I spent a good part of last week mulling over the Cubs’ season-ending sweep at the hands of the Mets and what went wrong. Aside from Daniel Murphy inexplicably turning into Carlos Beltran for the better part a month, I kept coming back to why the offense mostly went dark for the series.
Sure, the Mets trotted out a bunch of flame-throwing, questionably-coiffed starters that are tough for any lineup to hit, but I wondered if something else was at work.
It’s not much of a revelation that the Cubs struggled with contact this season. They led the majors in strikeouts and were dead last in overall contact percentage. Breaking it down further, they were last in contact percentage inside the zone (Z-Contact%) and second-to-last in contact outside the zone (O-Contact %). Any way you slice it, the Cubs whiffed a lot.
On the flip side of that coin are the Kansas City Royals, who are in their second straight World Series. KC had the fewest strikeouts in baseball by a wide margin and was at the top of the league in nearly every contact-related stat. It seems pretty clear that the Cubs and Royals were constructed with near polar opposite offensive approaches in mind.
Despite the Royals’ success both in the regular season and the postseason the past two years, there still seems to be a pretty prevalent perception that they’re a bit of a lucky team, getting every bounce and bloop to go their way. But what if the Royals’ offensive approach is conducive to making their own luck in the postseason, when pitcher velocity rises and contact is at a premium?
In a quick, back-of-the-napkin study, I looked back at the last 40 teams to reach the World Series to see how they fared in terms of contact rates and strikeouts.
As noted in my very fancy, MS Paint-labeled graphic, the highlighted teams are the only squads to reach the World Series while having team K rates among the 10 highest in baseball. Among those four teams, here are the actual individual ranks:
- 2013 Red Sox: 9th (won WS)
- 2008 Rays: 5th
- 2006 Tigers: 10th
- 2004 Red Sox: 6th (won WS)
While this can’t be considered a fully representative sample size, it does appear that from a pure results standpoint, postseason success has been rare for teams that make infrequent contact. And it’s almost nowhere to be found for teams with the most extreme strikeout rates, like those among the top 5 in baseball.
This all makes sense on a basic level. Against elite pitching, the chances of a dry spell popping up somewhere during a postseason seem higher for a boom-or-bust offense. Even a game or two of stagnancy in the postseason could be the difference between advancing or being eliminated. But is that perception or a real trend?
The beauty of the Internet is you have access to an almost endless amount of intelligent analysis. The curse is that if you poke around a bit, you realize you’re usually not the first person to think of something. It turns out I was definitely not the first person to think of this.
Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs took a look at the last 30 years of data and found that there is indeed a loose correlation of high-contact teams performing better in the playoffs. It’s not a huge factor, but it does exist. Basically, high-contact teams perform closer to their regular season numbers than high-strikeout teams.
A few days earlier, Sullivan had written about the Cubs specifically and how they fare against power pitching, which is seen more frequently in the postseason. The results weren’t pretty. Every team in baseball does worse against power pitching, but the Cubs especially struggled, something that is common for low-contact teams.
And finally, Ben Lindbergh of Grantland took a slightly different route but drew a similar conclusion to Sullivan. High-contact teams see less of a drop in their offensive production against power pitching than swing-and-miss teams. And, anecdotally, Lindbergh mentions that contact teams have dominated the postseason since MLB’s K rate jumped in 2009, noting that teams with the higher regular season contact rate are 34-14 in the postseason since then.
There’s a lot to unpack in all of these pieces and I’d encourage you to read through all of them, as they’re very good. The short version is that there is likely at least a slight correlation between team contact rates and postseason success. If we accept that, the next question is: What can the Cubs do about it?
The good news is that the Cubs have ways to get better. Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon specifically mentioned in their end-of-season comments that the club needs to improve its contact hitting and cut down on strikeouts. They’re not blind to the issue. And wouldn’t you know it, there are free agents available at positions of need who could help in this area.
Jason Heyward has been mentioned as a dream target for the Cubs for a number of reasons (age, outfield defense, sticking it to the Cardinals, etc.), but his contact profile fits in well with the Cubs’ needs, as his K rate and contact rates have improved each of the last four seasons. Denard Span is another potential outfield target who would represent an improvement in this area. Or maybe the Cubs grab both if the front office feels that Jorge Soler can be used to acquire cost-controlled starting pitching. This would also address the front office’s stated goal of improving their outfield defense.
However, the biggest improvement may simply come from within. Many of the young players the Cubs are counting on in future years seem likely to trend up, as contact rates have historically increased as players age into their mid-late 20’s. On an individual basis, the K rates this year of several Cubs’ rookies — Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and even Soler — were quite a bit higher than their minor league rates, which offers hope that they’ll see some improvement going forward.
Russell, in particular, seems ripe for an improvement, as his second-half K rate of 25.8 percent was a marked improvement over the 31.1 percent he put up in the first half. Those are each still higher than the K rates he posted in the minors, which usually were in the teens.
Anthony Rizzo already has an elite contact profile for a slugging first baseman. Starlin Castro has always had strong contact skills (sometimes even to his detriment), which could potentially be a factor if the front office is forced to decide between trading him or Javier Baez.
If you’re tired of reading the word “contact” here, none of this is to say that the Cubs should develop a Jim Hendry-like case of tunnel vision and prioritize a single attribute above all else in the offseason. The roster is already geared towards a specific offensive approach of power and patience and the team has several other needs to fill. And as the team showed against the Cardinals in the NLDS, their power-and-patience approach can work spectacularly if everyone is clicking at once.
That said, with the rise of dominant power arms across baseball, the trend of contact teams succeeding in the postseason — small though it may be — does appear to be real. It seems safe to say that a more balanced offensive approach for the Cubs could lead to even longer postseason runs than the one enjoyed this year.
Fortunately for us as Cubs fans, we can be confident that the front office is probably (certainly?) way ahead of us and has a plan and the resources necessary to address the makeup of the roster. Man, isn’t that nice to say?