Cubs’ Problem Isn’t Hitting Poorly with RISP, It’s Hitting Less Often with RISP

If we were to conduct one of those man-on-the-street interview deals in which we surveyed random Cubs fans about their team’s offensive struggles, I’m willing to bet the responses would skew heavily in the same direction. Whether they answered “hitting with runners in scoring position,” “clutch hitting,” or simply “RISP,” most folks are probably rowing in the same direction here.

But what if I told you that’s not actually the problem and that the 2019 Cubs are doing a better job of reaching base and creating runs with RISP than any previous team in the Epstoyer Era? I apologize if that just blew your mind and I will now allow you sufficient time to compose your gray matter before proceeding.

All better? Good, let’s move on.

The fact of the matter is that the Cubs have hit like crap with RISP for the better part of the last decade. Since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer arrived in 2012, none of their squads have been better than 20th in MLB in terms of situational batting average. In that same span, they’ve only once been in the top third of the game in wOBA and have only twice been in the top half in wRC+.

As you can see from the chart below, the massive shift in competitiveness that began in 2015 saw a huge jump in the Cubs’ opportunities with RISP. And that makes sense, right? Better teams will put more runners on base and will then be able to drive more of them in.

But while the Cubs have generally been better over the last five seasons than in those first three, their situational performance outside of 2016 leaves a lot to be desired. Until this season, that is. Here, take a look at the data and we’ll discuss on the other side.

This year’s Cubs are actually producing a wOBA that is six points higher while generating a 4% better wRC+ with RISP than the 2016 championship squad. The issue, however, is that the current team is getting fewer opportunities than any since 2014.

One plate appearance per game might not seam like much, but that comes out to 90 extra plate appearances in the season so far. That means about 73 extra at-bats, which a collective .249 batting average would turn into about 18 more hits. Most of those would drive in runs, perhaps more than one at a time, maybe even a few that would make the difference in a game or five.

And when you consider that the Cubs are actually getting 1.79 fewer PAs this year than in 2016, the differences are really pronounced. That’s 161 fewer plate appearances in the first half, which means 130 fewer at-bats and 32 hits.

The actual impact of such a change is really difficult to quantify, since it’s entirely possible for a team to put runners on and drive them in when they’re either up or down by eight runs. In those game situations, no one cares what you’re doing with RISP. Again, though, the overall performance over the course of the season tends to iron those wrinkles out.

So the big takeaway here is that the Cubs are actually doing as well as they ever have with situational hitting, it’s just that they’re not creating enough situations in the first place. While that’s a team-wide issue that may need to be addressed via transactional measures, some of it can be mitigated through lineup construction.

Kyle Schwarber offers power potential in the top spot, but his changing plate approach over the last month or so means he’s not a great table-setter for the guys behind him. After it became clear that he was being rung up far too often when falling behind in the count, Schwarber got more aggressive and has seen his OBP drop from a high of .344 on June 9 to .320 at the break. His leadoff OBP is a mere .307, not what you’d call ideal.

We’ve discussed the idea of Kris Bryant and his team-leading .405 OBP taking that leadoff spot, though that would blunt the run-producing prowess that may be about to improve following yet another adjustment. What about Willson Contreras, whose .381 OBP is third behind Bryant and Anthony Rizzo? Or maybe Jason Heyward, who reaches at a .355 clip?

The best solution might be to platoon Heyward and Contreras in the top spot, thereby taking advantage of their pronounced splits and keeping the power-hitting catcher in run-producing spots more frequently. Heyward’s .384 OBP against righties is third among the regulars (Rizzo – .402; Bryant – .397) while Contreras is posting a .424 OBP against lefties that trails only Bryant (.427).

Just reaching base doesn’t put you in scoring position, but the duo above represents approximately a 100-point OBP jump over what the Cubs have gotten from Schwarber since he started leading off back on May 16. That alone might result in one more plate appearance per game with a runner on at least second base, thereby getting them back in line with their numbers from the previous few seasons.

This is all very easy when being viewed as a hypothetical and the Cubs surely have better numbers than what some random blogger dude conjured up using FanGraphs and Excel. Right? I mean, there’s no way the “geeks” are looking at this same data and drawing different conclusions, so there has to be a lot more to it that I’m not able to suss out.

All I know for certain is that the Cubs need to put more runners on base in order to drive them in, even if their batting average may not look great compared to the rest of the league. After all, even the best hitter in the league can’t drive in runners that aren’t there in the first place.

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