As Cubs fans, we often lament the horrible situational hitting and other foibles that plague the growing offensive core of the next (hopefully) great North Side contender. Bases loaded, no outs? They're lucky to squeeze in A run, much less multiple runs. Take Sunday's game against the Dodgers, for example...two men in scoring position, no outs? Two unproductive outs (well, all outs are unproductive in my view, but at least advance the runner, eh?) and a strikeout to end the game. Feh.
Of course, Cubs fans aren't the only ones to have this problem. Take the Tampa Bay Rays, for example:
"It's becoming an industry-wide situation," Maddon said. "Offenses. It's gone backwards. The next big frontier is to figure that out. How do you generate offense in 2015 like you did several years ago, when we were able to combine pitching and defense with victories because we got up one-run plus as opposed to one-run minus.
"Already talked to the guys. The biggest offseason exercise for me is to come up with ideas for how you garner that one extra run, that two extra runs that we were unable to come up with this year."
There's a stark difference between our more modern era of baseball as opposed to the high run-scoring environments of the 90s and early 2000s. It seems like the umpires are calling more strikes that they're supposed to with the advent of Pitchf/x, and defenses are getting gimmicky with exaggerated shifts and much better positioning. Pitchers are set up to strike out more batters and allow less balls in play, and when those balls are in play, they're aiming the batted balls into the ground where less damage can be done. So in retrospect, with more information out there and smarter front offices around, it's no surprise to see offense go down like a Thai hooker (WOAH).
This is the part where I start rambling with my train of thought.
As the Cubs get set to go after a free agent pitcher or two, we have to look back at the plan so far. In the previous thread, we had a discussion about whether the Cubs actually were succeeding since they weren't exactly developing pitchers (apparently the brief stints that turned guys like Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel into usable assets didn't count and Edwin Jackson sucks). However, it is very apparent looking back at the first years of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer's tenure that the emphasis has been on power hitting. Once upon a time on the mothership, we wrote about how the Cubs front office was tearing stuff down and building with a philosophy. We also lamented that while Chris Bosio seems to be a pitching guru, there's no real "ace" coming up through the Cubs system right now under Theo and Jed. They can develop solid enough guys as we've seen with Jake Arrieta (who was acquired in trade, mind you), C.J. Edwards (also in trade), Kyle Hendricks (also in trade...hey wait)...okay let's not forget about Pierce Johnson, who was enjoying a decent 2014 between Kane County and Tennessee, as well as his fellow 2012 draftee, Duane Underwood, also a fine pitcher for Kane County as they won the Midwest League title this year. Jen-Ho Tseng was also grabbed by the Cubs in last year's international free agent spending spree, and performed admirably this year for Kane County as well. The Cubs can identify and cultivate talent, but so far they're still far from, as Patrick Mooney's article suggests, growing their own version of Clayton Kershaw.
But this blog isn't really about the pitching; that will come another day. We have to address the offense.
At some point Dabynsky is going to address the strikeout issues we're seeing with a lot of Cubs prospects this year. Some of that has to do with youth and pitch recognition, but I'm guessing a good portion also has to do with the increased strikeout rate across all of MLB. Couple that with the fact that overall, MLB hitters are making outs about 70% of the time they put a ball into play, and you see why offense is down. As of Saturday, the best on-base percentage in MLB was Troy Tulowitzki's .432 and he's been shut down for weeks now. For guys who aren't broken, Russell Martin isn't qualified but leads the active gents at .409 (I think it fell to .408 after Sunday's win) with only four more guys over .400 this season. I know OBP isn't the end-all-be-all, but in years past you'll see a few guys up at the top with bonkers OBPs that are close to .500 (at least a couple over .440 or so), but in recent years it hasn't seemed to be the case. That tells me a couple things that may have to be backed up by better research than I have time for right now; 1- pitchers aren't issuing as many walks and 2- batters aren't able to put the ball where they ain't quite as often.
This is why, even though it's frustrating to see the prospects and the regulars struggle so much on offense, I'm not freaking out about it just yet. I think they'll adjust, and I also think that we have to think of these struggles in the context of a depressed run environment.
Let's use a guy like Anthony Rizzo as an example. Rizzo has a splendid eye at the plate but strikes out about 19% of the time anyway. Mauricio used to say that Anthony was "missing singles" as he was plagued by BABIP issues, but he does smack a goodly number of homers (not counted in BABIP) and is also a victim of exaggerated shifts. Every now and then Rizzo will attempt to bunt for a hit and the next couple shifts won't be as exaggerated, but there's only so often that a guy will do that to keep the defense honest. The opposition knows that Rizzo's job is to swing for the fences, and Rizzo would prefer to do as much damage to the baseball as possible than just simply get to first base. The shift, after all, is designed to stop singles, and Rizzo isn't just a singles hitter. And asking a guy to bunt for a .700 OBP (which is unfortunately an "empty" OBP) is taking him outside of his comfort zone and playing right into the pitching/defense strategy which works to minimize damage. So what to do?
I've been going through this in my mind and it seems until some very smart organization (maybe the Rays, maybe these Cubs) figures out a clever solution, the best course of action appears to be to try to outslug the opposition. We know that matchups these days will favor the pitcher due to specialization and advanced scouting reports. So the Cubs have spent the better part of the last three years stockpiling advanced hitters. Yeah, they're having issues now, but this part of the season is meant to work out the kinks for Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and to a lesser extent, fringe-ish guys like Mike Olt. Jorge Soler seems to be doing okay but we're talking about an extremely small sample size with his late-August call-up. By the time these guys get to the Show, there's so much tape and stats on them that the opposing team probably knows what kind of gum they like to chew. So now it's a matter of adjustment. Given the way scouts rave about the approaches of most of the Cubs prospects right now, it seems that they have a better chance of adjusting quicker to pitching than other players and thus may give the Cubs an edge as they look to rip the window of contention wide open. The power is apparent, but I believe that there's enough bat control in the lineup (thinking of Starlin Castro here) to spray the ball to all fields and negate some of the outs via shifts.
"It could be just going back maybe to something that had been done before. I'm not sure. But right now, offense is going south, and it's going to continue going south based on pitching and defense. Everything, data, video, all the information benefits them over offense."
The irony with having a really smart front office is that other front offices have gotten smarter too, and so they know almost as much as the Cubs know about their own hitters. Teams are always trying to find that edge, and once an edge is identified, it's going to be copied ad nauseum just like when Billy Beane figured out OBP and suddenly it stopped becoming a market inefficiency. But at this point, again, Theo and Jed have stockipiled a lot of promising young hitters that look to be able to buck the trend of declining offenses. The Cubs might eventually be able to outslug the downward trend after all. There will obviously be a lot of strikeouts, but hey, home runs are still cool...and the Cubs may be able to hit more of them than other teams. And that may be all they need.