The Fall Classic is underway, with the underdog Cleveland Indians landing the first haymaker blow for their third series in a row. The NL Champion Chicago Cubs were clearly the best team in baseball throughout the regular season; will they be able to do what the Tribe’s previous postseason opponents couldn’t, and fight their way off of the ropes and onto ultimate victory?
This week, we’re taking a macro, ball-in-play-oriented look at each team and its key players. Earlier this week, we looked at the AL champs; today, it’s the Cubs’ turn under the microscope, as we examine granular data such as BIP frequencies, exit speeds and launch angles to get a feel for what made them tick in 2016.
First, let’s take a step back and look at the club as a whole, using team-wide BIP data to projects its true-talent level:
|BIP ONLY||+ K & BB||+ TM DEF|
|HIT ERA||PIT ERA||PCT||HIT ERA||PIT ERA||PCT||HIT ERA||PIT ERA||PCT||PRJ WIN||PRJ LOSS||ACT WIN||ACT LOSS||+/- ACT W|
The left two-thirds of the table is broken into three sections, projecting team winning percentages first solely via projected runs scored/allowed based on BIP exit speed/angle (first three columns), and then by first adding in actual offensive and defensive K and BB (next three columns) and, lastly, by incorporating net team defense vis-à-vis their opponents (next three columns). Cells throughout this analysis are color-coded; numbers over two full standard deviations above league average are in red, over one STD above are in orange, over one-half STD above are in yellow, and over one half STD below average are in blue. Ran out of colors at this point; over one STD below are in black; on occasions when the value is over two STD below average, it will be noted in the text.
It’s immediately apparent that this is a pretty impressive ball club, much more so than the Indians in an all-around manner. The whys and wherefores are a bit interesting, however. When you take only ball-striking for and against into account, the Cubs are merely a good team, with a projected .561 winning percentage. That’s only third best in the NL, and only second in their division, as they are outdistanced by both the Cardinals and Nationals. Their projected offensive production on BIP alone is a half standard deviation above the NL average, but only tied for fifth in the league. Their projected production allowed on BIP alone is better, over a full STD less than league average, and third in the NL, narrowly trailing the Nats and Dodgers. Some details regarding these rankings are addressed in the table below.
The Cubs take their first large step forward when strikeouts and walks are added back into the equation. Their offense’s BB rate is over two full STD above, and their pitching staff’s K rate is over one full STD above the NL average. Now, both their projected runs scored and allowed are over a full STD better than average, and their projected winning percentage rises to .610, second only to the Nats in the NL. That’s a projected 99-win club, which is really good. What propels the Cubs from really good to great?
It’s team defense, that’s what. I measure team defense by comparing a club’s actual and projected production versus its opposition’s. An average defense grades out at 1.00, with a better-than-average one earning a figure below 1.00 and a worse-than-average one, above. Put succinctly, the Cubs’ defense almost breaks my system. They posted a .85 overall defensive multiplier, dramatically out-defending their opposition on each major BIP type: .806, .851 and .844 on fly balls, line drives and ground balls, respectively. Defense is a team effort; a club’s overall performance can be undermined by one weak link, requiring positioning adjustments that cost runs. No weak links here. This reduces the club’s projected runs allowed to over two full STD below the NL average, and transforms them into a projected 111-win team. So, draw tons of walks, strike out tons of batters, dramatically out-defend the opposition, and (perhaps most importantly) be below average in absolutely nothing — and you, too, can be an 111-win true-talent club.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the particulars of our team-wide and player-specific BIP analysis, looking at the components that support the general conclusions above:
|AVG MPH||FB MPH||LD MPH||GB MPH||POP %||FLY %||LD %||GB %||ADJ C||K %||BB %||ACT PRD||PRJ PRD|
|CUB – HIT||88.8||89.6||92.3||86.7||3.6%||32.7%||21.3%||42.5%||105||21.1%||10.4%||109||109|
|AVG MPH||FB MPH||LD MPH||GB MPH||POP %||FLY %||LD %||GB %||ADJ C||K %||BB %||ERA –||FIP –||TRU –|
|CUB – PIT||89.1||89.3||92.7||87.6||2.9%||29.5%||20.7%||46.9%||93||24.3%||8.3%||76||91||87|
Most of the column headers are self-explanatory, including average BIP speed (overall and by BIP type), BIP type frequency, K and BB rates and Projected Production, which incorporates the exit-speed/angle data. Each hitter/pitcher’s Adjusted Contact Score (ADJ C) is also listed. Adjusted Contact Score applies league-average production to each player’s individual actual BIP type and velocity mix, comparing it to a league average of 100. Some hitters’ Adjusted Contact Score and Projected Production figures are in red fonts. Those hitters both(a) exhibited extreme grounder-pulling tendencies (over five times as many to the pull side as to the opposite field), which (b) resulted in a deficiency in actual versus projected grounder performance. Such hitters’ projected grounder performance was capped at their actual performance level.
