Don’t look now, but a week and a half into the 2015 season, the Cubs are leading the league in something at the heart of the organization’s philosophy: plate discipline.
Through seven games, the Cubs have collectively swung at just 22.5 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, otherwise known as O-swing%. That’s the best rate in baseball by a significant margin, and who’s just behind them? It’s the historically patient teams: the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays and Athletics.
Though ridiculously early, it’s a sign that management’s vision of a lineup that can extend counts, draw walks and chase starters out of the game is starting to come to life.
What’s more, the Cubs are doing a solid job of swinging at pitches that are actual strikes. They’re putting up a Z-swing% of 67.2 percent, good for 12th in the league. Pair that with the league-best O-swing% and you’ve got an offense with terrific plate discipline at the outset.
Here’s an extra benefit: the Cubs are probably saving themselves from a lot of bad pitch chases, because this lineup’s O-contact%, or the rate of contact on pitches outside the zone, is 58.7 percent, the sixth-worst in baseball so far. If you’re bad at chasing, don’t chase. The Cubs know they kinda are, so they aren’t chasing.
So how about the individual hitters? In other words, who’s been behind the team’s cumulative plate discipline through the equivalent of a full round of playoff games? As it turns out, the Cubs have three hitters in the top 25 at laying off pitches that aren’t strikes.
Would you believe Chris Coghlan is 2nd in the entire league with a 10.3 percent O-swing%? Well, he is, if but for a day.
Anthony Rizzo is 16th in the league, with a rate of 17.1 percent. This will obviously regress to the mean as the season goes on, but with some actual protection behind him this year, it’s reasonable to expect Rizzo to chase fewer pitches going forward.
Rounding out the list and coming in 23rd in the league is Dexter Fowler, the guy the Cubs targeted in the offseason exactly because he gets on base by laying off the bad pitches. Fowler’s O-swing% so far is a tidy 19.6 percent, and considering he was 17th among qualified hitters last year at laying off pitches that weren’t strikes, he should seriously affect the lineup’s ability to work counts.
Final question: Why am I doing this? Why am I working with a week-and-a-half sample size in a game that needs months to really suss things out?
Well, because I’m a nerd, for one. But the other side of it is that swing rates aren’t insanely random stats; they reflect tendencies in the ability to have a plan and recognize a pitch, two traits that can offer insights into a hitter’s profile without being muddied by things like good or bad luck.
Trust me. I fully appreciate the irony (and probably hypocrisy) of writing an article about the virtues of the Cubs’ patience while having absolutely none myself.
But to the extent that quick snapshots can tell a story in baseball, the Cubs are looking like the kind of team Theo Epstein wants: one with excellent plate discipline.