When I was a kid, I used to play Risk (the game of world domination) with a buddy of mine; we'd roll the dice and do our best to advance our armies in an effort to control all 42 territories across 6 continents. I'm not sure why, but I always liked having Madagascar in the fold early. It was certainly more desirable than the Ukraine, which I felt was weak.
If we change a single letter in the name of that game, we get RISP; that's runners in scoring position to the layperson. That's the process of moving your players along the bases in an attempt to occupy home more often than the other team. Instead of dice, RISP uses bats and balls. Only trouble is, while the Cubs are pretty terrible in terms of putting runners on base, they're even worse at driving them home.
Put it this way: if the Cubs were a car with a manual transmission, they'd be useless because they have no clutch. I had covered the topic of the Cubs' hitting with RISP a couple months back, but I think the topic deserves a quick revisit. After all, the team has been playing much better baseball over the last month or so and I want to see what, if anything, has changed.
During last year's trudging and uninspiring season, the Cubs managed to hit only .218 with runners on second and/or third. This year,despite showing signs of life, that average has dropped to .212 in the wake of a 2-15 performance in Cincinnati Monday night. Sure, 6 points might not seem like much, until you see that all but 10 teams in MLB are hitting .240 or better in those situations.
That's not to mention the fact that baseball is a game ruled with an iron fist and subject to the strict doctrine of the Law of Large Numbers. For the sake of an easy comparison, I'm going to simply assume that the team will have the same number of AB's with RISP this year as last.
So if the Cubs have another 1,211 at-bats with RISP and the continue to hit .212, they would end up with 256 hits. That's only 8 fewer than last season's 264, which seems like a small difference until we look a little closer. This all involves a little rounding, but taken at face value, that's 1.33 hits for each point in batting average. I'm going to be more conservative and say 1.25 hits/point. We'll also assume 1 run scored per hit.
By moving up to the level of the New York Mets or Boston Red Sox (tied for 24th in MLB at .234), the Cubs would increase both their hit and run totals by 25 apiece. Think that could make a difference for a team that was 20-33 (.378) in 1-run games last year and is 8-14 (.364) this season?
And what if the Cubs were able to achieve offensive mediocrity (a phrase that is fitting on more than one level, just switch the syllabic emphasis)? By improving to the Yankees' average average of .251 w/RISP, the Cubs would gain an additional 46.25 hits and runs. That extra quarter of a run is actually a Junior Lake TOOTBLAN between 3rd and home.
At that point, we're talking about more than just a marginal improvement in 1-run games. Adding 46 tallies would give the Cubs a run differential of +27, better than all but 8 teams in baseball. Sure, scoring more on the whole doesn't mean you're winning enough games to be in contention, but it sure helps.
There's no need to extrapolate based upon further improvement, as even getting above .225 in this category is probably a pipe dream at this point. And I've long been fond of saying that you can wish in one hand and, um, do your business in the other and see which one fills up quicker. But there are a few bright spots, despite the awful aggregate results.
Naturally, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo stand out among an otherwise pedestrian lineup, something Ryan Davis wrote about recently. But aside from those two, only 6 Cubs carry a batting average greater than .200 with RISP (Travis Wood is excluded due to having only 8 AB's). Bonifacio (.317) is the best, but he's out and John Baker (.240) is, well, John Baker.
The rest of the list: Nate Schierholtz (.203), Welington Castillo (.236), Darwin Barney (.244), and Justin Ruggiano (.280). Rizzo (.242) isn't exactly lighting the world on fire, but he has added 51 points to the .191 he put up in 2013. Plus, he gets more of a pass than the rest due to his stellar overall performance. The renewed Castro (.311) is actually hitting 76 points higher than last year (.235).
It takes a smarter man than I do break this down into all of its individual pieces, but it appears to me that too few Cubs hitters take the correct approach into the batter's box with runners on. They're either swinging for the fences or getting caught trying too hard to force something to happen. That's to my untrained eye, anyway.
Anthony Rizzo has done a great job taking what pitchers give him and, as a result, he's improved by leaps and bounds vs. LHP's and when hitting against a shift. Likewise, Starlin Castro has returned to more of a see-ball, hit-ball mentality, but with emphasis on going to his pull field. He's no longer sitting on the slider and whiffing at the fastball, part of what got him in trouble last year.
And neither of those players has been trying to do too much with runners on. Instead, they're comfortable with shortening their swings or driving the ball the other way, putting the ball in play to advance the runners. As the Cubs are able to promote more and more hitters with similar advanced approaches, there's no doubt we'll see the numbers climb to the point where the team is no longer RISP averse.
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