There are a lot of questions surrounding this Chicago Cubs team, but one thing has become quite clear: they’re going to strike out. A lot. Like, historically bad “a lot.” In fact, their 26.3% K-rate is not only the worst in MLB this year, it puts them on pace for 1,642 whiffs on the season, a total that would set an all-time record.
Currently sitting atop that all-time list of futility is the 2013 Houston Astros, a team whose current iteration is nipping at the Cubs’ heels with a 24.4% K-rate. But even with 2 more games under their collective belt, the Astros’ 295 strikeouts still trail the Cubs by 9.
The Cubs, however, are batting 21 points higher than their former NL Central opponents (.249 to .228) and are getting on base at a better clip as well (.321 to .304). But when it comes to OPS, the teams are neck-and-neck in the standings, with the Astros’ .712 (14th in MLB) just ahead of the Cubs’ .710 (15th).
But there’s quite a disparity when it comes to overall record, as the surprising Astros are currently sitting at 20-12, 5 games up on the Angels in the AL West. The Cubs, coming off of three straight series losses, have sunk back to .500 and are 6.5 games behind the Cardinals and only .5 ahead of the Pirates and Reds.
Author’s note: the following is an admittedly narrow analysis, so please be aware of that going in.
So what’s the difference? You might have already discerned my direction here from the stats above. The Cubs are getting on base more but the Astros have a better OPS, so I’m focusing on the power numbers. Yes, a review of strikeouts and home runs relative to overall performance may seem like the meatballiest thing on Earth, but that’s exactly what I’m doing.
Then again, it’s not as though you can dismiss those two stats out hand. As strikeouts have become more prevalent, the stigma attached to them has faded significantly. But the fact remains that a K is an unproductive out in the moment, regardless of whether the given victim makes up for it over the course of the season.
Home run numbers, on the other hand, have waned a bit in the face of increased drug testing. It almost feels at times as though players have to apologize for hitting bombs in bunches, and teams have been forced to construct teams without so much focus on the longball as a result.
And that makes sense, right? If you’re going to have a lot of unproductive outs, you’re going to have to make the most of the remaining at-bats you’ve got. In the case of the Cubs and ‘Stros, you’re essentially eliminating 7 outs each game, so the other 20 had better count.
One thing you’d better do well is take free bases, which both teams have done very well in 2015. In fact, both the Astros (9.4%) and Cubs (8.7%) rank in the top 10 in MLB when it comes to walk rate. And how do you get a man home from 1st? Doubles usually work quite nicely.
The Cubs are tied for 18th in baseball with 52 two-base hits. The other team with that number: the Houston Astros. Not a lot of big differences so far, huh? Well, until we look at the home run numbers, where Houston’s (Colt) 45 is second to only the Dodgers’ 48 and leads the Cubs by 18.
Again, it would be incredibly irresponsible to distill the divergent results of these two teams down to simply how many times they hit baseballs over the outfield wall. But when you see that their pitching staffs have nearly identical FIP (Cubs 3.49, 7th; Astros 3.57, 8th) and WAR (Astros 4.0, 8th; Cubs 3.7, 9th), it seems perhaps a bit less so.
So while it’s an oversimplification to say that if the Cubs were hitting more home runs they’d be 8 games over .500 like the Astros, that doesn’t mean it’s not partially true. Among teams with winning records, only the Rays (121) and Mets (120) have score fewer runs than the Cubs (127). You think a few more homers might help with the Cubs’ -9 run differential?
But here’s the good news: there’s a lot of time to make up the gap. The Astros have the benefit of playing in a warm-weather city and division; 29 of their 32 games thus far have come against AL West opponents. The Cubs have not had the benefit of homer-friendly weather, battling near-freezing temps and even snow at various points.
So the home runs should start coming with a bit more regularity, particularly now that Kris Bryant has broken the seal. And they may need to; as the strikeouts and bullpen issues continue to mount, the Cubs will need something to mask their other problems. Nothing excites a crowd quite like a dinger.
Well, except for pre-game concerts. Yeah, maybe they can just schedule more of those.