As the old saying goes, don’t take the walk if can’t walk the walk. Wait, no, that’s not it. Don’t talk the walk if you can’t take the walk? Well, however it’s supposed to go, the Cubs are doing a good job of abiding by it on both sides. As of press time, they are MLB’s best team in terms of combined walk rates by pitchers and batters.
It can be hard to enjoy the season when nearly half of your team’s games are one-run affairs (28 of 61 games, 46%, so far this season), but it’s not nearly as maddening as watching a team that can’t take a free pass while at the same time issuing them like candy to opponents.
For a three-year span from 2010-12, Cubs pitchers had the worst BB percentages in baseball, topping the charts at 9.6, 9.3, and 9.3 in those respective years. Not since 2008, when they walked only 8.9% of the hitters they faced (15th) have they been outside of the top ten in this dubious category.
Those problems were compounded by the fact that their hitters couldn’t take walks either. From 2009-14, the Cubs ranked 10th, 22nd, 29th, 23rd, 22nd, and 18th in terms of collecting four balls during the course of a plate appearance.
Close games are hell on the blood pressure, but watching your team routinely give games away can be downright rage-inducing.
If there’s a silver lining — or perhaps alibi is a more appropriate term — to this it’s that these issues stemmed largely from being aggressive. We can argue as to the merits of such a strategy, but the Cubs teams we’ve seen over the past half-decade or so have been largely devoid of elite talent, which means the interchangeable parts of the roster just had to let it all hang out.
As such, Cubs pitchers and hitters were routinely in the upper third of MLB when it came to K-rates. It was certainly a feast-or-famine scenario much of the time, and the feasts were few and far between. Now, however, we’re starting to see the fruits of the front office’s labors starting to ripen on the vine.
Through more than a third of the season thus far, Cubs hitters are walking at an 8.8% clip, 3rd in baseball and their highest since 2009. It should be noted that no team since 2010 (Rays – 10.7%, Yankees – 10.4%) has walked at a double-digit rate. In the year 2000, an 8.8% BB-rate would land you in 25th place. But I’m not Conan O’Brien and this is 2015.
The fact that the Cubs have significantly increased their team walk rate during an era in which said statistic is dropping is no mean feat. At the same time, they’re walking fewer opponents, as evidenced by a paltry 6.6% BB-rate that is 4th-best in the game. No other team can boast the combination of low pitcher and high batter BB percentages.
And lest you think it’s due a reigning in of that earlier aggressiveness, think again. Cubs pitchers rank 3rd in baseball with a 23.4% K-rate and their hitters are barely edging out the Astros (24.8% to 24.7%) for the highest higest rate in the game.
The difference between this Cubs team and its immediate predecessors, however, is talent. Well, that, and a more mature approach both on the mound and at the plate. The aggressive nature is still there, but now it’s tempered with patience and skill.
Sure, there are still going to be times when one member or another of this group does something to make us throw up our collective hands. But it’s clearly evident that they’ve made some changes to become more competitive. Sometimes that’s as much about not beating yourselves as it is beating the other guys.
So while walk-offs are much more exciting, it’s the more mundane aspects of the game that will really propel the Cubs this season.