There's been a lot of talk about market inefficiencies and defensive shifting and all kinds of newfangled stuff ever since everyone first learned about the magic that is on-base percentage, thanks in part to Billy Beane (his weird trades this year notwithstanding). As players get faster, stronger, and more athletic, and front offices get more creative with data, we can observe a sort of arms race where offense and pitching/defense battle each other in a cyclical fashion. This also feeds into my thinking that PEDs don't account for all the silly numbers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but that's another story I suppose.
What is apparent is that offense is lagging at the moment. Maybe that's why I'm not as freaked out as some that the Cubs prospects are striking out about 40% of the time...at least not yet. They do have some growing pains to get through and they have to adjust to a higher level of pitching, not to mention that most of them can't even run for Congress yet, so it's not like they're going to run out of time to figure things out. With the disclaimer that I have never played professional baseball (I play it recreationally though), here are some thoughts I have on offense and the ever-expanding strike zone.
On the pitching side of the ball, Chris Bosio seems able to turn most gifted pitchers coming his way into ground ball machines, which benefits the Cubs because the infield defense is pretty good. And the pitchers also benefit from the strike zone, which as stated above has been expanding, and in particular expanding downwards. I saw this via MLB Trade Rumors as the Red Sox appear to be taking advantage of the lower part of the zone by targeting that region, which incidentally helps generate ground balls and by extension will at least keep the ball in the park.
The other side of the battery is logically critical to executing this strategy, because a pitcher can deliver the ball to the right spot, but there's a growing perception that the catcher needs to receive baseballs at the margins in such a way as to persuade the umpire to call a strike. I have some doubts as to whether pitch framing contributes THAT much to a catcher's defensive value, but people much smarter (including, apparently, in the front office) than I am seem to think it is a big deal, so I will defer to them. It's kind of funny that MLBTR also featured our blog on the Miguel Montero trade, because Montero is suggested to be better at framing than Welington Castillo. If the Cubs are to control the bottom of the strike zone as the Red Sox are perceived to be doing now, then it makes sense to have a guy who can get more called strikes in that region of the zone.
In a study done before the 2014 season, Fangraphs' Jeff Sullivan took a look at all the MLB catchers and their ability to frame high vs. low strikes. For the most part, Beef Castle was middle of the pack, but according to the pre-2014 data, Montero and another potential Cubs target, David Ross, were much better at framing the low strike than Beef. I'd have to dig through some of the Brooks data to see how they did in 2014, a project that will have to wait until after finals (oh lawd I hope the kids don't fail), but if the trend held this season then it isn't too difficult to see why the Cubs are rumored to be going after Ross and to also be looking to trade Beef. Of course now I have to think about another project to figure out if the trend is consistent throughout a catcher's career, but I'm guessing Fangraphs or The Hardball Times will get to that long before I do. However, it does make sense to steal as many strikes as possible even if it's a once-in-a-while event, because those effects could be additive and lead to runs prevented and wins.
On the other side of the ball, the Boston Herald article also suggested that the Red Sox plan was to acquire hitters who could control the lower part of the zone. The two examples used were recent signees Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval:
Third baseman Pablo Sandoval, signed to a five-year, $95 million deal, is one of the best lowball hitters in the game, batting .321 lifetime on pitches at or below the knees.
Slugger Hanley Ramirez, meanwhile, may not be Sandoval’s equal in that regard, but he’s a lifetime .346 hitter in the lower third of the zone, and a lifetime .283 hitter on pitches at or below the knees.
I think part of the Cubs' hitters' problem was that they needed to adjust to the way pitchers were setting them up. In my experience, especially with right-handed power hitters, pitchers usually try to set up the hitter to get to the two strikes before going low in the zone to put them away. Practically, it is easier to elevate a baseball that is already high in the strike zone, so to follow up a point from above, a catcher that can frame a high strike might not be as advantageous as a catcher who can frame low strikes. Similarly, hitters have to now adjust to the fact that the zone has dropped, which means they have to respect the split-finger, changeups and put-away sliders.
The question is whether the Cubs, with Joe Maddon and the rest of the coaching staff, can help their young hitters adjust to this lowered zone. This means better pitch recognition, better idea of game theory (i.e. how is this guy going to try to get me out and how do I stop that from happening), better mechanical adjustments to golf a low ball into the stratosphere. I think the Cubs can continue to generate outs with their solid pitching and defense. Can they evolve to out-slug their opponents as well by recognizing and controlling the low strike?
Spring training is still weeks away, and I guess we'll find out soon afterwards.