Each pitcher’s “Tru” ERA- is listed alongside his ERA- and FIP-. “Tru” ERA incorporates the exit-speed/angle data on all BIP, with actual Ks and BBs added back into the mix.
I’d guess that when most observers think of the Cubs, they assume that the team’s hitters impact the baseball much more than is typical. Surprisingly, this is not the case. Not a single Cub regular’s average overall exit velocity is above the league-average range. The club positively compensates a bit thanks to a strong BIP mix: their fly-ball rate is over a half STD above league average, and their team liner rate is also a tad above league average. This makes them a modestly above-average ball-striking club, with a 105 team Adjusted Contact Score offensively.
It’s their massive offensive BB rate — over two STD above league average — that takes them to another level, resulting in a league-leading 109 Projected Production mark. When you get down to it, this fairly unique story of offensive success at the team level is an amalgamation of a number of similar stories on the individual player level.
Let’s take their two foremost sluggers, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. Hard to believe that these two guys’ average exit speeds aren’t materially above league average. Rizzo, like many Cubs, has sacrificed some authority for more consistent contact. His average authority is well short of the standard for his position, but his K rate is minuscule compared to other first sackers, and it carries the day. His power output remains strong thanks not only to all of that contact, but to a high fly-ball rate. On the negative side, he’s an extreme ground-ball-puller whose projected production on the ground gets docked accordingly.
Bryant’s profile is chock full of risk and reward. His fly-ball rate is even higher than Rizzo’s. It’s so high that it’s likely unsustainable moving forward; it’s very rare for a hitter’s fly-ball rate to exceed his grounder rate by such a wide margin, and such hitters tend to see their output decline the following season. Just as worrisome is his extremely weak average grounder authority; Bryant is an upper-cutter who drives the ball hard in the air (over a full STD harder than average), but his average grounder exit speed is among the lowest among regulars in either league. He’s a bit like a young Mike Schmidt; sure, he’s great, but he’ll also need to make some significant adjustments to remain great in the long term.
The other kids in the infield have their own stories to tell. Javier Baez is an immensely exciting all-around player, but he’s been a mixed bag at the plate. I saw him many times in his minor-league career, and back then I would have had a hard time imagining him (a) making as much contact as he now does, and (b) driving the ball hard as infrequently as he currently does. I never saw him as the “grind out an at-bat” guy, but here we are. The sky remains the limit for him, and ultimately I think we’ll look at 2016 as the year he built a foundation for his future offensive exploits.
Addison Russell is yet another risk/reward guy, but 22-year-old 20-HR middle infielders don’t grow on trees. He shares a couple of Bryant’s shortcomings: a high pop-up rate and an uppercut stroke that results in more weak, topped ground balls than you’d like. I’m not sure that he ever rates quite in the Carlos Correa/Francisco Lindor/Corey Seager tier at his position, as Russell is a power-before-hit guy, and the others are hit-before-power. He’ll play in All-Star Games, however.
