A quarter of the way into the 2020 season, we have witnessed enough to know this is a damn good Cubs team. The David Ross effect, the team camaraderie in the midst of a global pandemic, and the confidence in the core of players the front office built this competitive window around have all contributed to the best record in MLB.
The Cubs’ 12-3 start has been aided by an impossibly impressive rotation (2.65 ERA, 2.78 FIP, 4.9 BB rate), and belied by an obnoxiously suspect bullpen (6.56 ERA, 6.26 FIP, 13.7 BB rate). While we can debate the merits of Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills, or lament the continued implosion that is Craig Kimbrel, it’s time to give the offense its proper scrutiny — and certainly some love.
The Lineup Has Been Steady
At face value, it’s hard to discern how the offense has improved from last season. Through 15 games they are reaching base (.343 OBP) at a better clip than 2019 (.331), which certainly helps. They are, however, hitting for a lower batting average (.244 this year, .251 in 2019), decreased slugging (.432/.452), and a decrease in isolated power (.188/.200). With an OPS quite similar in both seasons, the offense in 2020 has somehow put up a better wRC+ (114) than last year (102), despite the overall decrease in power.
Yet the Cubs are putting up 5.27 runs per game in 2020, a quarter of a run more than in 2019 (5.02). While that doesn’t sound like much, extrapolated over a full season the current pace would net ~38 more runs scored than last season’s output. The question remains: how are the Cubs compiling more runs while hitting for a lower batting average and less power?
Over the years — and particularly true in this current Cubs era — fans have often lamented the team’s inability to hit with runners in scoring position. So far in 2020, the Cubs are hitting a respectable .252 with RISP, rounding out that triple slash with a paltry .344 slugging (27th in MLB) and a sturdy .350 OBP (15th). In 2019, that line was .259/.480/.353 in high-leverage scoring situations, their on base and slugging percentages both top ten in all of baseball. The Cubs this year have a walk rate (10.8) and strikeout rate (21.7) with RISP not terribly different than last year (12.2 BB rate, 22.1 strikeout), continuing the head scratching in concluding what, exactly, has helped the offense improve.
Batted balls haven’t been incredibly different, either. The Cubs are pulling the ball a touch more this year (43.6 percent, 39.2 in 2019), making hard contact (31.7 percent) slightly less than 2019 (34.0), and hitting line drives (20.0 percent) at a remarkably similar rate as 2019 (19.3). Two major distinctions on batted balls are that, as a team, they are hitting the ball on the ground this year (50.0 percent) with much more frequency than 2019 (43.3), while also making soft contact (13.9 percent) at a much lower clip (20.2 percent last season).
So the questions about how the offense has improved remain unanswered. Certain nuances shed some light, to be sure, yet the regression that’s also present in some areas create more questions and leave us without any confident answers.
With a lineup personnel that mirrors what we saw last year, it’s not terribly surprising we’re seeing a similar, albeit improved, output. In short, the offense has not improved by a large degree in 2020’s small sample size, as much as it has shown itself good enough when backed by elite output from the rotation.
Patience Is A Virtue
One notable difference this year is a more patient approach at the plate. In 2019 the Cubs saw 3.89 pitches per plate appearance (league average was 3.93). So far this year, the Cubs are seeing 4.20 pitches per plate appearance (3.94 league average), which is not only a marked improvement — it is the best ratio in MLB. While this alone isn’t a telling enough indicator it certainly provides a glimpse as to how the Cubs are scoring the second most runs per game, trailing only Colorado.
Beyond simply seeing more pitches, the offense has worked into favorable counts (2-0, 3-0, 3-1) near the top of the league, not coincidentally in part because they are swinging at the first pitch fewer than every team but the Dodgers. Selectivity has clearly improved, and with it, the Cubs have been able to score more runs even without the benefit of a drastic increase in statistics as one might expect.
Speculatively, it stands to reason the improved plate approach has to do with the consistency with which Ross has built the lineup. Kris Bryant leading off seems to have paid dividends for the team, in spite of the fact that he’s struggled out of the gate. Seeing 3.98 pitches per at bat, he’s still setting an early tone, and the consistency of Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber following has forced pitchers to work hard. Rizzo and Schwarber, in fact, are near the top of the league in pitches per plate appearance.
As Ian Happ continues to rake he’ll likely remain in the middle of the lineup, proving that Ross understands how to tinker in the midst of establishing consistency. This, of course, has all occurred while balancing playing time for Nico Hoerner and Jason Kipnis, weathering the inconsistency of Jason Heyward‘s bat, and figuring out ways to get Victor Caratini consistent reps.
Rossy’s approach in lineup construction is a departure from Joe Maddon’s never ending manipulation. And it’s been a successful departure at that.
The Early Returns Suggest A Solid Offensive Campaign
Admittedly, 15 games is a small sample size, but because it is a quarter of the wild 2020 season, we’ve seen enough to know that this offense is just fine. We may not be witnessing statistical improvements in ways that are overt, but the subtle improvements we are seeing have led to an increase in runs scored. The plate approach we witnessed in Cleveland in a two game sweep, scoring seven runs in both affairs against solid pitching, can be thought of as more of an expectation than an anomaly.
On the whole, the Cubs are neither terribly lucky (.313 BABIP is relatively sustainable) nor outright elite. And they are scoring runs at a time where pitchers have had a decided edge, at least to begin the season.
To answer the question of the article: I have no idea what to make of the Cubs offense this season. I do know that seeing the most pitches per at bat is a good thing, as is scoring the most runs in the league for any team not playing in the Rocky Mountains.
At the end of the day, the Cubs are scoring runs and winning games. We may not have all of the answers as to how, but sometimes enjoyment is best served with a hint of mystery.
All stats courtesy of Fangraphs unless otherwise indicated.
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