Jason Hammel’s brilliant no-walk performance last night reminded me of something we stressed over and over again this offseason. I’ve said on numerous occasions that the Cubs goal wasn’t so much to find players to fill holes as it was to acquire players who help contribute to filling one big overall hole: Controlling the strike zone on both sides of the ball.
Theo Epstein strongly believes that it is fundamental to winning, as stated in this Joe Posnanski article (h/t Zonk).
When I talked with Chicago’s Theo Epstein, he made it even clearer. His overriding philosophy of baseball is this – you must control the strike zone. He believes that is true of pitchers (throw strikes, get ground balls) and hitters (swing at pitches you can drive). The strike zone, in his mind, is like football’s line of scrimmage. Control it, and you win.
The Cubs acquired such players to accomplish this via the mound (Lester, Hammel), at the plate (Montero, Fowler, LaStella, Ross), and behind the plate (Montero, Ross).
Along with Anthony Rizzo, the idea was to bring in veterans who could instill that culture on the rest of the Cubs young roster.
How was that plan worked so far?
The Cubs are guaranteed their first winning April since 2008, the last year they won a division title and it is in large part because they control that strike zone.
We can start with the pitchers, who have walked a paltry 36 batters all season long, less than any team in baseball. That is less than 2 per 9 IP (1.98). That alone is important. Of the top 7 teams in lowest walk rate, 5 of them are in first place and two are in second — the Royals by a half game and the Cubs by just one game. The only team in first not in that top 7 is the Detroit Tigers, and they rank 10th.
But the Cubs pitchers aren’t just pitching to contact, they’re missing bats, ranking 5th in strikeout rate (8.73/9 IP). Strikeouts are a factor of controlling the strike zone simply because a pitcher is more likely to be successful once they are ahead in the count. And if they have swing and miss stuff to go with good control, they can put hitters away once they have two strikes. Once again if we take a look around the league, we see successful teams in this category as well. Of the top 10 teams, 8 are .500 or better. Of the 5 teams who rank in the top 11 in both categories, 4 are in first place. The other is the Cubs. The combination is what propels the Cubs to a major league leading 2.87 FIP.
How much that has to do with Miguel Montero and David Ross is up for debate, but the Lester/Ross combo has a strikeout to walk ratio of 5 to 24. Arrieta, who has praised Montero has a 25 to 7 and Hammel has an incredible 23 to 1 ratio. And he was quick to give Montero credit for his performance last night.
— Jason Hammel (@HammelTime39) April 28, 2015
We know Montero and Ross have historically been good pitch framers and while these pitchers throw strikes, it would seem the catchers at least enhance that ability. The confidence and leadership they’ve inspired with the staff is immeasurable.
Then there’s the hitters. This was even a bigger sore spot on the Cubs. Since the 2008 season, the team has consistently ranked near the bottom in walks. This year they rank 7th in all of baseball and 2nd in the National League with a 9.1% rate. Last year they had just two starters (Anthony Rizzo and Luis Valbuena) plus Mike Olt over that mark.
Walks can fluctuate to some degree but they tend to stabilize pretty quickly, so there is reason to be encouraged. What is more encouraging is the Cubs just aren’t chasing as many pitches and that tends to be a more process-oriented statistic that are more likely to stay consistent as the year goes on.
When it comes to swinging at pitches outside the zone, the Cubs have done it among the fewest times in baseball (27.1%) of the time, good for 5th least in baseball, ranking just behind traditionally disciplined teams like the Rays and Athletics.
Going position-by-position, that process extends to pitches per plate appearances. The Cubs are seeing a lot of pitches up and down their lineup:
- C: Montero – 4.06 P/PA (ranks 5th among catchers with 50 PAs or more)
- 1B; Rizzo – 4.20 (ranks 6th among qualified 1Bs)
- SS: Castro – 3.81 (ranks 5th among qualified shortstops)
- 3B; Bryant – 4.25 (ranks 1st among 3Bs with 25 PAs or more)
- CF: Fowler – 3.91 (ranks 9th among qualified CF’ers)
- RF: Soler – 3.90 (ranks 10th among qualified RF’ers)
That is essentially 6 of 8 everyday players in the top 10 in pitches seen per appearance. That puts a lot of stress on pitchers while also giving the hitters a chance to see their whole repertoire, increasing the odds the pitcher will make a mistake and give the hitter a pitch he can drive and, of course, more likely to draw a walk and increase the team’s OBP. When it comes to the broader statistics, OBP has historically been among the biggest indicators of a team’s success. The Cubs team OBP so far? .324. Good for 3rd in the National League.
It was a painstaking road to get to this point and the front office took some gambles this offseason to get the players in that would help instill this culture of controlling the strike zone. The acquisitions have helped do just that and along with mature beyond their years players like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, it has started to spread to the rest of the ball club.
Attitudes can be contagious. And with the team-oriented Cubs this year, that’s a good thing..
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