Strikeout propensity is to modern baseball as obesity is to modern healthcare. The number of players and teams fighting serious strikeout problems at bat is large, and it’s growing, just the way the number and severity of obesity cases are increasing throughout the world. Both are insidious, dangerous problems, and those afflicted realize a crippling cost that outsiders can too often dismiss or diminish. Most importantly, both are problems we know how to solve, or at least mitigate, but both have proliferated relatively unchecked, for two reasons:
- We don’t perfectly understand the causes, the fundamental nature, of either problem, though we understand several contributing factors of each. In particular, sources differ on the balance of those factors—what share of responsibility for the presentation of the problem should be assigned to each minor cause; and (more importantly)
- People and groups have priced out the costs of each problem, and determined that they’re problems worth living with. One way or another, many, many people have concluded that the tradeoffs necessary to fix each problem aren’t worth it, whether as a matter of personal taste, or as a matter of efficient use of time and energy.
At a certain point, though, both problems reach a point at which they can no longer be ignored. At some threshold, obesity begins to destroy a person, robbing them of their lifestyle, and then of their life. Strikeouts, at some level, kill an offense, rendering it completely unable to sustain its optimal level of performance. When this critical point comes, changes must be made, either to combat the problem and regain lost ground, or to adapt and thrive in a new, different way—to grow around the issue.
In 2014, seven MLB teams had notably severe strikeout problems, the kind that visibly held back their run production. By no coincidence, these seven spent the winter overhauling their offenses. In each case, though, the approach was unique. Let’s examine the varying tacks each team took, to see what the differences might reveal about the nature and mutability of Strikeout Scourge ($1, Rob Neyer) (and $1, Joe Sheehan, for this $1 citation bit). This will be a seven-part series. Part One is about the team who whiffed more often, per plate appearance, than anyone else in baseball last season, and the third-most of any team, ever.
The Cubs had a very real strikeout problem in 2014—they fanned in nearly a quarter of their plate appearances. In this case, though, to return to the analogy between strikeouts and obesity, the team wasn’t really habitually, dangerously fat. The 2014 Cubs were like a college freshman. Sure, they added some rate, even let it get away from them a little, but the root cause of that bloating was the blissful truth that they could afford the irresponsibility. The 2014 Cubs didn’t have enough good players ready to hit big-league pitching to win anything, and they did have several young hitters they wanted, even needed, to evaluate on the job. Thus:
Young hitters got the chance to work through their struggles, in a way no contending team would have permitted. Old players (everyone whose bar is red, instead of blue, has either been traded, released or relegated to irrelevance by one or more of the team’s offseason additions) were shown the door. Over the winter, like a freshman becoming a sophomore, the Cubs grew up a bit, became a little more serious about their routine, admitted they fell into bad habits and took steps to correct them.
Of the 13 position players likely to make the Cubs’ Opening Day roster, five are new to the organization. They are:
- Catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross
- Infielder Tommy La Stella
- Outfielders Dexter Fowler and Chris Denorfia
And their arrival signals a new paradigm, a new message being sent to the young, whiff-prone Cubs who got so much leeway in 2014. In short, that message reads: shape up or ship out.
(Jorge Soler will be the starting right fielder for this team; he doesn’t appear on these charts. Given the wide variance in the confidence pundits have expressed in Soler’s hit tool, and given his extremely limited big-league track record, treating him as a known quantity in terms of contact rate would be foolish.)
Here, blue bars belong to projected regulars, guys who should start at least 125 games this season, barring injury. The three of those regulars who are holdovers all had below-average strikeout rates in 2014. Red bars belong to clear backups: Ryan Sweeney is one possible fifth outfielder, Ross the backup catcher, and Denorfia, perhaps, the short side of a platoon with Chris Coghlan in left field.
The five gray bars belong to players whose futures, for the moment, are utterly uncertain. One of them must be left in the minor leagues to open the season. Another will be on the shuttle to Triple-A Iowa when Kris Bryant makes his ascension to the parent club in late April. Among them, somewhere, are the starting second and third basemen for the Cubs on Opening Night, and (the club hopes) at least one long-term asset for them at the keystone. Among them, too, is someone who is unlikely to be in the organization by Cinco de Mayo.
The Cubs aren’t entirely averse to strikeouts, organizationally. Bryant, on whom rests the hope of all Cubs Nation, strikes out a lot. It was well-known that Baez would strike out a lot even before he reached the Majors. That the team has not outwardly given up on any of Alcantara, Baez, Lake or Olt shows that there remains room on the team for good players who strike out a lot. However, Fowler took Alcantara’s prospective full-time job in center field. Baez will have to compete with La Stella, whose greatest strength is Baez’s greatest weakness, for the second-base job. Denorfia might make Lake redundant. Olt’s future hangs by a thread; surviving and thriving would mean not only correcting his own problems, but performing well enough to carve out a place before Bryant, Baez, Alcantara, La Stella or Addison Russell push him aside.
Of course, all four of the players the organization has left in limbo have at least that glimmer of hope onto which they can hold. Welington Castillo wasn’t so lucky. Lacking defensive value and striking out a quarter of the time spelled the end of Castillo’s time in Chicago. The team is keeping its options open, but that has meant giving itself external options that specifically address the problem at hand. There will be new accountability for Cubs position players in 2015, and the front office is counting on that to catalyze whatever adaptations some of its prized assets might need to make.
Articles in this series:BttP Podcast: Ep 8 – Ben Suissa & Mark Sands
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