Comparing the Cubs Offenses From 2016 to 2017

Hi everyone. This is my first post since September 2015 when I was filling in for John while frantically writing a dissertation and popping on to post minor league recaps written by some guy named "Michael Ernst." Whatever happened to him? (Jokes aside, my inability to keep up with the minor leagues those days turned into one of the biggest breaks CubsDen ever had.) I'm hoping this is the first of many statistically based articles on the site to help honor the man that started it. I'd like to think that some of my less pleasant personality traits of the old days have dissipated with age and reduced stress.

There's been some debate about how the Cubs offense performed in 2017 vs 2016. One line of logic holds that, since they scored more runs in 2017, they 2017 version was better.

I'd argue that, if we dig a little deeper, the 2017 offense wasn't as consistent as 2016. Yes, the 2017 team scored more runs, but a lot of that was based on some high scoring gamaes. The figure below shows an estimated distribution of their runs per game in 2016 vs 2017. (Technically, I'm cheating a bit using this method here but it is a good way to show the issue.) The horizontal axis shows the total number of runs scored in a game. The height of the line reflects how likely they were to score that many runs in 2016 or 2017.


A couple things jump out here. First of all, the line in 2017 is higher than 2016 at the low and high end of runs per game. This reflects the feast or famine nature of that offense. The 2017 version of the Cubs had more high scoring games than the 2016 version. 12.1% of the 2017 Cubs games had them score 10 runs or more as opposed to 6.2% of the 2016 Cubs. However, the 2017 team also struggled to score more often. The 2017 Cubs were shut out 10 times as opposed to 6 for the 2016 team and, in all, scored zero to three runs 40.1% of the time as opposed to 34.6% for the 2016 team.

That implies that the 2016 team was much better at scoring moderate amounts of runs -- putting up between 4 and 9 runs with some consistency. If we take the median (the midpoint of all runs scored), it was 4 for the 2016 team and 5 for the 2017 team. To give an idea of what that means, I simulated 20,000 games between the two teams where I randomly selected a regular season game for each season and used the Cubs' run total in those games as the score for my theoretical game. The 2016 team won 47% of the games, the 2017 team won 44% of the games, and the other 9% were ties. That doesn't take into consideration that runs per game were up for everyone in 2017 relative to 2016.

Trying to explain the difference gets more difficult. And obvious starting point is the lack of Dexter Fowler. Dexter was an elite leadoff man in 2016 with a .393 OBP and fourth in all of baseball with 4.40 pitches per place appearance. There are two ways this could have helped. The obvious is that 40% of the time Bryant and Rizzo were coming up with a speedy runner on on base. Singles by both or a double by either scored a run. Replacing Dexter with Schwarber or Zobrist or Rizzo or Heyward (all guys who spent time there in 2017) could easily explain some of the issues scoring runs. But it seems unlikely it explains a full run per game difference by itself and certainly doesn't explain the feast or famine nature of the offense.

Another explanation may come in the at bats that Fowler and Zobrist (4.17 PPPA) were putting up. There was talk at the time about how that exhausted the starter and got a team into middle relief. That's possibly some of it but I'd argue it also helped in letting other hitters get a good look at a starter's pitches. In key situations, there was a good chance that players had gotten a good look at the pitches the starter was going to use. And since Bryant and Rizzo followed Dexter, the best hitters on the team may have gotten an edge against the relievers, as well. Even a small change in odds in high leverage moments could lead to a big difference over a full season. (If you really want to dig into the rabbit hole, that may be some of the reason Bryant saw his RBIs drop even though his raw numbers remained similar.)

The nature of the lineup itself may also explain some of the difference. The 2016 team had Fowler, Zobrist, Rizzo, and Bryant as starters with OBPs of .385 or higher. When Contreras (.357) got regular playing time and LaStella (.407) and Coghlan (.391) come off the bench, the offense could string together walks and hits -- the key to scoring without a lot of home runs. That contributed to the "relentless" aspect of that 2016 offense. Guys were always getting on base.

In 2017, Rizzo and Bryant were the only starters with an OBP above .380. LaStella was the only bench member to do so, though Jay was close (.375) and Rene Rivera put up a very high OBP (.408) in minimal at bats against September bullpens. The 2017 team traded high OBP for high power, with Schwarber, Baez, and Happ putting up 20+ home runs with OBPs under .330.  Every now and then, the team would cluster home runs and get the big run totals that 2017 showed. More often though, they got zero to one home run a game (0-4 runs).

