Sure, the Cubs Are Striking Out a Lot, but Does That Really Matter?

Those 58 strikeouts by Cubs hitters in the first five games have certainly grabbed headlines. What should we make of them, though? Are they cause for concern or the very definition of small-sample variation? Sahadev Sharma pointed out a particularly odd aspect (subscription required/recommended) of the ugly numbers, putting them in better perspective. Still, it’s clear that the Cubs haven’t hit well early.

Wherever you fall, one of the great modern debates provides the underpinning for any conversation on the matter. That is, of course, whether high K rates matter at all. Be forewarned though: No clear-cut answers exist.

Whether the Cubs’ fantastical fanning over the first five games has made you more anxious or curious, here are some broad outlines to consider in the great high-K debate.

Look beyond outs

Baseball famously features no time clock, at least for now. Instead, the fundamental increment of time is the out. Three outs per inning per team. Nine innings per game. Once the losing team makes 27 outs, the game ends.

Lots of bats.

A strikeout is just one type of out. So by itself, K rates don’t tell you who won or lost. What determines this is what happens in between those K’s and other outs. Thus, fans worried by those 58 strikeouts are technically more concerned about what happened (or didn’t happen) in between those outs. If the Cubs won the majority of their first five games, those strikeouts would seem just a crazy fluke.

The same can be said for pitchers with high K/9 inning rates. A double-digit K/9 rate sounds great, but if a lack of command results in as many hits, walks and homers in between, then all those K cards in the bleachers are pointless. See 2011-13 Carlos Marmol.

Epstein’s 2004 Red Sox

The importance of what happens between strikeouts formed the strategic foundation for the title-winning offense of Epstein’s 2004 Red Sox. They became the first team to win the World Series while also leading their league in strikeouts. Epstein and crew proved an offense can overcome its high K rate by offsetting it with high slugging and on-base-percentage rates.

Like most sports strategies, it’s far easier said than done, but that’s exactly what the Red Sox did. Their offense struck out more than any other AL team, but more importantly, they also led the league in OBP and slugging. The Sox won another title in 2013 (with a roster largely built by Epstein) by again leading the AL in these same categories.

So it’s no surprise that Epstein applied a similar formula to the 2016 Cubs, though in a tad less extreme way. Their hitters posted the second-highest K rate in the NL, but they narrowly won the World Series by offsetting this with a league-high OBP and fourth-highest slugging percentage.

Playoff erosion & veterans

Curiously, the 2017 Cubs offense posted the exact same league rankings but found far less playoff success. They barely got past the Nationals before the Dodgers routed their anemic offense. So why didn’t the formula work? Why could the Cubs offset those strikeouts in 2016, but not in 2017?

For one, the Cubs rotation and bullpen weren’t as strong in 2017. For another, the Cubs’ playoff K rate leaped from 23 percent in 2016 to 31 percent in 2017, just as its playoff OPS dropped from second-best to dead last. But again, why?

Some theories suggest small-sample randomness and the Cubs facing more dominant pitching in 2017 than the previous year. But another variable may have been much more a factor. Consider that the 2004 and ’13 Red Sox had extremely veteran-heavy lineups, with just one starter under 28 years old between the two teams. The ’04 team even saw its K rate take a rare drop in the playoffs.

By contrast, the 2017 Cubs lost two key veterans from its title-winning lineup: Dexter Fowler and David Ross. This left just one primary offensive contributor over age 27, and Ben Zobrist fought lingering injuries all season long. Since more experienced players tend to be more consistent and resilient under pressure, this “veterans gap” may have been a key difference in the Cubs’ offensive (mis)fortunes.

Lessons for 2018?

How concerning is this continuing lack of veteran bats? Hard to say. The 2004 Red Sox featured the seventh-oldest lineup (average age of 30.4 years), while the Cubs won it all with the fifth-youngest group (27.4). But this dropped to 27.1 last year and the team started 2018 with the second-youngest stable of position players (26.9).

So can Chili Davis’s hitting philosophies and another season of drilling a more disciplined plate approach return the offense to its 2016 playoff effectiveness? Or should the team consider adding at least one everyday veteran bat at mid-season to go along with Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant? If so, which young bat do you subtract?

Like I said, there are no clear-cut answers in this debate. What is evident, however, is that it’s not simply a swing-and-miss discussion either.

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