Cubs’ Alarming Batted-Ball Numbers May Be Starting to Shift

Hey, did anyone miss me? This is my first work in roughly a week as I’ve taken something of a sabbatical. I may try to push out a little more before jumping back in, so bear with me. It’s been kinda nice to put a little mental distance between myself and the Cubs, particularly given how they’ve played in that time, but something really jumped out at me while I was doing a little research for The Rant Live podcast and a radio hit with Laurence Holmes.

Pardon me, just need to pick up that name-drop before someone trips on it.

In any case, I was somewhat shocked by what I found because it defied conventional wisdom. But not Patrick Wisdom, this is right in line with what you’d expect from him. Given how hitterish the Cubs tried to get — or were forced to get, however you choose to see it — I had thought they’d be spraying the ball to all fields this season. After all, it’s much more difficult to get hits against the shift if you aren’t hitting it hard with great frequency.

Heading into Monday’s game in San Diego, the Cubs were pulling the ball at a 43.1% clip that ranked third in MLB. It was also the highest rate they’d posted since 2005, when they were fourth in baseball with a 44.4% pull rate. They also had a .170 ISO in that bygone season, 31 points lower than the hard-hitting Rangers but still good enough for sixth in MLB.

This season, however, the Cubs’ .130 ISO is the lowest they’ve posted since an anemic .110 in 1992. When you pull the ball more than you have in 17 years and hit for less power than you have in 30, well, that’s not a great combo. And that’s before they rapped out nine singles in Monday’s win to lower their ISO to .127, a mere 49 points lower than the top-ranked Angels.

Ah, but the Cubs also lowered their pull percentage to 42.7% by going oppo and to center more regularly. That might not seem like much, but dropping any aggregate statistic by nearly half a point a month into the season is actually pretty significant. And when you consider they were at 43.6% as of Saturday, you might even see fit to agree that perhaps there’s something afoot.

Their 40.4% pull rate so far in May ranks 12th in MLB, still a little higher than you might expect given the .098 ISO they’ve generated in that time. Interestingly enough, the Padres (.083) are one of only three teams boasting less power this month. For a minute there, I was starting to feel hopeful.

No one figured the Cubs would see some sort of unexpected power surge from anyone this season, so the abject lack of power is not troubling in and of itself. But when paired with a batted-ball profile that includes an MLB-high 48.9% ground balls, you end up with a recipe for rallies that wither on the vine all too often. Contrary to what you might believe, however, the shift isn’t to blame for any of these woes.

The Cubs actually boast a .707 OPS against the shift, third-best in MLB, and their 100 wRC+ ranks fourth. Thing is, they’ve accumulated fewer plate appearances against a shift (359) than all but four other teams. Add the lack of left-handed pop to those issues above and you can see why teams don’t need to mess with defensive alignments too often.

It’s still early and these stats will undoubtedly change over the remainder of the season, but it’s another example of how this team isn’t maximizing its potential. Not that we’re talking about a playoff contender if they are able to start hitting the other way with greater frequency or anything, just that the offense that broke somewhere along the lines hasn’t been fixed simply by leaning heavily into a more contact-based roster.

I tend to believe the solution is to spend more money to bring in proven hitters who possess both power and the ability to make contact at a high rate, but there’s a reason I’m blogging and not making decisions in the front office.

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