January 7, 2016
Cubs Do It Differently
I’m a father, again. My wife and I had our third son in just under four years on the travel day between Games 2 and 3 of the World Series, and as 2016 dawns, it dawns on me that my life is pretty well full for a while. It’s a wonderful thing to realize, a wonderful way to live. I love my family dearly, and am happiest not in front of a keyboard or even at a ballpark, but during the dance parties our 2-year-old demands every night when he feels bedtime creeping a little too close.
Full lives are strange, though, because they’re missing one element around which any less-than-full life almost certainly centers: aspiration. I definitely have goals, for myself and for my wife and for our sons, and I harbor some ambitions, too. Dreaming, though, goes up on the shelf for a little while. Really big changes are out. Dreams require flexibility; big changes require that, plus long-term planning. There’s very little flexibility in a day that must meet the feeding, nap, and bathing schedules of three young children, and long-term planning, right about now, is putting something in the Crock-Pot in the morning so that at dinnertime we don’t end up eating the mac-and-cheese for which toddlers have an inexplicably insatiable taste.
It’s only here, in the quiet space after the boys are all in bed, that I indulge in some daydreaming, and baseball is my mind-expanding drug of choice. Thus, I’ve been thinking about the Cubs lately, almost obsessively, almost maniacally. That doesn’t set this article much apart, because the slowness of the offseason market and the boldness of the Cubs’ trio of signings last month have just about everyone thinking a lot about the Cubs. What I hope will make this piece more than usually interesting, though, is that we’re going to get a little imaginative. I’m a Cubs fan by birth and raising, of course, so it’s not unusual that I have them on the brain. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering why they seem to be nagging me so much, grabbing every baseball idea and steering it. Here’s where I landed: I think the Cubs could do several things we have never (or so excruciatingly rarely as to feel like never) seen an MLB team do before. I think they could change the way teams use players, forever. Whether they will remains a mystery. Probably they won’t. But here’s what it would look like if they did!
One might argue that the Cubs are already the foremost practitioners of the model modern plate appearance. In 2015, they were the league’s most effective assailants of opposing pitchers’ first pitches, in a season marked (at the macro, league-wide level) by an offensive bump based almost solely on early-count aggression. They did more damage than anyone else when they put the first pitch in play, and they swung at the first pitch more often, on average, than all but seven other teams. Yet they also saw more pitches per plate appearance than any other team in the league. To put this in perspective, the four clubs immediately trailing the Cubs in pitches per trip to the plate (the Red Sox, Yankees, Indians and Mets) were all among the five least aggressive teams on the first pitch.
In other words, the Cubs weren’t afraid to go up to bat and bash the first hitter’s pitch they got. When they didn’t get that pitch, though, or (as was often the case; they did also lead the league in whiff rate) when they missed it, they dug in and made opponents earn every out, at the highest possible cost. They were able to both wear down opposing pitchers with their patience, and punish them with their power. As a result, only the Blue Jays and Dodgers chased opposing starters earlier, on average, than the Cubs did last season.
Fewest PA Per Game v. SP, MLB History
It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, but let’s note it, because this is how you might see the Cubs really transcend the old ways of baseball next season: Three of the five teams who chased opposing starters the soonest played in 2015. In fact, it’s six of the top eight. To get to half of MLB in 2015, one need only go down to 37th on the all-time list. Starters are departing earlier than ever as a proactive matter (which we’ll get to later), so when offenses can both pound and grind down a starter, they’re more likely than ever to push their way into the bullpen very early. To wit, as the Cubs moved closer to an optimized and well-oiled lineup in the second half, they started chasing starters even sooner. Over their final 65 games, starters who faced them departed after an average of 23.2 batters faced.
In 2016, though, the Cubs could make their 2015 selves look pedestrian. For one thing, the Cubs gave 711 plate appearances, last season, to Starlin Castro and Jonathan Herrera. Those two were the only Cubs with at least 100 plate appearances who averaged less than 3.90 pitches seen per plate appearance (3.68 and 3.83, respectively). Both are now gone, and Ben Zobrist (4.02 pitches per plate appearance in 2015) will populate the majority of the playing time they got. On the flip side, Jason Heyward (whose high contact rate held his pitches per plate appearance to 3.84 last year) replaces Dexter Fowler (4.08) and his relentless, grinding approach at the top of the order. If Heyward will work pitchers slightly less hard, though, he’ll also hurt them more. Very simply, Heyward is a better hitter than Fowler is. He had a .294 True Average in 2015; Fowler’s was .281.
