Another Thing at Which These Cubs Are Best

Just as a recap, here’s some things at which the Cubs have proven to be among the best this year. They’ve been among the best at getting fans to the stadium. They’ve been the best at not pitching to Bryce Harper. They’ve been the best at drawing walks (perhaps that we’ve ever seen), and they’ve been the best base-running team. Basically, they’ve looked like the perfect baseball team. Maybe this seems like overkill, all the Cubs posts already and another one here right now. Or maybe they’re just deserving of all these posts, on account of how dominant and unique they’ve been thus far. I’d argue the latter, but I know that’s not a unanimous opinion.

Either way, here comes another Cubs post! There’s another record they’re pursuing, but it’s not a particularly sexy record, nor is it one that necessarily indicates skill and skill only. Definitely some skill involved, but it’s the kind of record where you’re not too sure how to feel about it, or what, exactly, it means. Even right now, the Cubs are doing this thing, and I’m not totally sure what to make of it. That’s what this post is for!

The thing is this:

Lowest team BABIP allowed

  1. Cubs, .250
  2. Dodgers, .265
  3. Blue Jays, .279
  4. Nationals, .280
  5. Indians, .282

That’s the basis of this entire post. The Cubs have allowed a really low batting average on balls in play. Like, super low. Almost impossibly low. If the Dodgers were in first place at .265, they’d be an outlier, potentially an outlier worth writing a post about. The Cubs are an outlier from the outlier.

Just in case it’s not clear enough how crazy this is, let’s gain some historical perspective. Let’s look at team BABIP allowed compared to the league’s BABIP, covering the entire expansion era beginning in 1961. BABIP+ is just like any other indexed stat with which you’re familiar, where 100 is league average and every tick above or below is a percentage point differing from the league average.

Lowest Adjusted Team BABIPs, 1961-Present
Year Team BABIP LgBABIP BABIP+
2016 Cubs .250 .295 85
1999 Reds .262 .298 88
1975 Dodgers .245 .277 88
1969 Orioles .243 .273 89
2001 Mariners .260 .292 89

OK, we’ve got our historical context. Now we can say this and all be on the same page: what the Cubs are doing right now is preventing hits on balls in play like no other team in modern baseball history.

Weird! But, what?

We still don’t really understand BABIP. I mean, we “understand it.” We understand that there’s a luck component involved, thanks to bloop hits and at ’em balls, but that that luck component gradually gets stripped out with a larger sample of balls in play. We understand that, in certain cases, players can have some amount of control over their BABIP. On a team level, we understand that shifts and defense can have an impact on BABIP. We understand these principles, but we still never know with any real amount of certainty what’s going into a BABIP that looks out of line to us. But that can’t stop us from trying!

The first place one might think to look is shifts. Especially when that team is managed by Joe Maddon, who was shifting before it was cool. Maybe the Cubs are kings of the shift?

Well, actually:

Fewest defensive shifts

  1. Marlins, 236
  2. Cubs, 267
  3. Royals, 268
  4. Red Sox, 276
  5. Phillies, 284

Maddon has reversed course. Once the most shift-happy manager in baseball, Maddon’s Cubs have shifted fewer times than all but one team. Why? We can’t be certain. The Chicago Tribune‘s Mark Gonzales prodded Maddon about this subject a couple weeks back, but this was all he got:

“There are not as many prolific left-handed pull hitters as I saw a couple of years ago in the American League,” Maddon said. “Maybe it’s the natural organic evolution of shifts. Guys (have stopped) trying to pull the ball and hit home runs (so much). Maybe they’re trying to hit the ball the other way.”

Well home runs are way up, and while pull percentage has dropped somewhat, this isn’t a satisfying answer. Here’s another recent Maddon quote from CSNChicago:

“…I think the decline in offense or batting average is really related to the proliferation of data in video and the ability to put guys where you want to,” Maddon said.

More video. Better positioning. We saw this with Dexter Fowler earlier in the season. Maybe instead of the radical overshift we’re used to, the Cubs are just doing more subtle positioning on each play? There’s no proof to this theory, but there’s no proof to any of this. We’re just searching for answers.

For what it’s worth, even though the Cubs haven’t shifted much, they’ve shifted very efficiently. According to data provided by Baseball Info Solutions, the Cubs have saved seven runs thanks to the shift this year, despite using the second-fewest number of shifts. Perhaps this lends some credence to the notion that the Cubs are just adept at correctly positioning defenders, and that perhaps the overshift isn’t always necessary?

Defensive Shift Efficiency
Team Shifts Shift_AVG Shift_wOBA ShiftRuns ShiftRuns/600
Mets 289 .260 .272 11 22.8
Padres 440 .289 .296 16 21.8
Rockies 661 .310 .324 19 17.2
Phillies 281 .274 .281 8 17.1
Cubs 262 .252 .256 7 16.0
SOURCE: Baseball Info Solutions

So they’ve shifted well, and because of that (and also due to a strong infield defense), the Cubs have allowed the lowest batting average on ground balls of any team in the league this year. But it’s not just grounders where the Cubs have excelled. It’s everywhere:

Batting average by batted ball type

  • Grounders: .203, 1st of 30
  • Fly balls: .179, 3rd of 30
  • Line drives: .590, 1st of 30

The Cubs have also had one of the best outfield defenses, and have thus turned air balls into outs better than anyone. But it can’t all be defense and shifts. Some of this has to be the pitchers, too, and Chicago’s pitchers are doing their part. Jake Arrieta may just be the king of weak contact. But Chicago pitchers as a whole are among the league leaders in suppressing both exit velocity and distance on batted balls, and that would theoretically make life even easier for their defense.

The Cubs have a .250 BABIP more than one-third of the way through the season. Even if they run a perfectly league average .295 BABIP over the final 100 games of the regular season, they’d finish the year at .277, which would put them in the upper 5% of all team seasons since 1961, adjusting for era. But we shouldn’t expect them to run a league average BABIP, because the Cubs aren’t an average team. Surely, some good fortune has contributed to their total thus far. But they’ve got arguably the best defense in baseball, so we should expect them to turn more balls in play into outs than most teams. Their pitching staff as a whole generates soft contact, so we should expect them to turn more balls in play into outs than most teams. Perhaps the Cubs have something of an edge when it comes to positioning, and if that’s indeed the case, we should expect them to turn more balls in play into outs than most teams.

The Cubs have a .250 BABIP more than one-third of the way through the season. They’d need to run a .267 BABIP over the final 100 games of the regular season to finish with the lowest adjusted team BABIP in the history of the expansion era. We can’t know for sure where the Cubs’ true-talent team BABIP lies. It’s somewhere between league average and the .250 mark they’ve run so far. What we can say for sure is that the Cubs aren’t like most teams.

We hoped you liked reading Another Thing at Which These Cubs Are Best by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

You guys are just trolling the angry ‘OMG more Cubs articles!’ crowd at this point

scotman144
Member
scotman144

You seem to imply that this is a bad thing :)

Michael Carpenter
Member
Michael Carpenter

I think it’s not so much a “crowd” as it is “johnforthegiants”