The Cubs team we’ve watched over the last few weeks is a far cry from the one that looked early on like the very worst iteration of all we’ve lamented about the roster for the last few years. Too many whiffs, homer dependency, and a chronic inability to drive home runners in scoring position had become caricatures rather than just frustrating characteristics.
Since May, however, and even a little prior to that if we look closely at the numbers, the Cubs are looking like a very complete ballclub. As of this writing, they are a mere 1.5 games out of first with series against the Pirates and Reds in the immediate future. The Cardinals just lost a game to the White Sox on Monday and have two more on the South Side that could cost them the division lead.
What the Cubs have done over the last few weeks is essentially change everything about their overall offensive profile. They’re winning by making more contact, pulling the ball less, and hitting fewer home runs. The old-schoolers out there undoubtedly love that, but we’ll talk in a bit about how not everything is sunshine and roses when it comes to the new look.
The Cubs’ BABIP in April was a mere .269, 14 points below league average at the time. They’re up to .326 in May, 21 points above league average for the month so far and 57 points better than those results from the prior month. That means the Cubs are getting 57 more hits out of every 1,000 balls in play, which could start to seem insignificant when you factor it down to 5.7 hits out of 100 balls in play.
But when you consider that all seven losses and six of their 13 wins this month have been by just one run, an additional single here or there starts to look pretty big. How much do you want to bet the Cardinals would have gladly taken an extra BABIP point on Sunday night after they failed to capitalize on a gifted blown call that loaded the bases for them with no outs?
So what has changed for the Cubs since early in the season when it seemed like they couldn’t buy a hit even when they did actually have money? Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic offers an extensive look at myriad factors, but Jed Hoyer has a simpler explanation.
“I do think some of that was randomness, but I also think that one of the things that’s been really fun to see is that we’ve been putting the ball in play more,” Jed Hoyer explained. I think that’s been a challenge for us. Historically, we’d been striking out and relying on homers too much to score.
“Homers are great, but you have to have more than one club in your bag as far as scoring runs. For me, what’s been fun to watch, it’s a different style of offense. A little bit less reliant on homers and a little bit more reliant on contact and rallies, that’s been great.”
The key to maintaining the success of the last few weeks lies not necessarily in continuing to rely more on singles than homers, but to strike a proper balance between the two. Remember, a hitter’s goal should simply be to hit the ball hard and to hit it squarely as often as possible. Driveline refers to that as “smash factor,” a simple concept by which a hitter who consistently makes good contact will see even mis-hits landing for positive outcomes more often.
Some will mistakenly point to Kris Bryant‘s decreased launch angle this season as an indicator that hitting the ball in the air isn’t as important to him when that’s as far from the truth as you could get. He’s simply hitting the ball on the ground more frequently as a result of small swing changes meant to better handle high fastballs. So while his average LA is down to a career-low 14 degrees, his home runs have all come between 20-40 degrees.
If he had his druthers, Bryant would be elevating more of those pitches lower in the zone for line drives to generate more hits. So rather than concluding that his reduced launch angle is responsible for Bryant’s offensive surge, we should point out the career-best 16.1% barrel rate that is nearly six points above his average and ranks eighth in MLB this season.
Joc Pederson is another hitter who’s getting excellent results lately, though he’s doing it with almost no power whatsoever. His leadoff homer in Friday’s romp was just his second of the season as his career-low ISO continues to sit well below half of his career mark. As a result, his .252 average still has him at just a 95 wRC+ and -0.2 fWAR, indicating that he’s been less valuable than a replacement player.
It should come as no surprise that Pederson’s 9.0% barrel rate is one of the lowest marks of his career and is only that high after his hot hitting inflated it over the last few days.
We could run through some other outliers, like David Bote‘s continued poor results in the face of solid batted-ball data, but the fact of the matter is that the Cubs are walking a bit of a tightrope here. The rotation is coming around and the bullpen has been excellent all season, but the latter can’t necessarily be counted on to rattle off 25 scoreless innings repetitively. Remember all those one-run games? It’d sure be easier to pad the lead in some of those than hope Ryan Tepera has more rabbits up his hat.
While singles can and do put runs on the board, homers help you hang crooked numbers with greater frequency. The Cubs are tied for 12th with 55 homers on the season, though they’re tied for 15th with just 23 in May. I’d say they could translate some of those extra BABIP points into homers, but a homer isn’t in play. That means they might be better off lowering that .326 mark by getting a wee bit more launch without drastically altering contact.
The pendulum has swung from one side to the other so far this season, now it’s a matter of seeing whether and how they can find a way to keep it from swinging back.