Thus, the 2016 Cubs figure to be, on balance, as patient and grueling a lineup (in terms of pitches required to get through them) for opposing starters, but also, a better and deeper one in terms of production. By the time they even begin seeing opposing starters for the third time, often, those starters could be on the ropes. Here, though, is why they’re going to consistently knock those starters out earlier than they did in 2015, and maybe even earlier than they did during their best third of the season: Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber batted second 51 times in 2015, including 46 of those final 65 games. In 2016, though, Heyward and Zobrist (in some order) will be at the top of the order the majority of the time. Schwarber’s new place in the lineup will be fifth, or maybe sixth (against left-handed pitchers). With his power, and given that he’ll often bat between right-handed hitters Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler, Schwarber poses a threat that opposing managers will have to seriously consider defusing by bringing in a reliever. ln other words, 22 batters into most games, it’s going to be advisable for opposing managers to go to their bullpen.
That doesn’t mean that the Cubs will necessarily be the best offense in baseball. It’s perfectly possible that they won’t be, even before accounting for the risks of catastrophic injury, early decline, or developmental adversity. The fact that the team is likely to see opposing relievers earlier and (therefore) more often could turn out to be a disadvantage. Of the 46 seasons for which we have data, 2015 saw the eighth-lowest league-wide performance against relief pitchers, relative to starters, and the 10th-best performance when seeing a starter for the third time. The Cubs were also the seventh-worst team in baseball when it came to hitting against relievers last year, with an ugly .231/.311/.369 line.
Now, Addison Russell was a huge part of that problem. He batted .164/.226/.308 against relief pitchers, and because he often batted ninth and didn’t see starters a third time, that atrocious line came in a healthy 218 plate appearances. It’s possible Russell will adjust and find considerably more success against relievers going forward; he changed a lot as a hitter over the course of his rookie season. The other two problematic performers against relievers were Dexter Fowler and Chris Coghlan, with 409 combined plate appearances and an aggregate OPS in the .670s. Each will be replaced as full-timers in 2016, Fowler by Heyward (who hit a sturdy .250/.330/.388 against relievers last year, impressive especially considering that he likely saw a large number of lefty specialists), and Coghlan by Schwarber (who fanned at an ugly clip against pen men, but cracked seven homers and slugged .434 against them, too). Whatever it’s worth to you, Zobrist hit a staggering .315/.421/.503 in 171 plate appearances against relief pitchers last season, walking 26 times and fanning only 17 times. For his career, in fact, Zobrist is (improbably) better against relief pitchers than against starters, with a .371 OBP.
It’s likely that the Cubs front office addressed their lineup by adding Heyward and Zobrist mostly for all of the simple, broad-strokes reasons they’ve listed publicly: their strong contact rates in a strikeout-prone lineup, their balanced skill sets, and the market’s failure to properly value them because of their ages (penalizing Zobrist too much for being fairly old, not prizing Heyward enough for being radically young). In so doing, though, they have added two players who not only help reshape their lineup to maximize the damage it can do, but increase that lineup’s ability to score as the game progresses.
Another thing that should help in that regard: Joe Maddon’s love of pinch-hitting, paired with the Cubs’ exceptional offensive depth. In 2015, Maddon sent 288 pinch-hitters to the plate, making him the most aggressive skipper in baseball in that area. It didn’t help, as the team batted a collective .201/.274/.317 in those situations, but a lot of that can be chalked up to the lack of health and organizational depth that affected the club for much of the season. Of those 288 pinch-hit plate appearances, 37 went to Chris Denorfia, 31 went to Jonathan Herrera, 24 went to Matt Szczur, and 23 went to Mike Baxter. The likely bench for 2016 (David Ross, Javier Baez, Tommy La Stella, and Chris Coghlan) figures to be much stronger, and even if injuries or ineffectiveness strike there, the Cubs have better minor-league depth upon which to call than they did a year ago.
