We all know by now about velocity being up league-wide and strikeouts having been on the rise for more than a decade. If you didn’t: welcome to baseball in 2016! Everyone throws 95 and there’s darn near 20 strikeouts a game now.
The inverse of that, naturally, is that walks are harder to come by. Pitchers are working outside the zone more than ever and hitters aren’t adjusting, and they’re having a harder time catching up to the heat even when it’s inside the zone. Hitters are finding themselves behind in the count far more often than we’ve seen in the past, and in the last two years, we’ve seen the two lowest league-wide walk rates in almost 50 years.
Which brings us to this year’s Chicago Cubs, who aren’t playing by those rules. They’re off to a ridiculous start, with a 6-1 record and a league-best +29 run differential. Their pitchers have struck out 56 batters and walked just nine. Thus far, they’ve looked every bit the powerhouse folks envisioned in the offseason. And there’s another part of this Cubs team that’s staying true to preseason expectations, an important part of the team’s DNA that hasn’t been given much publicity. It’s not a sexy characteristic, which would explain the lack of fanfare surrounding this trait, but it’s an important one. The 2016 Cubs have a very real chance to be the most disciplined lineup we’ve ever seen.
To be clear: when I say “ever,” I’m talking about the post-expansion era, since 1961, and when I say “disciplined,” I’m talking about walks. The Cubs are going to strike out. They might strike out more than anyone. But team strikeout rate has almost no correlation with underperformance. As long a lineup gets on base and hits for power, they can lead the league in strikeouts and be just fine. The Cubs plan to do just that.
So far, this season, the Cubs lead baseball with a 13.1% team walk rate. It’s not expected to stay that high, but it is expected to stay the highest. I pulled team projections for all 30 clubs from our depth charts page, which uses the ZiPS and Steamer projection systems and manually updated playing-time estimates, and I calculated team walk rates. The preseason forecasts looked like this:
It’s the Cubs in front, by a landslide. I’d be remiss not to mention that the Cubs lost Kyle Schwarber, a high-walk guy, for the season, and replaced him with Jorge Soler, a lower-walk guy. Just know that the rest-of-season projections still forecast the Cubs with a 9.9% walk rate. Essentially, nothing changed.
The Cubs, as a team, are still projected to draw a walk in one of every 10 plate appearances. Only nine other teams come in above 8%. Only two other teams at 9%. The difference between the Cubs in first and the A’s in second is the same as the difference between the A’s in second and the Mariners in 11th. The Cubs, here, are three full standard deviations above the mean, making them an actual statistical outlier. That’s when you know you’re dealing with something truly unique.
So here’s the Cubs, projected for the first double-digit team walk rate in six years, and living up to that lofty forecast in the early going of the season. On its own, the 10% walk rate is already impressive, but it becomes even more impressive when we consider that walk rates are as low as they’ve been in decades. A 10% team walk rate in 2016 is exponentially more impressive than a 10% team walk rate in the late-90s.
So let’s gain some historical perspective. It’s a relatively simple thing to do. All we need is team walk rate and league walk rate. Divide the former by the latter, multiply by 100, and we’ve got an indexed statistic, like OPS+, where 100 is league average. The Cubs are projected for a BB%+ of 130, meaning their walk rate is expected to be 30% better than league average. How would that rank, in the post-expansion era?
Very, very well. The projections see the second-most disciplined team in more than 50 years, and the first-most disciplined in more than 20. They’re within spitting distance of first. Maybe all it takes is Soler Addison Russell or learning to control the strike zone a bit better to put them over the top, ahead of the 1993 Tigers. Maybe Kris Bryant takes such a step forward offensively that pitchers start working around him even more. With this projection, the Cubs are well within reach of posting the most impressive single-season team walk rate we’ve ever seen.
But it’s not just about walks. Walks are important — because base-runners are important — but they aren’t everything. Those base-runners still need to turn into runs, and the best way to do that is to hit for power.
Well, the Cubs have that covered, too:
The same team that might have the best walk rate we’ve seen in more than 50 years is also projected to be this year’s best power-hitting team. To think of it in simple terms: any pitch that’s a ball, this Cubs lineup is liable to take, and any pitch that’s in the zone, this Cubs lineup is liable to hit out of the park. Now how is someone supposed to pitch against that?
Last year’s Cubs were already impressive in both of these categories. Last year’s Cubs posted a 9.1% walk rate, indistinguishable from the league-leading Dodgers, and were a top-10 power-hitting team. Then, they added on. The skillsets the Cubs acquired in the offseason fit perfectly with their apparent offensive philosophy. They retained Dexter Fowler, whose career walk rate is north of 12%. They went out and got Ben Zobrist, whose career walk rate is north of 10%. Jason Heyward’s career walk rate is also north of 10%. That’s where the extra walks come from. It seems like this is the mark of Theo Epstein, whose Red Sox teams led baseball in walks for nearly a decade. This year’s Cubs seem poised to top that. This year’s Cubs will wear you down.
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