3-2-1 Contact: Can the Cubs Make Enough of it to Make Everything Happen?

Contact is the secret

Is the moment when everything happens!

Contact is the answer

Is the reason why everything happens!

While some of you may be staring blankly at your screens right now and wondering whether I’ve completely lost my marbles, which is not an unwarranted thought, children of the 80’s are probably smiling right now. Gotta love the schlock of 3-2-1 Contact.

That theme song might have been goofy, but it was certainly onto something in positing that contact is the answer, the reason everything happens. If a baseball team can’t make enough contact, it’s not likely to have a great deal of success.

Back in January, I had taken a look at the hurdles the Cubs will have to clear in terms of both youth and strikeout rates, both of which the team has in abundance. While not insurmountable, both factors serve to narrow the margin for error down to a very fine line that not even Nik Wallenda could toe.

But since the Cubs had an off day and I was feeling a bit bored, I decided to delve just a bit deeper into this subject, particularly when it comes to making contact or, more specifically, not making it. That’s because, unless something improves dramatically this season, that’s one of the Cubs’ worst traits.

Even as brightly and directly as the spotlight of expectation has shone on Kris Bryant, there remains a bit of a shadow attached to the would-be superstar. His strikeout and contact rates are a bit scary to some, though schools of thought are a bit divided on the importance of each, not to mention his ability to overcome them.

But I’m not here to write about Kris Bryant today. Rather, I want to look at the Cubs and their issues with contact through the lens of recent historical context, specifically NL playoff teams over the past 5 seasons. Not a huge sample size, but I felt it was adequate enough for my purposes (not to mention easier to research).

It’s completely unfair to use statistics from only the first two games of the season, so I’m going to look only at 2014 and the handful of seasons prior. For the purpose of this exercise, I reviewed rates for contact outside the zone, inside the zone, and overall, along with swinging strike percentage. I then aggregated the MLB rank for a given team in those categories to get a total score.

In 2014, the Cubs ranked 30th, 28th, 29th, and 29th in those respective categories, good for a total score of 116. That’s, um, not good. Their O-contact% of 59.5 was lower than any playoff team from the sample; only the 2013 Pirates (62.9) were within 4 points of that nadir.

It stands to reason that that number is due in large part to poor plate discipline, swinging at pitches that might otherwise have been called balls. What’s worse, even in the 59.5 times out of 100 that they do make contact, it’s not as likely to result in a solid hit. So this is an are that needs to improve drastically. For what it’s worth, they’re at 53.1% through 2 games this season.

Next up is contact on pitches in the zone, where the Cubs tallied an 85.8% score. Significantly higher than the last total, but for the fact that the nature of the stat is that is has to be higher; you’re swinging at better pitches. Still, only 2 of 21 teams in the sample (2013 Braves – 82.8, 2012 Nats – 85.5) fared worse than the Cubs here.

In terms of overall contact, the song remains the same: the Cubs are a lead zeppelin and their 76.1% mark led only one team (2013 Braves – 76.0) from the study. The same is true for swinging strike %, in which the Cubs 11% again led those Bravos by a tenth of a percent.

But this doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. I mean, the Cubs were pretty awful, so comparing them to playoff teams is naturally just going to accentuate the suck. Right? Well, yeah, sort of. But if we look at the bigger picture revealed by the stats, we may see a schooner where we though only random data points existed.

Consider that when we average out the ranks of all playoff teams in each category, we get results of 16, 15, 16, and 17. The only way this happens is if there’s a great deal of deviation between the teams, that you don’t have to be at the top of the league in any given category in order to succeed.

In fact, you might not even have to be in the middle of any of them, as the 2010 Reds, ’11 D-backs, ’12 Nationals, and ’13 Braves and Pirates proved unequivocally. None of those teams ranked higher than 23rd in any given contact category in their given season and all of them had aggregate rank scores of 104 or greater.

The Braves (113), Nats (115), and D-backs (115) actually had tallies that were surprisingly close to that of the Cubs last year. So know are we armed with enough additional information to allow for a reasonable conclusion?

Well, given that baseball is a game of such minutia and variance, I think it’d be irresponsible to project anything based on the numbers we have available to us at this point. I do, however, believe that what I’m seeing here is a sign that it’s okay to have hope in the face of what appear to be terrible contact numbers from the Cubs.

What we’re looking at here is but a series of facets in a game that has infinitely more. For instance, these contact rates can’t tell us how and where a given player is actually putting a ball in play, so it stands to reason that better players will get better results from the contact they do make.

Furthermore, an improved pitching staff will be better able to mitigate its team’s offensive shortcomings, thus downplaying the effect of those poor contact rates. But in a way, that’s kind of like watching Xzibit and the boys from West Coast Customs pimp some gullible teenager’s ride: shiny on the outside, but with a rusted-out frame and a bad engine.

That’s maybe a bit hyperbolic, but what I’m trying to say is that it is indeed possible for the Cubs to overcome some of their obvious shortcomings but that doing so without improving the underlying problem is going to be difficult. It’s really what many of us have been saying about the team in general as they’ve added some pieces.

Yes, the Cubs could and should be much better, but there are still a lot of question marks and a lot of things that will have to go right in order for them to be playing baseball beyond the first week of October. As I said earlier, a situation like this essentially serves to reduce a team’s ability to make and recover from mistakes.

It’ll be interesting to track those contact-rate numbers as the season wears on too; the better they are, the better the Cubs’ chances to really make something happen. Looks like the Bloodhound Gang isn’t alone when it comes to deductive reasoning skills, huh?


All stats via FanGraphs. If you’d like to see the full spreadsheet I put together, you can do so here. Be forewarned, however, that it’s dreadfully rudimentary.


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