I’ll get this out of the way quickly: If the title of this post didn’t make any sense to you, travel back in time to the year 1998 A.D. and enjoy this. Now we can move on to what matters.
The Cubs are ascending as an offense, and the arrow is pointing up. Just about a tenth of the way through the 2015 campaign, they have emerged as one of the better teams in MLB at getting on base. They’re doing it with patience, with power and with contact.
It’s amazing what stepping on the gas will do for an organization. Sign a few veterans and promote a few super-prospects, and good things start to happen.
A year ago, the offense was a total mess. Despite hitting 157 homers, good for fifth in all of baseball, the Cubs scored just 615 runs in 2014, the fifth-worst offense in the league. They also finished the year with a collective weighted on-base average of .303, the eighth-worst rate in the league.
It didn’t take much to idenfity the chokepoints. The Cubs were mediocre at drawing walks (18th) and truly awful at accumulating hits (27th). Put those two together and your 2014 Chicago Cubs threw up an on-base percentage of just .300, ahead of only the Votto-less Reds and the Petco-playing, pre-Preller Padres. This is what a combined 1,142 PA from Nate Schierholtz, Darwin Barney, Junior Lake and Mike Olt will do to you.
Fast-forward to today, and it’s an entirely different story.
Through roughly 550 collective plate appearances, the Cubs have climbed their way to the top third of the league in the various statistical categories having to do with getting on base. They’ve drawn walks in 9.6 percent of plate appearances, tied with the Mets for sixth in the league. They’ve gotten on base at a .331 clip, the ninth-best in the game. Most importantly, they’ve accumulated a weighted on-base average .317, good for 10th overall and a very good sign that once the power of Soler and Bryant really starts to play, this will be a highly efficient offense.
This is where things get interesting: Joe Maddon has noticed his club’s tendency to get on base, and he’s been squeezing every last drop of opportunity out of it.
The Cubs have already stolen 16 bases, behind only the Reds, who I hear have a fast guy of some kind in their lineup. That’s good for second in all of baseball, and it’s pretty remarkable considering they’ve played fewer games than most of the teams in the league.
The effect of getting on base and compounding it with stealing is not to be understated. The Cubs haven’t hit a ton of doubles so far this season (they’re 19th in the league with just 21), but they have hit 82 singles, and a significant portion of those singles have been stretched, thanks to Maddon’s insatiable need for speed, into de facto doubles.
Everything else is elementary: advance the runner from first to second, and a single is probably all it’ll take to get him home and knock in a run. What else? The more a team runs, the more it distracts the opposing pitcher from executing a plan. And in this case, the opposing pitcher is facing a lineup that doesn’t take the bait very often on pitches that aren’t strikes.
The benefit of all the aggressive baserunning hasn’t completely manifested itself yet, because while the Cubs are 10th in the league in wOBA, they’re 12th in runs per game with rate of 4.43. But assuming Maddon keeps his runners running, this relationship will flip over time, and then some. Expect the Cubs to see a noticeable boost to their runs per game as a result of Maddon compounding his lineup’s quality on-base efficiency with ultra-aggressiveness on the basepads.
So, if you’re still stewing over the last two losses at PNC and the image of three stranded baserunners trotting dejectedly back to the dugout is still burned into your corneas, take solace in the fact that this Cubs offense will continue to clog the bases. And enough of the time, those runners will cross home plate, in droves.