Cubs Will Try to Leverage Several Small Advantages to Remain Competitive

What if all the talk about biblical losses and not having any money was just a smokescreen meant to obscure the true nature of Jed Hoyer’s machinations? Okay, that’s definitely not the case, but there is a little something to be said for the direction the Cubs have taken when it comes to seeking out small competitive advantages across a number of areas on the roster.

Look, I’m not trying to justify the lack of spending or trading away an ace in favor of some non-face cards and a Jake. I am, however, pointing out that there may be a method to Hoyer’s madness in a winter that hasn’t exactly been fulfilling for most Cubs fans. Let’s take a look at a few specifics, then you can yell at me about how stupid I am in the comments.

More grounders

Cubs pitchers induced grounders at a 45% clip last season, good for sixth in MLB. Their starters ranked seventh with a 45.6% rate as a group, slightly better than the 44.1% that saw them ranked ninth in 2019. Their two leaders in that category were Alec Mills (47.3%) and Kyle Hendricks (47.1%), with Jon Lester (47%) just a tick behind. No one else in the rotation was above 43.3% in 2020.

Say what you will about age and the diminution of his skill, but Jake Arrieta has induced grounders at a minimum 51.3% rate in each of the last three seasons and five of the last six. Coincidentally, that mark matches his average since the start of the 2014 season. The issue here is that the same sinker getting all those grounders has become more and more susceptible to hitters who are looking to pound low stuff.

The solution might be as simple as adopting a strategy the Cubs’ pitching infrastructure has laid out with other soft-tossing righties, which is simply throwing more sinkers up in the zone. It’s a matter of sequencing properly and hitting spots rather than just changing location, but it could work if Arrieta executes well. He’s going to have to with a go-to pitch that sits nearly 3 mph slower than in 2015.

Trevor Williams doesn’t appear to fit the mold of a groundball pitcher if you look at recent performance, but he had a 48.8% rate in his first full season back in 2017. Like Arrieta, there are surely some things the Cubs saw in their new righty that make them believe he has latent potential.

And let’s not forget Kohl Stewart, the former top prospect who now gets a change of scenery from the Twins organization. Stewart has consistently gotten grounders at well above 50% in the minors and is at 51.2% over 62 MLB innings.

Defensive upgrades and new ball

This one takes a little hit right out of the gate because the Cubs let Kolten Wong sign with the Brewers, but they may be counting on Nico Hoerner to maintain his Gold Glove-caliber play at second. We know for certain that Joc Pederson is an upgrade over Kyle Scharber in left and newly-signed Jake Marisnick offers a defensive replacement with more speed and range than Albert Almora Jr.

With Gold Glove winners at first, short, and right, making little upgrades in other spots should help the Cubs whether their pitchers generate more grounders or give up fly balls. Then there’s the matter of the slightly deadened ball MLB is adopting this season, a change that could keep a few more would-be homers on the warning track.

Ed. note: There’s still a little uncertainty about the effect of reducing the “bounce” of the ball, since a corresponding reduction in size and weight might create less drag. So we’ll just have to wait and see there.

Playing the wind

While I’m not insinuating that Hoyer went full 4D chess grandmaster and made moves based on the ball, the resultant changes could indeed play into the Cubs’ hands. That’s particularly true when you consider the advantage gained by leveraging the information gathered by Weather Applied Metrics, a company that analyzes the effect of weather on ball flight at Wrigley Field.

“The biggest thing that they’re doing with it is they’re positioning their outfielders,” John Farley, chief technology officer for WAM, told the AP last year. “Their thing to us was if you can get us 20 extra outs a year this is well worth whatever it costs because they can factor in that they can win x number of games because of that.

“But we think we’re getting them many more than 20 outs a year.”

Though that alone may be just a fraction of a percent in terms of the overall number of outs in a season, the impact is greater when you factor in the previous segment. Even if we’re still only talking 30-40 outs, consider the difference between a ball sneaking into the basket for a homer and settling harmlessly into Marisnick’s glove for the third out of the inning.

Or maybe it’s a matter of Pederson knowing that the wind coming in off the lake means he’s got to take two steps to his left and one more in against a certain hitter. The game has gotten so granular that even what seems like the most nominal advantage on the surface could end up playing a significant role for a team trying to squeeze every last ounce of juice from the orange.

High fastballs

As noted here and confirmed by Hoyer, Pederson is actually a different hitter than Schwarber in spite of their near-identical offensive stats. Namely, the former Dodger has been able to punish high fastballs over the course of his career. That might just be a quirk of his swing, but it could have a bigger impact if there’s something specific about his approach that he can pass along to his teammates.

Of course, Pederson has also been terrible against lefties and he’s joining a team that put up historically bad splits last season. Maybe this is where hoping for a bounceback from nearly every core player is the best course of action.

Even less obvious facets

With pitchers batting for themselves again, Arrieta’s six career dingers could come in handy. Shelby Miller, who has an outside shot to earn a roster spot, is tied for eighth among all pitchers since 2013 with 34 sac bunts. Williams can’t hit a lick, but he’s got a much less problematic social media presence than another guy named Trevor who got a huge deal with the Dodgers.

Payroll

I’m throwing up in my mouth a little bit as I type this because it’s antithetical to what I’ve said the whole time about the Cubs’ spending, but the incredibly low commitments beyond this season might spell big moves. Specifically, Hoyer should have plenty of resources with which to extend current players or sign new ones. I say “should” because it’s still possible we see further belt-tightening despite just $44 million in estimated obligations for ’22.

The competitive balance tax isn’t an issue either, especially since the Cubs will have reset their penalty status ahead of what should be an increase to the $210 million threshold as part of the new CBA. If a new agreement is reached, that is. Regardless of how those negotiations proceed, not even those who support the idea of a rebuild can allow the Cubs to cry poor next winter given the amount of money falling off the books.

As I wrap this up, I’ll remind you again that none of these things are being portrayed as integral in and of themselves. You might not even notice some of them even if the Cubs leverage them to the hilt because you probably won’t see the defensive positioning taking place. Nor will you be able to tell whether a livelier baseball that would have cleared an outfielder’s glove for a double in the gap last year goes for an out this season.

The point, though, is that finding ways to improve in otherwise unnoticeable ways might end up making all the difference for a team trying to compete in a weak division it was able to win last season.

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