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.