Cubs See a Lot of Pitches, Miss a Lot Too, But Show Potential for Massive Improvement

When I think of a young baseball player, I often thing aggressive and maybe a bit undisciplined. But that doesn’t appear to be the case with the players the Cubs have brought up over the last couple seasons. In fact, the Cubs’ rookie players are among the best on the team when it comes to seeing pitches.

It can be frustrating as a fan to watch a guy lay off what appears to you to be a hittable pitch, but this isn’t a series of Mighty Casey at-bats or anything. Rather than taking pitches out of some form of hubris, these players appear to be bent on acquiring as much knowledge as possible. They’re soaking up live pitch data like human computers, doing all they can to eventually leverage that accumulated information into better performance.

If I asked you to name the Cubs player who sees the most pitches per plate appearance, you’d probably start with Anthony Rizzo. But what if I told you the 4.17 P/PA by Addison Russell leads the team? Or that Kris Bryant’s 4.15 comes in right behind him? Would it surprise you to know that those two rank 5th and 7th in the NL, respectively?

But wait…there’s more! Dexter Fowler’s 4.13 P/PA is third on the team and 10th in the NL, Chris Coghlan’s 3.93 ranks him 24th, and Anthony Rizzo’s total of 3.91 sits 26th in the league. I wonder what, if any, impact those 23 HBP’s have had on Rizzo’s total. I’m not willing to do the research into removing those AB’s from the stats, but I’m guessing the impact is tangible.

Here’s the thing about those numbers above though: they’re only for qualified hitters. If we reduce the number of plate appearances to 100, the Cubs actually end up looking better. Kyle Schwarber has been racking up 4.27 P/PA (6th), Miguel Montero 4.19 (11th), and Jorge Soler 4.07 (31st). Russell (13th), Bryant (15th), and Fowler (19th) all maintain their top-20 status too.

Add in Chris Denorfia (3.95, 51st), David Ross and Chris Coghlan (3.93, 59th), Anthony Rizzo (67th), and Jonathan Herrera (3.89, 71st), and you’ve got 11 Cubs in the top 71 hitters in the league in terms of P/PA. That kind of patience is really paying dividends, particularly when you look at how the Cubs are making opponents work. They’re forcing starting pitchers to throw more than they’d like and they’re getting into the bullpens early in games.

What’s more, these young guys are seeing more and more pitches, developing a feel for what major league pitching is all about. That might not necessarily show up in the day-to-day results, but it’s something that will pay dividends as the season wears on. But it would be unfair to tout the alabaster towers of this new city the Cubs are building without also giving heed to its seedy underbelly.

Cubs hitters see first-pitch strikes only 59.6% of the time, which ties them with the Red Sox for the 27th-lowest percentage in baseball. And while that is part of the reason for the high number of pitches seen, it’s also indicative of this team’s poor contact rates. Opposing pitchers want to get these young guys swinging early, or at least want to get them looking outside the zone from the jump.

To that end, the Cubs have MLB’s worst contact rate on pitches outside the zone (59.8%) and are 28th in terms of making contact with strikes (84.3%). That adds up to an overall contact rate of 75.4%, just one-tenth a point ahead of the Astros for the worst in baseball. Not coincidentally, the Cubs have the game’s second-highest swinging-strike percentage at 11.4% (Astros 11.9%).

Bryant (16.1%, 12th), Ross (15.2%, 35th), Soler (14.9%, 27th), Schwarber (13.4%, 56th), Russell (12.8%, 65th), Montero (12.5%, 76th), and Denorfia (11.8%, 93rd) all rank in the top 100 in terms of highest swinging-strike percentage (100 PA min). For the sake of comparison, the MLB average is 9.7%, significantly lower than what the Cubs have experienced this year. That might be a little scary, if not for this next idea that I’d like to leave you with.

Many of those names from the swing-and-miss category were the same we saw in the P/PA category, which tells us that these guys just need to improve contact rates to complement their already-advanced plate approach. But did you notice who’s name was missing? He’s a guy who has seen significant improvement in his time with the Cubs, to the point that he’s being mentioned — at least peripherally — in MVP discussions.

Anthony Rizzo wasn’t always a great contact hitter. When he came up with the Padres, his numbers were actually pretty atrocious. But as he’s matured and gotten used to the game, his numbers have continued to improve. Rizzo is making better contact than ever on pitches both in and out of the zone and opposing pitchers are being forced to attack him off the plate (thus all the HBP’s). But what’s really impressive is the reduction in swinging strikes.

When he first came up with the Padres, Rizzo’s swinging-strike percentage stood at 14.5%. But that number has dropped each year since, from 9.6% in his first season with the Cubs, to 8.9% and then 8.8%, and finally to 7.5% this season. I think most of us are pretty confident in saying that this team still has loads of potential to get even better, and Rizzo’s increased discipline is a shining example of that.

Just think of what could happen if Schwarber, Bryant, Russell, and Soler were able to reduce their swinging-strike percentage by just a couple points. That’s like having a sports car that gets good gas mileage, though as far as National League pitchers are concerned, it might as well be the killer hoopty from Christine.

As this team experiences some real success right now, it’s important to remember that none of these guys is a finished product, that they all have areas in which to improve. As good as they are right now, there’s every reason to believe they’ll only get better. Heady stuff, I know. There will still be frustrating moments, to be sure, but this is a team made up of players who learn from their mistakes.

What isn’t a mistake is how well the Cubs have come together this season under Joe Maddon. And if they can just continue down the path that’s been set forth, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about this 3rd in the division business for much longer.

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