So, there was this thing I wrote about the Cubs and how they’d be hard pressed to overcome not only a high team K-rate, but their youth too. Well, here we are 87 games into the season and the Cubs are looking like a playoff team. And they just got younger, bringing Kyle Schwarber back to Chicago.
While I still believe the concerns I voiced in that earlier piece were — and, really, still are — valid, the Cubs are well on pace to do something that only one other team in the history of baseball has accomplished. If they can make the playoffs with an average age of less than 27 and a team strikeout rate higher than 21%, they would join the 2013 Braves as the only teams to do so.
But that Braves team finished the season 4th in the NL in runs scored, averaging 4.25 per contest. The Cubs, on the other hand, are only pushing across 3.85 runs per game. That might not seem like a lot at first blush, but that meager four-tenths of a run difference turns into about 65 tallies over the course of a season. Think that’s inconsequential for a team that has competed in 35 one-run games?
In 2013, the Braves fielded a team that averaged 26.8 years of age (offense only) and struck out at a 22.6% clip. They are one of only two teams in the last 15 years to make the postseason with such a young team and one of only three to make it with one that struck out so often. Here in 2015, the Cubs boast an offense that averages 26.8 years of age and that strikes out at a 24.1% clip. Between the youth, the K’s, and the the dearth of offense, they’ve shaved their margin for error down so thin as to make it nigh imperceptible.
And if the overall youth of this team isn’t striking enough, here’s something more for you to wrap your noodle around:
#Cubs starting ages.. (Coghlan LF – Schwarber C)
LF – 30
CF – 29
RF – 23
3B – 23
SS – 25
2B – 21
1B – 25
C – 22
— Born on Third (@BornOnThirdCubs) July 17, 2015
For those of you without ready access to a calculator, that’s an average age of 24.75, a full two years below the youngest playoff team in the last 15 years. And just for the sake of having fun with hypothetical situations, let’s say Javier Baez comes up and the Cubs shift Kris Bryant to left and keep Schwarber behind the plate. At that point, the lineup’s average drops a full year, to 23.75. The average age for an MLB rookie is 23.6.
It’s a bit far-fetched to be using those numbers to draw conclusions about this team, but even without that hypothetical situation above (in which the K-rate would also shoot up), the Cubs are essentially competing with a lineup equivalent to a bunch of sophomores. That helps to explain both the slumps and the tendency for these guys to sort of rise and fall together.
I love the way baseball is structured, with minor league systems in place to help players develop their individual games while kind of learning the ropes of life in general as they do. But there’s a huge shift in mentality from the minors to the big leagues that many find difficult to navigate. When you’re coming up through the system, there’s a focus on improving as a player, regardless of team performance. It’s all about you. But upon promotion to The Show, it’s the team and the overall results that are paramount.
We’re not talking about one guy, or even two, coming up an acclimating to this new environment. In Bryant, Schwarber, Addison Russell, even Jorge Soler, you’re talking about half the lineup carrying less than a full year of experience in his bat bag. Ready for an over-simplified anecdotal analogy? No? Well, too bad, I’m pressing forward with one anyawy.
When the movie Old School first came out, I caught a matinee showing during the week. I was pretty much the only one in the theater and I thought it was decent, but not nearly as funny as I’d been led to believe. The following week, I went to see it again, this time with some buddies in a theater that served beer. Surrounded by other theatergoers, my sense of humor lubricated by booze, the movie was one of the most hilarious I’d ever seen. My point? It’s easy to have your mentality impacted by those around you.
With all the statistical analysis now available to us, I think we tend to marginalize the psychological aspects of baseball, but this is very much a mental game. For players who don’t have a large backlog of experience, it becomes that much easier to let their environment impact them. It’s easier to press, to fall into shared struggles. It’s also easier to rise and to borrow momentum from those around you.
It’s in this mental aspect, perhaps more so than the actual in-game maneuvering, that I believe Joe Maddon will be most valuable to this team here in the second half. He won’t allow the pressure of the situation to exceed the pleasure, and that’s what will help to carry the Cubs over the inherent obstacles of youth and around the pitfalls of inconsistency. It’ll be interesting to see how he does it, but it’s going to be plenty frustrating as well.
If you think this team is going to be nothing but rainbows and sunshine over the next 75 games, prepare to be sorely disappointed. But if you’re willing to put up with the bowel-twisting ups and downs that come with growth, I think you’ll end up having a great deal of fun. And here’s the thing: this isn’t a one-shot deal.
Have you ever been to a sparsely-attended amusement park or fair when there was no one in line? You get to stay on the coasters and ride over and over without even getting out of your seat. That’s the Cubs right now; well, except for the light attendance. Bet you never thought of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer as a pair of carnies, did you? Yet there they are, pack of smokes rolled up in one sleeve, sweat-stained polo shirts barely concealing questionable prison ink, strapping you in for the ride of your life.
And yet, here I am, grinning like an idiot and loving (nearly) every minute of it. Yes, there will be moments of trepidation as I question that funny creaking noise or those wooden shims supporting the base of the coaster, but then I allow the rush of the moment to push those fears right out of my empty little head. So come on over and jump in line for the Scrambler before it gets started up again.