Swing Kids: Cubs Will be Hard-Pressed to Overcome Both Youth And Strikeouts
The offseason is always a time to look forward to the coming campaign and to dissect your team’s chances, whether that be for the playoffs or simply a shot at breaking .500. For a team like the Cubs, those two goals might not even be mutually exclusive.
Based on the recently-released PECOTA projections, the Cubs should win 82 games and finish just behind the Padres for the final Wild Card spot. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to those who have been realistic about what this team is building towards, though I’m sure many would find such a result disappointing.
To be sure, missing out by just one game after being so bad for the last few years would be painful. Then again, just seeing the Cubs playing competitive baseball again will be enough to keep fans engaged throughout the season.
In my own series of bold predictions, I had the Cubs at 85 wins, which would likely secure a spot in the postseason. Now, that might not seem very bold on the surface; I don’t think anyone would dispute the possibility of this team catching lightning in a bottle and running off close to 90 victories.
But as they are currently constructed, the Cubs will have some serious obstacles to overcome, particularly in terms of their youth and strikeout totals. There’s been a little back-and-forth on the topic of K-rates and how big a hindrance they are to overall success, but I wanted to do a little research of my own.
Specifically, I chose to review the age and K-rate of every NL playoff team for the past 15 years to see if I could find any trends. Nothing I discovered shocked me, but it was certainly interesting to see how the game is evolving before our eyes.
My findings are broken down below, complete with a couple charts (one with NL playoff team averages and another with Cubs averages for the period in question) to illustrate the numbers for you.
Perhaps evolution is the wrong term to use when discussing these findings, as it typically indicates very small, even imperceptible, changes that only become evident over a period of time. Besides, I don’t want Curt Schilling to get mad at me or anything.
When it comes to the youth movement in MLB, the changes are anything but small. Over the past 15 seasons, the average age (offense only) of an NL playoff team has dropped 6.3%, from 30.4 to 28.5. I actually wrote a pretty exhaustive piece on volatility in baseball that included a section on exactly this topic; go check it out if you’ve got 20 minutes or so.
Still, despite the appreciable drop in age over time, only two teams — the ’07 Diamondbacks (26.6) and the ’13 Braves (26.8) — have reached the playoffs with an offense that averages under 27 years of age. We won’t know the Cubs’ true number until the season settles out, but the projected roster right now looks to be around 26.7, splitting the difference in those aforementioned squads.
But as much as that might be a hindrance to their immediate success, it bodes very well for the next several years. True to their word, Cubs brass wanted to build a team that could contend on a perennial basis, and they certainly appear to have a group that will hover right around those prime playoff ages.
Whether it’s a direct correlation to the above category or simply the result of aggregate factors, strikeout rates have gone way up in the last 15 seasons, from 16.6% in 2000 to 20% last year. That’s an increase of 20.5%, which is pretty astronomical when you think about it.
You might be tempted to believe that this trend bodes well for the Cubs, a team that has averaged a 21% K-rate over the past 7 seasons. And you might even be right. Then again, only three teams — the ’12 Nationals (21.3), ’13 Pirates (21.7), and ’13 Braves (22.6) — have ever made the playoffs while striking out at greater than a 21% clip.
My calculations are far from perfect, as they’re based on ZiPS projections and not perfectly weighted for at-bats, but I’ve got the Cubs at a 23.2% rate in 2015. That’s a 1-point improvement over last season, but would still be the highest ever for a playoff team.
But take heart, Cubs fans, for there is hope that such a high percentage of strikeouts will continue to be the rule rather than the exception. Consider that from 2000-2010, only one team–the ’09 Rockies (20.5%)–made the playoffs while striking out more than 20% of the time. In the four seasons since, ten teams have done just that.
Among last year’s NL playoff teams, only the Cardinals (18.6%) struck out in fewer than 2 of 10 at-bats. As a testament to the growing acceptability of the K, even that playoff-best mark would have been the highest in six other seasons from my study.
Walk this way
While not a primary focus of my research, I did look at walk rates as well. In general, these have decreased over time, but the progression has been really up-and-down and only started to trend negatively over the past four seasons or so. Still, I thought it might be telling to see what happened when we subtract walk rate from strikeout rate.
My thinking was that teams with a lower number would have better chance for success, as indicated by more walks and fewer strikeouts. As you might imagine, the average difference in these figures has risen over time, but the Cubs have managed to significantly outpace them.
For instance, while the playoff-team average for K%-BB% reached 12.1 this past season, the Cubs have been no lower than 12.3 since 2010. They were at 17 last year and my projections for 2015 have them at 15.5. At a robust 14.1, the Pirates of 2013 had the largest difference when it comes to swinging vs. taking, but even that was well ahead of the Cubs.
On a whim, I took a look at one more comparative number: average age minus K-rate. While not necessarily rooted in any science, I figured that a team would want to have as large a gap here as possible. Since it’s not ideal to have a young team that strikes out a lot, a bigger difference in those numbers is indicative of potential success and vice-versa.
The numbers, of course, have gone down over time as teams have gotten younger and have struck out more. Still, only two playoff-bound teams — the pesky ’12 Nats (5.9) and the ’13 Braves — have yet posted a total of fewer than 6. The Cubs’ projected number for 2015? 3.5. But hey, that’s better than last season’s 2.6 stinker.
It’s hard to take projections and draw definitive thoughts, but if the numbers I have reviewed hold true, the Cubs do not have the makings of a playoff team. Unless, that is, they just do something unprecedented and blaze a new trail for baseball.
That might seem like hyperbole, given that my research only encompassed a decade and a half of stats, but I’d be willing to bet that K-rates are easily the highest they’ve ever been and that no team has had success with a makeup similar to that which the Cubs have put together.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that the team outperforms projections, thus falling more in line with playoff teams of the past. It’s certainly not out of line to believe that the Cubs will hover closer to a 20% K-rate and that they’ll walk at or above an 8% clip (the latter of which they haven’t done since 2009). And that’s exactly what it will take for them to exceed those expecations of roughly .500 baseball.
While neither youth nor strikeouts are death knells in and of themselves, the combination of the two may prove to be insurmountable. But again, the Cubs aren’t built to be a one-shot team. And though they might miss the bulls-eye this coming season, they’ve got a whole quiver full of arrows with which to keep taking aim for years to come.
Figure 1 (NL playoff team averages, 2000-14)
Figure 2 (Cubs from 2000-14 with 2015 projected)
If you’d like a look at all the data I used, or if you just want to laugh at my lack of skill with Excel, you can download the incredibly rudimentary spreadsheet I put together.