With the very modern offensive philosophy they have in place, the potential to wear down opponents in a new and unique way, and their improved blend of skills, the Cubs are evolving into a team whose turns at bat will feel different than any you have seen before.
On the Bases
There’s very little left to revolutionize in the way teams use the basepaths. This isn’t the era of speedsters; that was 30 years ago. The 2016 Cubs are going to be tremendous fun to watch on the bases, though. Even in 2015, blessed with very little in the way of team speed, the Cubs were exceptionally aggressive. Maddon put 180 runners in motion, more than did any other manager. (The Rays, Pirates, and Giants each put 173 men in motion, though each of them also had more runners in positions to run than did the Cubs.)
That number should only rise next season, and more to the point, the Cubs will dramatically improve their efficiency on the bases. Heyward stole 23 bases in 26 tries for the Cardinals, and was fourth on our baserunning leaderboard with 6.1 BRR. Zobrist registered a 1.2 BRR. Meanwhile, Fowler and Castro, now jettisoned, had a combined BRR of -3.2. Putting two extremely strong baserunners at the top of a lineup managed by Maddon should give the Cubs some added dynamism in this limited dimension of the game.
One more small thing the team does well, a thing that shines through in particular on baserunning plays: Maddon and his coaching staff orchestrated the best use of instant replay of any staff in the league last year. Ten teams won a higher percentage of their replay challenges, but the Cubs still won over 57 percent of theirs, and a league-high 28 overall challenges. Perhaps as importantly, opponents won only 18 challenges against them. This issue obviously transcends baserunning, but baserunning is a part of it, and it’s certainly possible that the mixture of Maddon’s natural aggressiveness, the improved pool of baserunners he’ll have with whom to work, and the team’s excellent manipulation of the replay rules will lead them to take and profit from a greater number of risks on the bases.
In the Field
By letting Fowler walk as a free agent and signing Heyward to take his place in center field, the Cubs upgraded their outfield defense, but also left themselves without a natural, experienced center fielder on the roster. That shouldn’t be a problem, given Wrigley Field’s small center field (the fourth-smallest in MLB, by square footage). Heyward is a huge asset defensively, and while neither Kyle Schwarber nor Jorge Soler is an ace corner outfielder, the three of them will outhit whatever deficiencies they might have as a unit in the field.
It will be interesting to see, though, how they try to cover over those deficiencies, rather than live with them. There’s a good chance that both Bryant and Baez will see substantial time in the outfield, including in center. Indeed, if the Cubs embrace the building trend of outfield shifting, they might begin to erode our established ideas of the various outfield positions. If Heyward (a career right fielder just this side of 250 pounds), Bryant (a 6-foot-6 slugger), and Baez (who is playing his first center field as a pro right now, in the Dominican Winter League) can handle center field as part of a team-centered approach to outfield defense, maybe it becomes steadily less important that one particular player be able to cover the enormous swath of the outfield we define as center field right now. We already know that the concept of a good center fielder being able to cover for weak corner men is a bit of myth, that the vast majority of catchable balls are catchable for just one party. If outfield shifts stick, they will move us toward a paradigm wherein it’s most desirable to have outfielders of roughly equal ability, or at least equal range. With Heyward, Schwarber, Soler, Coghlan, Baez, Bryant, and Zobrist in their outfield mix, the Cubs are headed in that direction.
More broadly, the Cubs could start to erase the notion of everyday players at everyday positions. In Baez and Bryant, they have two guys capable of playing solid defense at third base. In Addison Russell and Baez, they have two legitimate shortstops. In Zobrist and Tommy La Stella, they have two fine second basemen. Adding Zobrist also gives them a clear backup first baseman behind Anthony Rizzo, though it’s likely that they’ll also ask one or more of Bryant, Coghlan and Schwarber to work out a bit at the cold corner during spring training. With no fewer than 10 qualified everyday position players on the roster, there figures to be a fairly active rotation in play. Zobrist should get a fair number of days off, to lessen the effects of aging as he turns 35. Rizzo showed fatigue at multiple points in 2015, so he should be allotted more rest. Soler and Russell have histories of hamstring issues. Bryant’s sheer height makes the prospect of him playing 150 games at third base unappealing, and Heyward, though historically durable and plenty athletic, is a big man for whom 150-plus games is a very heavy workload in the outfield. Miguel Montero, a smallish backstop whose heavy use in Arizona was one reason he struggled to play up to his potential there, is backed up by the ancient David Ross. Because of that, the Cubs ought to keep Schwarber sharp and ask him to play at least a dozen games behind the plate over the course of the season.
