Baseball

There Ain’t No Other Way To Make Contact…No Wait, There Totally Is

After watching the Braves bludgeon the White Sox over the weekend, I kind of sat mystified as to how the Braves offense is significantly better than the Cubs. This could come into major relief should the two meet in the first round of the playoffs, as they would do if the Cubs flag down the Cardinals in the season’s last three weeks. Because both offenses are basically top-heavy. The Braves sport Ronald Acuna Jr., Josh Donaldson, Freddie Freeman, and Ozzie Albies at the top of the lineup. Which really shouldn’t be out-producing Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, and Javier Baez. And really, in terms of wRC+ and other measures, it’s not.

As a team, the Cubs and Braves walk and strikeout at almost exactly the same rate. They’ve hit just about the same amount of homers (the Braves lead in this category 218 to 213), and the Braves have hit 16 more doubles, which probably doesn’t have as great of an effect as you might think at first.

It would be easy to point to the batting average, as as a team the Braves hit nine points higher (.260 to .251). And maybe it’s just that difference that’s led to the Braves having 97 more hits as a team, but when you think about it that’s just one per game. And yes, casting your mind over the season, you can find more than a handful of games where one hit instead of one out would have made a huge difference. Maybe it is that simple, and the Cubs just need that one hit more often over the last three weeks (cue Al Pacino speech about fighting for that inch).

As you were probably about to suggest, the numbers slant even more when there are runners in scoring position. The Braves hit 16 points higher in that spot, have gotten 58 more hits, and in turn 50 more runs in that spot than the Cubs. Which means the Cubs have to do more of the splashing from downtown as it were, solo homers or homers with guys on first.

And yes, perhaps it could be that simple. But as I just pointed out at the top of this, the tops of these lineups are almost carbon copies of each other. And the supporting casts really haven’t been that much different, as Matt Joyce’s late boom has been basically the same as Nicholas Castellanos’s. The Braves haven’t had the massive black holes in spots like center and second that the Cubs have had, but they’ve mitigated that somewhat by shifting guys around. It can’t explain it all.

But looking this over more, and somewhat off of our Kris Bryant post from a couple weeks ago, the Cubs as a whole just don’t hit the ball very hard.

In the majors, the Cubs rank 26th in hard-contact rate. They rank second to last in line-drive rate. Considering the hitters in this lineup, how can that be? For a clearer illustration, the Braves have eight guys who have a 40+% hard-contact rate. The Cubs have one, and that’s the dude who came 2/3rds of the way through the season in Castellanos. The Braves have five guys with a 25+% line-drive rate. The Cubs don’t have one.  Line-drives don’t have to be necessarily the name of the game, but you’d like to think you could better than this.

And again, we can’t stress this enough, this is in a season where the baseball has been designed specifically so you can hit it ludicrously hard. Everyone is. Except the Cubs. The type of contact they make has nothing to do with their strikeouts and walk tendencies. This is just about when they get the bat on the ball. This was an issue last year too, where only Schwarber had a hard-contact rate over 40%.

It would be hard for the Cubs to raise their batting average in the season’s final throes, though anything is possible in a short stint in baseball, without raising the volume of their contact. And that’s probably the case heading into the future as well. Sure, they almost certainly don’t make enough contact, though that’s not quite as big of a problem as it’s been made out to be, thanks to some very memorable situations where the Cubs haven’t gotten the bat on the ball when they had to. But what might be just as big of a problem is the Cubs don’t make the right contact when they do.

Chili Davis couldn’t fix it. Anthony Iapoce hasn’t been able to fix it. Which leads you to believe it’s the players. But considering the lineup, this really shouldn’t be a problem. Why is it? We know they make less contact than anyone, but again, that doesn’t have any effect on how hard they hit the ball when they do hit the ball. The first instinct is to say that they make contact on the wrong pitches, but they have the lowest amount of contact outside the zone in the NL.

Whatever it is, the Cubs just don’t hit the ball very hard, and they don’t seem inclined to do anything about it. And that’s if they even know it’s a problem.

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