Cubs eschewing power in new ways

Last season, as most of Major League Baseball moved toward a high-velocity, strikeout-forward approach, the Cubs put together a soft-tossing rotation not at all focused on missing bats. Headlined by Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies, perhaps the two preeminent control artists in the sport, the Cubs’ unique approach aimed — quite literally — to induce weak contact rather than avoid it. If success was a long shot, there was at least a strategy, even if their zag to the league’s zig was prompted by need.

Chicago’s pipeline of pitching talent had gone dry. The Jon LesterJake Arrieta-Hendricks triumvirate was the engine of the 2015-2017 peak Cubs. When they came to power in 2015, Cubs’ starters finished third overall in the majors with a 3.36 ERA. They topped the sport by measure of ERA in 2016 with a 2.96 mark. By 2017, they had begun to slip, down to seventh overall with a 4.04 mark.

The magic was gone. As Arrieta’s superhuman years faded into the background, the Cubs let him walk in free agency. They made moves to replace him — trading for Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels and Jose Quintana. Some moves came before he left, and some came after. None could stand up to Arrieta in his short but astronomical peak. Lester began to age, Darvish’s return to front-line status was a slow burn, and the Cubs settled into a groove of good but unremarkable rotations, finishing 10th overall by ERA in 2018 and 2019.

David Ross’s squad sprinted to a sixth overall finish in 2020 by ERA as Darvish and Hendricks gave the squad a semblance of the staffs from the peak Cubs. Maybe their success emboldened the front office to give the offensive core one more opportunity to recapture the magic of the 2016 title run. As we now know, the Cubs were at their best when driven by a top-notch rotation, and in 2021, they were stuck in the slow lane.

Only Hendricks and Davies made all 32 starts, but both posted the worst seasons of their careers as the Cubs lost 91 games. The rotation ranked 26th overall with a 5.27 team ERA, easily the worst performance since the Cubs took off in 2015. A power pitching game isn’t strictly necessary to field a competitive squad, but the Cubs do need something more.

They’ve already made strides, putting together a less gimmicky rotation than last year, scooping Wade Miley off the waiver wire and signing one of the top free agent arms in Marcus Stroman.

On the offensive end, the speculation continues that they might make a bid for Carlos Correa. If not, the Cubs would roll out a starting middle infield of Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal. While the young pair is promising, one could also argue that they represent the hitter version of last year’s rotation gambit. While the rest of the baseball world hunts dingers, a Hoerner/Madrigal combo boasts turn-of-the-century talent — and not this century.

Hoerner has hit three home runs in 378 career plate appearances, while Madrigal has two over 324 plate appearances. Steamer suggests a whopping 14 combined home runs between the two of them if given regular playing time. Home runs aren’t everything, so we can check their isolated power: Madrigal owns a .089 ISO and Hoerner a .078 ISO. Where .167 ISO is league-average, Nico and Nick are decidedly punchless. Granted, neither has played even a full season in the majors, so the numbers must be taken with a grain of salt, but neither has shown much power in the minor leagues either.

Signing Correa or Trevor Story changes the calculus, but either way, the Cubs expect Hoerner and Madrigal to be regular cogs in the lineup. There’s upside there for Chicago, but whether it’s enough to charge this new era of Cubs baseball remains to be seen. The Cubs have long had a strikeout problem from a team perspective, and getting 500+ at-bats from Hoerner and Madrigal would definitely see more balls put in play. Neither walks a ton, however, so there’s heavy lifting to do in other parts of the lineup, as well as for manager David Ross in putting together a lineup with two contact-first bats who don’t walk or hit for power. (As a counterpoint, Hoerner posted a 10.0 walk rate in 2021, which is better than the league-average rate of 8.7 percent, and a 9.5 percent walk rate the year before.)

Of course, the Cubs don’t like Madrigal and Hoerner because of what they don’t do. They are both regarded as strong defenders, which will be necessary with their new-look rotation. Both Stroman and Miley finished in the top 10 among qualifies pitchers for groundball rate, and though Hendricks’ 43.1 percent groundball rate wasn’t as high as many years, he still finished 20th in the majors by that metric. Infield defense will have to be a plus for the Cubs’ new rotation to succeed, and the young, contact-oriented duo will be key.

Regardless of how much power they have, Niko and Nick have bigger problems right now: health. Both struggled to stay on the field in 2021, and if they can’t get healthy, this will all be moot.

If they do stay healthy, a movement is underway in Chicago. We can even add first baseman Frank Schwindel to the list of Cubs infielders who excel at making contact. Of course, Patrick Wisdom strikes out enough for the whole infield (40.8 percent strikeout rate over 375 plate appearances in 2021). That certainly helped land the Cubs with the highest strikeout rate in baseball last season at 26.7 percent. They finished 27th-ranked in 2020.

Strikeouts are a death knell for an offense, killing momentum and vaporizing the potential favor of BABIP good luck. It’s not “the answer,” but it’s certainly a piece of what could be a winning strategy. Put the ball in play, and good things can happen. Believe it or not, the Cubs’ brass still wants good things to happen for this ballclub. The peak era Cubs boasted big-time power, so they could weather higher strikeout rates, but that team is gone. With President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer in charge, these new Cubs, if nothing else, should put the ball in play, just to give themselves a chance.

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