We’re already almost two weeks into the 2015 season and the Cubs are still in playoff contention. That’s heady stuff, folks. At press time, they sit two games over .500 and tied for first place in the division while carrying a +5 run differential. And now we know that Kris Bryant is coming.
I wrote a couple days ago about the Cubs becoming a fun team to watch again, and that’s only going to become more so as we see more and more of guys like Bryant and Addison Russell, and as Jon Lester settles in. But fun isn’t really the catalyst. It’s a by-product of several other factors, chief among them winning.
During a recent radio interview, I talked about how the Cubs were exceeding my expectations thus far in the young season and I really hope they continue to do so. I’d love nothing more than to be as wrong about my projection of a low-80’s win total as I was the claim that Bryant would be in AAA for another week.
It’s still very early and the possibility exists that the team’s performance thus far is but an aberration that will quickly regress to the mean given enough time. But the Cubs appear to playing a brand of baseball that breeds success, particularly when it comes to their improved plate discipline.
There was never any doubt that this team was possessed of a great deal of raw talent, but there were/are a lot of questions as to whether or not that would be enough to outweigh some of the flaws of youth. I, for one, believed that inexperience and sub-par contact rates would eventually win out and temper results as the season wore on.
That could still very well be the case, as eight games does not a season make. But to this point, the Cubs are out-performing my expectations and they’re doing so by a pretty significant margin.
In 2014, this team put up a 32% O-swing (defined as the percentage of pitches they swung at that were outside the strike zone) total, good for 21st in MLB. The Oakland Athletics led all of baseball with 27% and only eight teams had a total of 30% or lower.
Not surprisingly, the Cubs also swung and missed on a lot of pitches. In fact, they whiffed 11% of the time, second-worst in all of baseball and trailing the Yankees by 3.6%. It always seemed to me in watching them last year that too many players were trying to be the hero, trying to win the game with each swing.
Whether it was a matter of not trusting the other guys on the team to perform their own duties properly or just youthful hubris, the Cubs were pressing to make things happen rather than just going with the flow of the game. The were impatient, as evidenced by a 7.2% walk rate that had them in the bottom half of the majors.
As I watched Jorge Soler lay off a couple borderline Jason Marquis sinkers on Wednesday night, it struck me just how much more mature the at-bats have been this year. My theory was that added talent and maturity had decreased the desire to play hero ball. But was that just my imagination and projection or was there really something to it?
With the obvious caveat that these totals are drawn from a very small sample size, the numbers clearly bear out my observations. While there are actually 15 teams with an O-swing% below 30, only 2 of them are under 26.5%; the Red Sox sit at 24.9% and the Cubs a good ways off at 23%. So they’re swinging at 28% fewer pitches out of the zone.
Naturally, the swinging strike rate has dropped as well and currently sits at 9.2% (13th in MLB). As you would expect, laying off of more pitches has resulted in a higher walk-rate; the Cubs are 5th in the league right now, drawing free passes at a 10.1% clip.
We can drill down into any number of advanced metrics to find more things the Cubs are doing better — and probably a few that remained unchanged or perhaps even worse — but baseball is a mental and emotional game as well. I’m not talking clutch and TWTW here, but about being comfortable and confident.
Where the Cubs hitters seemed to be more about bravado and hubris in the past, this iteration of the team just looks to be more relaxed and balanced. As trite and corny as this may sound, I feel as though they’ve gone from a collection of individuals to an actual team at this point.
If they can maintain their current statistical production, or as long as they don’t fall off a cliff, the Cubs really do have a legitimate shot to make some noise this season. Part of me feels really guilty even committing that to print, but it’s true. They’re making the kinds of improvements and corrections I honestly didn’t expect until next year and maybe beyond.
It’s fitting then that the call-up of Kris Bryant came a little ahead of schedule as well. Adding his bat and swagger, not to mention the confidence they bring, could well push the Cubs into even further improvements. I think I’m going to have a way-too-early celebratory beer in preparation for said jumps.
Perhaps time will serve to temper my surprised happiness with how this team is playing, but I don’t wear a watch so I guess reality will just have a wait a while.