The value of rest is still underestimated by most big-league teams. If the Cubs can be one of the first teams to realize that, and if they act on it as aggressively as they should, you could see Baez play 20 or more games at four or five different positions; Bryant play all three outfield spots, in addition to the hot corner, and maybe nearly as often; Zobrist log significant time at all three positions on the right side of the diamond; and Schwarber thrive as the first catcher-slash-outfielder since Eli Marrero in 2002.
An aside, though: Joe Maddon seems to be souring on shifting, at least on the infield. One never knows when that might change. It’s worth noting, though. The Cubs shifted slightly more in 2015 than they had in 2014, but were still ninth in the NL in shifts. Meanwhile, Maddon’s former team, the Rays, led the AL in shifts, after having backed off of their trademark strategy during Maddon’s final two years there. I talked to Maddon about shifts in June, and he largely dissembled, calling it “American League, actually,” and dismissing the ideas that the Cubs were handling any of their young infielders with kid gloves by not moving them around as often as most other teams. The Cubs did shift more often from roughly that point onward, rising from 13th in the NL in shifts to their final standing, but still, the trend bears watching in 2016. Maybe the arrival of Zobrist will make Maddon feel more comfortable going back to his old, aggressive shifting ways. On the other hand, maybe the arrival of vocal shift denizen John Lackey in the rotation will stifle that growth. (Maddon did emphasize to me, strongly, that he defers to pitchers with regard to how much the team shifts behind them.) The Cubs still saved 10 runs with shifts in 2015, according to Baseball Info Solutions, a slightly higher total than the median, but if they’re already going to be moving players to various positions for reasons of roster management and rest, they shouldn’t be afraid to get more aggressive about moving those players around the diamond even without changing their position.
On the Mound
Expect the top three pitchers in the rotation to be, more or less, traditional starters. Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and John Lackey are workhorses whose deep repertoires, creativity, durability, and competitiveness drive their value by allowing them to rack up innings. There are sexier, better front halves of starting rotations, but this group should be stout. After that, though, the rotation should become not so much a fight for two spots as a four- or five-headed monster.
Kyle Hendricks is badly misunderstood. People say things like that he gets by with his sharp intellect and guile. They say his stuff wouldn’t work in short bursts. They talk about him as a finesse pitcher. None of that is really true. In truth, Hendricks is a two-pitch pitcher who dominates hitters with one of the best changeups in baseball. Among pitchers who threw at least 200 changeups in 2015 (there were 92 such hurlers), Hendricks got the second-highest swing rate and sixth-highest whiff rate on those swings. He did so despite throwing the pitch 557 times. How? In addition to phenomenal, unbelievable command (over half of his changes to batters of each hand ended up both below the strike zone and from the outer third of the plate outward) and solid deception, Hendricks throws a cut changeup that is viciously difficult to pick up, especially for right-handed batters. Only famously over-the-top changeup artist Josh Collmenter had more cutting action on his change than had Hendricks last season.
Finesse pitchers don’t survive on two pitches. They don’t generate platoon-split stats like these:
Kyle Hendricks, Career Platoon Splits
Kyle Hendricks, Career Times Through the Order Splits
Hendricks isn’t a guy whose stuff won’t work in short stints; he’s a guy whose stuff only works in short stints. In those stints, though, that stuff works marvelously.
The story is different for Jason Hammel, who’s on a strange two-year streak of showing small (even negative, in 2015) platoon splits and very little (if any) degradation when facing an opposing lineup for a third time. That’s particularly surprising for a guy who threw his slider more than a third of the time in 2015. The catch with Hammel, though, is that in both of these two seasons wherein he showed such small splits based on handedness and working deep into games, he showed huge splits between first- and second-half performance. Injuries played unseen roles, but the fact is that Hammel has a history of wearing down after strong starts. His career ERA in the first half: 4.06. In the second half: 5.15. His OPS allowed in the first half: .723. In the second half: .810.
