Joey Votto takes one of the absolute dumbest criticisms a baseball player can take: That he is “content” to lead the league in on-base percentage. Think for a second about what that actually means. There are some people (mostly Reds fans and Harold Reynolds) who are critical because Votto makes the fewest outs in the league. Like those people, I, too would like to see Joey Votto make more outs, but for completely different reasons. Onto the point…
Over the past few seasons, the major league Cubs have not employed many of the types of hitters who patiently grind out at-bats, take their walks, or punish a hitter’s pitch more frequently than offering (unsuccessfully) at a pitcher’s pitch. That set of facts leads to what we saw from the 2014 Cubs: a .300 on-base percentage, as a team, which was good for 28th in baseball. They only managed to out-pace the Reds (.296) and the Padres (.292). In 2014, the Cubs only had 10 players of any sample size with an on-base percentage over .300. Of those, Brian Schlitter and Dan Straily account for two of the players, with a combined total of 3 plate appearances and Luis Valbuena, Justin Ruggiano, and Emilio Bonifacio are all gone. The only holdovers with an on-base above the .300 mark are Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Chris Coghlan, Ryan Sweeney, and Jorge Soler in a small sample.
In spite of hitting the 5th most home runs (157) in all of baseball, the Cubs ranked 26th in runs scored (614). And their 24.2% K rate was the highest in the big leagues. Walking wasn’t a strength of the team last year by any stretch of the imagination, but the 7.2% walk rate was closer to the middle of the pack (18th) than may have been thought by those who consistently watched the team all season.
There is no question that the Cubs intend to remain a team who hits the ball out of the ballpark. The way the organization has been built has been completely predicated on power. When Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer arrived, they started adding pieces who could hit for power with Anthony Rizzo and continued that run with Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Mike Olt, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell on top of Javier Baez, who they inherited from the Hendry era. All of those players have 20+ HR power potential. While Schwarber and Russell do not figure to be prominent on the major league roster this season, the others all do. And it will be important for them to have base runners when they do hit one into the bleachers.
From the on-base standpoint, many of those power hitters figure to solve the on-base problem themselves. Anthony Rizzo had a .386 OBP last season, while Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant each have strong reputations for their approach at the plate and willingness to take a walk. Mike Olt struggled with contact and strike outs last season, but if those issues work themselves out and Olt can hit well enough to stay in the line-up consistently, he can have an impact by merely repeating his 9.7% walk rate from 2014. More contact and harder contact will make Mike Olt a much more impactful force when he is in the line-up, with early spring returns being mostly positive.
For the first time since Epstein arrived, the Cubs will run a line-up out each day with some depth. In addition to the power hitters, the Cubs will feature a true lead-off hitter with the acquisition of Dexter Fowler, who brings a career .366 OBP with him from Houston. Chris Denorfia (.331) and Chris Coghlan (.340) are the early favorites for a platoon in left field, and Miguel Montero (.342) should be the regular catcher. The power will remain in the line-up, but the addition of young players with reputations for getting on base to couple with power and strategically inserting veterans could give the Cubs a line-up with seven or eight players with on-base percentages at or above .300, as opposed to the three or four they’ve been working with in recent years. Even the bench will be littered with players who can make an impact by getting on-base, with Olt likely ending up in a reserve capacity when Bryant arrives, and Tommy La Stella being a player who has a good approach and can reach base consistently.
The ability to make contact, work walks, and get on base will be important for the Cubs to make the push to being a legitimate contender. After all, it was not their pitching that held them back in 2014…it was the, and this cannot be overstated, horrible offense. The Cubs were shut out 16 times, and went 8-47 (.145 winning percentage) when they scored 2 or fewer runs. When they didn’t hit home runs or shut opponents down, they didn’t win. The NL average for runs per game in 2014 was 3.95. When the Cubs scored 3 or more runs, they were 65-42 (.607).
Looking forward to 26 days from now, when the Cubs come back north to Chicago for Opening Night, the pitching should not take a step back. By adding Jon Lester, resigning Jason Hammel, having depth at the back of the rotation, more experience and less Jose Veras in the bullpen, the pitching should be able to repeat (or something close to it) their 2014 performance. Hector Rondon, Neil Ramirez, and Justin Grimm all emerged as revelations that should minimize the late inning collapses that the Cubs have endured with Carlos Marmol and Jose Veras over the past few seasons.
Because the Cubs will likely continue to hit for power as well as, or better than, just about every team in baseball and because the pitching figures to be strong, 2015 will stand with whoever stands on base. If the solo home runs the Cubs hit in 2014 become 2 and 3 run home runs, this season will look much different than the last five. The optimism in the fan base will be rewarded with a more exciting team that wins more games. While pitching was the focus of this off-season, the front office did not get nearly the credit they deserve for adding players who can get on base for the power hitters in the middle of the line-up and drive each other in. Those factors should stabilize the offense, reduce the number of 0 and 1 run outputs.
Joe Maddon wants his players to “Respect 90”. He has a good reason to. More players on first base, more runners going along for the ride when the power hitters send one out, and more consistently scoring runs will define 2015, regardless of how good Jon Lester happens to be.