The big question, of course, is what this means going forward. Zobrist appears to be moving into the latter phase of his career and any expectation of a repeat of 2016 appears to be optimistic to the point of foolishness. Fowler is long gone but Happ is intriguing. He is getting the lion's share of time at lead off in spring training and has suggested that he would like to be more like Fowler. If he can trade off some power to get on base, take pitches, and set up Bryant and Rizzo, he could really help the offense. Of course, that requires getting him in the lineup. With the current log jam in the outfield, that is going to mean Heyward, Schwarber, or Almora sits. For many reasons (such as attracting future free agents), sitting the highest paid player in franchise history would be a difficult choice but it might be in the best interest of the team. I can't say I expect Heyward to sit though.

Replacing Zobrist is probably going to fall on Russell. (The talk of Russell for Machado earlier this winter almost certainly took this into account.) He's going to have to turn into the guy scouts thought he could be with a good batting eye and solid batting average to go with the defense. I'm hopeful but not optimistic that can happen. Almora and Heyward are also possibilities but I'm less optimistic on both.

Schwarber becoming the unholy monster who terrified pitchers in the 2016 playoffs would also help lengthen the lineup. While this is possible I don't think it's fair to expect it.

The obvious conclusion is that the Cubs need to get back to having good at bats up and down the lineup. Happ morphing into Fowler would be a big help. I would imagine Chili Davis has been tasked with improving at bats, as well. Either way, a return to the monster 2016 offense is going to require a lot of things to break the Cubs' way. This team is going to lean a lot more on the rebuilt pitching staff.


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  • It's really great to see you return to the writing team, Mike. Whether posting or commenting, I've enjoyed your perspective on the game. Your analysis confirms what my eyes saw last year - less emphasis on being selective at the plate and more on power. While Schwarber's new and improved physique may help his speed and agility (and possibly prolong his career), I wonder if the cause of his batting woes in the first half of 2017 weren't simply a result of trying to hit everything out of the park.

    As for Happ, I think his best chance of sticking in the lineup is CF. If he can, as you suggest, morph into a high OBP guy with some pop, Almora will find it tough to get playing time.

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    In reply to Cliff1969:

    Thanks, Cliff. It was really great writing again. I've missed it.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    Seconded. Glad you have the time to contribute again, Mike.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Thanks, that means a lot coming from you.

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    In reply to Cliff1969:

    It is great to have you back, Mike. Always enjoy reading your stuff.

    As for "Whatever happened to Michael Ernst?" Well, he pops up every once in a while in the minor league recaps but, really, his tools worked fine against lower level opponents but he was always destined to struggle as he advance up the chain. LOL

    Just kidding, Michael E. You know I like and respect your stuff.

  • Nicely done, Mike. Last year's offense was wildly inconsistent. The lack of situational hitting was bothersome too. I think the wRC+ metric shows how this offense scuffled along. I believe only KB, Rizzo, Contrearas, Schwarber (102), and Jay (101) posted above a 100 leaving 3 other regulars having below 100 (Baez close at 98). Heyward and Russell were lost causes. Dex posted a 128 in '16, FWIW. If the 100 is average, then remove Schwarber and Jay too and you have 5 of out 8 regulars simply mediocre to below average. Not the makings of a good offense.

    I always thought if the season were split the 2nd half was way better than the first half? Is it simple to split your analysis to look at 1st half versus 2nd half?

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    In reply to rbrucato:

    Thanks. It is fairly easy to do. I remember checking it out while playing with this but can't remember off the top of my head what it showed. I'll check it out tonight (the data is on my home machine) and tell you what I see.

  • Mike, this is great stuff. Thank you and good to see you write here again. What I really like about your analysis is that when you combine this with the metrics for pitching and defense you get a solid pitcher why this team was 11 games worse in actual record and 15 games worse in Pythagorean projections. The defense went from historically good to near average, the pitching gave up nearly an entire run more than in 2016 and your numbers show that despite the overall numbers that in reality this team scored on average nearly an entire run less. Again, put these pieces all together and it explains a lot. It seems like a overly simplistic view but basically they need to both score more runs on the median (as you point out) and give up less.