For those reasons, you’ll see Hendricks and Hammel round out the Cubs’ starting rotation, but you won’t see them pitching into the sixth inning often, if at all. In fact, radical though it will seem, Maddon and the Cubs should (and probably will) proactively lift Hendricks and Hammel after 18-20 batters faced in most of their starts. That will make the way clear for the team’s quartet of semi-starters: Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood, and Clayton Richard.
To be sure, some of each of those four pitchers’ appearances will be of the typical reliever length: an inning, 15-20 pitches. Because each of these guys was a starter as recently as the beginning of the 2015 season, though, they’re also capable of doing more. Wood is lethal to left-handed batters in relief, even over a full trip through an opposing batting order. Warren, a right-hander, has two straight seasons with impressive reverse platoon splits of which to boast, owing mostly, it seems, to his ability to get lefties to chase back-foot sliders and curveballs with two strikes. Cahill and Richard, whom the Cubs got for absolutely nothing in the middle of last season, are specialized weapons, but aren’t confined to single-batter or single-inning situations. Richard had a 60-percent ground ball rate in his 42.1 innings pitched. Cahill fanned nearly a third of the batters he faced after arriving in Chicago, mostly with the weapon Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio appears best at cultivating: a wicked changeup.
I don’t want to oversell these middle-relief options. They’re not elite pitchers. Used correctly, though, they’re above-average arms who can take over in the fourth, fifth or sixth inning of a game and shut down the opponent for at least two frames. Because there are four of them and only two starters who figure to frequently leave their starts early, workload shouldn’t be an issue. Each will sometimes be called upon for a single, high-leverage inning bridging from the three workhorses to the back end of the bullpen, which should consist of Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Justin Grimm, but there should still always be (at least) one multi-inning option fresh when Hendricks and Hammel give way.
Of course, this kind of radical pitcher deployment (it’s basically piggybacking, but with even more moving parts than a minor-league piggybacking arrangement would have) becomes impossible if injuries do too much damage. Indeed, pretty much any plans the Cubs made for their bullpen last spring were derailed by the early and prolonged absences of Grimm and Neil Ramirez. Most of the staff was good for most of the season, though, largely because of their good overall health. Many have called that luck, but there’s a bit more to it than that, even after noting that they did suffer those relief-corps injuries. For one thing, Arrieta and Lester were carefully chosen aces, with minimal injury histories. Neither is a Tommy John survivor. Lester has made 31 or more starts in every season since 2008. Both are well past any age-related injury risk.
Notably, while Cubs hitters had an average age of 26.5 in 2015, their pitchers averaged 29.4 years of age, almost perfectly average. That dampened their collective injury risk. As for individual risk, take the case of Hendricks. He was only 24 last season, and could easily have been seen as an injury risk on that basis alone. The Cubs’ use of him was so outrageously light, though, that it never even seemed as though Hendricks wore down. He made 32 starts, but never threw more than 108 pitches. He had 30 starts with 100 pitches or fewer, a feat matched only by Greg Maddux (six times) and Darren Oliver during the 28 years for which we have that data. Even then, Hendricks made over half his starts with at least an extra day’s rest. Hendricks could have come into 2016 as the most vulnerable pitcher on the roster to injury, but thanks to the team’s caution with him and their projected use of him going forward, he’s one of the lowest-risk 25-year-old pitchers imaginable. He could still get hurt, because hey, he pitches, but it’s as unlikely as it can be for a pitcher of his age.
If anyone does get hurt, of course, the luxury afforded by the fistful of long men in the bullpen is that one or more of them could slide right into the rotation as needed. They finally have some burbling depth in the high minors, too, to fill in if one of the back-end bullpen arms blows out. In the meantime, though, the Cubs are going to be papering over their pitchers’ weaknesses and throwing opposing managers’ lineups for a loop with mid-game gear changes.
There it all is. That’s how the Cubs could do something more ennobling than merely winning baseball games: change the games themselves. The best teams force others to copy them in order to keep up, the way the Stengel Yankees and the Sparky Anderson Reds and Billy Beane’s Athletics did. If the Cubs win the World Series, they’ll have achieved something, but because they have the personnel on hand to make some new and exciting things possible, it will be something of a disappointment if they play their games the same way all of history’s other good teams did.