While no one’s willing to say definitively that the Cubs are “fixed,” especially not with with three of their most important hitters yet to break loose, there are some very positive signs in the early going. One of those is the damage they’re doing to the opposite field, which was a real point of emphasis heading into the season.
“[I]n an ideal world, what we’re trying to do to sort of finish the development of our hitters is — especially with runners in scoring position when you’re facing the best pitchers — to take what the pitcher gives you, use the whole field, have great situational and professional at-bats,” Theo Epstein explained during his end-of-season presser. “We did lead the league in opposite-field hits, so there is some progress in that area.
“But the bottom line is we stopped walking and stopped hitting the ball out of the ballpark, especially in the second half. We hit the ball on the ground a ton, I think that was exacerbated down the end probably by a little of the stuff the guys had to deal with, the schedule and the fatigue. But it started long before that, so it’s not an excuse.”
The Cubs were actually eighth in MLB last season in terms of how much of their total contact went the other way (25.6%). So that’s good, but Epstein noted a need to really drive the ball with authority to all fields, especially with two strikes.
That’s why Joe Maddon stressed “opportunity hitting” this spring, even busting out an old-school drill that used a pitching machine firing smaller balls from close distance to simulate super high velocity. The reduced reaction time was supposed to get hitters more comfortable taking the ball to the opposite field, and the early results appear to indicate that it’s working.
As Mark Sheldon wrote for MLB.com, the Cubs have increased their oppo rates to an MLB-leading 29.2% on all balls in play and 31.2% with two strikes. That contact doesn’t really mean anything if it results in dribblers that are easily cleaned up for outs, but the Cubs actually lead MLB with a .693 slugging percentage to the opposite field.
Even more encouraging is their work with two strikes, when you normally see a drop-off in performance. Not only are the Cubs going oppo more frequently in those situations, they are doing more damage more to boot. Their .796 opposite-field slugging percentage again leads the majors and is more than 100 points higher than their overall oppo slugging. That’s damn good.
In order to really make those numbers pop, though, we need to bump them up against the rest of the league. The MLB average for opposite-field slugging is .495, nearly 200 points lower than the Cubs. That number drops to .450 with two strikes, 346 points below the Cubs. Early season or no, those are striking contrasts.
Perhaps the biggest driver of those stats is Javy Baez, who ordered up a pair of oppo tacos against the Marlins to give him four blasts to right-center out of his six total home runs this season. The most recent of those came with two-strikes, the second such homer he’s hit already (April 4 in Atlanta).
Even if they fall off a bit from this torrid pace, it’s pretty clear that the Cubs have put actions to the words of the offseason in at least this regard. And if they keep opening up new oppo taco truck locations throughout the season, all that talk of the offense breaking will be reduced to a esoteric footnote.