    Moving to 2018 I expect the defense to be better but certainly not at 2016 levels (it would be foolish to project that for any team) and I expect both the pitching and offense to be substantially better. The overall picture says that they would have to be 20%-25% better to get back to the lofty expected win totals of 2016 but 15%-18% better probably makes this team a 95-98 win team which is about where I'm predicting them to be.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Agree on all, but one key note is the 2016 Cubs had a run differential that was basically the same as the 75 Reds, something like 50-60runs better than the 17 Astros.

    I only mention this because the Cubs do not need all aspects to reach the 2016 club to be a major force. They need significant improvement from 17, but if they split the difference between 16 and 17 they will absolutely be a monster again.

  • Glad you are back Mike. Great job.

  • Nice work, Mike. It's probably just because I'm a hopelessly optimistic Cubs fan, but I really think Chili Davis is going to have a major impact on this offense, to the point of being one of this offseason's biggest acquisitions. From what I understand, Mallee was a master of identifying and implementating mechanical changes, where Davis draws high praise for focusing on and communicating mental approach, which I think are some of the biggest issues. It seems to be a natural progression as this young core continues to mature.

    We read endlessly of Heyward's work following the 2016 season to completely re-work his swing, with Mallee focusing on old video trying to get Heyward to replicate his mechanics from his early Atlanta days. 2017 began well but quickly went downhill. I don't know if it's injuries or what, but it may not be physically possible to replicate those mechanics anymore. His 27 HR 2012 season is looking like an outlier in his career, so hopefully Davis can get him to re-focus his approach to what he is capable of.

    I think Russell's lingering lower body/shoulder injuries prevented him from repeating consistent hitting mechanics. Good health could go a long way towards improved production. He's not the Larkin clone many predicted, but health and Davis's guidance should make him at least league-average offensively, which is fine by me.

    I'm excited to see what Happ can do at the top of the order. He seems to be embracing the role from a mental standpoint. I've heard him talk of not changing how he attacks individual pitches but would be aware of his role. He says the biggest difference is simply knowing he'll get that extra AB every game, and keeps referencing his conversations with Fowler of just getting on base twice a game by any means necessary.

    I'm saving my highest hopes for Davis working his mental magic on Javy. We've all seen the dramatic mechanical changes he's made over the last couple years, from cutting down on the leg kick to eliminating much of the pre-load movement and just being more controlled. I think Davis with work with him on his pitch recognition, understanding how the pitcher is trying to attack him, and actually going into an AB with a game plan. I believe Javy is capable of slashing .290/.340/.520 with 30-40 bombs annually, and I think Davis can get him there.

    Most of us agree the biggest differences from 2016 to 2017 was a lack of discipline, situational hitting, and making the opposing pitchers work. In other words, all mental and approach issues. This young group of hitters is capable if far out-pacing both of those seasons, and I think Davis is the perfect teacher to lead them there.

  • Great to see your byline again, Mike. I'm curious what you (and others) think of the importance of a good leadoff hitter. Sabermetrics seems to indicate that the order of a lineup isn't too significant. But as you point out, it certainly seems the Cubs struggled last year without someone like Fowler leading off. I'm hoping that Happ can help fill that role this year.

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    In reply to October:

    Most of the analysis I have read arguing that the lead-off spot might not be THAT important is based on an assumption that the production of the player is unaffected by where he hits in the line-up. Because of that, good hitters are important no matter where they hit in the line-up. If the Cubs had Fowler batting 5th or something like that they would have STILL (probably?) had him on base and those were outs that maybe didn't take place. Suddenly there was someone for someone else to drive in later in the line up.
    Or maybe he drives in someone that would have been stranded with a lesser hitter in that spot. Also, those P/PA would still pile up. To me Fowler was very much part of the offensive drop off from 2016 to 2017. Not because of the difference between him and whoever was hitting lead-off in 2017 but because he was just plain a very good hitter in 2016. Removing/adding that kind of player to the line-up would likely result in dramatic changes, particularly if other players aren't able to "pick up the slack."

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Jay, Almora, Heyward, Happ was a downgrade to Fowler no matter how you slice.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    I actually think Mike’s work here is case in point for the lineup argument. There are really two issues to that debate. I do believe that most research says if you shuffle a lineup like a deck of cards, over the long run you will get very similar results. But would that lineup give you the Day in day out consistency? That is another issue altogether.

    I don’t believe there is anywhere near enough evidence, largely because teams never try it, to say you can just throw 9 out in any order and get the same results. At the same time I can buy that after 162games the aggregate would be similar.