Ben Zobrist has quietly crafted an exemplary career by doing everything reasonably well. His defensive versatility and extreme plate discipline are difference-making, and his positives seem to rub off on those around him. There is no color shading in any of his authority and frequency cells; he rarely crushes the baseball, but he’s hard to pitch to, and he rarely hits a ball weakly. One weakness: h’s an extreme grounder-puller from both sides of the plate, inviting overshifts. An 87 Adjusted Contact Score works, however, when you walk more than you strike out in an era of mushrooming K/BB ratios.
Dexter Fowler‘s BB rate doesn’t fall far short of Zobrist’s, but he likely put up his career year in 2016 thanks to a high liner rate — unlike other BIP frequencies, which correlate well from year to year, liner rates tend to be volatile — and to an unrepeatable .313 AVG-.365 SLG line on ground balls. While most clubs have some offensive holes up the middle, all of the Cubs middlemen carry their weight and then some.
Jason Heyward remains an offensive mess. He can’t drive the ball in the air, and runs a very high pop-up rate. You simply can’t be a pop-up machine unless plenty of homers come along with it. Hope still remains for the future; his K rate remains quite low, and he actually hit the hardest grounders of any Cub regular.
Willson Contreras hit the ground running offensively in his rookie season, though his actual, small-sample numbers might be getting ahead of themselves. Like his Indian counterpart, Roberto Perez, he doesn’t elevate the ball enough, but when he does, damage is inflicted. I’d expect his offensive production to regress a bit toward league average with a full-season workload, but a .270, 15-20 HR baseline moving forward – with solid defense — fits nicely within the Cub nucleus.
The Cubs make the bulk of their magic happen when they’re in the field. Their top three starters, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta are all strong K/BB guys who manage contact quite well. In fact, Arrieta and Hendricks are the 2015 and 2016 NL Contact Managers of the Year, posting the lowest Adjusted Contact Scores among ERA qualifiers. Hendricks stifled fly-ball authority this season: his 86.5 mph average fly-ball exit speed was actually over two full STD lower than league average. Arrieta, even in an “off” year, had an exceptional grounder rate, while muting average grounder authority to 84.5 mph, over one full STD below league average.
Lester’s a better K/BB guy than those two, but isn’t quite in their league as a contact manager. Still, there are no flags in his contact-management profile, either frequency- or authority-wise. As for his control of the running game… I’m not going there. John Lackey has been a direct beneficiary of the Cubs’ stellar team defense this year. Adjusted for context, his Adjusted Contact Score of 113 was one of the worst among NL qualifiers this season. His BIP mix was fly-ball and liner heavy, and his average exit speed allowed was higher than NL norms across all BIP types.
The Cubs counter Andrew Miller, the Indians’ nuclear option, with their own flamethrowing lefty, Aroldis Chapman. As good as Chapman is, he’s no Miller. His K rate lagged Miller’s by a little, and his BB rate was over twice as high. In addition, Chapman allowed a very high liner rate, and allowed those liners to be hit well harder than league average. His “Tru” ERA of 54 is still great, but is quite a bit higher than his traditional ERA and FIP. His Adjusted Contact Score of 97 is well higher than his unadjusted mark of 66, thanks to his good fortune on liners, where batters managed only a .548 AVG-.677 SLG, well below the level his exit-speed/angle data supports. FIP doesn’t catch that.
So what do we have here? The best team in baseball. That doesn’t mean they’re certain to win the Series hardware, obviously. What it does mean is that the longer the series goes, the more of an advantage they will have. They need to beat, or at least wear out Corey Kluber and/or Andrew Miller. Terry Francona is following the same model from the Tribe’s two previous series: aggressively go for the knockout. Meanwhile, Joe Maddon can bob and weave for a little while, as in the Dodger series, in the hopes that the club’s superior depth will eventually prevail.