First off, let me say right at the top that I’m guilty of this as anyone, as baseball is perhaps the last outlet where I regularly leave any rationality behind and just want to stomp my feet, whether in anger or joy. So I know what I said yesterday, but after a night to think about it, I think I’m at least back in the neighborhood of lost rationality. It’s at least an area code away.
After a weekend sweep, watching every grounder the Nationals hit find a hole, them never striking out when the Cubs absolutely needed them to, it would be easy to point out that difference between the two teams and say this is why the Cubs are where they are and the Nats are where they are and why they seem pointed in such opposite directions. Except even after that sweep, they’re four games apart, which I could just as easily point to their top of the rotation being better than the Cubs top of the rotation, and the Nats getting far more dates with the Marlins than the Cubs do and moving along (they’re currently 10-3 against Miami).
Yes, the Nats do put the ball in play more than the Cubs do, and the Cubs whiff a lot more than the Nats do. And that’s certainly an issue. Is it THE issue? Not so convinced.
Sure, the more balls you put in play the more chance you’re going to find a hole. But there’s also a chance that you find someone’s glove for a double play, especially when it’s on the ground as often as the Nats were this weekend. Jose Quintana gave up five earned runs in just four innings, four earned, and he didn’t give up one hard-hit ball. Sorry, he gave up one, according to FanGraphs. 75% of the contact he gave up was on the ground. On another day, that’s probably seven innings of shutout ball, assuming Anthony Rizzo wasn’t having a backiotomy on the field.
Yes, I know, the more balls you put in the play the more will turn into hits even if you’re percentages are the same. I was good at math, can’t you tell? But is finding holes with your grounders really a skill? It’s not. The Nats as a team have a BABIP nine points higher than the Cubs, good for second in the NL, non-Rockies division. And yet if you go by contact, team-wide, the Cubs make the same exact kind of contact the Nats do. Since the Nats went nuclear from June 1st on, their BABIP is 15 points higher than the Cubs, and they’ve hit the ball slightly harder, but have also made more soft-contact than the Cubs.
Of course, with that added BABIP the Nats jus have more of a sample, as they strike out far less (about 6%). So yes, you are right to bemoan the Cubs lack of ability to not strike out when it matters, but it’s more complicated than just getting the ball in play. I don’t know that the Cubs would be all that much better off with grounders instead of strikeouts, given they really have little team speed. They’d have to get awfully lucky, let’s say.
Digging deeper, much like Kris Bryant, the Cubs just don’t hit the ball very hard. Since that June 1st date, they rank dead-ass last in hard-contact rate as a team, and are 12th overall in the NL. Strangely, right ahead of the Nationals. Only Castellanos since he came over has a hard-contact rate over 40%, And 40% is just about the median rate in MLB right now. How can a team with Baez, Contreras, Bryant, Rizzo, and Schwarber not hit the ball all that hard collectively? And this is where their whiff-rate doesn’t come into it, because it’s solely about when they do make contact.
Right now the teams that sit atop the hard-contact rate standings in MLB are the Dodgers, Twins, Brewers, Cardinals, Rangers, with the Braves and A’s right behind that. That’s four first-place teams out of eight, and another playoff team, with only the Rangers and Brewers being outliers. Your bottom five are the White Sox, Orioles, Mariners, Mets, and Pirates.
So yes, the Cubs do whiff and chase a lot, and that’s a problem. But they’re not doing enough when they do make contact either, which might be just as big of a problem. How can in our year of the lord JUICED BALL, only Schwarber be on a pace to blow by his career-high in homers? Or he and Contreras nearing career-highs in slugging? Again, the whiffs and lack of contact come into it, but that much?
The Cubs have hit a good amount of homers at 203, yet they’re 11th in doubles. And I would argue only ranking 5th for this team in homers and slugging…it’s not enough. And only some of that can be blamed on the wind mostly blowing in at Wrigley and the weather being barf until the middle of June.
It’s a dual-track problem, and they’re most likely not going to solve it in the next 32 games. Which means this is probably going to get bumpier.