What the Cubs Are Doing in Terms of Walks is Insane
Honey, bring me my horse beatin’ stick, I got a narrative to whoop into the ground!
It was only yesterday that I graced you with a beautiful breakdown of just how awesome this Cubs lineup projects to be in 2016, a concept that had heads everywhere — of both youngsters and oldsters — spinning right off their shouldsters. But in my haste to christen the Cubs hitters as potentially the best collection of batsmiths to ply their craft at the Friendly Confines, or any ballpark for that matter, I completely glossed over the pitchers.
Given the fickle nature of pitching in general, let alone starters, it’s very difficult to put much stock in predictive models based upon the first nine games of a season. I’ll leave the simpering about small sample sizes to the meek, though. They may well inherit the earth in the end, but I’m armed with my horse beatin’ stick, dammit, and I intend to swing it with impunity. Hold on a second while I put on my rose-colored safety glasses…safety first, kids!
Okay, so I wrote in that earlier piece about how the Cubs could be historically good when it comes to drawing walks. I also wrote, or quoted, that strikeouts don’t really matter. I don’t want to dismiss K’s out of hand, though, even if we’re just using them as a foil to accentuate the base-on-ball stats. There’s a great deal of nuance in successful pitching and hitting, but if we were to boil it down to the most basic factor, we’d find walks.
Simply put, pitchers who issue fewer walks are going to be more likely to find success, as are hitters who draw a lot of free passes. It figures then that a team capable of limiting walks on one end while drawing a lot of them on the other would be putting itself in a pretty good spot. That’s where the Cubs find themselves right now. Not only do they draw a ton of walks, but they don’t issue many on the other side. The stats right now are pretty ridiculous, even, dare I say, insano-cheese.
Blah, blah, regression, blah, blah, only a few games. I get all that, right, but what good are numbers if you can’t manipulate them and have fun with them from time to time.
In this case, manipulating the numbers means comparing walks and strikeouts by Cubs pitchers and hitters over each of the last 10 seasons to what the current team is projected to do. Actually, the previous decade serves as little more than window dressing for my real goal of highlighting just how good this team has been so far in 2016.
As a quick primer on the chart below, walks are bad for pitchers and strikeouts are good. Therefore, the lower the BB/K ratio the better. The opposite is true when it comes to hitters, for whom walks are good and strikeouts are bad (to an extent, anyway). As such, higher BB/K ratios are better for them. For the purpose of this little exercise, I looked the raw totals and ratios and then let Excel do some simple ‘rithmetic to give me the difference in each category for each given season.
You’ll see some green and red sections below, but those are mainly just to draw your attention to some of the outlying totals in the various categories. Also evident are some trends, namely that pitcher walks have been going down while hitter strikeouts have been going up. Waaaaaay up. When you look at 2015, though, you’ll see that the Cubs made some significant improvements in walks on both sides of the ball.
Which leads me to my real point in all this, which is that the 2016 Cubs are set to absolutely obliterate all the marks their predecessors set. I’ll shut up for a second now and let you have a look.
The 2016 projection simply takes the team results over the first nine games and then extrapolates them over a 162-game season, so there’s obviously plenty of room for those to settle out a little. Even so, the numbers are astounding. The pitchers’ BB/K ratio would be the lowest in the last 10+ years by a wide margin and that’s with nearly 200 fewer K’s than the 1,431 they put up last year. Likewise, hitters project to put up .75 walks per strikeout, roughly 39 percent better than their previous high-water mark above.
Just comparing this team to other Cubs teams of the recent past isn’t all that cool, though, right? I mean, you’ve got some competitively handicapped squads in there, not to mention the aforementioned change in the game when it comes to the prevalence and acceptance of strikeouts. My first thought was to look at World Series winners from 2006 on, but that was a little simplistic and also involved more research. Then I got the bright idea to compile the most extreme examples I could from last season to create the “ideal” stat line.
By that I mean that I took the Nats’ league-low total of 364 walks issued, the Cubs’ league-high 1,431 strikeouts, the Blue Jays’ 570 walks taken and the Royals’ paltry 973 whiffs. That’s the line you see at the bottom in gray. Just above it is what the Cubs are projected to do this season. It’s not even close. Even though the North Siders stand to strike out fewer while striking out more often, their walk totals on both fronts are incredible given the day and age in which they’re playing.
I mean, the Cubs are on pace to draw 648 more walks than they issue. That would be 78 more walks than the Jays drew last year, period. No team in MLB history has accumulated more than 834 walks, but the Cubs’ projected total would put them atop the all-time list with cushion of 120. Conversely, only 47 teams since 1900 — that’s out of 2,430 teams seasons — have issued fewer than the Cubs’ estimated 306 walks. That’s crazy.
Again, there’s immense volatility in using results from a small number of games and extrapolating them out across a full season. To wit, the Cubs were projected to allow only 263 walks prior to Thursday’s game against the Reds in which Jason Hammel put four Cincy players on base for free. On the other hand, the Cubs were projected to strike out 1,357 times heading into the game but but that dropped to 1,278 after they whiffed only four times against a staff that threw 510 pitches (149, 188, 173) in the three-game series.
For what it’s worth, the Cubs threw 397 pitches in that same span. The difference in the two teams’ pitch counts comes to almost an entire game, which is pretty astounding. It’s also going to be difficult to maintain such an advantage when facing teams that have more comparable talent.
So, yeah, the Cubs actually making good on the trends above rests somewhere between “Snowball’s chance in St. Louis” and “Vlahos eats crow” on the probability scale. Still, they’re setting themselves up pretty well, both on a game-by-game basis and in the aggregate. No matter where the totals land, the approach that drives them provides a firm foundation for a sufficient amount of badassery. Unlike some of past iterations of this team we’ve suffered through, these Cubs don’t dance around hitters and they don’t chase bad pitches.
Interestingly enough, maintaining this track could very well having them chasing a title and dancing around in the new party room.