Don’t Walk This Way: Cubs Have MLB-Best K/BB Ratio

The formula for success in baseball really isn’t that complicated: get men on base when you’re batting and limit them when you’re on defense. As you might imagine, the Cubs have not necessarily been able to balance this relatively simple equation over the last handful of years.

Since 2011, they’ve ranked no higher than 20th in MLB in terms of OBP (.314 that year), and they’ve generally languished at the bottom of the pile. Their .302 number in 2012 ranked them 29th, .300 in 2013 was 28th, and 2014 saw the same OBP and MLB rank. In general, this is really awful.

At the same time, the pitching staff wasn’t necessarily doing its part to limit runners, boasting K/BB ratios that routinely fell in the bottom third in baseball. 2011 saw a 2.11 total that had them ranked 25th. In 2012, those numbers were 1.97 and 30th and in 2013, 2.19 and 27th. The high-water mark came last year when they posted a 2.60 ratio that ranked 16th.

Even someone who hadn’t suffered through watching baseball that can best be described as the sporting equivalent of the kind of dirty diaper produced after a baby first switches to solid food can look at the above numbers and discern that these were bad teams. So what’s changed.

Well, through 19 games (insert requisite SSS caveat here), the Cubs are tied for 5th in baseball with a .332 OBP. That’s nearly 20 points higher than in any of the last 4 seasons and is a number that appears to be sustainable given the improved approach we’ve seen thus far. And that’s also with Kris Bryant and his .471 on base percentage missing the first couple weeks.

On the other side, Cubs pitchers have made a marked improvement when it comes to limiting walks. They currently lead the majors with only 36 free passes (5 of which have been intentional) and they’re 7th in strikeouts with 170 on the young season. That’s good for a 4.72 K/BB ratio, tops in MLB by a comfortable margin over the Mets (4.21).

Think about that for just a moment; that ratio is more than two times greater than what they managed in three of the last four seasons. That is a monumentally big improvement, though it’s not likely to remain at that elevated level throughout the season. But even if it regresses to the 4-year average of league leaders, a 3.34 K/BB ratio is fantastic.

Leading the way in terms of both establishing the high ratio and in the inevitability of regression is Jason Hammel, whose 23.00 K/BB is tied for tops in MLB with…wait for it…Bartolo Colon. Kyle Hendricks (13.00), Jon Lester (4.80), Travis Wood (4.33), and Jake Arrieta (3.57) are all putting up very solid — if not quite as obscene — numbers too.

Part of the fun of watching a good team is simply not feeling the frequent need to throw things at the television, as was often the case with the Cubs. WHY ARE YOU WALKING THE BASES LOADED?! DON’T THROW THAT BREAKING BALL THAT YOU CAN’T GET NEAR THE PLATE WHEN YOU’VE THROWN 3 BALLS ALREADY!

I’m probably the only one who ever had those issues, though. I’m sure the rest of you were far more reserved in your real-time assessments of this team.

There are certainly a lot more ingredients involved in cooking up a winning season, but this simple combination of stats is both telling and encouraging when it comes to explaining the Cubs’ early success.


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