I didn’t take the time to do this in my first post here, but I should start by saying how excited I am to be a part of Cubs Den. My primary role here will be to post game recaps and previews along with Myles and Dabynsky, but in the meantime, I hope to share a few Cubs thoughts over the course of the next few months, and John is kind enough to allow me some space to do that. With that said, I really look forward to previewing and recapping games when April finally arrives, but for now I want to take a look at how our offense has improved from what was a very strong 2015 season.
In my last post, I focused on the pitching, where the upgrades were much more subtle, and where I expect the differences to be perhaps less obviously visible to most fans, but I expect the offense to be a different story, and that is where I’ll focus in this post.
As a whole, the offense of the 2015 Cubs scored 689 runs, which put them 6th in the National League, but well above the league average (just for fun, the 2008 team scored 855 runs while the 1994 team scored only 500). They made some notable improvements going ahead to 2016, and while the additions of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist are the obvious improvements, I think there are a couple of other spots in the lineup worth some attention as well. Let’s take a look at those first.
Prior to Schwarber’s arrival and then eventual return to the Cubs lineup last season, left field had primarily been manned by Chris Coghlan, who spent 99 games there in 2015. While the difference between Coghlan and Schwarber defensively is hard to measure definitively because of lack of sample size for Schwarber, it should be noted that Schwarber is not on the field for his glove and he spent most of 2015 playing at a position other than what had been expected. The gain though comes at the plate, of course. Beginning with wRC+, Schwarber is well above Coghlan at 131 to Coghlan’s 113. The projections for next year call for that gap to widen further, presumably as Schwarber sees an increase in plate appearances.
When it comes to even some of the simpler statistics between these two, there’s still a significant difference. Schwarber’s OBP in 2015 was 14 points higher and he had a higher BB%. Coghlan strikes out less often, but Schwarber is the stronger hitter in nearly every other way.
I should note, of course, that much of this is based on 273 plate appearances from Schwarber in 2015 to Coghlan’s 503, but I think it can be agreed upon pretty safely that Schwarber’s offense is a significant value added. The hope is that he can improve enough on his defense in left field to make putting him out there with regularity beneficial as a whole. Though he will also spend time behind the plate, he will be limited there because of the two other catchers on the 25 man roster, so it seems likely right now that he will spend a lot of time in left field in order to keep his bat in the lineup.
After taking the time to look closely at his numbers, I was a little surprised to see how much of a difference Zobrist might make. At least, it’s more significant than I would have guessed. If we treat him like a simple replacement for Starlin Castro and just compare the numbers between those two, this is probably a pretty large offensive upgrade. The difference defensively might work in the other direction somewhat, but Castro wasn’t exactly known for his glove anyway.
Using the 2015 numbers and beginning as simply as possible, it’s an overall difference of 1.3 fWAR. On offense, it’s a much, much wider gap. Even with Castro’s monster September, he had a -11.4 wRAA, and Zobrist was 15.5 in 2015. Granted, this past season was certainly not Castro at his best, and in fact, it was probably his worst overall season aside from perhaps 2013, but even in his best years, the gap between Castro and Zobrist can be particularly wide. In arguably his best year at the plate, 2014, Castro had a wRAA of 13.5, and in Zobrist’s best at the plate, 2009, he was at 38.8 (and this is in a season where he played at 7 different positions – not including time as a DH – at various times). I should note that this is coming from someone who has been a longtime Castro apologist. I am still very much a fan of his, but this was perspective that I didn’t expect.
Moving on from WAR, the next place I usually look is wRC+, and I should first say that this is probably not a perfect comparison because Castro spent this past season in the National League, and Zobrist was in the American League, and on two different teams. But, there’s a sizable difference here too. Castro was at 80 wRC+, and Zobrist at 123. In terms of K%, it’s a difference of 5 percentage points between the two, with Zobrist being lower. His low strikeout rate (10.5% in 2015) will be much needed on an offense with some high strikeout totals otherwise.
Best for last, right? As of now, it appears as though Heyward will spend his time in center field in place of Dexter Fowler, so we’ll look at the difference here in the same way. Defensively, so much of Heyward’s time has been spent at right field, so it’s hard to draw a direct comparison, but using a simple total UZR, Fowler has accumulated a -64.1 total UZR in 8 seasons, compared to Heyward’s total UZR of 96.2 in 6 seasons. It should be noted that defensive statistics can be tricky (to put it lightly) to draw much from, and Heyward’s numbers so far in center are quite a bit different than they are in right, but the upgrade on defense here is worth mentioning.
But that says nothing for what Heyward is likely to bring at the plate. Overall, Fowler had an fWAR of 3.2 in 2015, and Heyward was at 6. Offensively, the difference in wRAA is from a 10.8 with Fowler to 15.8 with Heyward. The wRC+ difference is 110 with Fowler (still above average, to his credit) to 121 for Heyward. Something else that is refreshing to see is a drop in K% from Fowler to Heyward (22.3% to 14.8%), but I think we will miss the BB% that Fowler brought to the table in 2015, at 12.2% (Heyward’s was 9.2% last season).
Another move this offseason seems less and less likely, and given what has been said lately regarding a trade involving Jorge Soler, it looks like we know our outfield, and there’s a lot to be happy about. In general, the 2016 Cubs are shaping up to be a very, very fun team to watch. Given the major changes on offense that this offseason has brought, along with a more permanent position for Schwarber, we are looking at an overall fWAR difference of about 3. And if we look strictly at wRAA, it’s much, much higher than that. The 2015 team brought a lot of pleasant surprises, and the offense showed a strength as a whole that we had not seen for a while, scoring the most total runs since 2009, but in general, the 2015 Cubs showed a balance that they have not had in quite some time. Expectations for 2016 are high, but it appears that the right moves have been made to maybe, just maybe, reach those expectations.