you don’t move runners or make quality outs to get to the major leagues either. So most players just don’t do it. And the Cubs have a very high number of talented players who do not hit situationally. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in th it line up that moves runners and makes quality outs with quality at bats. Rizzo does. Zobrist can but doesn’t always. Contreras, Baez Heyward Happ Russell do not. Even Bryant doesn’t. So I believe the Cubs need to bring a player in at the top of the lineup who has a .380 plus obp and works counts. Fowler did and Bryant’s RBI totals showed it. That player isn’t on this team. And it becomes apparent against premium pitching where manufacturing runs is necessary.

  • Wow!

    Yellich would be ideal. Would have to package up salary controllable players. Yellich can play CF everyday and lead off. He’s young and carries lifetime .290/.369/.432 numbers. He’s can steal bases. He is signed through 2021at average of $7 million a year. Relative bargain for those numbers and age.

    I’d say Almora, Happ and a mid level prospect could get it done.

  • Is it possible for the Cubs to sign Darvish and trade for Yelich? I'd like our chances if 'the boys' could pull that off. On second thought maybe Mike is not so far off with the Almora, Happ and a top prospect pitcher for Yelich. Sometimes need out weighs value, and Yelich is that special. Plus it is probably going to take more money than is wise to buy Harper or Machado, and Yelich fills a bigger need and maybe just a notch below their value.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    At this point in the offseason, 44, nothing will surprise me, except going big dollars and long years for free agents past their prime.

    Much as a young player's progression is not linear, neither are offseason plans. I have long thought that we would target some less expensive players to fill needs, and then wait to see how the market plays out. That way we would not be desperate, but instead opportunistic. This offseason has (or more literally has not) played out like that.

    We still have a lot of money, and I would argue even more options here on December 18th than we had a week after the World Series. Who saw that coming? I would bet our FO planned for all scenerios, and even they are somewhat surprised by how the market has unfolded.

    As a final thought, I hear many fans and pundits labeling 2018 as a "transition year" for the Cubs. Pardon me, but I call B.S. Our team is young and good. The FO wants to win as much or more than we do. We will field the best team possible in 2018, without going "all in" on bad contracts. We are in no way punting 2018. That is ridiculous.

    The rest of this offseason will be fascinating.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    I couldn't agree more, plus Yellich's contract is for five years at a very reasonable cost. If Alex Cobb could lower his demands he would be a great fit for the Cubbies.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Baffled why you think Yelich is worth even one of Happ/Almora let alone adding a pitcher. Yelich is slightly above pedestrian. Put his numbers up against either Happ or Almora and then against their total #'s. As for being signed thru 2021 at $7M per have you looked at those same #s for Happ/Almora? Truly do not understand your thinking. Yelich has some speed but with only 12 HRs and not many SBs he becomes a bit of a reach. JMEO. (E stands for expert)

  • In reply to veteran:

    Yelich would be Happ/ Almora + a prospect

  • In reply to veteran:

    Yelich is not pedestrian. He is a ballplayer, like Almora, good on both sides of the ball and quality at bats. Idk about value of that trade, as it initially sounded a little steep, but we need a true leadoff type hitter.

  • The fact theo and jed flew to texas,It makes me think a deal could get done. I read the twins were optimistic about signing darvish today too. I'd offer darvish 4 years 100-110 million with performance escalators(top 3 in cy young,200 innings etc). Darvish velocity didn't decline like arrietas(it increased) and he's a better strikeout pitcher

  • In reply to bolla:

    And sighing Darvish wouldn't cost a pick. Maybe Theo going to Texas will get Alex Cobb to lower his demands.

  • In reply to ronvet69:

    Exactly

  • In reply to bolla:

    I believe this is the offer the Cubs are proposing to Darvish. I also believe this is in the ballpark of what they offered Jake. I really dont think the FO is as concerned w/ AAV, although they clearly dont like the idea of giving Cobb $20 mil per year & neither do I. The FO is most concerned of not going past 4 years.

    With the Yankees & Dodgers most likely out on most of upper FA & a team like Philly most likely holding out for Machado next year Darvish is losing big spender suitors. Believe it or not Darvish maybe trending towards a FA value, even if its a 4 yr deal in the $100 millionish range.

  • In reply to Ronnie’sHairpiece:

    Yea he was projected to get 5-6 years 150-160 million. I think that projection isn't happening. Which is why the cubs are talking to him now. I'm hoping the cubs can sign darvish for 4 years maybe with a vesting or club option for a 5th year. Just front load the 1st few years. Darvish is a #2 cobb is a #3-4 if their price ranges are close you go with darvish every time.

  • In reply to bolla:

    You will not get Darvish for 4 years 100-110 million
    Twins will give 5 or 6 years at 25+ million per year

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    The more I read and think about it I think Theo should really try and sign Darvish. It would be a definite boost to our pitching staff, and I have more faith in him (if he can stop tipping off his pitches) than I do of Jake going forward--I know we're not signing him, but I just don't see him being as consistent in the future, it will be more like 1 or 2 good games and then blow up in three innings the next. We have enough pitching for the next few years and by then at least 1 or 2 of our own pitchers will be ready. I also think that Maples will be in the mix for a late inning reliever, and depending how he does, by the end of the year he could be closing.
    The only glaring need we have is a lead off hitter. At this point, who is it? Maybe Almora--I think he takes a big step this year, but that pressure got to Schwarbs and he had a much higher OBP than AA before the experiment of leadoff and he didn't succeed. AA does have great baseball instincts though. He did have a .338 OBP last year though even though he batted against LH most of the year. Actually, his OBP against LH was .411, and RH was only .291. He needs to improve on that.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    AA was trending up nicely at the end of the year so you get your wish of him improving.

  • Also a staff with Hendricks,Lester,Chatwood,Darvish and Quintana is arguably the best in mlb.

  • Im not thrilled with darvish, and cobb apparently wants too much.

    What about overpaying a starting pitcher to a one year deal? There is smyly, Monty, farm pitchers, and free agents to look at next year, so no need to make a huge signing this year if none make too much sense.

  • In reply to 2Toes:

    And who might that be?

  • In reply to 2Toes:

    Why does signing top talent not make sense this year?
    Shouldn't it always make sense.
    If you are worried about cost then trade a position player for a cost controlled starter.

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