    I think it is a question much like Mike discusses here.

  • Welcome back Mike! And yeah - I think we're all hoping for a bit more of the 'grinding' and OBP that we saw from the 2016 lineup than the more feast or famine outcomes we had in 2017.

    I do think that we could see more of the 2016 version with just having a healthy and consistent Russell, Schwarber, and Zobrist playing in 2018. Zobrist seemed to be playing tired and hurt most of the season, and Russell never quite got on track after his injuries and off-field issues. Won't hurt either if Heyward gets back closer to his career average OBP and can hit the ball with occasional authority.

    Happ and Almora are two of the wildcards though IMO.

  • I want to throw a wrench in your analysis.. Here's a look at the home and away runs/ops and MLB rank for each of 2016 and 2017:

    2017 Home - 436 Runs, .805 OPS Rank: 5
    2017 Away - 386 Runs, .747 OPS Rank: 11
    2016 Home - 389 Runs, .768 OPS Rank: 7
    2016 Away - 419 Runs, .776 OPS Rank: 2

    Notice anything? Most of the overperformance in 2017 came from home games, while the 2016 Away Cubs were significantly better than the 2017 Away Cub. I would argue that you have to include another influence here: Park Factors.

    Park factors are a messy index attempting to isolate raw runs scored from how conducive any individual park is to giving up runs. It turns out that Wrigley is fickle, sometimes yielding lots of runs (greater than 1.00) and sometimes being stingy (less than 1.00). SO, here are the park factors at Wrigley in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

    2016 - .87
    2017 - 1.13

    So, Wrigley was a performance-enhancer in 2017, and, I would argue, making the 2017 Cubs offense look better than it actually was. So your eye test of 2016 being a better offense seems right on.

  • In reply to discubobulated:

    Interesting. I attended a few of those blowout victories at Wrigley last year, including a 16-4 drubbing of the D-backs and a 17-3 laugher over the Pirates. Mike alluded to how some of those blowout victories skewed the overall run totals, and with that and your research, we come back to the same conclusion: the 2016 offense was better any way you slice it. I believe it all rests on offensive approach, which is why I'm so excited to see Chili Davis work his magic.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Here's a macro view. In 2017 the Cubs saw 24,538 pitches in 6294 PAs. 2016 numbers were 25,161 in 6353 PAs. Thus the '16 team saw 623 more pitches and had 59 more PAs in one fewer game than the '17 version. The pitches/PA decreased from 3.96 ('16) to 3.90 ('17). In those two years, the Cubs averaged 39.15 PA/G, so that we might say 39.15 PAs ~27 outs. With 59 more PAs in '16, the would imply an additional 59/39.15 x 27 outs, or an additional 67.69 outs for the season. That's almost an extra out every three games. Over the season, it adds up.

  • In reply to wthomson:

    ...and welcome back, Mike!

  • In reply to wthomson:

    Sorry this was a bit complicated. In short, if a major idea in offense is to avoid outs (since anything other than an out is a positive event), the '16 Cubs avoided the equivalent of 67.69 outs, or an out every three games.

  • Great to have you back again Mike!

  • That one graph really tells the story about the '17 Cubs offense. Very Jekyll and Hyde-like offense last year. I do think the offense after the all-star break was much better than before it, as rbrucato mentioned earlier. Willson, Javy, Schwarber all kicked it up a notch in the 2nd half.

  • Solid analysis. As the article stated, having an high OBP hitter with Fowler's speed helped the run producers, but any leadoff hitter who gets on at that OBP level helps subsequent hitters simply by putting the starter in the stretch more often.

    Another drop off for the Cubs offense in 2017 was an increased K rate (despite losing Fowler's relatively high 22% rate in the leadoff spot). The offense had 4.6% more Ks in 2017, finishing with 1,401 or 8.6 per game. Now Theo/Jed's attitude toward offensive Ks is higher K rates are fine if they come with a significant increase in slugging, but this declined from .437 to .429. And of course, the high swing-and-miss rate became glaring in the 2017 playoffs, especially against Los Angeles.

    What this means for 2018? Hard to say. The team made no major changes to its lineup. The hope is mostly for the young players to become more disciplined at the plate and increase their contact rate with an extra year of experience and the snake charming of their new hitting coach. We'll see.

  • Great to see you back Mike, your work always is thought provoking!

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